Sunday, November 17, 2013

Typhoon Assad and Western indifference

You can sympathize with Syrians looking longingly at the extended coverage in Western media of the humanitarian catastrophe in the Philippines caused by Typhoon Haiyan. When it comes to Syria, no such concern is evident. There is an assumption that saving the Syrian people from their regime only means reinforcing Al-Qaeda.

Recently, a Lebanese friend in Paris told me how he had participated in a roundtable on Syria at which Americans and Europeans were present. He defended the uprising against President Bashar Assad, but his audience was in a very different frame of mind. Their questions and comments, he recalled, showed they associated all the opposition with extreme jihadism. He eventually could take no more and, his voice rising, reminded his listeners that an innocent population was suffering, regardless of Al-Qaeda.

Credit Assad with reading quite well the Western mindset. He pushed the Al-Qaeda button from the outbreak of the revolt against his rule, and very soon Western publics believed that Assad was a brave secularist resisting a return to the dark ages. That this was the same man who headed the most sectarian of regimes, whose army and intelligence services performed with such unspeakable sectarian barbarity that they provoked a sectarian response from their victims, was lost on most people in the West.

Assad understood that one front in his war had to be fought over Western public opinion. This would determine the reaction of the U.S. and European governments, whose armies could destroy his. He repressed the early peaceful protests in blood, producing a military response from the opposition. Once the uprising became militarized, Assad grasped, it would quickly become more radicalized. This would do two things: it would confirm his claim that his regime was fighting armed Islamists; and it would spread panic among his Alawite brethren and other minorities, guaranteeing their continued solidarity with the regime.

Not surprisingly, on the ground the regime has also given a wide berth to the most extreme jihadist groups, letting them gain ground and sowing dissension among rebels. Western publics, little concerned by the details and utterly credulous when it comes to the media’s jihadist focus, has swallowed the Assad version hook, line and sinker.

This has been compounded by the peerless incompetence of the Syrian opposition. Whether it is the leaders in exile or those on the ground inside Syria, they never appreciated how much the narrative matters. Rather than concentrating on unifying their fragmented ranks and speaking with one message and voice to the outside world, they have been caught up in internecine disputes, with each political and armed group pursuing a parochial agenda.

But not everything can be blamed on the opposition. The images from Syria have shown a far more complex picture. Not a day seems to go by without new images of civilians, many of them children, killed or injured in government bombardments or retaliation by the regime’s thugs. One can become inured to violence after a while, but something is profoundly wrong when this sense of hopelessness is transformed into indifference of the kind that greeted the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons last August. In opinion polls, majorities in the West opposed punitive military action by their governments, even if the regime had used chemical weapons.

When societies cannot be bothered by mass murder occurring elsewhere, then a perilous threshold has been crossed. Americans and Europeans are not obliged to empathize with Syrians, but somehow when room is left only to debate the economy, health insurance, and gay marriage, it doesn’t say much about a society’s commitment to its stated humanitarian values. One cannot in the same breath loudly lament the killing of some 3,000 civilians on Sept. 11, 2001, and yet say that nothing can be done at all about a regime responsible for the death of an estimated 36 times that number since 2011.

Young Americans and Europeans are brought up on the memory of the Holocaust, particularly the complicity of many societies in Europe with the slaughter of Jews during World War II. One theme that keeps coming back is how blameworthy were those who preferred to look the other way on the crimes that were being perpetuated.

Even if the Syrian situation is different, there has been an underlying self-centeredness in Western societies to avoid facing the humanitarian outrage in Syria, and this has led to a hardness when considering the situation. As my friend said to his audience, Al-Qaeda or no Al-Qaeda, suffering is suffering. To justify one’s lack of concern on the grounds that one fears the jihadists is no more than a convenient means to assuage an uneasy conscience.

Who would be surprised if one day this attitude in the West pushes embittered young Syrians to strike back through violence. That’s not to say that they would be justified, but one can anticipate their anger. When Western societies portray themselves as paragons of virtue, against reality, they engage in the highest form of hypocrisy.

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