Friday, November 21, 2014

Forsaken Syria

MADRID – In this year of ubiquitous commemorations, the centennial of Jan Karski’s birth has been largely overlooked. And yet Karski’s legacy is more important than ever – nowhere more so than in Syria. As the Geneva II peace process slogs along – leaving cadavers and atrocities to pile up – Karski’s dedication to bringing the plight of Poland’s Jews to the world’s attention during World War II, despite the inertia of governments and publics, embodies exactly what Syria desperately needs.

In 1942, Karski, a Polish-born diplomat, traveled to the United Kingdom to report on what came to be called the Holocaust. The next year, he embarked on a mission to the United States to brief President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other dignitaries on the horrors that he had witnessed. In both cases, he was met with skepticism and apathy. Indeed, it was only toward the end of the war that action was taken to stop the slaughter.

Although the Holocaust is a category of persecution sui generis, one cannot avoid thinking of Karski in light of the international community’s approach to Syria today. Expectations for the Geneva talks are so low that trivial matters – such as the fact that President Bashar al-Assad’s negotiators and the opposition are sitting together in the same room (though not at the same table) – are being hailed as successes.

Even the agreement to allow women and children to leave blockaded areas of the city of Homs – an anti-Assad stronghold – fell far short of international mediators’ vision (and even this achievement seems to be in doubt). Instead of allowing a United Nations aid convoy to bring humanitarian aid to the area, the government agreed to release women and children on an as-yet-uncertain timeline, while men can leave only after their names had been cleared, raising fears of arrest. Meanwhile, amid plodding deliberations of incremental steps that are clearly inadequate, Syrians are being displaced, wounded, tortured, and killed in droves.

By any measure, the level of suffering in Syria is shocking. Although figures do not convey the cruelty by all sides, it has become de rigueur to cite the numbers: more than 100,000 dead, 2.3 million refugees, and four million people internally displaced.

But a year ago, the figures were already dire: 60,000 dead, 700,000 international refugees, and two million internally displaced. If there were a threshold of misery that would cause the world to say, “Enough is enough,” it surely would have been crossed by now.

The ugly truth is that the world’s response to this crisis has been shaped by geopolitical interests, not the need to put an end to appalling human suffering. Indeed, it is no secret that the conflict serves as a proxy for larger struggles – between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the US and Iran, Russia and the US, Shia and Sunni Muslims, and moderates and extremists – and that resolving it will require significant effort on all of these fronts.

From an American perspective, Syria is not strategically critical. President Barack Obama’s administration has maintained an intensely inward-looking focus, reinforced by a public wary of foreign engagements. Nothing short of a drastic change in the conflict’s nature that threatened America’s core interests would lead to direct US involvement.

Guilt, after all, is a poor motivator for international action. Even the UK and France – the only two countries that were not shy about threatening military action against Assad’s regime – got cold feet when confronted with the possibility of going it alone.

Instead, the world is responding to graphic images of unspeakable brutality – torture by the regime or executions carried out by the opposition – with sterile shows of outrage. The stream of statements, half-measures, and clumsy initiatives has done little to improve the situation – and, in some instances, has made things worse.

Consider Obama’s call, backed by no action, for Assad to “step aside,” and his repeated promises, dating to early 2012, to provide non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition – promises that were finally fulfilled late last year, and then only temporarily. This gap between rhetoric and action left a vacuum; Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and private donors subsequently filled it by channeling support to extremist elements of the opposition, strengthening their hand at the expense of those being called moderates.

But the most infamous example of this policy paralysis was Obama’s 2012 declaration that the use of chemical weapons was the “red line” beyond which the US would be forced to intervene. His ultimate failure to follow through on his proclamation emboldened and, in a way, re-legitimized Assad.

It remains to be seen whether Geneva II will follow this pattern. The price of the talks has already been high, with all sides having ramped up violence to strengthen their respective positions ahead of the negotiations. This is to say nothing of the fiasco surrounding the withdrawn invitation to Iran, whose buy-in will be essential for any resolution.

In any case, the incremental nature of the talks belies the situation’s urgency. Amid the current focus on regime change, a transitional government, and negotiating delegations, there is a real danger that the desperate humanitarian situation will be overlooked.

