Stuck in the Middle with You: Hubris’ Cost on Humanity in Syria

“Call him a Shakespearean tragic hero, like Macbeth. Macbeth didn’t really want to kill anyone at first, but once he started there was no turning back.”

[Nabeel Khour, Chicago Council on Global Affairs Fellow formerly involved in Syria policy as a senior State Department Official, referring to President Bashar al Assad.]
By H. Murdock, VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By H. Murdock, VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Amidst the daily brunt of violence, international politics, and insurgent clashes born by Syrian citizens over the course of nearly three years of civil warfare, it appears that the international community has defaulted to supreme levels of procrastination and game playing like never before.

The situation has only digressed in the most obvious of fashions as vile activities lie beyond notice. In referring to our blog’s recent coverage of the tit-for-tat geopolitics and controversial drama surrounding Iran’s contingent invitation to come to Switzerland for the Geneva II peace talks, many have missed some real newsworthy gems (namely, this happened).

Though not singularly one hundred percent culpable, what is happening, or rather not happening, is simply an expression of the international community’s misguided commitment to addressing mass atrocities. Furthermore, And while the Iran v. United Nation’s permanent five clique of ‘frenemies’ debacle is a real embarrassment for the powerful participants orchestrating Geneva II, it is their flagrant disregard to the impending humanitarian monstrosities that inflame it’s critics (the Syrian National Coalition and the various moderate oppositionist groups among them).

Since this past July the death toll associated with the unending conflict surpassed six figures. Commencing in 2014 the war entered its’ thirty fourth month of ongoing violence. Despite the UNHCR’s pronouncement that the refugee crisis ranks the worst in a generation, with more than 2.4 million having fled the country and another 6.5 million internally displaced, the U.N. announced that it had decided to stop counting casualties in Syria. Apparently, numbers past 100,000 are simply not worth the effort of quantifying. It is relevant to note that their calculations must also justify lack of access on the ground and their ability to verify data source material. It’s not hard to empathize with the monotony of challenges faced by those operating on behalf of peace and humanitarianism on the ground; terror linked entities are infiltrating the opposition, insurgent rebel groups are fighting one another, government forces are using siege as a weapon, and civilians get caught in the middle. But perhaps they’ve got other things on their mind and, thus, are comfortable in chalking non-combatant deaths up as ‘collateral damage’ in their grand trajectory for approaching the current impasse of negotiations. With that then, we have lost all together the sacred notion of a ‘civilian’.

Unfortunately, and as it always seems, things can only get worse before they improve. As if by fate though, the light at the end of the tunnel may have appeared in the form of a tripartite of international lawyers bent on undermining the regime’s cuckold over the failed diplomacy between Assad and the West. Through the publication of an official inquiry report we now have insight into the credibility of certain evidence with regard to torture and execution of persons incarcerated by the current Syrian regime. Such ornate legal jargon is based on the official circulation of an arsenal of evidence in the form of photographs and files regarding the execution and torture of Syrian detainees recently smuggled out of the country by a deflected military policeman.

Based out of a London firm and compiled by three former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, the experts say that the incriminating evidence provided is detailed on a much more wide reaching scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the three year long conflict. They go as far to implicate the Bashar regime for the “large scale, industrial sized, and systematic killing of detainees”. With that, and pending international acknowledgement and recognition, there is now clear evidence capable of bringing key players to a tribunal for the systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government. The evidence supports further findings that the current Syrian regime could be prosecuted in a court of international law like the ICC or an ad hoc court such as the ICTY for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

This is huge and unprecedented if we consider the stagnant impasse of previous attempts at resolution. Still though, even in today’s age of information overload, the stories that will cover newspapers, flash across evening news briefs, and clog Twitter feeds are not often the atrocious images that we do not want to see. By and large, they are the juicy ones and those that elicit the controversy. The media-worthy spate between US backed coalition forces, Iranian delegates, and other important UN power players garners influence over media consumers. Al-Qaeda-linked insurgency infiltrating the opposition and spreading terror across the region facilitates the reactionary feedback which media pundits need in order to advocate on behalf of their domestic and individual political platforms before addressing broader ethical and moral commitments for protecting non-combatants in war.

Not ironically, after evidence of chemical gas attacks surfaced this past summer, similar arguments were made in terms of “thresholds“ and “red lines“ for humanitarian crisis… but then they weren’t. The inquiry report is prolific but it has yet to have the same viral effect as the bombastic image of 1,400 people, and specifically the visible suffering of children, who were being gassed by the nerve agent sarin in an attack on the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus on the morning of 21 August.

Just maybe, for the first time across the innumerable atrocities that have occurred throughout the course of the conflict, and coinciding with the buildup of catty indecisive tensions encircling Geneva II, the release of the inquiry report will finally engage the international community to consider the option to fully utilize the International Humanitarian Law frameworks available to them—apparatuses whose sole function is to be employed in such capacities. If an armistice remains concurrently out of reach for Geneva II conference, at minimum we must concur to restore basic humanity to the conduct of war: addressing the situation of Syrian civilians trapped by the fighting is a step.

In a comment to Buzzfeed, Nabeel Khoury, a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, alluded to the element of tragic heroism in citing the Shakespearean quality of the Assad regime’s tactics (as referenced above).  I take it one step further by stressing that, to date, and as a global community of international partners, our feeble attempts to meaningfully address the broken lives of Syrians does not expunge us of the tragedy inherent in our kind of gallantry.  Whether consciously choosing to or otherwise, the implicit failure to actively acknowledge the issues of utmost pertinence—human dignity —is an un-absolved default of responsibility.

This all raises the questions pertaining to what the right kind of action should be. To some degree, as bystanders to atrocities we have an ethical commitment yet our complacent stratagem from the beginning has been no more morally superior than that of the regime’s head orchestrators. The Khoury quote blemishes the Assad regime as “Macbeth-like” and enamored by authority yet, in their superfluous commitment to political dominance, the international community plays Lady Macbeth; obsessively infuriated and repeatedly incapable of washing the blood spots from their own hands. In order to offer concrete alternatives, it is imperative of the participants at Geneva II to set aside politics, economies, and ancient grudges. Now, more than ever, if they see themselves in any position to positively affect sustainable transformation in this conflict, Syrian civilians, combatants or otherwise, need to be offered the opportunity to reclaim their right to human dignity. This means bringing to the table those otherwise unsavory patrons and engaging them in narrating their sentiment. It means returning the power to Syrians to act on behalf of their own capability to settle disputes of their own accord. It means practicing restraint from once again capturing from the rightful their authority to determine a peaceful future for the sake of power and authority in the hands of the international barons of peace and development.

About Shayna

Shayna is a second year graduate student of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University’s School of International Service concentrating in youth participatory roles in peacebuildng and development. She completed a B.A. in International Relations at the American University of Rome in 2011. Her professional and academic publishing interests focus on thematic issues related to ethnography, youth based grassroots social movements, conflict narratives and identity formation, mechanisms of civic engagement, social inequalities, and structural violence. Her travel and fieldwork experiences have brought her across several countries in the MENA region, the Middle East, Africa, Southern Europe, the Balkans, Haiti, and the US.
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