[Marxism] We condemn Israel. So why the silence on Syria?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Oct 19 15:06:41 MDT 2012


We condemn Israel. So why the silence on Syria?

When Israelis kill Arabs there is outrage. But Assad's brutal campaign 
has cost 30,000 lives and there've been no protests

         Jonathan Freedland	
         The Guardian, Friday 19 October 2012 20.30 BST	

We know the government hopes to do nothing, but what about the rest of 
us? Exactly one year after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, the chances of 
another round of Libya-style western military intervention, this time 
for Syria, hover close to zero. Even the hawkish Mitt Romney promises no 
such thing. Few politicians speak even of non-military options – of 
which there are many – let alone taking up arms.

They say nothing because there is no pressure on them to say anything. 
Here and abroad, there is virtual silence, save for the desperate pleas 
of a few Syrian expats and yesterday's cry for humanitarian help from 
the Turkish foreign minister. We know the facts, and we know what Bashar 
al-Assad has done since demonstrators took to the streets to protest 
against his rule 19 months ago. He and his forces have pursued a 
campaign of the most chilling brutality, using fighter planes to bomb 
civilian neighbourhoods, capturing, starving and torturing children as 
young as six, according to Save the Children, and racking up an 
estimated death toll of 30,000 victims.

People know all this but stay mute. Not that they should be demanding 
immediate military action. After Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, people are 
justifiably both weary and wary, with many regarding action in Syria as 
a practical impossibility. I understand that. But what I can't 
comprehend is the lack of public pressure on those doing the actual 
killing – starting with the Assad regime. Instead, public opinion seems 
utterly disengaged, unbothered by the slaughter under way in Aleppo, 
Homs and Damascus.

There are no mass demonstrations outside the Syrian embassy in London. 
The story is rarely on the front page or on the TV bulletins. Even when 
there is a shocking atrocity, such as the Daraya massacre of up to 400 
people in August, it makes only a fleeting impact. There is no Disaster 
Emergency Committee appeal. At the Labour party conference, there were 
fringe meetings on every possible subject, from teenage spending habits 
to domestic pets. But there was not a single session focused solely on 
Syria – and this in the party that calls itself internationalist.

It's not as if this is par for the course, that we never get exercised 
by the loss of innocent life in the Middle East. We do. Nearly four 
years ago Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, designed to halt Hamas 
rocket fire from Gaza. It resulted in some 1,400 Palestinian deaths. For 
nearly a month that story was never off the front page, and it often led 
the TV news, here and around the world. There were large and loud public 
demonstrations. The DEC set up a fund and sought to air a televised 
appeal, famously refused by the BBC.

There is no such clamour now. The Stop the War Coalition is not 
summoning thousands to central London to demand an end to the fighting, 
as it did then. On the contrary, its statements are content simply to 
oppose western intervention – of which there is next to no prospect – 
while politely refusing to condemn Assad's war on his own people. Caryl 
Churchill has not written a new play, Seven Syrian Children, exploring 
the curious mindset of the Alawite people that makes them capable of 
such horrors, the way she rushed to the stage to probe the Jewish psyche 
in 2009. The slaughter in Syria has similarly failed to move the poet 
Tom Paulin to pick up his pen. Apparently, these Syrian deaths are not 
worthy of artistic note. The contrast has struck Robert Fisk, no 
defender of Israel. He puts it baldly: "[T]he message that goes out is 
simple: we demand justice and the right to life for Arabs if they are 
butchered by the west and its Israeli allies, but not when they are 
being butchered by their fellow Arabs."

Plenty resist that explanation. Some say the lethargy of both the public 
and anti-war left is due to the fact that Syria is now locked in a civil 
conflict, making it hard to tell good guys from bad guys. Yet NGOs were 
swamped with cash donations during the Kosovo crisis: the public did not 
write that off as a mere internal Balkan problem. Besides, though it's a 
civil war now, with both sides armed, for several months it was much 
more straightforward: peaceful demonstrators killed in cold blood. Yet 
few rallied to the Syrian people's cause then either.

Others wonder if Gaza in 2008-9 stirred greater outrage because it was 
such an intense episode, unfolding in a matter of weeks, while Syria has 
been a drip-drip horror story played out over nearly two years. But this 
hardly stacks up. Awful to speak in such terms, but the killing rate has 
been more, not less, intense in Syria: witness that massacre of 400 in a 
single day.

Anxious for answers, I called Lindsey German of Stop the War, who told 
me the organisation was not active on Syria because that "isn't Stop the 
War's job". Its focus is on what "Britain and the US are doing". Why, 
then, was it so vocal on Gaza? Because the west "was very much in 
support of the Israelis, so it was very different". (In fact, Britain 
did not support Operation Cast Lead but called for a ceasefire.) She 
adds that the Palestinian question "has its own dynamic, which isn't 
true of any other country".

The trouble is, such thinking surely leads to a very parochial form of 
internationalism – turning a blind eye to all those areas of the globe 
where one's own government is not involved. And that's if such a rule 
were applied consistently – which it is not.

The last argument is a variation on the civil war one: Syria is now 
mired in a viciously sectarian conflict, Alawites and their allies 
against Sunnis and the rest, which makes it impossible for outsiders to 
take sides. But such logic rapidly falls into the moral hole identified 
by Fisk, in which a Muslim death matters less when the killer is a 
fellow Muslim.

Of course we reserve a special kind of outrage for the targeting of one 
ethnic group by another. Yet there is a risk here. It's not simply a 
bias against Jews that regards an Arab or Muslim death as only deserving 
condemnation when Israel is responsible. It is demeaning of Arabs and 
Muslims themselves – implying that when members of those groups kill 
each other it somehow carries little moral weight. Such a view is not 
defensible, especially among those who would consider themselves to be 
enlightened or progressive. Every life has equal worth, no matter who's 
doing the dying – or who's doing the killing.

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