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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Our shared values are lost amid the ruins of Palmyra

Destroying heritage sites is no more intolerable than destroying humans, writes Michael Young
Mr Al Assad exploited the reports of Palmyra’s imminent fall to regain some favour in the West. EPA
Mr Al Assad exploited the reports of Palmyra’s imminent fall to regain some favour in the West. EPA

International consternation at the prospect that ISIL might overrun Palmyra, with its heritage site, has illustrated the warped lens through which many people have tended to view the conflict in Syria.

Though more than 200,000 people have been killed, the surge in public outrage only became evident when an archaeological location was threatened. If only we had the good fortune to be stones, many Syrians must have thought.

One of the rarely discussed themes in wars is how important international attention and solidarity are in sustaining populations in conflict. Feeling that one matters greatly helps people emerge from traumatic events in better condition.

However, such concern also has more practical implications in determining whether the international community has the will to implement, and enforce, global norms of behaviour.

For many years while living in America during the 1980s, I kept a tiny newspaper clipping taken from The Washington Post pinned to my memo board. It described a bombing in Beirut that had killed a woman and her child, and injured her second boy.

The woman was married to my cousin, and this episode, which garnered only two lines in a foreign newspaper, effectively destroyed four lives. The clipping served as a reminder, to borrow from George Orwell, that all victims are equal, but some are more equal than others.

The anxieties over Palmyra were all the more surprising in that the public reacted with relatively little indignation to the destruction of other Syrian heritage sites, not least the old city of Aleppo. But ultimately what are ruins when human beings are being slaughtered daily in Syria, without any mercy?

Recall how Bashar Al Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against civilians in the eastern Ghouta in 2013. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted at the time, as president Barack Obama was considering retaliating, 60 per cent of respondents said they opposed such action. This occurred even though 75 per cent of respondents said they believed Mr Al Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons.

Even acknowledging that a war crime had been committed by the regime, a majority of those polled wanted to do nothing about it. In such an atmosphere where societies, especially liberal western societies, are indifferent to the perpetration of crimes far from their shores, there is little hope of reinforcing humanitarian norms and values worldwide.

Many in the West may protest that conflicts overseas are no concern of theirs. Why should an American or European be responsible for what a Syrian despot does to his own people?

The question may seem fair, but it hides a contradiction that those in liberal societies must address. If one defends liberal and humanistic values at home, how serious can this be when one is apathetic to how they are addressed abroad? Worse, isn’t such a reaction an implicit sign that those overseas are less deserving of the same treatment than those in the West?

Humanistic values, no less than the foundations of humanitarian law, have meaning precisely because they are universal. A further contradiction is at play here. When people around the world worried about the Palmyra site, were they not making a statement about universalism? Weren’t their fears based on a sense that the ruins were the common inheritance of humanity?

That these same people then refuse to apply the same logic to humanistic values tells us a great deal about their confusion. Dictators engaging in the repression and killing of their own populations spend a great deal of time assessing such confusion in determining their margin of manoeuvre to commit crimes.

When Mr Al Assad saw that his use of chemical weapons did not bring a meaningful response from the West, he rightly interpreted this as a green light to pursue mass murder within certain bounds. While his chemical stockpile was dismantled, at Russia’s urging, he has continued to use chlorine gas against his enemies and civilians, with no reaction from those who had threatened him in 2013, above all the United States.

Mr Al Assad exploited the reports of Palmyra’s imminent fall to regain some favour in the West, among the many dupes who regard him as a barrier against ISIL. As news came that ISIL had been partly repulsed by regime troops, many breathed a sigh of relief, ignorant of Mr Al Assad’s role in strengthening the group.

The Palmyra site doubtless deserves to be preserved. But another site in Palmyra does just as well: the regime prison, which a one-time inmate there, Yassin Al Haj Saleh, described to me as “a place that literally eats men … where fear is a way of life … where every day primitive and vengeful torture is carried out at the hands of heartless people”.

If the past can inform us about the present, then the Palmyra prison is no less telling than the ruins. People should deploy outrage in Syria, but cannot do it selectively. Destroying heritage sites is no more intolerable than destroying humans.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star in Beirut

On Twitter @BeirutCalling