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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 28 May 2018

The horrors of Ghouta have been matched by the failures of the international community

We shrug in embarrassment at the carnage. We cover up that shrug by insisting that the situation in Syria is so complicated, writes HA Hellyer

A Syrian girl looks at another crying child sitting on a hospital bed in a make-shift clinic in the rebel-held town of Douma, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on February 24. AFP
A Syrian girl looks at another crying child sitting on a hospital bed in a make-shift clinic in the rebel-held town of Douma, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on February 24. AFP

Ghouta. It’s a place many people had only a patchy knowledge of a week ago, but it is now yet another coffin in the ground, yet another memorial to our collective inadequacy to address the evils of modern war and the repugnant oppression of a tyrant. And after this article is published, just like so many other times in this slow destruction of Syria, we will bleat our disdain and we will, in the end, do almost nothing at all.

It is easy to focus on Ghouta alone, because, in truth, it allows us to pretend that it is unique in this horrid, years-long conflict. The 30-day ceasefire negotiated last night, allows us to forgive ourselves for the rest of the brutal and ugly tragedy that is Syria today. But that’s not remotely justifiable at all.

We shrug in embarrassment at such blatant carnage. We cover up that shrug by insisting that the situation in Syria is so difficult and so complicated that we haven’t any other choices. That’s a lie of enormous proportions. At the very least, the truth is that until now, we haven’t really cared enough – and the regime in Damascus knows this, just like Moscow and Tehran does. And that’s why this war continues. After all, it’s not as though Ghouta is unique. Before it, there was Daraya, there was Homs, there was Aleppo and the outcomes were all the same.

It sounds like a cliché to repeat it, but it is no less true. If Ghouta was not in Syria, but in France, Canada or Germany, would this conversation be the same? Of course the security architecture is different, but that’s not the point. Far too often, effort has been substituted by cries of indignation, which are certainly warranted, but mean nothing in the end.

Indeed, the major effort that seems to be expended is in how to disentangle the international community from Syria with the minimum of fuss. That doesn’t necessarily entail a recognition of Bashar Al Assad’s regime as a good or decent one, which is, after all, only the standpoint of the most repugnant and morally depraved. Far more widespread is the begrudging acceptance of that same regime – an acceptance that is spoken widely away from the cameras – by governments and politicians who once insisted that Syria’s future should not include Mr Al Assad.

There is no one who can seriously see that the regime is a long-term and sustainable option for Syria – but there are far too many who will hold their noses and deal with that same regime in the short-term for fear of further migration issues or the threat of extremists in their own backyard. As time goes on, more and more are less embarrassed to say so privately. Let those in the West be honest about this: those people may talk a good game about how destructive the regime actually is, but those same people have little intention of developing policies that will truly target that destruction. Indeed, if migration and ISIL weren’t issues that concerned the West directly – if it wasn't consumed by fears of being bombed or overrun with non-white Muslims – it would probably just as soon walk away completely from Syria.

And yet, at the same time, there is a deeply disgraceful sense of abhorrence that comes from within the wider region of Syria. It is reprehensible, because it substitutes creating policies from within the region that would actually work, with outrage against the West for not sorting out the problem. It’s a bizarre sense of dismay and indignation – because it does nothing to serve the people of Syria, reinforces the region’s own sense of powerlessness and ineffectiveness and rewards the Assad regime. There are so many within this part of the world who are waiting for a saviour to come from a White House that has already enabled the most bigoted forces in American society. How and why that might be a solution is as distressing as it is confusing.

Here we are, seven years after the revolutionary uprising that so valiantly took on possibly the most appalling regime the region has ever seen. The ineffective nature of the regional order and the international system have been exposed proven in the blood-soiled ground that is Syria. And the anthem of that failure is painful silence of the international community, punctuated by the cries for help of ordinary Syrians, whose only crime was to try to seize a chance for a better life. That is Ghouta. And it probably won’t be the last example in Syria.