Commentary Magazine

What We Owe the Syrian Boy in the Surf

Image by © ALEXANDROS AVRAMIDIS/Reuters/Corbis.

His was one of twelve bodies collected on a Turkish beach on Wednesday. It has become a tragically common site to see the corpses of refugees fleeing the proliferating conflicts in the Middle East wash up on Mediterranean shores. This latest was perhaps the most heartbreaking. A Syrian boy, maybe two or three-years-old lay motionless in the surf. He had only ever known war; a horrible war characterized by intense violence, the use of chemical weapons, the Islamic State and al-Nusra, Bashar al-Assad’s thugs, and the various international actors who give these barbarians succor. He was, perhaps for the first time in his short and cruel life, at peace. Of all the appalling images to emerge from the Syrian conflict, this might have been the most soul crushing. Yet we dare not look away. We must not. Western democracies had their chance to prevent his suffering, and they failed that Syrian boy. Though it has now been mercifully cut short, we own a portion of his lifetime of pain. We did not compel the boy’s parents to make this final, ill-fated journey, but we have declined every opportunity to improve the conditions that led to his flight from war. It is well past time to look upon the face of our callousness and venality. It is the face of that child. 

The West had its chance to intervene in the bloodshed in Syria when it began. Ample chance, in fact. Western democracies were, however, snakebit by their experience in Libya, where the NATO powers that intervened in that conflict had no plan for the post-Muammar Gaddafi environment and left behind them a vacuum filled by Islamist militants. The West learned all the wrong lessons from that experience. Rather than to embrace of circumspect interventions with forethought applied to the post-war environment, not to mention the nation building required the intervention’s participating powers, the community of nations simply shielded its eyes from the terror that followed the Arab Spring.

It was President Barack Obama who declared the use of chemical weapons on civilians in Syria a “red line” for action, and it was President Barack Obama who flinched when it became clear that the regime in Damascus had ignored him. Soon, images began to filter into the Western press revealing the horrors wrought by these WMDs. Rooms full of bodies; people seizing, foaming at the mouth; children contorted and writhing as they met their horrible, terrifying end. The West had to act, but it did not.

Instead, jealous guardians of our comfort and privilege, Western governments opted for an off-ramp. Confronted by obstinate and recalcitrant voters both at home and in ostensibly allied states like Great Britain, Barack Obama declined to make the case for intervention in Syria. Instead, he made a case for a Trojan Horse. The Russian government had offered to preserve its client in Damascus in exchange for an unworkable plan to remove chemical weapons from Syria. Today, their client remains, but the chemical weapons were not entirely removed. Many of them are still in theater, and some have now fallen into the hands of ISIS – a terrorist enterprise of unfathomable brutality.

In reward for Obama’s pliant response to Russian overtures, Moscow responded to turmoil on its Western border by invading and annexing sovereign territory in Europe for the first time since World War II. Today, the flames of war again lap at European heels.

In the years that followed Obama’s shortsighted decision to abandon Syria (and the entire region, it would turn out) to violence, Europe would find itself in the midst of a refugee crisis. A great human tide has descended upon the continent as teeming masses of Middle Easterners and North Africans displaced by warfare take flight into Europe. The Czech Republic and Hungary, finding themselves on the frontlines of the crushing mass of terrorized Syrians, have taken emergency measures. Prague revealed this week that it simply lacked the manpower to detain those refugees racing for Northern European havens. Budapest has shut down rail lines and has created de facto detention centers in order to cope with the crisis. Italy is prepared to re-impose border controls at Germany’s request.

“It is clear the Schengen Agreement is crumbling,” the far-right UKIP leader Nigel Farage told The Telegraph, referring to the European Union treaty that allows for passport-free travel between member states. More than any financial crisis triggered by debt-laden states in Southern Europe, this refugee crisis has the potential to shatter the union of European states – a dangerous condition with an irredentist Russia testing the EU’s willingness to defined itself and hungrily eyeing the NATO-allied Baltics.

Our Syrian boy was among those refugees who desperately sought to flee the horrors that prevailed at home. He was among the thousands who never made it to European shores. But the pressures that compelled his family to take to a violent sea will not abate. As a result of more Western cowardice, those pressures will likely intensify.

Assad can only sustain his terrible war with the aid of foreign allies, and his most valuable benefactors are the mullahs in Tehran. On Wednesday, the final piece fell into place that would ensure the implementation of a nuclear accord with Iran that rewards the Islamic Republic with $150 billion in sanctions relief, as well as the eventual lifting of all weapons and missile embargos on the terrorism-sponsoring regime. “The Obama administration is hopeful that the Iranians will use the windfall to build schools, hospitals, and roads. But there’s an excellent chance that at least a healthy chunk of it will go to two U.S.-designated terrorist entities,” wrote the regional experts Michael Weiss and Nancy Youssef. “[T]he Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QC) and its proxy Lebanese Hezbollah, both of which are now in effect running Assad’s scorched-earth warfare.”

Syrian dissidents and regional specialists see few mechanisms available to the West that may dissuade Iran from escalating its support for Assad. It is reasonable to expect forces loyal to Damascus to share soon in Iran’s windfall, and for there to be a commensurate escalation of the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st Century.

The Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach wearing a bright red t-shirt and shorts on Wednesday will not be the last. He is asleep now, and his suffering is over. Ours endures, and we must bear it. America and the West own a portion of the torment that characterized his short time on Earth. In our comfort, we allowed this great human catastrophe to metastasize. At the very least, it is incumbent upon us to look upon the face of the agony we permitted. Only then will it be possible to one day steel ourselves to the unpleasant task at hand. Only then will we eventually come to terms with the bloodletting we have abetted and to one day resolve to put an end to it. We owe that to that boy. Don’t look away.

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