Here, citizens have a critical role to play. But, like their leaders, publics everywhere have been reticent to act. Indeed, opinion polls show that, despite near-universal awareness of the situation in Syria, there is very little public support for intervention. But handwringing will not help; we – individuals – must accept real responsibility for ending the tragedy and press our leaders to act.

It has been more than 70 years since Karski presented his report to the world. In that time, we have created the United Nations, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and discussed endlessly governments’ “responsibility to protect” their citizens. Yet, watching the Syrian tragedy develop, one might conclude that nothing has changed. How many times must we say, “Never again”?

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (9)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. CommentedRichard S. Stone

      I don't know anything about Karski, and sad to say I really don't care. Syria and its people (and government, such as it is) have plenty of "allies" of different sorts all around the world, and everyone knows the place is a mess and run by a mass murderer, with an army of fiends under his control. But then, the "rebels" are not much better. They kill in the name of Allah, which does't make much difference to the dead, or to me.

      The results are about as we would expect. It is no longer news.

      If all this struggle shows nothing else it is the complete failure of the Middle Eastern countries and the Arabs and rest "over there" to be able to manage their affairs, or even put together one functioning democracy. They simply cannot control these "strong men" they seem to love and the Islamic militias funded by the Saudi's and, for Assad, by the Iranians. All funded by Oil money from the West. They will fight until the last dollar from those supporters is spent. Or until those parties tell them to stop.


    2. Portrait of Ana Palacio

      CommentedAna Palacio

      Many thanks for your comments.

      J. von, this is precisely my point. In Karski’s day he risked his life to bring the story of the Holocaust to the attention of the world and its leaders. The result was delayed action. Today, as you note, due to technology, we no longer need Jan Karskis—and yet the inaction remains the same despite more than half a century of building institutions and developing principles such as the responsibility to protect.

      Temesgen, I simply cannot subscribe to such a fatalistic world view. Yes, of course there have been numerous failures, the Great Lakes and Congo foremost among them. However, is the proper response to this history of inaction more inaction? Though prolonged crises such as Syria seem to bolster the G-0 thesis, this is not a permanent condition. Leadership will reemerge. In my opinion, it will take a higher level of engagement by the citizenry.

      Edward and Zsolt, I too am hopeful that globalization will lead to greater sensitization. Unfortunately, for the time being, we remain in an era of transition, whereby we are aware of the suffering of others like never before, but interests are still calculated in a classical manner. This has led to the rhetoric and half-measures that we have seen in Syria (and which often have deleterious effects on these conflicts). I agree that the root of the problem is an insufficient focus on prevention rather than response. The key question, and one which we have struggled with for a long while, is how to motivate to care before there are compelling images of human suffering.

      As regards US leadership, or the lack thereof, there is no question that America’s reassessment of its strategic priorities has contributed to the upheaval in the region. This will have blow-back effects not just on the United States, but also here in Europe. We cannot sit idly by lamenting Washington’s inactivity. At a certain point we need to assert ourselves.

    3. CommentedPrem Swaroop

      The use of chemical weapons has been established, however, it is still unclear who did it. Was it Assad's men or did the rebels do it as a necessary sacrifice to attract the attention of USA. President Obama does have a group of advisers who would have asked him not to jump the gun like his predecessor and attract the wrath of the fundamentalists.

    4. CommentedSocially Calvin

      Ana, Syria is not forsaken by many foreign analyst. the thread has been the most active in one of the professional groups in linkedin.

      However, the issue is that, any intervention of non peaceful nature would only prolong the suffering of the people. The people seems to be agreeing for Assad to slowly massacre the "terrorist" groups within Syria. The silence is also an admission that most people has positioned with Assad rather than the other groups. To the world, Assad looks like the lesser evil now.

