What can I say to make you care about Syria?

Paul Conroy, the photojournalist injured in the attack that killed Marie Colvin in Homs, says he "can’t think of a single photo I could take at this moment in time that would increase public awareness." When will people start taking notice of Syria again?

One comment has haunted me after a debate I attended last night, hosted by Save the Children and Intelligence Squared. Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photojournalist who was injured in the attack in Homs that killed Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, had just been asked about returning to Syria. Conroy, whose leg with severely damaged with shrapnel, isn’t yet mobile enough to return to war zones, and in any case most agree Syria has become too dangerous for journalists – 36 Western journalists are known to be missing, many more may have been kidnapped and are being kept under a media blackout for their own safety. But Conroy had one more reason for not yet going back: “I can’t think of a single photo I could take at this moment in time that would increase public awareness,” he said. 

The Syrian war is one of the gravest humanitarian crises in living memory – Conroy, who has reported from the Balkans, as well as conflicts in the Middle East, says that it is “by far and away the worst conflict I’ve ever covered”. Around 11,000 children have been killed so far, and the Oxford Research Group has found that children as young as one have been tortured and executed. Many millions more have lost their homes, are going hungry and are living through the terror of war. Polio has returned to Syria for the first time in 14 years, and with medical supplies at dangerous lows and around 60% of hospitals damaged or destroyed (according to WHO) many Syrians will die from disease, as well as from the direct effects of conflict. The UN believes 100,000 have already been killed in fighting. But is there any point in me writing this, or of journalists risking their lives to report on Syria – does anyone care anymore?

Perhaps it is simply that the full human cost of the Syrian war is too vast to comprehend. Rola Hallam, the Syrian doctor who witnessed the incendiary bomb attack on a school, which featured on a Panorama documentary earlier this year, believes this might be one of the problems. “There’s almost a level of disbelief in the public and in the government about the atrocities that are happening,” she said last night. I understand her point – I re-watched the footage of children running into a field hospital with their clothes and their skin hanging off them, covered in burns, and if I had quite been able to comprehend the full horror of what I was seeing from the comfort my chair, I would have been permanently changed.

It could also be that people don’t understand what’s happening in Syria. With so few journalists able to operate within the country, Assad’s propaganda campaign has gained strength. Many saw the chemical weapons agreement as a sign that the worst of the conflict was over, forgetting that many are still dying from conventional weapons every day. The story of the Syrian war has changed from being a simple narrative of innocent civilians against the evil Assad regime – the rebels are guilty of war crimes too, and al-Qaeda affiliated groups have joined the fight against Assad, so perhaps people aren’t sure who they’re meant to be supporting any more.

Then there’s the problem that even if you feel moved to action, no one really knows what to do. Moral disgust is a pretty futile emotion if you don’t do anything with it. Politicians have fallen quiet since the chemical weapons agreement. No one in government is discussing military intervention any more, and in government circles talk of securing humanitarian corridors has gone quiet. What cause do ordinary people in Britain have to rally behind?

There are few small things you can do. You can research NGOs operating in Syria, and donate to one you feel is making a difference. You can talk and tweet about Syria, and help restart a conversation that will force politicians to moot radical action to get aid into Syria, and to work harder towards securing a peaceful resolution. You can keep yourself informed, so that activists like Rola no longer feel, in her words, that she’s “shouting into a vacuum”. You can learn to care again.
 

A Syrian man carries a wounded girl next to Red Crescent ambulances following an explosion that targeted a military bus near Qudssaya, a neighbourhood of the Syrian capital, on June 8, 2012. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496