During the Siege of Sarajevo in 1994, when a Bosnian Serb mortar shell landed in a marketplace, killing 68 and wounding 144, US president Bill Clinton, who had campaigned on a promise of “never again” to genocide, threw up his arms. “Until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen,” he said.
Two decades later, confronted with indiscriminate bombings in Aleppo and a starvation siege in Madaya, Barack Obama waxed similarly fatalistic. “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation”; this, he said, was “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”
There are no conflicts in the Middle East that date back millennia. The conflict in Syria is just over five years old. Nothing about it is fixed. In its scope and its intensity, in its balance of forces and its cast of characters, the conflict has constantly evolved. The only thing that has remained static, however, is the international response.
In speaking of the horrors unfolding in Syria, it is hard not to get a sense of déjà vu. Everything that can be said about Aleppo has already been said about Homs, Houla, Daraya, Douma. But with each new execration comes a growing sense that, for all the obtrusive violence, for all the pleas and revelations, we are plunging into the deep, smothered by apathy, abandoned by hope.
Syria today is a free fire zone with no check on criminality. The red line that Barack Obama set was blithely crossed. It proved to be a Pavolvian exercise in reverse. In having his bluff called, the constitutionally weak president was himself zapped. Never eager for action in Syria, he has become fearful of setting new limits lest their violation further expose his pusillanimity.
Obama betrayed the people of Syria twice over. First by drawing a line on chemical weapons, at a time when most Syrians were being killed by conventional means; and then by failing to enforce it, giving Assad an unconditional license to kill by all means, including chemical weapons.
For the US, there is no categorical imperative against genocide. “Never again” is retrospective grandstanding. It is easy to take unequivocal positions when the political questions have been settled and there is no price to pay. The US has rarely acted to prevent atrocities in the present and, to the extent that it has, it has been guided entirely by political imperatives.
No one has ever suffered for denouncing the Nazi holocaust. But at the time of the holocaust, few acted to stop it. Leaders then were speaking about political interests, resource limits, and military priorities—same as today. “Never again” they said only afterwards.
Then came Rwanda. “Never again!” Then Srebrenica. “Never again!”
In 1995, when the US finally acted in Bosnia, the conflict was no worse than it had been a year before. But it was an election year and by flexing military muscle, Bill Clinton was able to erase the impression of weakness. Cynical motives notwithstanding, the action put an end to four years of “bad things” even though “those folks…over there” hadn’t yet “tired of killing each other”.
Barack Obama is on his way out. He has nothing to gain politically from confronting Assad. And morally—well, he is “proud of this moment” when he abandoned Syrians to Assad’s inexhaustible appetite for killing. Nearly three times as many people were killed in the two years after Obama’s embarrassing climb-down than had died in the two years before—by “ancient hatreds,” he might say.
Obama has meanwhile taken to encouraging “negotiations” and proclaiming that there is “no military solution” to the conflict. Assad, Putin, and Qassem Soleimani disagree. For them the negotiations are a temporising measures while proceeding with their conquest. But when the Syrian opposition protests against this farce, it is they who get painted as intransigents.
The US is no mere bystander. As in Bosnia, it has actively blocked the transfer of much needed anti-aircraft capacity to Syrian rebels, allowing the regime and Russia to bomb with impunity. And by accepting Russia’s “war on terror” rationale, it has made itself complicit in its crimes. Indeed, the US legitimized Russia and the regime’s ferocious aerial assault when its military spokesman alleged that “It’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo, and of course, al-Nusra is not part of the cessation of hostilities.” (Nusra has a small presence in the city but it certainly doesn’t “hold Aleppo”).
But if the US hasn’t fared well in Syria, neither has the UN.
In 2005, with much fanfare, the UN had introduced the doctrine of “right to protect” (R2P), codifying “never again” into a norm of international conduct. Its timely application in Syria might have saved hundreds of thousand lives. But even as the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon was acknowledging the “shame” of its failure in Rwanda and Srebrenica, the UN was giving cover to the regime’s starvation sieges across Syria, censoring its documents, and obfuscating responsibility with the anodyne language of “both sides”.
But as the Italian writer Primo Levi, a holocaust survivor, noted: “to confuse [perpetrators] with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.”
The negators of truth are myriad. Not just governments, but also people—and above all media institutions (especially the London Review of Books and Democracy Now!, two institutions that have tried to systematically subvert truth).
Levi had observed in 1974 that “every age has its own fascism” and they are enforced “not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned.”
Where once “no justice, no peace” was considered a truism, demands for justice are now deemed a threat to “stability”. Peace without justice is the nostalgia the negators of truth hanker after. Preserving truth is therefore the first step toward confronting fascism. But truth alone will not change the imbalance of forces.
In international politics, the power of knowledge is trumped by the knowledge of power. Negotiations without leverage are doomed to fail.
It is by now clear that no power will intervene to aid the Syrian people. But regional powers, unlike the US, will not be shielded from the consequences of a regime victory. In the form of the “refugee crisis”, Europe is already feeling the repercussions. It is time for regional powers to step up and provide vetted rebel groups with MANPADS. Only by revoking the regime’s aerial capacity can it be induced to negotiate in good faith.
R2P and “never again” were false hopes. The new moral order that was struggling to come forth is now dead. But that is no reason to let the monsters reign. People have a right to defend themselves; let’s give them the means.
– A version of this article first appeared at The New Arab.