(This editorial first appeared in the December issue of the Anglican Journal.)
“What would make you care about Aleppo?” A CNN article carried this headline on its website in October, at the height of the Syrian and Russian military assault on east Aleppo, where about 275,000 civilians were trapped inside rebel-held parts of the city.
The article then posed a series of questions, each buttressed with haunting photographs, videos, stories and statistics- compelling proof, if you will, about why you should care about the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo and other parts of Syria. “Would the pictures make you care? Would the numbers make you care? Would the stories make you care? Would the frustration make you care? What more will it take?”
Most of us would have seen those images and heard the grim statistics, but decided the conflict too overwhelming for words and action. Others will say they’ve done their part by welcoming Syrian refugees into their communities and giving donations for relief efforts. Indeed, many of these efforts were triggered by the image last year of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish shore as he and his family tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of finding safety.
But the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War isn’t over. There have been many more Alan Kurdis, the death toll is mounting and the ruthless attack on the civilian population by the Syrian government, and its allies Russia and Iran, is unrelenting. The war, which began in March 2011, is nearly in its sixth year.
In 2014, unable to get safe access to Syria, the UN stopped independently counting the number of deaths, which stood then at 250,000. The war has now killed more than 470,000 people, injured 1.8 million others and displaced half the country’s population of 21.8 million, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research. About five million Syrian refugees are living in neighbouring countries and beyond, including Canada; about 6.6 million are internally displaced. According to the Canadian Red Cross, half of the remaining population is now dependent on relief agencies for food, household items and health services-a challenge, since even those who are delivering aid are being targeted by airstrikes.
And yet, where is the world’s outrage for Syria?
On Feb. 15, 2003, an estimated 15-30 million people from 800 cities and 75 countries around the world took part in a co-ordinated day of protests to oppose the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It was, by some accounts, the largest anti-war rally in his- tory. It didn’t stop the war, but it still meant something. The U.S. and its allies lost in the court of public opinion; years later, many leaders acknowledged that the war had been a mistake. The unprecedented action sent a powerful message to governments that they were going to war without their citizens’ consent, hence the rallying cry: “Not in My Name.” Its impact was immediately felt in countries like Canada (where 250,000 people marched in Montreal alone), which decided not to join U.S. President George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing.” Equally important, it established solidarity with ordinary Iraqis who became victims of the ensuing violence.
In contrast, the international response to Syria has been muted, to say the least.
We do not minimize what churches, NGOs and some governments have been doing to offer prayers, host refugees, provide vital humanitarian relief and press for a negotiated political solution to the problem.
But it is troubling that what passes for a global mass action is Netizens using the Twitter hashtag #PrayforSyria each time a child gets killed in the airstrikes.
There is no doubt that the situation in Syria is complicated. There are too many players involved. The U.N. and some world leaders have been trying to negotiate a political solution and the European Union has imposed sanctions on top Syrian officials, all to no avail. Western powers, including the U.S., acknowledge there is “no appetite” for a military intervention, and with reason. Putting the U.S. in direct confrontation with its Cold War rival Russia will only exacerbate the situation.
Many of the world’s political and religious leaders believe the only viable option is for Syrian President Bashir al-Assad to go, and for Russia and Iran to stop prop- ping up his regime. A coalition government could then be set up to rebuild the nation and address threats to its national security, in particular, ISIS. “His [Assad’s] stepping aside would be the most heroic thing to do in his life and the best decision he’d ever taken,” said Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
Assad, however, is digging in his heels. The citizens of the world need to send Assad and his allies a strong but peaceful message that he has to go and the carnage has to end. There’s no guarantee it will work. But we will all have failed Syria if we do nothing.