As the US-Russian peace talks finally collapsed against a backdrop of intense attacks on eastern Aleppo, Syria appears to have fallen even further into darkness. Last Sunday, campaigners organised a global ‘day of rage’ to express their feelings about events.
Yet in London, while a few hundred people marched in the rain in the centre of the city, tens of thousands shopped busily nearby, seemingly oblivious to events. So do people really care about what is happening in Syria?
Soon the conflict will have gone on longer than World War II. In the space of more than 2,000 days of crisis, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and half of the country’s population have been forced from their homes.
Journalists, politicians and humanitarians have instead engaged in an arms race of more and more dramatic language to try to shake people out what could be described as an accepting apathy towards the crisis.
Humanitarians in particular pour over dictionaries and thesauruses to find new language to describe Syria’s descent into a Dante-esque hell.
The destruction of hospitals has suddenly become the new normal. Families huddle together in a single room of their Aleppo homes, preferring to die together than apart. A seven-year-old’s Twitter account tells stories of doing homework while the bombs fall around her.
If Syria is a conflict of a generation, we can’t say we didn’t know what was happening, and that knowledge places a burden of responsibility on all of us, not just those who are the perpetrators of violence or its victims.
The Economist described Syria this month as Obama’s “greatest geopolitical failure”, yet an absence of leadership is partly the product of no public demand for such leadership.
Simply put, the root of this lies in a post-9/11 deep-seated primacy to concerns about ‘terrorism’ and a legacy of the botched invasion and occupation of Iraq. Combined, this has left a deep aversion to getting seriously involved in the conflicts of the Middle East.
Syria, in the eyes of many, is “not our problem”. Instead it is the fault of others, where the blame can lie and justify inaction.
The enormity of the crisis is almost indigestible to those who do not see it directly. As Stalin once was alleged to have said, “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”.
There are a whole host of statistics demonstrating how bad things are in Syria but perhaps they’ve contributed to desensitising us to the shared humanity and empathy needed for people to care more as to what is happening there.
Fear about the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and concern about small numbers of westerners going there and larger numbers of Syrians coming here dominates European debate.
Indeed, there is far more active politics when it comes to taking in Syrians, as western publics and their politicians debate the symptoms rather than the cause.
The Syrian crisis is a test of our common humanity and global values, and it is one that we are failing. We cannot simply see the people of the region as either regime, radicals or refugees. While there are no easy options more, much more, can and should be done.
Most important is for people to place political pressure on their representatives to push Syria up the political agenda. To ask what they are doing to help bring an end to the suffering of Syrian civilians.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Syria: Do people really care?’