Michael Young/Ignoring the orphans of Syria’s uprising

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Ignoring the orphans of Syria’s uprising
Michael Young/The Daily Star/Dec. 11, 2014

It has been remarkable in the past three years that the Syrian human rights situation has failed to really scratch the world’s conscience. Syrians are indeed children of what Lebanese writer Ziad Majed has called an orphaned revolution.

While there has doubtless been international concern and assistance; while we’ve even seen some celebrities highlighting the plight of the refugees, a catastrophe of this magnitude demands far more. Yet by and large concern around the world has been limited. Syria is not a cause célèbre in the same way that Darfur was. No benefit concerts have been organized to assist Syrian refugees similar to the two concerts held for Bangladesh in 1971 to raise funds for refugees displaced by the genocide in East Pakistan. There are no Bonos or Bob Geldofs making noise about Syria. To her credit Angelina Jolie has tried, but it would help if she got her figures straight. In a recent interview with ITV she said that there were 51 million Syrians displaced, almost three times the country’s population.

You wonder what it takes for the horrors in Syria to shake the serenity in Peoria, Mantes-La-Jolie or Haversham. The regime of Bashar Assad has shot peaceful, unarmed protesters and ordered its air force and army to bomb civilians. It has tortured tens of thousands of people, and, thanks to the courage of a former Syrian government photographer, code-named Cesar, there is documentary evidence of the killing of around 11,000 detainees. The Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its own population, killing perhaps as many as 1,700 people, including many children, in the Ghouta in August 2013. And it continues to deploy barrel bombs as a terror weapon against entire neighborhoods.

The reaction in America after the Ghouta chemical attack last year was illustrative of the mood in many Western societies. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in September 2013, as Barack Obama was considering airstrikes against Syria, 60 percent of respondents said they opposed such action. This rejection came even though 75 percent of respondents said they thought Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.

Yet until now the wheels of international justice have moved very slowly, and those of international outrage hardly at all. The most recent bombshell was the World Food Program’s suspension earlier this month of food vouchers for around 1.7 million Syrian refugees. The announcement brought in donations in excess of what was needed to continue the program. That was excellent news, but why was such a valuable humanitarian enterprise underfunded in the first place?

The indifference shown for the plight of Syria’s refugees is, above all, a moral deficiency. America shook the world after almost 3,000 people were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. This week Americans have literally writhed with angst over the release of a report on CIA torture, with a Washington Post editorial proclaiming, “This is not how Americans should behave. Ever.”

Yet in Syria, such casualty figures and such disgraceful behavior have been unrelenting since the start of the uprising against Assad rule. Many people around the world have been understandably horrified by the savagery of ISIS, but remain utterly blind to the mass murder conducted by the Syrian regime. Indeed, there are those in the West inviting their governments to collaborate with Assad against the jihadists.

Other than representing a moral failing, the absence of any indignation toward the fate of the Syrians may affect security. It is not defending those who have flocked to ISIS and other jihadist groups to suggest that the resentment generated by the Syrians’ deplorable state of affairs could have been a factor in their decision to travel to Syria and fight. Watching people getting slaughtered amid global apathy is a powerful mobilizer, even when one ends up replicating similar barbarity.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about the situation in Syria is that somehow people see moral ambiguity in a conflict that for a long time was morally unambiguous. In 2011 and 2012 it was principally the regime that perpetrated the most monstrous crimes, while the opposition had not yet taken on a militant Islamist identity. It was the regime that transformed peaceful protests against the Assads into a sectarian civil war.

The Syrian leadership and intelligence services quickly grasped how easy it was to frighten Western leaders and societies by waving a beard in their direction. Many were duped by the Syrian regime’s manipulation of the war narrative and its claim to be fighting against Islamist extremism. This no doubt contributed to the doubts we are witnessing today with regard to the humanitarian tragedy in Syria. And it surely explains why Assad, who by any standard should be on trial for crimes against humanity and war crimes, is still accorded minimal respect.

But overall the situation leaves a bitter taste. Some victims, it seems, are more equal than others. The Syrian population has endured frightful suffering in the past three years. That the world still has difficulty acknowledging this is profoundly unsettling, even intolerable.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.