Even stories of mass murder lose their appeal eventually. News narratives move on, as do the attention spans of readers and viewers; people get bored of reading the same tales of horror and woe from the same places. Politicians, who are almost leech-like in their desire to attach themselves to the agendas associated with newsgathering, doggedly follow the cameras and the reporters.
Stories that repeatedly made front pages and led bulletins are left as journalists and their subjects rapidly depart. What won’t stop, however, are the events in question. Horror rarely operates as directed by the perceived attention spans of others.
Syria has been, by and large, relegated from the front page to the ‘World News’ sections of quality papers. Politicians no longer mention the fate of that nation and its occupants – and, if they can summon up the courage, they do so in mundane statements, of the sort which bloodlessly assert how truly awful it all is.
Beyond this token acknowledgement – mere lip service to what has been called the ‘worst humanitarian crisis in a generation’ – little is said. Worse than that, outside of the country itself, virtually nothing is done.
The atrocities which have been perpetrated are no less pertinent now. Those whose lives have been extinguished or impaired are no less dead or maimed than they were last August.
Let’s have a look at some of those atrocities. As well as the well known Sarin attack on Ghouta last year – an attack which flagrantly broke both international law and President Obama’s ‘red line’ – there are convincing reports that the embattled government of President Assad is now using both chlorine and ammonia gasses to kill its enemies.
Such incidents, and there are many, are not just demonstrations of more inventive ways to fight. The Assad regime, with all of the machinery of the state at its disposal, is committing war crimes. And no one seems to be doing anything.
Not only that. The war criminal is winning. Government forces retook the former rebel stronghold of Homs last week. After three years of fighting, the city has been virtually razed to the ground: a visual metaphor for the fabric of Syrian society, now almost irrevocably torn by conflict, factionalism and Balkanisation.
Assad, we are told, plans to hold a presidential election in the near future. The pretence of democracy, it is assumed, will cover up any multitude of outrages.
In the Yarmouk camp, primarily intended for Palestinian refugees, innumerable Syrians also seek shelter and safety. They are unlikely to find them. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) chronicled seventeen days last month when the inhabitants went without food.
In addition to that, Philip Luther, the relevant director of Amnesty International’s Middle Eastern operation, says that the government is “committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war”.
With the help of his allies – in the form of terrorist organisation Hezbollah and the rogue state of Iran – Assad is slowly, torturously, reconquering the nation which was, until the outbreak of rebellion in 2011, his hereditary possession.
The combative but justified rhetoric of Western governments preparing to go to war has disappeared. Instead, all eyes are supposedly on Geneva, where ineffectual peace talks are taking place.
Assad fooled the world on chemical weapons; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Syrians now lying dead to prove it. His government has killed many thousands with the use of heavy artillery, air superiority and even hunger.
And yet, he has evaded international censure, and can now count on the political faint-heartedness of democratic governments to ensure that he remains unmolested. David Cameron gave in after the Parliamentary vote: his declared principles shattered by the opinion polls. President Obama didn’t even have the guts to risk it.
And now Syria has been all but forgotten. After a brief debate in February about the refugees of the conflict, little has been said since. The media has been distracted by the events in Ukraine, and the political bandwagon has moved on. In order to secure votes and readership, both journalists and politicians need to dangle new stories in front of the populace; tales of brutality and horror and repression in Syria hold no such redeeming quality.
This flies in the face of current events. The crisis as important as it ever was – after all, allowing a tyrant to get away with war crimes is pretty significant with regards to international law. With the number of deaths in the conflict continuing to rise, as well as the number of refugees increasing by the day, the humanitarian crisis is only growing.
This should serve as a reminder to the reading public, as well as to world governments who have used other events as an excuse to drop virtually all public mention of what ought to be the biggest issue in the world at present.
Inattention will not cause the bombs to stop falling. Starvation will not cease for lack of observation. War crimes will not be reversed by merely looking the other way and hoping.
Regardless of the appetite for such stories, Syria will continue to matter in both political and moral terms. A despot is bloodily retaining his hold on power, and Iran is even gloating about the prospect of immanent victory for its close ally.
Now is not the time to blink. Syria is in flames, and only the activity and condemnation of the international community at large will do anything to stop it. Without the concentrated action of many nations, a dictator will retain his hold on power, and thousands of deaths will have been in vain.
The lack of action last year was a grave mistake; the lack of action at present remains a grave mistake.
If military intervention is off the table for good, the least we could do in such circumstances is look the citizens of Syria in the face.
James Snell is Contributing Editor of The Libertarian