09/01/2013 07:02 pm ET Updated Nov 01, 2013

An Open Letter to the Congress on Syria

Dear Honorable Members of the US House of Representatives,

Back in the fall of 2012, I visited the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Mafraq, Jordan, near the Syrian border, and I met a Syrian family that left a lasting imprint on my heart. I spent hours talking with them, asking them questions about their former life in Syria and about the current situation in the camp. The father, Anas, described the day that his uncle and two nieces were murdered during a protest in his hometown of Daraa. He then told me about the day Assad's forces broke into his brother's home and took him away.

Paralyzed, I then asked Anas, if he had one message to the United States, what it would be. Without hesitation, he responded: "We want the United States and the international community to help us. We need your help. This brutal regime will not back down without support. They are relentless and they will do whatever it takes to stay in power."

Back then, Zaatari was home to 40,000 refugees, and neighbors Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq welcomed over 100,000 refugees who had fled Syria to escape the violence. Today, after more than two years of fighting in Syria, the UNHCR reports that there are over 1.8 million Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries, and over 5.1 people internally displaced. At least 100,000 people have been killed so far. Last week, a major chemical weapons attack took place in the suburbs of Damascus that killed 1,400. These events represent the deadliest chemical weapons attack against civilians in decades and a horrifying exacerbation of the conflict. But you know this.

The use of chemical weapons is an explicit violation of International Humanitarian Law and constitutes a war crime. And while Assad's regime fervently denies using these weapons, and skeptics question their use entirely, hundreds more men, women, and children are dying each day. This latest attack comes after two and a half years of violent government crimes against the Syrian civilian population. In spite of the mass atrocities and severe violations of the laws of war, the UN Security Council has failed to pass even a single resolution aimed at holding Assad accountable for his actions. As we postpone, the death toll will continue to rise. Meanwhile, we are demonstrating to the world that the United States is willing to sit idly by when it is politically unsuitable to take action, even in the case of chemical weapons attacks.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, endorsed unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 2005, asserts that every state has the responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities. If they cannot do it themselves, it is the duty of the international community to help them -- even if they don't want the help. It is no secret that the government of Syria has failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect, and instead, it is responsible for ongoing war crimes and devastating crimes against humanity. Some members of the armed opposition are also responsible for war crimes.

In 2009, during President Obama's acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, he stated that "force can be justified on humanitarian grounds," and that "inaction tears at our conscience." He called upon all "responsible nations" to "embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace." However, during the past two and a half years of bloodshed in Syria, the United States has ignored R2P, and we have allowed strategic difficulties to prevail over any moral imperative to intervene on behalf of the Syrian people.

On Saturday, President Obama finally announced his decision to take military action against the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime, but he is awaiting your authorization.

I understand that the United States is not all-powerful, and that we cannot just wave a magic wand and make it all go away. It is true that Russia and China have made it impossible for the United Nations Security Council to punish the Syrian government for its crimes. Still, I can't help but wonder: Is this a legitimate obstacle, or simply an excuse to avoid making a tough decision?

Unfortunately, condemnations of violence, peace conferences, and limited aid have been, in one word, useless. I know you're wary about military action against Syria, and understandably, the American people are wary as well. The Iraq War is casting a dangerous shadow over the current situation in Syria. As one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes of our generation, the war in Iraq was a preemptive one based on false claims about the existence of WMDs. However, these past blunders cannot and should not be used to justify ignoring all future humanitarian atrocities. In this case, there will be no American boots-on-the-ground. Our military role in the country will be limited, while we continue to provide humanitarian aid and pursue a diplomatic solution. Ultimately, a diplomatic breakthrough is going to be absolutely critical if there is to be any chance of solving this conflict.

I know the potential negative consequences of intervention are many, but isn't the risk of letting Assad get away with using chemical weapons even greater? If we don't act, Assad will be given implicit permission to use chemical weapons as a regular weapon of war, setting a dangerous precedent for the future of warfare. Further, will we be able to live with ourselves if we look back one day knowing that we could have stepped in and saved the lives of thousands? I know I won't.

Anas and his family, along with thousands of other Syrians, have called on and are continuing to call on the United States and the international community for help, and we need to respond. Immediately.

Yassamin Ansari
Stanford '14

This post has been updated from a previously published version.