A Syrian woman cries holding her injured son in a taxi as they arrive at a hospital in northern city of Aleppo. (Photo: AFP/Getty)
Can we please stop the crocodile tears over Syria? If there’s one thing more nauseating than the Assad torture factories, it’s the synthetic outrage and faux horror that has greeted their discovery.
Last year the world had an opportunity to send a signal to the Assad regime. Actually, the world had the opportunity to send a signal to itself.
Faced with evidence the Syrian government had been using chemical weapons on its own citizens – effectively choking its own children to death in their beds – we had the chance to take a stand. Not a chance to halt the slaughter overnight, or topple the Assad regime. But to put down a marker that said “You are on notice. We will not simply walk by on the other side. Remember, though the mills of justice grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.”
But we chose not to send that signal, or put down any markers. Instead we thought it would be best if we just put our heads down, and scurried on past.
Of course, it didn’t happen quite like that. We had a debate first. A very thorough debate.
During that debate a number of very sophisticated arguments and questions were put forward by those opposed to military intervention. “If we do go in, what would our exit strategy be?” people asked. And as we now know, as they were doing so, somewhere in the bowels of one of Assad’s human meat-processing plants another victim was having a coil of steel wire slipped around their throat.
“What will the targets be?” was another perceptive question. And as it was asked, the steel wire was being pulled taught.
“We need more time. We need more proof” the wise men and women who stood square against the rush to war argued. And as the words left their lips another of Assad’s victims closed their eyes for the final time.
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We have no way of knowing what impact, if any, targeted military intervention would have had on Assad’s thinking. It could have cowed him. It could have made him lash out.
But we know for certain what message our failure to act sent. It told him “They don’t care”. They don’t care if you gas your children. They don’t care if you oppress your people. And they certainly don’t care if you snatch some of your opponents off the streets, throw them in some putrid dungeon and “disappear them”.
And Assad is right. We didn’t care. Oh, we professed to care. “There will be those who believe Thursday’s vote in the House of Commons means that Britain cannot make a difference to the innocent civilians of Syria who are suffering such a humanitarian catastrophe,” wrote Ed Miliband the day after he voted down the government’s plans for a military strike. “I don’t agree.” And everybody nodded sagely in agreement. “Oh yes, there’s lots we can still do,” we told ourselves.
But the truth is there wasn’t. And it didn’t really bother us. We preferred to do nothing. We preferred to protect “our boys”. We preferred to protect the Middle East from further Western “adventurism”. Wwe preferred to protect our consciences from another Iraq.
Fine. But please, let’s not now pile hypocrisy on top of our grotesque abdication of responsibility. No more hand-wringing. No further calls for “something to be done”. Nothing is going to be done. Because we don’t actually want it to be done. Yes, we want the horrors of Syria to disappear. We want Assad to disappear. But we want someone else to make them disappear for us, so we can go back to congratulating ourselves about how we stood tall for peace.
Yesterday I saw some people calling for Assad to be tried for war crimes. I also saw John Kerry again insisting Assad steps down and leaves Syria. I may be wrong about this, but it seems unlikely Assad is going to be going anywhere unless he has some pretty solid guarantees about immunity from future prosecution.
In the meantime he’s already in possession of some other important guarantees. Such as if he doesn’t voluntarily deliver himself up to justice, we’re not going to go in and get him. If he doesn’t voluntarily leave Syria, we’re not going to go in and make him. When his henchmen slip a wire cable around the throat of another victim we’ll say how terrible it is. And then we’ll stand back and let them pull the noose tight.
We had the chance to take a stand against Assad last year. His chemical weapons. His torture chambers. We turned our back on it. So please, no more crocodile tears. The steel noose will be in use again tonight. Let’s not demean ourselves further by pretending that really matters to us.
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