Since a truce deal was signed last year, brokered by Moscow and Ankara, brought a much-needed respite from mayhem to the Idlib province, the last rebel-held area in northwestern Syria, home to 3 million people, including many who had fled other war-torn parts of the country, the regime in Damascus, aided by the lethal air power of its Russian ally, is again rattling the sword and staining it with the blood of innocent civilians.
Since the Syrian government launched an offensive in April, more than 800 civilians, around 200 of them children, have been killed, hundreds more wounded and 440,000 forced to flee their homes. These people can only undertake an arduous trek north to Turkey — a country that already has 3.6 million Syrian refugees and which has long ago shut tight its borders. It seems open fields will be these destitutes’ only option.
Most of the casualties, including those 200 children, have been caused by Syrian and Russian air strikes, which pummelled towns and villages in the province, along with hospitals, schools, bakeries, marketplaces, health facilities and other civilian infrastructure.
There is, it would appear, a plus-minus dichotomy in how Americans and Arabs define the value of human life.
Yet, all this unspeakable human suffering is now inside-page news in both Arab and western media, no longer grabbing the front-page headlines it once did.
Last Tuesday, a seemingly indignant Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations human rights chief, gave a grim assessment of the civilian toll in Idlib to the UN Security Council, wherein she cited satellite imagery that suggests 17 villages have been destroyed in air strikes, as part of what she called a “scorched earth” policy by the Syrian government and its Russian enabler. “Now air strikes kill and maim significant numbers of civilians several times a week”, she said, “and the response seems to be a collective shrug”. Then she added, directly addressing the council, that complacency risks creating “the worst humanitarian disaster in the 21st century” since members have “done nothing for 90 days as the carnage continued in front of your eyes”. As a finale, she asked: “Are you going to listen to the children of Idlib ... or are you going to shrug your shoulders?”
And why would the UN human rights chief not ask an incriminating question like that? Even members of the Security Council at times deserve to have someone lay the guilt trip on them.
As a sidebar to all this, it now transpires that there is also something pernicious afoot here. According to Physicians for Human Rights, whose representatives are active on the ground in Idlib, of the 46 reported attacks launched on April, 16 have been verified by the group, and 14 of these were against facilities that the UN had earlier identified to Russia as hospitals, that is, facilities that Russian jets should avoid targeting — but nevertheless jets did just that — intentionally. Russia “denied” the accusation that it was using coordinates that the UN provided it in order to deliberately target these facilities. Bachelet dismissed the denial. She said she did not believe the amount of damage being inflicted on hospitals and other civilian infrastructure was coincidence. “These are civilian objects,” she added, “and it seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all by accident”.
For those who live with violence inflicted on them, such as Syrians, context matters. And context in this case does not pass unnoticed by them: While the United States, not long ago, insisted that President Bashar Al Assad “had to go”, but did little to ensure his ouster, Russia, by contrast, insisted that Al Assad must stay and did all it could to secure his grip on power. The price of that policy Syrians have paid for in blood.
Why is it that people in the Arab world are not registering outrage, consternation, distress at the carnage? Is it that they see the blood of Syrian civilians, including that of more than 200 children, as being cheap? The back-to-back massacres in Texas and Ohio last week that resulted in the tragic death of 29 people, shook, bewildered and traumatised America at the core of its self-definitions as a united nation. On the contrary, the death in Syria of more than 800 men, women and children over the last three months registered nary a blip. There is, it would appear, a plus-minus dichotomy in how Americans and Arabs define the value of human life.
The long and short of it is that what is being perpetrated in Idlib today, right before our eyes, are war crimes against humanity. And to remain blase about them, or indifferent to their moral implications, makes us all complicit in them. And, Oh, yes, how much more bloodletting and unspeakable human suffering will it take the international community to become engaged?
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.