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The War on Syria: Look Away or Wield the Sword


3-D virtual reality footage of the city of Aleppo, Syria released by Ryot, 2015. Photo: CHRISTIAN STEPHEN / RYOT VIA AP

Text by Jon Rich

In her speech at the Security Council, Samantha Power stressed that those who committed all the atrocities in Syria will be held accountable. That those responsible for the massacre in Syria will not go unpunished. However, this massacre is still current news. The law draws an important distinction, as far as punishment is concerned, between a complete and an incomplete crime. That said, it behooves us to tip our hat to Mrs. Power who, in one of numerous Security Council sessions on the Aleppo tragedy, delivered an historic speech. Her words expressed the helplessness of Syrians, alone and isolated, enduring the horror acted upon them from all sides. They are incapable of choosing between life and death, let alone, which regime to ally with. This comparative choice is a luxury the Syrians don’t have: many who lived in east Aleppo were not completely satisfied with the way the armed opposition force was managing their lives. And yet, deep down inside and with many losses in life and living, they know that the only reason they are still breathing is because of, what they might consider oppressive and unjust, presence in their midst. With so much loss behind them, they decided to move forward with whatever and whoever is left. The systematic attacks from Russia and Iran on east Aleppo seemed to them like an invitation to more death and loss. The people of Aleppo would have preferred, naturally, for the beast of war to have his fill and leave them with a life on the brink of subsistence, a life frozen in the present: Syrians without a future except for death.

But should we really tip our hats to Samantha Power? Elias Canetti wrote once about an obscure German writer at the onset of World War II who claimed he no longer saw himself as a writer because he had failed to stop the war from breaking out. Such a retrospective statement foregrounding massacres seems rather pedantic. And yet, today, we know exactly what it means; didn’t Theodore Adorno say: “… to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric …”? To teleport his statement to the present moment we say: every act of writing today is a dance on dead bodies and taking delight in the wounded and maimed. I label it as “gloating” because in order to “prepare” to write, a writer would probably have to make a cup of Café Au Lait, commit to sitting for a long stretch of time, ponder the particular angle, even before sitting behind a keyboard to type down his thoughts. They might consider washing the dishes or start a load of laundry to move distractions out of the way. And here they are, writing about people who are confined to last corners of safety in their city. People who, with every falling rocket, know that someone they know is either injured or killed and wonder when they are going to be next. They will, certainly, not read what that writer created and if they do, it will not bring back their dead or bring them peace. Writing will not stop the war. Moreover, today, it seems like an accomplice to the crime. It’s more productive to try and prevent people from dying instead of hoping to hold the killers to account.

To Samantha Power: I realize that you are truly genuine in your feelings toward people in Aleppo in particular and Syrians in general, but solidarity is the privilege of the helpless. It’s ironic that I, the writer who has no real power and no armies to command, have the same power the US Ambassador to UN Security Council has. Even though it is not my preference, we are equal in our inadequacy, Mrs. Ambassador.

Historians of World War II were confused about the US and Great Britain’s real motives behind the bombing of Dresden. More that 1,200 airplanes took part in the bombing that resulted in the loss of more than 25,000 civilians and raised the majority of the city to the ground. It’s likely that historians were at a loss due to the weakness of the justifications that drove the allies to commit that massacre against the German civilians considering that the German army was retreating on all fronts. According to official historical accounts, the Dresden massacre took place because the victorious allies wanted to deal a psychological blow to the Garman army to cause its collapse on fronts where the Russian army was advancing. The diabolical logic dictated that they kill as many innocent Germans to push their army to the brink of despair. Such is war: exercise brutality and irrational violence over civilians in the moments before declaring victory. A party confident of victory will visit revenge on civilians undeterred. With this violence, a victor intends to crush the spirit of a nation, while believing that they would escape justice and accountability.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has condemned the weak Western reaction to the death of two Russian female doctors during the bombing of west Aleppo early December of 2016. Should the international community have left no corner unturned looking for the armed rebels who killed the two doctors? While, simultaneously, the Russians deny any casualties on their air strikes into the same area?

An individual fighter is content with defeat. But a triumphant army does not stop at the retreat or surrender of combatants. It goes further by abusing civilians to show it is above international laws and treaties. The UNSC could insist on persecuting the parties who are committing atrocities in Syria. But with full knowledge of the possible consequences, the “winning” side will not stop. After all, in the world of war and politics, you can trade the lives of the dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a formal apology.

The Russians know very well that the victim wins when the killer is on the defensive, and that victims of the winning side do not make it into the history books. As far as they are concerned, the only human causalities of this war are two Russian doctors. Even James Foley, whose head was severed by ISIS, will not be counted among the casualties of the war in Syria because his country was committed to self-defeat. Samantha Power reflects the UNSC’s inability to stop the war. By doing so she implicitly casts the American victims of ISIS as collateral damage. Death by acts of God.

As soon as Sgt. William A Scott III, of the Sixth Armored Division of the US Third Army, laid eyes on the detainees at the Buchenwald Camp in Germany and examine their miserable condition, he lifted his camera and started taking pictures. He only took a few. The situation at the Nazi concentration camps couldn’t be documented. He immediately set the camera aside and started assisting them. Help was the thing they needed the most. Not justice. Nor revenge. And certainly not making history.

By then, the whole world along with the American sergeant was not privy to what has befallen the survivors. In that moment, Scott might have intuited, that it was not possible to re-animate and capture the horror the survivors experienced. It was the role of future storytelling to do that. The novel is the most adept instrument for describing the past. It has the power to imbue the reader with the illusion that they are able to make a difference on the course of events. The novel is the sharp implement of the weak against the past. Yet, it is only sharp enough to cut thin air. It’s only through reading a novel can a person believe capable of stopping a crime given apt time and prior knowledge. The novel feeds us with the fiction that we have permission to become heroes, rebels, and martyrs while, in reality, we are too weak to do anything about the crime. We are as hopelessly attracted to the sword as a butterfly to the flames.

The reality of the war in Syria clearly revealed this horrible paralysis: all the condemnation in the world couldn’t stop the massacre. All the fiery proclamations didn’t change anything about the daily reality of people facing death. And because of that sudden and surprising realization, we, embarrassingly, cling to nationalistic, ethnic or sectarian sentiments. All that lies outside our affinity boundaries deserves to parish. Everyone who is different racially, religiously, or sexually from us is an enemy. It is no wonder that the Right is on the rise everywhere. Is there any other explanation for the sadistic joy displayed by many towards what is happening in Aleppo, Idlib, or Homs than that of a complete divorce from citizenry and civility and a call for regressive tribalism?

Welcome to the age of live-televised carnage. We are unable to reconcile our humanity with what we see happening under our noses. The first casualty is the power of public opinion. There is no value to your views and no weight to what you stand for. You are left with one of two choices: either you keep silent and look away, or wield a sword to kill your neighboring Other. Samantha Power looked away and Vitaly Churkin wielded the sword.


Flowery language, rhetoric and weighty references to WW2 can’t, for me, disguise the superficiality and glibness of this piece. No - we are not “left with one of two choices”. In the spirit of constructive criticism…if you claim (?) to be a political journalist, show us that you’re doing the graft, the work; dig, uncover, expose. Locate what truth you can, instead of this…simulacrum.