By Joost Lagendijk
April 22, 2014
For most people, it has become relatively easy to forget about the horrors taking place in Syria. In Turkey, everybody is focused on the run-up to the presidential elections. The government's Syrian policy has not worked and was never very popular anyway, and the stories about Syrian refugees are old news. The rest of the world has its eyes on Moscow and the Ukraine, believing, for good reasons, that the outcome of the conflict will have a major impact on global relations in years to come.
Besides, there is no will to intervene militarily in Syria, negotiations have not brought much, the Syrian opposition is seen as ineffective and dominated by radical Islamists, and the latest atrocities make it to the small print of the foreign news pages but are no longer covered by prominent journalists because too many of their colleagues have already been killed.
In the meantime, the ebb and flow of horror, as The Economist described the situation on the ground in Syria, continues. Thousands of barrel bombs have been dropped from helicopters, killing at least 20,000 people and forcing many others to flee to refugee camps. Other parts of the country are being starved into submission, and there are new indications that regime forces have been using chemical weapons against opposition groups. The Guardian quoted a rebel leader who concluded that the resistance against the Bashar al-Assad regime has not been swept away completely but is definitely "on life support."
Many in Turkey and abroad have turned their back on the Syrian tragedy, because they can't see a way out and feel helpless and hopeless in the face of so much human suffering. Last week, Scott Long, an American academic and human rights activist who established the website "A Paper Bird," published a fictional dialogue with fellow leftists on the topic of what to do about Syria. His article sheds light on many of the dilemmas, hesitations and doubts that dominate the thinking of those who still care about what is happening in Syria but feel extremely bad about their inability to do anything about it. That includes not only American leftists, Long's target audience, but most democrats worldwide.
Long vilifies those efforts to formulate an alternative perspective on Syria that try to escape the traditional inadequacies of the left: explicit support for Assad, dogmatic opposition to any Western involvement or general silence caused by deep confusion. Unfortunately, according to Long, with a few exceptions, the alternative views all fail to come up with an effective strategy. Apparently, most sincere leftists are good at restating tough questions but are simply too afraid to answer them.
Driven by a mix of despair and nostalgia, Long glorifies the Spanish Civil War, in which anti-fascist writers and intellectuals such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway not only wrote about the defining moment in European history but actually travelled to Spain to help the rebels. In the end, Long is honest enough to accept that foreign leftists going to fight in Syria will not bring much: "For another thing, there's no reason on earth to think the Free Syrian Army has any use for a bunch of volunteers who don't speak Arabic, know nothing about modern weapons, and get their medical knowledge from studying Foucault." If people really want to offer practical help, Long suggests that they join existing Syrian human rights organizations, within or outside the country, or travel to Turkey's southern border to assist those working with refugees.
At the end of his piece, Long comes to the predictable conclusion that, if one does not believe in war, diplomacy is the only way out. Western leftists should force themselves to become familiar with the arts of negotiation and compromise. That will be painful and, Long warns, "might mean recognizing your powerlessness."
In a Guardian editorial last weekend, one can recognize the same struggle to come up with a solution to eventually stop the horrors. One of the options mentioned, discussed at length before, could be giving the rebels more weapons. Recent videos showing the moderate Harkat Hazm movement firing American-made missiles at Syrian government tanks suggest the administration of US President Barack Obama has unofficially decided in favor of that alternative.
Maybe it will help, maybe it won't. It surely won't stop thousands of desperate global citizens thinking about how to stop the worst conflict of our time, one that has disappeared from the front pages.