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