There are many ways to respond to a war that brings death to life on television screens but the one chosen by UNICEF to address the continuing onslaught on Eastern Ghouta in Syria should not be an option.
The UN children’s agency refused to describe civilian suffering as the result of the Syrian regime’s bombardment of the Damascus suburb and simply released a blank statement. It was saying it had no words, that the hideous truth lies beyond language.
The gimmick drew some attention but said nothing of what needed desperately to be said. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel said, words can sometimes attain the quality of deeds. Silence is not an acceptable statement. Far better to speak to the facts. For Syria, these are plain and come in the form of a doleful musical triad of dispiritingly harmonic notes.
First, this is Moscow’s war.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin designated a daily 5-hour “humanitarian pause” in Eastern Ghouta to begin February 27, it was a roar of raw power. Putin could loftily undermine UN efforts for a 30-day ceasefire and set his own conditions.
Within days of the supposed halt, a Kremlin spokesman could blandly dismiss the reality in Eastern Ghouta — that there has been no ceasefire and no humanitarian pause. Unchallenged, unblinking and unashamed, Moscow could put the blame squarely on the rebels.
Second, the Assads aren’t going anywhere.
Bashar Assad’s regime is still ensconced in Damascus. This has been true since the fall of rebellious Aleppo, Syria’s second city, more than a year ago. Now, the regime appears even more comfortable and unlikely to soon be displaced.
In February, it was able even to devote mindspace and military planning to Turkey’s Afrin incursion. In this context, Washington’s proposed approach to Syria sounds out of time and ridiculous. The approach has been described by some Trump administration officials as “return of the state, not return of the regime.”
Is that even realistic?
How does one achieve that?
Would the United States really go to war with Russia for the right to bring down the Syrian regime?
Third, no one wants another Libya.
There is a strong argument for preventing the collapse of the Syrian state. Both Syria and the wider world would not benefit from the creation of another Libya, where the strongman is hounded out as part of a foreign-supported plan and chaos rules for years afterward.
Pulling down the regime, even one so brutal and unrepresentative, would only make sense if there were a viable, progressive alternative acceptable to the Syrian people. So far, that hasn’t been the case.
Those are the three hard facts and they’re better said aloud than any blank statement or even the international lament over Syria’s suffering. The caterwauling would sound a truer note if there were any move to properly examine UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein’s recent observation on who is responsible for continuing carnage.
Eastern Ghouta, Yemen, areas of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Hussein said, had become “some of the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times” because of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
He slammed their “pernicious use of the veto.” Over and over, they have used the veto power to allow multiple conflicts to continue across the planet, permitting thousands to be maimed and killed. In Syria (and Yemen), the Russians will not allow the world to censure or restrain their allies of convenience, the Assad regime and Iran. With respect to the Palestinian territories, the United States will not allow Israel to be rebuked for its brutality.
Hussein is right to press the French initiative, which seeks to prevent the use of veto power in situations in which a mass atrocity has occurred. Britain is on board with that (along with 115 other UN members) but most of the permanent members of the Security Council — Russia, the United States and China — are not.
That is the shocking reality of the Syrian situation. Rather than blank statements, it is better addressed by words that urge action.