“The worst part of it is the feeling that we don’t have any allies,” Montreal’s Faisal Alazem, the tireless 32-year-old campaigner for the Syrian-Canadian Council, told me the other day. “That is what people in the Syrian community are feeling.”
There are feelings of deep gratitude for having been welcomed into Canada, Alazem said. But with their homeland being reduced to an apocalyptic nightmare – the barrel-bombing of Aleppo and Homs, the beheadings of university professors, the demolition of Palmyra’s ancient temples – among Syrian Canadians there is also an unquenchable sorrow.
Bashar Assad’s genocidal regime clings to power in Damascus and the jihadist psychopaths of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are ascendant almost everywhere else. The one thing the democratic opposition wanted from the world was a no-fly zone and air-patrolled humanitarian corridors. Even that was too much to ask. There is no going home now.
But among Syrian-Canadians, the worst thing of all, Alazem said, is a suffocating feeling of solitude and betrayal. “In the western countries, the civil society groups – it’s not just their inaction, they fight you as well,” he said. “They are crying crocodile tears about refugees now, but they have played the biggest role in throwing lifelines to the regime. And so I have to say to them, this is the reality, this is the result of all your anti-war activism, and now the people are drowning in the sea.”
Drowning in the sea: a little boy in a red t-shirt and shorts, found face-down in the surf. The boy was among 11 corpses that washed up on a Turkish beach Tuesday. Last Friday, as many as 200 refugees drowned when the fishing boat they were being smuggled in capsized off the Libyan coast. At least 2,500 people, most of them Syrians, have drowned in this way in the Mediterranean already this year.
A year ago this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry emerged from a gathering on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Wales with commitments from nine NATO countries, including Canada, to join in a military effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL. A few days after that Sept. 4 2014 huddle, a half-dozen Arab states signed up. At least a dozen other countries are now also contributing in one way or another.
To say the American-led coalition effort has failed to stop the war in Syria would be true enough. It would also be disingenuous, for two reasons. The first is that to have allowed ISIL to expand the scope of its rampages would have meant war without precedent in 1,000 years of the Middle East’s bloody history. The second and most important is that the Obama administration never had any intention of stopping the war in the first place.
Bashar Assad, the Iranian ayatollahs’ Syrian proxy, has been allowed to persist in his relentless bombing of Syria’s cities and his dispatching of Shabiha and Hezbollah death squads. Assad has been allowed to violate Obama’s allegedly genius chemical-weapons pact as well, dozens of times. It is the toll from Assad’s war, not ISIL’s atrocities, that is the thing to notice: perhaps seven of every eight Syrian deaths (at least a quarter of a million people so far), almost all of Syria’s seven million “internally displaced” innocents, and the overwhelming majority of the four million Syrian refugees who have fled the country.
The enormity of the Syrian catastrophe is at least partly what makes the tragedy so difficult to comprehend, but in Canada there is an added encumbrance. It is the delicate sensibilities of established opinion that require diplomacy to be privileged as an unimpeachable virtue, and further require the United Nations to be understood as the sole means by which disasters of the Syrian kind are prevented, or at least resolved.
It makes no difference that no less an authority than António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, attributes Syria’s agonies primarily to a failure of diplomacy, or that the UN’s governing Security Council is a hostage of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, or that the UN’s refugee budget is running well below the half-way mark – $5.6 billion – for Syrian refugees. Funding is already two-thirds shy of anticipated refugee costs for 2015. The World Food Program has been rolling back its refugee food allowances year after year, and in the coming weeks more than 200,000 of the most desperate Syrian refugees are having their aid cut off entirely.
In Geneva, the International Organization for Migration reckons that about 237,000 people have set out across the Mediterranean in rickety ships headed for Europe this year, a number already exceeding last year’s total figure of 219,000. The main cohort consists of Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population on earth. Europe is now facing a refugee crisis unlike anything since the Second World War.
In a Canadian context, the only comparable event is Black September, 1847, the darkest hour of the Irish famine, when roughly 100,000 mostly Irish refugees arrived in the Saint Lawrence River in dozens of coffin ships. Roughly 17,500 Irish drowned that year, or died on board ship or in the fever sheds on the quarantine island of Gross Isle. The Syrians are the Famine Irish of 21st century.
There’s another illustrative comparison worth making. Canada has settled roughly 20,000 Iraqi refugees since 2009, and last January the Conservative government committed to taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees on top of 1,300 welcomed in 2014. Last month Stephen Harper promised that another 10,000 Syrians and Iraqis would be added to the mix. Here’s the contrast: the kinder, gentler Barack Obama administration has allowed only about 1,500 Syrian refugees to settle in the United States over the past four years.
Stephen Harper is right when he says the New Democratic Party’s approach to the Syrian catastrophe amounts to little more than “dropping aid on dead people.” The NDP is right when it points out the inordinately obtuse and incoherent accounting of just how many Syrian refugees have actually arrived in Canada. The Liberals are right, too, in their call to expedite family reunification visas, show more generosity and cooperation in private-sponsorship efforts, reduce processing times, and allow Syrians on temporary visas to extend their stays in Canada and acquire citizenship.
But what we are all doing – Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats, Americans, Canadians, and all the dominant elites of the United Nations and the NATO countries that cleave to that sophisticated indifference known in polite company as anti-interventionism – is a very straightforward thing. We are watching Syria die. We are allowing it to happen. And if you can comprehend that, you will know something of the sorrow that afflicts Faisal Alazem and all those other Syrian-Canadians these days.
Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.