Commentary Magazine

The Crushing Guilt of Our Inaction

Aleppo Media Center via AP

Today, the world finds itself transfixed by the haunting image of a Syrian child brutalized by war. He is Omran Daqneesh. His exact age is unknown, but his features suggest he is not yet five-years-old. He is covered in the gray dust of the building that collapsed around him following a strike in his war-ravaged home in the city of Aleppo. Blood streams down his face, but he shows no signs of stress. Omran stares right through the camera with the numbness of a combat veteran. And he is just that; war is the only life he’s ever experienced.

The ancient city of Aleppo is being razed to the ground. Its hospitals have been systematically destroyed by the Russian air force. Its neighborhoods have been attacked by Assad’s barrel bombs and with chemical weapons, the most recent of which occurred just last week. Its residents have little food, water, or medical supplies, save that which manages to slip into the city through brief and recent openings in the blockades. Over the summer, the city’s estimated 326,000 were subjected to a starvation campaign.

The horrors that are occurring in Syria—and have continued for years in part as the unintended result of Western inaction—are worse today than anyone could have predicted when they began over five years ago. When Barack Obama declined to follow through with his intention to punish Bashar al-Assad for defying international norms and gassing civilian populations in 2013, few imagined the nightmares that would follow. Nearly a half-million Syrians are estimated dead. The terrorist caliphate ISIS exports fear and death across the globe. Millions are fleeing the crucible into sprawling camps in the Middle East and Europe. There, these refugees are sowing political chaos, shattering the European Union’s political consensus on and border-free travel, and yielding the rise of far-right political elements.

It is worth remembering that only a year ago another image of a Syrian child captured the world’s attention. It was 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a toddler who had fled the battlefields of Syria along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees, lying lifeless and face down on a Turkish beach. It was a photograph so heartbreaking that it seemed to change European policy toward the refugees overnight—and just as quickly created new policy and practical dilemmas for the European governments moved to act on their behalf.

Meanwhile, Iranian and Russian forces in Syria have been actively attacking militias supported directly by the West and the United States, heightening tensions and creating the potential for miscalculation. It was just two months after Aylan washed up on that Turkish beach that a Russian warplane was targeted and destroyed by a member of the NATO alliance. What was once merely the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st Century is now also its most dangerous geopolitical crisis.

Amid the tears for Syria’s most visible victims of war and terror, skeptical observers are compelled to ask what the West is prepared to do to truly alleviate this suffering. The answer is, clearly, not much.

The Obama administration is paralyzed, forever begging the Russian government to impose order on the chaos it has fostered. Hillary Clinton pledges merely a slightly more muscular version of Obama’s status quo, augmented by the creation of no-fly zones designed to ground only Assad’s air force. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has put $5 million behind his first ad of the general election pledging to oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees. So what would he do about the crisis tearing Europe and the Middle East apart? He repeatedly replied in the affirmative when Sean Hannity suggested the creation of “safe zones” inside Syria that may house refugees, but it’s plain he didn’t know what he was saying.

Where will these “safe zones” be established? What armed force would police them? What air forces would patrol the skies above and what military would secure and defend this sanctuary? Surely Trump will contend that a multinational force from the region should take the reins of such an operation, but this is a fantasy. Without a commitment of Western ground forces, all of this talk is just that—and its purpose isn’t to create an action plan but to mitigate our guilt for doing nothing.

When the Western world is resolved to absorb the costs associated with intervening in the conflict in Syria and imposing peace on its combatants, then the tears shed for Omran will be more than just emoting. For now, the Western world is simply seeking to soothe its conscience for prioritizing its own insularity over the lives of the innocent.

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