By Halim Shebaya
27 February 2018
Ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing to worry about in Eastern Ghouta.
Keep calm and carry on, we are being told. It is just a matter of "mass psychosis".
Welcome to the "post-truth" age where there is an actual debate about whether or not we should rally around the International Committee of the Red Cross' (ICRC) (among other organisations) call for restraint and access to the wounded.
The ICRC called the situation "madness" that had to be stopped. Yet, we are being told that it's mere "fabrications", "propaganda" and "mass delusions".
Before proceeding, it is worth noting that indiscriminate targeting of civilians on all sides of the conflict is reprehensible. The ICRC statement mentioned that, "on the other side of the front line, people in Damascus are in constant fear that their children will be hit by falling mortars".
Why, then, a focus on Eastern Ghouta? What we are dealing with is more than 520 dead and 2500 wounded (according to Medecins Sans Frontieres ) in five days. And the numbers are seemingly set to rise.
'Hell On Earth' Or 'Lice And Rats'?
Silence is a sign of consent, according to an Arabic expression. But when UNICEF issued a blank statement for "lack of words" to describe the suffering in Eastern Ghouta, it was anything but an expression of consent.
It does not take a genius to decipher its intended message. The appropriate words had already been used throughout the Syrian conflict.
Indeed, the situation is one of a "deja vu", as a Syrian writer described it - and a bleak reminder of what Bashar al-Assad's "victory" in Syria has meant when it comes to the military strategies employed under the patronage of Vladimir Putin.
"Hell on earth", a "living nightmare", "exceptionally deplorable developments". The problem is not with finding the right words, but with a realisation that words have not helped.
UNICEF's statement had a footnote: "Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?"
Apparently, some do. And the chosen words were "lice" and "rats" - written (later deleted from his Facebook page but still available here) by Nabil Saleh, a member of the Syrian parliament in reference to those the regime is fighting.
While some will argue that the words were exclusively in reference to the fighters, Saleh also considered the "chorus of 'Ghouta is being annihilated' as liars who are using pictures of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories".
It is thus not for sensationalism that I am highlighting these words. Rather, I refer to them as an example of a type of discourse that becomes "acceptable" and "justified" on account of the "complexity" of war zones.
Nothing "complicated" about targeting civilians
However, as we grapple with making sense of a complex situation, and in the midst of the foggy and tortuously complicated political and military scene in Syria, there is absolutely nothing "complicated" when it comes to indiscriminate targeting of civilians, hospitals, and blocking humanitarian aid.
Indeed, wars by their very nature bring about human casualties. And the argument on the part of the Assad regime is that it is a military battle of self-defense "inside Syria's borders", as its UN envoy told the Security Council.
Thus, to use International Humanitarian Law (IHL) terminology, it is a battle justified on the grounds of "military necessity".
However, and this is a point that is lost in said argument, military necessity has to be balanced by humanitarian considerations. As the International Court of Justice affirmed in the Advisory Opinion on Nuclear Weapons (1996), there are two cardinal principles that constitute the "fabric of humanitarian law… because they constitute intransgressible principles of international customary law" - one of them being the protection of the civilian population.
Now it is of course an issue that faces increased difficulties in the context of armed conflicts taking place involving non-state actors who make it harder to distinguish between military and civilian targets. But IHL provisions nonetheless apply in such circumstances, including - to give examples relevant to Eastern Ghouta - the protection of civilians (Article 13 of the 1977 Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions), provisions against starvation (Article 14) and protection of the wounded and medical personnel (Article 7-11).
The terminology of "lice and rats" and other calls for obliteration of a region that is inhabited by civilians is a reminder of the worst atrocities humanity has witnessed, where people were robbed of their humanity and their killing justified on ethnic, religious, or national grounds.
Indeed, it is easier to condemn war crimes, genocides and human rights violations in hindsight.
It is utterly depressing, albeit not surprising, that we have not witnessed an unequivocal condemnation of such vile language and in defense of human lives in Eastern Ghouta, regardless of one's position on the Syrian regime or the armed groups now in control of the territory.
One of the arguments presented by supporters of the Syrian regime is that the Armed Forces are providing civilians with a chance by dropping leaflets indicating evacuation routes. Without getting into a discussion about whether this is indeed a viable option, such leaflets are a clear indication that the Syrian government is aware of the presence of civilians in the targeted area who are caught up in the midst of the bloodshed; and as such, said warnings do not absolve its forces from responsibility vis-à-vis civilians.
The leaflets reminded me of the ones dropped in Eastern Aleppo (2016) by Syrian and Russian aircrafts: "This is your last hope….Save yourselves. If you do not leave these areas urgently, you will be annihilated… You know that everyone has given up on you. They left you alone to face your doom and nobody will give you any help".
And what Human Rights Watch noted at the time is applicable today in Ghouta, namely: "telling civilians to leave does not give the military a carte blanche to attack as though they have left. With or without a warning, attacks may be carried out only on military objectives, and must be proportionate."
Two Plus Two Equals Five?
Vasily Nebenzya, Russia's permanent representative to the United Nations, described the media coverage as propaganda-driven, a campaign of disinformation disseminating rumors and a condition of "mass psychosis".
According to the Russian Federation, recent attention on Ghouta is meant to damage the reputation of Syria and Russia.
I do not contest the fact that political players and affiliated media do their utmost to embellish their own image and to besmirch their opponents. However, the use of the term "psychosis" is revealing and, in a sense, emblematic of "post-truth" logic.
It reminded me of George Orwell's 1984 when he wrote that: "In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it".
In other words, we are being presented with two diametrically opposed conceptions of reality. On the one hand, we have the ICRC, UN agencies, human rights organisations - and even the Catholic Pope! - calling for a ceasefire and allowing humanitarian aid into the besieged territory. Conversely, we are being nudged to consider all those warnings as "psychosis" or "propaganda" simply because they happen to paint two leaders in a bad light.
The grave danger in Nebenzya's discourse is that it risks voiding any discussion of human suffering in the context of a political quagmire or armed conflict simply on account of one powerful country claiming that uncomfortable news is just #fakenews (and of course, it is not just Russia that is guilty of such behaviour in the Security Council).
Consequently, if we accept such argumentation, we are robbing ourselves from an indispensable tool for advocating for oppressed people and just causes, including Palestine - the irony being that many pro-Palestine voices fall prey to such propaganda.
To be clear, I am not presenting a blanket defense of the UN and human rights/humanitarian agencies due to a belief in their infallibility or their ability to "save the world". But a cursory look at the reports since 2011 categorically negates a prevalent view in some circles that such agencies/organisations only target Putin and Assad.
Just to give one example, an Amnesty International report on Ghouta accused the regime of committing war crimes but also said: "non-state armed groups, particularly the Army of Islam, are guilty of an array of abuses including abductions, arbitrary detentions and indiscriminate shelling. Their use of imprecise weapons such as mortars and Grad rockets in populated areas amounts to war crimes."
In Orwell's 1984, we also read how "the heresy of heresies [for the Party] was common sense".
The question remains: Is it still possible to appeal to "common sense" amidst the madness we are witnessing that has made us numb to human tragedies? Or are we all victims of mass psychosis where "two and two make five"?
Halim Shebaya is a Beirut-based political analyst and multi-disciplinary researcher.