As It Happens

'Our generation's shame': Canadian prof calls out Ottawa's inaction as Syrian suburb bombarded

As Syria's Eastern Ghouta region is bombarded with airstrikes, world leaders put out more written condemnation. Nader Hashemi says that's not nearly enough.
A Syrian woman and children run for cover amid the rubble of buildings following government bombing in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region. (Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images)
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In the last five days, more than 300 people have been killed in Syria's Eastern Ghouta.

As airstrikes continue to bombard the suburb of Damascus, world leaders continue to issue statements condemning the attacks. But Nader Hashemi is calling for more than strongly-worded statements from the Western world.

Hashemi, a Toronto-born professor who leads the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the lack of political will to act in Ottawa and why it's crucial Canada step up to fill the void left by world leaders.

Here is part of that conversation.

Have you seen much of a response this week from Canadian politicians about what is happening in Eastern Ghouta?

I understand that [Foreign Affairs] Minister [Chrystia] Freeland issued a statement today that I would describe as a minimal and tepid statement that struck me as being very much disconnected from the scale and the scope of the catastrophe unfolding in Syria today.

So it's been quite a disappointing response from the government of Canada. 

What more do you think Canada should have said?

The UN human rights chief today described what's happening in Syria in the enclave of East Ghouta "a monstrous campaign of annihilation."

The secretary general called what's happening "hell on Earth."

Yesterday, Amnesty International described what's happening as "war crimes on an epic scale."

Canada's statement today, I think, against what is actually happening on the ground, I would describe as a big disappointment. 

We have seen that there is no activity. There's no significant diplomatic efforts being made. All the different efforts have dissolved and the big players, the international players, aren't active. Who do you think, at this point, needs to step up to the plate and take charge here?

I don't think we can hope for anything positive coming out of the United States under a Trump administration.

I think that makes a stronger argument for Canada's voice to really provide leadership here, given, not just the scale of the human rights catastrophe that's taking place, but the fact that Syria has really destabilized, not just the country of Syria itself, but across our world.

Feb. 20, 2018: Dr. Hamza Hassan describes his hospital in Eastern Ghouta as a Syrian government offensive sends bombs raining down on patients and caregivers. 6:00

I have to say that this is not a discussion that is really taking place in Canada. We're not seeing it in Ottawa. We're not seeing in other capitals. It doesn't seem to matter.

There's a sense that there is a humanitarian response that is necessary. But as far as feeling that they have a role to play in trying to find some kind of a settlement or a peace — it doesn't seem to be on anyone's radar, does it?

No, you're absolutely correct. And I think one factor that's at play here is Syria war fatigue. We're about to enter the eighth year of this conflict.

A lot of the world, particularly the Western world now, are so consumed by their internal economic and political problems.

I'm talking to you from the United States, where the dominant themes that concern people now are the crazy antics and policies of the Trump administration, these mass shootings, and so there's a sense now that people are just tired and people have other concerns. 

There is an unstated assumption that people hope that if we just ignore Syria it will go away and it won't affect us.

But I think that this general fatigue, the absence of any attention, has really been, I think, a godsend for Russia and for Iran and for the Assad regime, who is really banking on international fatigue to eventually demonstrate itself so they could carrying on with their war aims. I think that's exactly what's happening today.

A Syrian man checks the site of Syrian government bombardments in Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region. (Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images)

The pictures, the images, coming out of Syria are so deeply distressing, especially those of children. It always has been but the past few days have been almost overwhelming to look at and a lot of people are responding to that with horror and pain.

It's a reminder of a story that we've been exposed to. This is not anything new. It's accurate to say that what's happened in Syria is really our generation's shame. I think we know what's going on. We've seen the pictures.

The human rights documentation is massive. If you talk to war crimes experts they say prosecuting a war crimes case in Syria is a slam dunk and the easiest case to prosecute since Nuremberg. We have all the evidence. What we don't have is the political will.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Nader Hashemi.

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