By Joyce Karam
3 May 2016
For the 60 children, women and men who were buried under the rubble of al-Quds hospital in Aleppo, world leaders have issued statements and loud condemnations against the Assad regime before quickly resuming the talks to consider Aleppo’s inclusion in a phony “cessation of hostilities” (CoH) that has become a smokescreen for inaction in Syria.
21 years after the Srebrenica's massacre that killed 8000 Muslims in eastern Bosnia in the summer of 1995, the tragedies of Houla, Ghouta, Douma, Jisr Shoughour, Aleppo and countless massacres in Syria since 2011 are bearing witness that the “Never Again” mantra, is an empty slogan when it comes to the Middle East.
Running the Clock on Syria
The talking points condemning Assad as “blood thirsty” or “illegitimate” are rolling in no time from Western capitals after every massacre in Syria. But on the ground in the flattened Sukkariyeh or Baba Amr neighbourhoods of Aleppo and Homs or the vegetable market in Maaret Nuaman, these statements ring hollow for doing nothing to protect civilians from barrel bombing and sieges by the Syrian regime.
The “R2p” (responsibility to protect) doctrine that emerged after Srebrenica is nowhere to be found in Syria, as global leaders scramble to contain the conflict but not to protect civilians or end the suffering. With more than 470,000 dead, 20 million internally displaced or in refuge, the debate for action in Syria is centred around countering ISIS and not protecting civilians. Yes, the war is a convoluted mix of rebellion, regional proxy, and sectarian conflict, but its humanitarian toll makes it the worse since WWII and the cost of inaction has only increased since 2012.
In the eyes of US President Barack Obama, the Syrian conflict is a nuisance, an inconvenient distraction from the goal of pivoting to Asia and leaving a lighter footprint in the Middle East. As if Dr. Mohammed Maaz, Al-Quds’ last paediatrician, was contemplating China's role or post-Saddam Iraq when he died in the attack trying to save a child’s life.
Running the clock and diluting the impact of the massacres and repeated violations of the CoH, is the US policy for the next eight and a half months of the Obama Presidency in Syria. Conveniently, that is also the timeline for the Geneva 3 process chaired by US and Russia to negotiate a solution. The negotiations have turned into a mockery of every conflict resolution structure out there. The CoH celebrated by US Secretary John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergie Lavrov has been violated on a daily basis, and is mediocre in coverage and expectations.
The CoH does not cover Aleppo, and violations in the form of launching rockets, or attacking markets have had no punitive effect on the parties, since a form of talks and statements will always continue. Imagine for example a truce between the Israelis and the Palestinians that includes Gaza but not Ramallah, or one in Libya that protects Benghazi but not Tripoli.
With over than 1000 Syrian civilians killed in April and average of 100 since its implementation in February 26 (Syrian Network for Human Rights), the CoH is turning to a tactical weapon used by all the fighting factions, to regroup militarily, advance in strategic battles (Assad in Aleppo) and as a convenient front for Washington and Moscow to have a “process” and buy time on Syria.
A Narrative That Feeds ISIS
Nevertheless, the images from Aleppo of a Syrian child crying over the body of his younger brother, or an elderly woman masked with ashes as she makes her way out of the debris, are a recipe that will fuel extremism in the long run and across the global spectrum.
What happens in Aleppo is not confined to the victims or the internal dynamics of the Syrian conflict. Absent of a plan that effectively protects civilians, the bombing of hospitals and vegetable markets will play right into the hands of ISIS. If anything, the attacks of the group from France to Belgium to Bangladesh have laid to rest myths that terrorism in Syria can be contained, or that airstrikes can defeat it.
When Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel proposed “refugee safe zones” in Syria, something that both the US and Russia have opposed, the plan was not for regime change in the country. Germany has been more cautious in its opposition to Assad than the United States.
Merkel's plan is primarily to shelter Europe from the refugee flow, offer civilian protection, and prevent ISIS from capitalizing on the population’s grievances, and contain what is shaping up to be a decade old conflict. But for Washington, even protecting small areas from massacres in Syria is an unworthy burden, while for Russia it's against the strategic objectives of helping the regime prevail.
For ISIS and Al-Qaeda's Nusra, this status quo is ideal in Syria in terms of preying on civilians' tragedies to increase recruitment, emerge as a hard-line alternative to the more moderate groups and confirm the conspiratorial sentiment that the West is allied with Assad.
Given the brutal nature of the war and the very low likelihood for an action plan to protect civilians, Srebrenica moments are only bound to repeat in Syria. Beyond the hashtags and the condemnations, their occurrence is a reminder of the collective failure and the stained legacy for those watching in upholding the humanitarian commitments of the 21st century.