It was no less than scandalous, even unconscionable. The world, which has long since turned its back on the ongoing, unspeakable suffering of the people of Syria, swiftly refocused its attention on that tormented land after — and only after — Israel last weekend launched an attack against military targets there, during which an Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down.
That’s drama, the kind we like, the kind that need not elicit from us thoughtful answers to complex moral questions. We prefer to contemplate a scene crowded with actors — the Damascus regime, a determined Iran directing its Lebanese proxies, sundry rebels, secessionist Kurds, Russians, Americans, Turks — each with their own plot-line, as if the conflict in Syria is not an ongoing calamity whose impact on the lives of 12 million besieged or displaced Syrians is long-term psychological damage that they and their children will grapple with for years to come, but a stage performance, merely parodying pain.
After seven long years, we have opted, albeit unconsciously, not to care anymore. That is the sad truth. But there is another equally sad truth: The civil war in Syria, far from winding down, is actually escalating. This war, which began with a few children in Dara’a scrawling anti-regime graffiti on the walls in that small town in the country’s southwest, has resulted in unprecedented mayhem and suffering. But passing largely unnoticed, dear reader, is the fact that the sufferings have not only continued, but actually escalated.
We all recall, for example, the dreadful images from Ghouta — so dreadful we had to turn away from them in disbelief — where in the early hours of August 21, 2013, this eastern suburb of Damascus, controlled by the rebels, was struck by the deadly sarin gas. And we all recall the findings of the United Nations investigation team that later confirmed that “clear and convincing evidence exists” that poisonous gas was delivered by surface-to-surface rockets. The 2014 report by the UN Human Rights Council found that “significant quantities of sarin were used [by the regime] in a well-planned indiscriminate attack targeting civilian-inhabited areas, causing mass casualties”. The death toll? An estimated 1,800. And, yes, we all remember those images — the children, their bodies writhing in convulsive pain; the adults, struggling to breathe, only to die slow agonising deaths.
But why resurrect all this now, five years after the fact?
I do so for one reason. Late last week, there were more images from besieged, starving Ghouta, of dust-covered survivors who came “stumbling from the rubble and twisted metal of another bombardment”, a CNN news report said. “Some clutch injured children in their arms, desperate for help. faces are contorted with suffering or numb with shock.” Those harrowing images, the report continued, “show the horror of four days of intense bombardment by what observers say are Russian-backed Syrian forces. About 229 people were killed from Monday to Thursday. Among the dead, 58 were children and 43 women”.
In the province of Idlib, another rebel stronghold in northern Syria, 300,000 people have, since the middle of December, fled their homes towards the Turkish border, in order to avoid falling victim to chemical weapons. And, as if reverting to an Orwellian turn of phrase, Russia considers the suburb of Ghouta and the province of Idlib to be “de-escalation zones”.
Syria has boiled down to transactional alliances that have nothing to do with human values, human needs, human decency. Turkey, whose head of state, at the outset of the conflict, started his country’s engagement in Syria by demanding Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s head on a platter, now focuses on crushing Kurdish secessionists. The United States, which vowed that were the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons, the act in and by itself would “cross a red line” — disregarded its own pledge and effectively outsourced “military intervention” to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had long wanted to rebuild Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, restricted America’s role in Syria to chasing Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). And the UN, whose five permanent members of the Security Council — US, Russia, Britain, China and France — hardly ever think in tandem, has proved to be an abject failure in extending even humanitarian aid to those who need it in Syria.
Meanwhile, think of those 300,000 people, who, over the last few weeks, have been driven by fear of imminent death to trek to the Turkish border in search of shelter. And think how each has a gut-wrenching story to tell, about fleeing from one’s home and homeland, one’s native ground, constantly harassed in exile by the shadow of hunger and a lack of identity.
I feel guilty pretending to know even the minutest details about these folks’ bruised souls. Not I, who lives in his comfortable world in the US, fed beyond his needs, secure in his home, in a country that considers “the pursuit of happiness” a constitutional right.
I for one did not give two-pence when I read the news earlier this week that the Syrian regime downed an Israeli fighter jet, that the US has almost completed the job of decimating Daesh and that the Turks have unleashed their military on secessionist Kurds. It all seems, by comparison, so banal.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.