ON SYRIA         2/3/12

Listeners know that occasionally we ask questions to which there are no good answers. Sometimes we even ask questions which might be considered not only naïve but somehow unreasonable.


For months now we have watched in wonder as the world has not watched in wonder or concern the daily death toll mount in Syria. Oh, to be sure, internationally there is a lot of hand-wringing. Summits are held; observers from the African Union arrive; threats are made; sanctions discussed.

But Mr. Assad bends not, neither does he speak.

So here’s our question, informed of course by the fact that we are not privy to all the information surrounding this continuing massacre.

What, pray, is the difference between being sympathetic to the Arab Spring in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya and Yemen, and being oblivious it seems of what is happening in Syria? Are not the body counts higher in Syria? Are not the rebels better armed? Is Assad only planning to last so long and then decamp with satchels full of unearned loot?

Yes, we know, it’s true, we sound like the dampest of bleeding hearts. But if the entire world watched horrified as camel drivers and horseback cavalry moved into Tahrir Square to cut down Egypt’s youth, what keeps us from feeling the same horror as we watch Assad’s troops bombing and strafing tiny villages and towns, as well as larger, commercial havens?

This is not an abstract question.

Here are some possible answers, many of them patently ridiculous.

Assad has only been dictator for a few years compared with Qaddafi and Mubarak. Oil seems less paramount to Syria than to Libya. There is a large middle class in Syria who supports Assad. Syria has repeatedly announced that whatever its problems, they are not to be solved by international forces.

Then there is the question of Iran’s alleged involvement, militarily and monetarily. If the international community were to mount a combined force as it did over Libya, would Iran feel threatened enough to react with a gesture that could only be called an act of war?

Is it the international hope, as well as Mr. Assad’s, that the killing will continue until there are no more militants ranged against him? That way, the problem disappears completely, and those who have been killed forgotten as quickly as yesterday’s bout of stomach flu.

We wonder about all this for one reason only: the numbers of people killed by their own leader is enormous. More, we are told, than 5400 in a few months. Do we respond only to pictures of starving Ethiopian children? And what is the cut off age for our sympathy? Children below five are worth somehow more grief than a child crossing a street at age nine? Where is our reputed humanity, our concern for the down-trodden, our belief in democracy?

Please note we did not say our concern for regime change. Mr. Assad can make substantive changes in his government faster than the speed of light, if he wanted. That’s what dictators can do.

But what can the international community, including the United States, do? And why isn’t it being done?

Are Syrians less human than Libyans? At what point does the United States begin to organize, as it did over Libya, a unified approach to this gigantic slaughter which, miraculously in this day and age, required very little from our country because France and England picked up the cudgels and took more responsibility than we were willing to take?

Here, too, may be a moderately good reason why no action is taken. France in particular is suffering financially. Its enthusiasm and derring-do that helped make a point about the country not being weak may have evaporated. Mr. Sarkozy is facing elections soon. Is he timid in the face of his voters’ opposition to spending on a humanitarian mission that is also a military mission?

Perhaps international intellectuals have decided that Syria’s role in the Middle East has always been far less important than Egypt’s. There’s less to save there, for the sake of civilization and history.

And where is Israel is all this? Standing silently by, hoping against hope that Syria will implode and therefore be unable any longer to call for its destruction? Be unable any longer to look down at its fertile countryside from the Golan Heights and make threats?

And what of moderate Jordan and its king? By standing by as thousands are murdered, does Jordan imagine an easing of immigrant hordes ruining its economy? (And are the thousands of Iraqis who fled into Syria when the US and its allies occupied their country caught in the cross-fire?)

Where, we ask, is the natural revulsion against violence that causes us here in this country to make heroes of its survivors?

We remember of course that it took four years in Bosnia for the cavalry to ride to its rescue, and this killing has gone on only a few months. Is there a time-limit here of which we are unaware?

We know that the US often has fought proxy wars, as in backing the Afghanistanis against Russia in the eighties. And we know regret for that, as those weapons are so often now turned against us in that country.

But if Iran is arming Assad’s regime, shouldn’t someone in Europe or here in this hemisphere or even in Africa be arming the alleged rebels?

Are we to stand by silently at this time, forget about events in the future, because Syria’s powers that be have simply cordoned off the entire nation?

What IS the role of the social networking explosion? Why aren’t pictures transmitted daily from Damascus receiving the same outrage and sympathy as those from Tunisia or Egypt?

Are we put off because Egypt has not yet fully entered the democratic ranks? Or because Iraq may be on the verge of civil war after we have left? Or because Afghanistan looks, at a distance, exactly like Iraq now?

Which leads us to an ultimate question. What in the American character, as developed for more than two hundred years, makes us want to help save the lives of people who are defenseless? Is this something we should throw overboard because our own ship is leaking financially?

In temperate terms, what in Sam Hill is happening to the world?

Where are its poles of right and wrong? Where is what some people would call old-fashioned morality?

I’m John Neufeld


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