A ceasefire was reached last week to halt the offensive of Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad into the country's last rebel stronghold, but U.S. officials and Syrian activists warn that the violence is far from over and that Assad, along with allies Russia and Iran, still believes he can reconquer the country by force.
In gripping testimony before the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, three Syrian activists laid out the unfathomable human toll of Syria's civil war, just days before it enters its tenth year, and begged the U.S. to take action. For a military defector known by the alias "Caesar," who exposed Assad's horrors by smuggling out thousands of photographs, the testimony brought him full circle as he appeared just months after Congress passed a law in his name.
But while he praised that law as "the only ray of hope for the Syrian people in the absence of any military or political solution," Caesar warned the committee that the killing in Syria continues.
"Killing has increased in the same places and in the same ways and at the hands of the very same criminals," he said. "And the reason, simply, is that the Assad regime considered the inaction of the international community and the mere statements of condemnation as a green light."
Caesar testified behind closed doors after an initial appearance in a blue hood to mask his identity. Five years after fleeing his post as a military forensic photographer, sharing with the world his images documenting the regime's horrific treatment of Syrian civilians, he still hides his identity to protect himself and his loved ones.
So far, the U.S. has done little to stop the push into Idlib beyond voicing opposition to the thrust and support for Syria's northern neighbor Turkey, which backs and arms Syrian opposition forces and pushed back against Assad's offensive. U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey said the U.S. is considering ammunition sales to Turkey, while the State Department announced $108 million in humanitarian assistance.
"When you give us more money, what you are telling us is you will not stop the atrocities and that instead we must purchase more ambulances to transport more injured civilians, order new cranes to lift collapsed concrete crushing entire families, and buy more protective clothing to deal with chemical attacks," said Raed Saleh, director of the White Helmets, the volunteer emergency rescue force.
"Raising funds to alleviate the suffering does not work any better than giving painkillers to a cancer patient. What is needed is the political will to act to protect civilians," he added.
In response to democratic protests that started March 15, 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring, Assad brutally cracked down on dissent, sparking a civil war that mutated into a proxy conflict and gave rise to ISIS and its so-called caliphate. Now, almost nine years to the date, the war is still being fought in Syria's northwest corner, where Idlib province remains the final holdout of rebels mixed in with jihadist groups, including some with ties to al Qaeda.
Assad's forces, Russian warplanes, Iranian-backed militias, and other pro-government elements launched an assault on Idlib in December that has forced nearly 960,000 Syrians from their homes, backing nearly four million of them into a slice of the province where a couple hundred thousand people once lived.
Turkey and the rebel forces it supports pushed back, and days of fierce fighting, with thousands killed, finally halted with a ceasefire deal reached last Thursday by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But that agreement kept in place the gains made by Assad's forces -- territory that has been cleared of civilians and crushed by Russian bombs into uninhabitable rubble. Turkish Ambassador to the U.S. Serdar Kilic told ABC News on Monday that his government did not view that as a concession, while expressing cautious optimism that the ceasefire will hold despite multiple past violations by Assad and Russia because of Turkey's robust military response to defend Idlib.
"I'm sure that they have a clear idea as to what is going to happen if they do not abide by the ceasefire," he added.
But Ambassador Jeffrey said the U.S. does not expect the ceasefire to last. After meeting with European Union and NATO officials in Brussels on Tuesday, he said the U.S. welcomed the deal as a "potentially important step," but made clear, "We don't believe [Assad and Russia] have any interest in a permanent ceasefire in Idlib. They are out to get a military victory in all of Syria. Our goal is to make it very difficult for them to do that by a variety of diplomatic, military, and other action."
So far, however, those tools have not yielded results. The U.S. has extensive sanctions on Assad, his top officials, and material support to the regime, including on oil shipments. In the meantime, efforts at the United Nations have been stifled by Russia's veto power, which it has used approximately two dozen times to protect the Syrian government.
The crux of American leverage is withholding any economic assistance for the massive rebuilding project that will follow the war, with senior U.S. officials making clear the U.S. and other Western countries and institutions will not provide any funding without a political transition. But all together, that hasn't stopped Assad's push on Idlib.
In their testimony Wednesday, Caesar, Saleh of the White Helmets, and Omar Alshogre, a democratic protester who spent three years tortured in Syrian prison before being released, urged the U.S. to provide stronger support for Turkey or redouble its diplomatic efforts, but outside the U.N. Security Council.
"Before we think about holding al Assad or Russia, Iran, accountable, we have to stop them because it's still going on in Syria, people dying everyday. ... Torture is unlimited, starvation is horrible, so we have to stop them," said Alshogre. He recounted his brutal treatment in prison, where his father and brothers died, and the day he faced his execution, only to have the guard instead put a bullet in the back of his friend's head and let him go free, thanks to a bribe from his mother.
Their testimony left senators nearly speechless, with only a handful willing to ask questions of what the U.S. can do.
"I hope that your testimony and Caesar's testimony before you pricks the conscience of this nation," said Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee. "These are things that take political will. It is a will that has not been forthcoming from our country, and it's not unique to this administration either."