    5. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      I fail to see Ms Ana Palacio's analogy of Jan Karski's "legacy" and the Geneva II peace process. Karski was a Polish underground fighter during World War II and one of the first to provide accounts of the Holocaust to the world.
      He travelled first to London and then to the US to tell wartime President Franklin Roosevelt what he had witnessed. His memoirs had raised the question of whether the world could have done more to save the Jews from the Holocaust.
      In our world of social media, we don't need a Karski to inform us of crimes against humanity, committed mostly by Assad's regime forces. Unlike in Poland the brutal Nazi occupiers were held responsible for all atrocities. Of course we can ask ourselves whether we could have prevented the deaths of over 130.000 people and do more to save the grief-stricken civilians in the war-trodden Syria.
      Karski was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself the killings on a massive scale, just like moderate rebel fighters, who led secretly foreign journalists from Turkey into Syria to document the war there.

    6. Commentedtemesgen abate

      the rise and fall of the myth of ``never again``;i was imbibed of such rhetoric but the Rwandan-cum-eastern Congolese genocide debunked it.the article is even blind-sighted of such world changing event.the return of the repressed primordial chaos demands a new is a truism now that we reside in G-0 world.hence what remains is to engross ourselves in 1st century Judean-Hellenistic weltaschauung of the kingdom of God.

    7. CommentedEdward Ponderer

      Whether it is the cry of decent leaders like Ana Palacio, or the cynical rationalization of the monstrous ones like Joseph Stalin, it is the tragic reality. As Stalin is alleged to have told U.S. ambassador Averill Harriman, "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic." Tragically he understood human egoistic nature all too well. When the emotion of guilt or its opposite, or the empathetic shudder of seeing the victim as oneself for a moment is whipped up in people by media, and the focus of a single victim (preferably little girl with big sad eyes) is much a much easier focus to do this with than abstract numbers, people care to act or see support actions at least. That is, temporarily till the hype fades. Beautiful speeches will often do. Reflecting such, governments act externally on national self-interest, and internally on personal self-interest. Neither puts foreign human misery -- especially if they are the cause of it -- far from the bottom of the "To Do" list. It wouldn't even be on the list, but there is a sense of national self-esteem to deal with (i.e., the more sluggish national version of "guilt or its opposite" -- and the concern for some mercy if the worst happens to to the homeland).

      The only way the situation will change is for national and personal interest dictating the need for such change. The evolutionary pressure of globalization is doing just that.

      We see the decay of the various system of humanity over time into a complex haze of disintegration. This is a common crisis in natural systems, foreshadowing a metamorphosis like that of the caterpillar into butterfly. The critical transistion is accomplished by mutual responsibility of the members of a community, at all tiers, to reach a management of the ensuing chaos--grabbing the bull by the horns as it were, and translating chaos into distributed sense, fractal communication up and down the evolving whole, and balance/harmony-based joint control--no exclusives, and no exclusions.

      If there is some realization that survival and prosperity will only be this way, some idea that integral education is the key, then there will be a feed forward effect in Humanity--individual, communities, nations, the whole. will realize of themselves, sense what to do locally to bring about the proper balance globally.

      Then when the flesh of the victims of the crematoria and the chemicals will be as our very own, then we can truly guarantee, it will be "Never Again."

    8. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      The problem is not what we say.
      We always react after something happened.
      It is the same in health care, instead of prevention we spend billions on treatment when disease has already set in.
      Prevention is more difficult, requires much more elaborate planning and execution, and the results are not always visible immediately and at the beginning setting up a system of prevention might even look more expensive, although in the long term our "reactive" paradigm is much more expensive and harmful.
      But today when every long term planning was thrown out of the window and we are only concerned about today, or "this week", when everybody only calculates for themselves, it is impossible.
      We need to set up a human system where such atrocities the article talks about simple do not happen, where we are pro-active, anticipating, looking at the system as a whole, plan for long term, and create such positively motivated mutual responsibility all around the globe that excludes even the remote chances of conflicts, wars, destruction.
      As with every preventive measure the key is education, a global and integral education, since today we exist in a global and integral world.
      And this should also give us the motivation, as in this global, integral, fully interdependent system there are no local or regional problems, but every fire, tsunami, financial or economical meltdown, environmental catastrophe, mass scale plague can bury all of us without distinction within a short space of time.
      We have to enter a completely new, round, systematic, integral, "quantum" mindset.
      There are no individuals, cities, nations or even continents any more, there exists only a single, intermingled and irreversibly united human organism.
      And we have to learn to to exist accordingly.