This article was first published at the New Arab.
In 2011, people in the eastern Ghouta (and throughout Syria) protested for freedom, dignity and social justice. The Assad regime replied with gunfire, mass arrests, torture and rape. The people formed self-defence militias in response. Then the regime escalated harder, deploying artillery and warplanes against densely-packed neighbourhoods. In August 2013 it choked over a thousand people to death with sarin gas. Since then the area has been besieged so tightly that infants and the elderly die of malnutrition.
Seven years into this process – first counter-revolutionary and now exterminatory – the Ghouta has tumbled to the lowest pit of hell. This didn’t have to happen. Nor was it an accident. Local, regional and global powers created the tragedy, by their acts and their failures to act. And Arab and international public opinion has contributed, by its apathy and relative silence.
Blame must be apportioned first to the regime, and next to its imperialist sponsors. Russia shares the skies with Assad’s bombers, and is an equal partner in war crime after war crime, targeting schools, hospitals, first responders and residential blocks.
Then Iran, which kept Assad afloat by providing both a financial lifeline and a killing machine. Iran’s transnational militias provided 80% of Assad’s troops around Aleppo, and some surround the Ghouta today. Their participation in the strategic cleansing of rebellious (and overwhelmingly Sunni) populations helped boost a Sunni jihadist backlash and will continue to provoke sectarian conflict in the future.
But the blame stretches further. American condemnations of the current slaughter, for instance, ring very hollow in Syrian ears. The Obama administration, focused on achieving a nuclear deal with Iran, ignored Iran’s build-up in Syria. It also ensured the Free Syrian Army was starved of the weapons needed to defend liberated zones. And by signalling his disengagement after the 2013 sarin atrocity, Obama indirectly but clearly invited greater Russian intervention. Since the rise of ISIS, the United States has focused myopically on its ‘war on terror’, bombing terrorists – demolishing cities and killing civilians in the process – but never deploying its vast military might in a concerted manner to protect civilians. Objectively, despite the rhetoric, the US has collaborated with Russia and Iran.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, called for a humanitarian truce to allow civilians to evacuate. This sounds humane, and if the fall of Aleppo is any guide, it’s probably the best scenario Ghouta residents can expect. But the proposal’s lack of ambition illustrates the current dysfunction of the global system. Instead of acting to stop the slaughter and siege, European statesmen support mass population expulsion, requesting only that it be done as gently as possible.
Despite Syria’s contribution to the west’s refugee and terrorism scares, western leaders are under no public pressure to act. The crowds who protested the Iraq war and Israeli assaults on Gaza do not protest Syria’s subjugation. Such people, if they notice the Ghouta at all, often adopt the security rhetoric pioneered by Sharon, Blair and Bush, then polished by Putin and Assad. According to this reading, Syrian civilians are terrorists, the White Helmets are an al-Qaida front, and Assad is restoring order.
The muted western response has many causes, including a general decline in political discourse, a proliferation of pro-Kremlin propaganda, orientalist and Islamophobic prejudices, and simple apathy.
One would surely expect more of the Arabs – the supposed larger nation to which most Syrians belong.
And one would be disappointed.
Commenting on the Ghouta, the Saudi foreign ministry stressed “the need for the Syrian regime to stop the violence.” More robust, the Qatari foreign ministry offered “strong… condemnation of the massacres … carried out by … the Syrian regime.” Qatar’s Foreign Minister used fiercer language still, including the words “genocide” and “forced displacement”.
These words are welcome but not nearly enough. Russia isn’t mentioned, let alone sanctioned. Quite the opposite, Gulf states are rushing to establish cordial relations with the resurgent imperial power, and to invest in the Russian economy.
In earlier years Gulf states sent weapons and funds to Free Syrian Army and Islamist militias – though this never amounted to a sufficient or sustained supply. Today Saudi Arabia in particular has given up on Syria, focusing instead on its petty dispute with Qatar, and its seemingly endless bombing of Yemen.
Saudi and Egyptian investors, meanwhile, are already lining up for contracts ‘reconstructing’ Assad’s Syria. Foreign business interests, regime elites and profiteers may benefit from the proposed rebuilding schemes. Not so rebellious working-class Syrians. Indeed, the razing of the eastern Ghouta, and its consequent depopulation, aims in part at clearing space for these projects.
Egypt’s General Sisi, himself engaged in crushing the hopes of democrats as well as Islamists, naturally sides with the Assad dictatorship.
Jordan stopped weapons supplies to the rebels in Deraa once Russia asserted its dominance, and even deported refugees to punish the rebels for launching an offensive in Deraa’s Manshiyeh quarter.
Lebanon and Iraq, both under partial Iranian control, send Shia militiamen to Syria, and so contribute to its dismantling.
The feeble responses of Arabs and Muslims at ‘street level’ are perhaps even more depressing. Ghouta residents may wonder why furious Muslim crowds can be roused all over the ummah by symbolic insults (blasphemous cartoons, or YouTube videos), but not by the actual murder, rape and torture of Muslims in Syria. Why does the regular incineration of Syrian mosques not provoke the rage reserved for occasional Quran-burning Texan provocateurs?
Why were angry Arab protests (rightly) unleashed by Israeli crimes in Palestine, and by American crimes in Iraq, but not by Iranian and Russian crimes in Syria?
To this last question at least there is a hint of an answer.
Arab states used to sometimes permit rallies against Israel or America. So long as popular rage was channelled towards external enemies, and not directed inwards at Arab regimes or Arab failures, it could fulfill functions beyond just letting off steam. Israel’s apparently overwhelming power – exaggerated further in the paranoid and conspiratorial atmosphere cultivated by dictatorship – even helped excuse Arab weakness.
The exclusive focus on the foreign enemy also suited certain intellectuals and social groups. These people would have been well-advised to consider the Quranic verse, “Indeed Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”
The 2011 uprisings promised a new path. During that abrupt transformative passage, Arabs vocally made the link between dictatorship and foreign occupation, between political underdevelopment and national defeat. Revolutionaries dared dream of building democracies which wouldn’t, for instance, lock up teenage girls like Tal al-Mallohi for blogging solidarity with Palestine.
But seven years have passed since then. Stunned by the repression that followed the uprisings, terrified by the monsters (like ISIS) that chaos unleashed, bombarded by misinformation, or simply struggling through the humiliations of daily life, the Arabs seem to barely notice Syria’s tragedy.
Our descendants may find this hard to understand. When the Arabs lost Palestine in 1948, most Arab states were newly born. In 2018, youth can no longer serve as an excuse. And Syria is being dismembered before our eyes, carved into Russian, Iranian, American and Turkish zones. Its people are scattered through the world in their millions. The death toll is half a million, rapidly rising.