The fourth anniversary of the Syrian civil war passed by in silence as the world and its leaders looked on. At the beginning of Syria’s fifth year of violent turmoil, the Michael Gordonof the New York Times described the country as “dismembered” and lamented “a Syrian peace process that no longer exists.” The paper then accused the United States of having “no clear strategy.”Al Jazeera published a retrospective piece, but followed it with a subsequent headline: “You probably won’t read this piece about Syria.” The piece’s editor, Barry Malone, commented, “As we watched the analytics, tracked our traffic, that stinging accusation of apathy seemed justified.”
Gathe Kiwan ’17, a Syrian student at Yale, told The Politic, “What Syria is suffering is heartbreaking, inhumane, and will eventually hurt the whole world.” While the fate of millions of displaced and endangered Syrians remains in the hands of international political bodies and warring domestic organizations, the furtive passing of the fourth anniversary allows us to reflect. It also prompts us to ask why the media, policymakers, and even our fellow Yale students seem to have forgotten about the Syrian crisis.
Since violence broke out in March 2011, more than 200,000 Syrians have lost their lives and nearly 12 million have been forced to flee. The four-year-old conflict shows no signs of slowing down; the non-governmental Syrian Observatory for Human Rights declared 2014, which claimed the lives of 76,000 Syrians, to be the deadliest year of the conflict so far. The methods used in the Syrian crisis have been just as horrifying as the outcomes. The most attention Syria has received thus far concerns allegations that President Bashar Al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in 2013. Analysts suspect the regime still uses these weapons in the war today.
On April 17 of this year, several Syrian doctors presented videos and first-hand accounts of chlorine gas attacks by the Assad regime to the UN Security Council. Current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power publicly remarked that there was not a single “dry eye in the room.” Furthermore, regime defectors have shed light on the torture of over 11,000 prisoners that international prosecutor Sir Desmond de Silva called “industrial-scale” in an article in The Guardian. Human rights groups lament the deadly reign of barrel bombs over civilian areas. The enormity of this violence has uprooted millions of Syrians—roughly half of the country’s population—from their homes. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres told the UN Security Council that the world had “not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost twenty years ago.”
Despite the magnitude and longevity of the conflict, Syria has largely slipped from public consciousness while politics shifts U.S. attention elsewhere. Malone claimed, “The people we should pay attention to fade into the background, but players in a narrative wrongly and unfairly dominated by the grotesque.” In February of 2014, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford resigned out of frustration that “we have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground.” He told CNN frankly, “I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy.” Power, who started her career as a reporter desperately trying to draw attention to the Bosnian War, wrote that she realized after her time there that the United States had actually “never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred.”
This trend continued into the 21st century. Power’s book, The Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, outlines a specific American political pattern that has obscured genocide in the past. Power writes, “American leaders played up the likely futility, perversity, and jeopardy of any proposed intervention […] and they took solace in the normal operations of the foreign policy bureaucracy, which permitted an illusion of continual deliberation, complex activity, and intense concern.” The “illusion” persists in the White House and the United Nations today. The United States’ shift in focus from Assad to ISIS—the regime’s concurrent fight against ISIS makes opposing Assad a conflict of interest for the U.S.—and its blindness to root causes due to Obama’s “Iraq First” anti-ISIS strategy have clouded the vision of American leaders. It has gotten to the point that some, like President Emeritus of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations Leslie Gelb, have argued that “cooperating with Assad is also the only feasible way, at present, to lessen the humanitarian nightmare in Syria.” The United States has moved from supporting of a democratic revolution against Assad’s violent, oppressive dictatorship to fighting a war in Iraq with a terrorist group whose dynamic rise owes so much to the power vacuum in Syria in the first place. Along the way, the millions of Syrians forced from their homes and hundreds of thousands who perished were lost in the fray of international politics. In a political sense, “genocide” described as “war” is less compelling.
If Ambassador Ford, who was at the forefront of this conversation, could not justify the American policy on Syria, how do Americans justify it? They ignore it. In his indignant editorial levying accusations of American apathy, Malone writes that Al Jazeera’s website has experienced “stagnation in traffic to our Syria conflict stories since 2012.” ISIS now dominates America’s attention, while Syria remains a side-story, the dismissed last letter in the acronym. “We find that stories about the suffocating grind and everyday hardship of war don’t do as well,” writes Malone. “Stories about the almost four million Syrians who have been forced to flee their country, the same.” Americans are “fatigued” from hearing about such conflict, especially another war in the Middle East. Kiwan feels a trend in the American perspective about the area, commenting, “Americans’ image of the third world is as a burnt-up, exploding region that we should turn down by military force rather than extending a helping hand.”
Despite the scale of the humanitarian disaster in Syria, the American public has not paid it commensurate attention, and this includes students and administrators on Yale’s very own campus. Kiwan also lamented, “Its sad that people in the top 1% of educated Americans can’t even place Syria, probably even Iraq, on a map.” For a place said to be full of future world leaders and progressive international engagement, Yale has not yet turned its attention to the largest humanitarian disaster of the 21st century. The university hosted Syrian peace activist Rami Nakhla as a World Fellow last semester, but only after a year of silence on the subject. The last event focused on Syria was a chemical weapons panel in the fall of 2013 and there has not been a formal Yale discussion on Syria since Nahkla’s departure from campus. Kiwan, who fled the war with his family and now studies here, commented, “I always thought that if I moved to a school as prestigious as Yale, especially considering the amount of people that study politics and foreign affairs, more people would know about the issue. Awareness on campus about the Syrian conflict, however, is disappointingly low on every measure.”
Four years later, just as the complex, wide-reaching crisis remains, so too does the problem of building public awareness of it. Activists despair that the Syrian country’s rich historical treasures lie beneath rubble, while others grieve for the children lost in the same place. The past, present, and future of Syria have been, and will continue to be, tarnished by this war. In this sense and in terms of sheer numbers, it is hard to wrap one’s mind around the magnitude of the issue at hand. In the harrowing words of journalist Arthur Koestler in the 1940s, who was then trying to turn Americans’ attention towards the Holocaust, “statistics don’t bleed.” The statistics gathered by the United Nations and independent organizations reveal that the Syrian civil war is of the same scale as major humanitarian disasters in the past. The responsibility falls to the American public, and especially to a body of students such as Yale’s, to give these statistics their humanity by paying attention to the blood, tears, and personal stories of Syrians caught in this deadly mess.