The Syrian people have become invisible

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

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Over the past week, the conflict in Syria has flared up again with the usual ferocity: hundreds of needless civilian deaths, new starvation sieges in so-called “de-escalation zones” as well as the systematic targeting of hospital and other humanitarian targets, reports of renewed chemical attacks, all on the back of another farcical round of diplomatic “negotiations”.

As if that was not enough, Israel is now becoming active in the conflict, with direct clashes between Israeli assets and Iranian and Syrian assets as far north as the environs of Damascus, and we have seen emerging reports that as many as 200 Russian-nationals mercenaries have been killed by American airstrikes.

Just as we thought the conflict was winding down in the wake of the collapse of ISIS in the east of the country, while the small number of rebel areas seemed on their last legs, things now look as perilous as they ever have. Syria and Russia have repeated the past mistakes of the US and the West: instead of suing for peace when they had a clear upper-hand, they have pushed for complete victory, and have encountered insurmountable resistance. At this point, it is difficult to imagine how either side of this conflict is not already completely exhausted, but here they all are, fighting as intensely as ever.

An extremely precarious existence

In all this mess, it is hard to believe that there are still civilians left in Syria to bomb and to poison with chemical weapons, but there may be as many as 13 million people who continue to seek out an extremely precarious existence in the shadow of constant airstrikes from all sides. And these 13 million people have all but disappeared from the international discourse.

The utter failure of the international community in their responsibilities towards the Syrian people have become a given fact of life in the early 21st Century.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

In a sense, this was to be expected. The utter failure of the international community in their responsibilities towards the Syrian people have become a given fact of life in the early 21st Century. It is also something that Western leaders might not necessarily want to attract to much attention to, given the heavy responsibility they bear for their repeated failures to intervene in Syria on humanitarian grounds: most infamously when the Obama administration has failed to enforce the chemical weapons red line.

But the most notable failure is perhaps that of the media. Perhaps they feel that the atrocity that is Syria has become too banal to give it the ongoing coverage the humanitarian situation deserves, or perhaps they judge that the public has developed some kind of chronic fatigue of hearing about the never-ending suffering of people like themselves. It used to be that “if it bleeds it leads”, but it is not beyond conceivable that news editors are on to something: do we even have the emotional bandwidth to process the ongoing carnage, when there are so many similar humanitarian disasters going on elsewhere, like in Myanmar, or in Yemen, or in the Sahel?

But those 13 million people are another wave of refugees waiting to happen. If the fewer than 2 million people who have made it to Europe from Syria and other conflict zones have managed to produce the political upheaval on the Old Continent that they have already, imagine what another million or two might mean for the political future of the West.

The conflict is Syria concerns us directly. Whether we want to admit it or not. Whether we have the emotional energy to engage with its seriousness or not. It is not just the Syrian people who will suffer the consequences of our moral indolence. Sooner or later, we too will reap the consequences. The Syrian people may remain invisible for now. But the consequences of another migration crisis out of Syria will become painfully visible, and sooner than we might expect.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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