As Syria's death toll grows, so too does indifference toward the crisis

The world has grown indifferent to the crisis in Syria, where they continue to count the dead from a civil war that has raged for five years.

'Aleppo is dying but where is the outrage?' journalist asks

Syrian refugee children receive gifts as volunteers entertain them inside a housing compound in Sidon, southern Lebanon, June 12, 2016. (Ali Hashisho/Reuters)

The deep summer. We sit on decks at lakeside cottages, the reassuring murmur of the radio in the background. Or on terraces in the city, sipping spritzers. If we're working, we type away at our desks, sandwich crumbs on the keyboards, with the whirr of nearby fans battling summer heat.

On those rare occasions when we surface to face the world around us, flipping on the TV or the computer screen, our newscasters are all busy counting up Olympic medal tallies. 

But in faraway Syria, they're still counting the dead — a daily tally of their own in a civil war that has raged for five years between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and opposition forces.

This week, it was the siege of Aleppo, water running out for some 300,000 Syrians living in rebel-held parts of the smashed city. And reports that chemical weapons had once more been used. Pictures, again, of frightened children, eyes streaming, carried into the bombed-out hovels that are their hospitals. And it barely touches us.

'Unbearable stench of death and dying'

"Aleppo is dying but where is the outrage?" the Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem wrote earlier this week. "Where is the outrage in the majority Arab and Muslim states? In Europe, which is being directly impacted by the Syrian tragedy? Where is the outrage in America? Have we become too numbed because of the unbearable stench of death and dying in the Middle East?"

Apparently so. Melhem, like a number of commentators this past week, has pointed a finger at the U.S. presidency of Barack Obama for the great indifference of the world towards the Syrian conflict. That will be Obama's real foreign policy legacy, they say, not the nuclear deal he reached with Iran.

"It shall be written that when death came to Aleppo, few were genuinely moved — unlike a generation ago, when many Americans and others who were horrified by the slaughter of civilians in Bosnia, shouted 'Never again,' and forced a reluctant American president to do the right thing to stop the carnage," wrote Melhem. 

It shall be written that when death came to Aleppo, few were genuinely moved.- Hisham Melhem

The criticism is particularly acute just now, with the allegations this week that al-Assad was behind another chlorine gas attack, reportedly delivered in the form of barrel bombs dumped out of Syrian army helicopters.

Damascus denies the allegations, but UN envoys and aid groups deem the reports credible enough to demand an investigation.   

U.S. did not act when 'red line' crossed

It is, no doubt, an uncomfortable reminder for the White House. Four years ago this month Obama issued his famous "red line" statement on the use of chemical weapons:

"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons being moved around or being utilized."

But a year later, in August 2013, after a sarin gas attack attributed to the Syrian government left nearly 1,400 people dead in a suburb called Goutha, he did not act. The line faded away.     

And it damaged the reputation of the United States on the world stage, according to senior insiders. Former U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates has described it as a "serious mistake" that hurt U.S. credibility. 

Obama's defenders say the episode wasn't a failure but a success. They point to the deal eventually hammered out, with Russia's help, forcing Damascus to agree to the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpiles. They also say it presented a more realistic approach to demands that Washington play the role of "global policeman."
Civilians inspect a site hit by what residents said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the town of Darat Izza in the province of Aleppo, Syria, October 7, 2015. (Reuters/Ammar Abdullah)

Obama had been counting on support that failed to materialize from some of his allies. The British Prim Minister David Cameron's misguided gamble earlier this year in believing he could win a referendum on EU membership has erased one of his other great political gambles that ended in failure. 

Having promised British support for the U.S. in any retaliatory action over the chemical weapons issue, British MPs then voted against that proposal in Aug. 2013. Interventionists say Washington should have gone it alone and argue that it's not too late to act in Syria in a manner that need not be a repeat of the 2003 Iraq war.

In an interview with the BBC this week, former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs Nicholas Burns repeated a call he made in February, in an article co-written with former U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, urging the Obama administration to consider a no-fly zone in the north of Syria and the imposition of humanitarian corridors.

"The president is right that the United States needs to be cautious about intervening in the Middle East," they wrote. "But he has been far too reactive and unwilling to assert U.S. leadership in Syria over the past five years. We believe the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of a strong U.S. initiative to protect civilians. If we fail to act, the war in Syria will almost certainly grow worse."

Conflict intensifies 

That prophecy has come to pass, the geopolitical shifts in the region ever more dizzying. Syrian opposition fighters have banded together with hardline Islamists in their desperation to break the siege of their territory in Aleppo. 

Russian airstrikes continue to prop up the al-Assad regime, while Washington seeks a co-operation deal with Moscow in its strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. 

And the rise of ISIS in Libya — where the militant group is thought to control about 180 kilometres of coastline — is drawing attention away from Syria. Obama has described his failure to better prepare for a post-Gadhafi world as one of his greatest mistakes.

Moderate Syrians counting on U.S. support fear Washington has forgotten that their conflict is not just about ISIS but about the removal of al-Assad from power.   

And as the civil war ebbs and flows, Syria's innards, scraped up and out, sit in a pile of ever-growing indifference. Even the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who arrived in Europe via Greece over the past year and a half seems to have receded from public consciousness. Just 3,000 refugees have been transferred from Greece to other EU countries, though the EU promised to relocate 160,000.

Humanitarian action urged

One of the most sobering missives out of Syria came this week in the form of a letter to Obama from a handful of doctors working in the besieged neighbourhoods of Aleppo.

"Don't be strategic or worry about al-Qaeda or Assad or ISIS," they wrote. "Look at it in a humanitarian way.

"For five years we have faced death from above on a daily basis. But we now face death from all around. For five years we have borne witness as countless patients, friends and colleagues suffered violent, tormented deaths. For five years the world has stood by and remarked how 'complicated' Syria is while doing little to protect us."
Syrian refugees stand in front of a tent during a visit by United Nations humanitarian chief and emergency relief co-ordinator Stephen O'Brien to their makeshift settlement in Saadnayel in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, August 17, 2015. (Reuters/Mohamed Azakir)

Their plea calls to mind the default phrase often employed by journalists covering the Middle East and its myriad conflicts when circumstances became too overwhelming, too hopeless, too unintelligible: "the cycle of violence continues"

As if the cycle can't or won't be interrupted, like a washing machine that won't let you open the door once the wash has begun. 

But nobody's really trying to open the door anymore. And the United States is now deep in the grip of its own cycle — a political one that will see the Syrian conflict passed to the next U.S. administration, for better or worse. 


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.


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