The image of Aylan Kurdi exposes the horror, but will anything change?
The image of the lifeless body of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a beach has caused an international outcry, but will it change anything?
The jarring images of the body of the three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on the shores of Bodrum is the latest tragedy revealed from Syria. But irrespective of the horror it exposes, the hashtags and condemnations that have followed this death, similar to the 200,000 before, will not trigger action to end Syria’s suffering for the simple fact that Syrian lives don’t matter to those who can save them.
The Syrian toddler identified as Aylan Kurdi was dressed in his best outfit. His red shirt, navy blue shorts and tiny velcro sneakers were meant to ease his passage to a better world. A world with no barrel bombs, tyrants, or butchers suffocating the future of a generation of Syrians. His family took to the sea to flee to Europe where perhaps they can be resettled as refugees, and they can have the basic right of living.
The death of Aylan Kurdi, those before him in Douma, Homs, Daraa, Aleppo and across Syria have not mattered enough for the international community to act and put an end to Syria’s tragic sequel. Those lives did not matter in 2011 when they were shot at by the Assad regime, nor in 2012 when Jihadists started infiltrating the Syrian rebels. They also did not matter in 2013 when the Assad regime used chemical weapons in Ghouta, nor in 2014 with the reemergence of ISIS. For four long years, Syria has been a geopolitical chess game at the United Nations Security Council, where Russia exercises the veto to embarrass the United States, and where four General Assembly meetings have failed to even address the refugee population.
Statements of condemnation are little consolation for Syrian families digging up their toddlers from the rubble in Douma and refugees stranded by Europe’s barbed wire fencesJoyce Karam
Four million refugees and a quarter of a million deaths later, the debate on the global stage is only about adjusting, containing and pulling some internal strings in Syria. The fragmentation of the country, the death of a nation and its people are not significant enough for the international community to act and stop the suffering. Beyond counterterrorism strategies and convenient promises of a political settlement, the deaths of Syrians has become just another headline that we look over and condemn casually.
Perhaps the late Fouad Ajami was right in 2012, saying on CNN that Syria’s curse is in having “only olive oil” (and not oil refineries). Ajami was contrasting the case of Syria with Kuwait, Iraq and Libya, the three rich oil countries where the U.S. intervened in 1990, 2003 and 2011. For the Obama administration in particular, Syria was never anything more than a “long war of attrition” as one former U.S. official told me countlessly, and that will sort itself out while the humanitarian catastrophe continues.
Counterterrorism has morphed as the central part of the U.S. strategy in Syria. The U.S. priority is for bombing ISIS from air, or through a new secret campaign of drones, and to arm the rebels who can exclusively battle the extremist group. All of this while navigating the corridors of the proxy war and balancing Turkish, Russian, Iranian and Arab interests. For Moscow, Syria has been an opportunity to challenge the U.S. by supporting Assad and vetoing any U.N. resolutions that threaten his power, and most recently ramping up its presence in places like Tartous and Latakia.
Early in the conflict, former U.S. officials such as Anne Marie Slaughter and Frederick Hof spoke in favor of establishing a no fly zone in Syria in 2012 for humanitarian purposes, before ISIS and the designation of Jabhat Nusra. Their voices, however, were drowned out inside the administration in favor of a hands off approach. In 2012 as well and according to regional diplomats, Turkey and key Arab allies including Jordan, UAE and Saudi Arabia relayed directly to the White House their concern that doing nothing in Syria would exacerbate the humanitarian catastrophe and help the surge of the extremists. The U.S. drag its feet, and three years later, the Syrian tragedy is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The international community, beyond the official condemnations, and the hashtag campaigns has nearly adjusted to the suffering in Syria. Whether ISIS destroys the Palmyra temple, rapes and enslaves women, minorities and children, or whether Assad will commit another massacre, the political calculus on Syrian lives has not changed. Instead, the UNSC would call for an emergency meeting, Russia would reiterate its intention to reach a political solution, the Arab league would promise more aid and Iran would condemn the Takfiris. But when it comes to tangible steps to save lives and end the tragedy, the Syrian policy debate sounds more like a reverberating echo chamber.
Statements of condemnation are little consolation for Syrian families digging up their toddlers from the rubble in Douma and refugees stranded by Europe’s barbed wire fences. At least with Aylan Kurdi, the media has a name and an image to magnify, while thousands others who died in Syria remain anonymous.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam