Omran Daqneesh, the face of global neglect in Syria

An injured little boy is a metaphor for the collapse of humanity in a ceaseless war in Syria we’d rather not even think about

In this frame grab taken from video provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), a child sits in an ambulance after being pulled out or a building hit by an airstirke, in Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. Syrian opposition activists reported an airstrikes on the al-Qaterji neighborhood in Aleppo late Wednesday. (Aleppo Media Center/AP)

In this frame grab taken from video provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), a child sits in an ambulance after being pulled out or a building hit by an airstirke, in Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016. (Aleppo Media Center/AP)

The last time around it was the photograph of a little Syrian refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach. Another year of the Syrian catastrophe has passed and we are all outraged again. This time it’s the gone-viral photograph of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, pulled from the rubble of his bombed-out home in Aleppo. The mop-haired cherub, bloodied and dazed, sits in an ambulance, his little broken face a metaphor for the collapse of humanity in a ceaseless Middle Eastern carnage we’d otherwise rather not even think about.

You have to hand it to Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad’s role model, Josef Stalin. The Soviet uber-despot was onto something when he told a meeting of senior commissars, as reported in the Washington Post in 1947: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

The world’s outrage over the tragedy of Kurdi’s death was, at the time, at least manageable. We could allow ourselves to be persuaded that it was a tragedy about refugees. Angela Merkel pledged to open Europe’s doors, and nearly a million migrants found a home in Germany by the end of the year. When it turned out that Kurdi’s family had been trying to find a way to Canada, the outpouring of Canadian empathy threw a spanner into the works of the federal election campaign. With the election of the Liberals, Canada had taken in 25,000 homeless Syrians by the end of February this year.

In the case of little Omran, though, the world’s conscience cannot be so readily soothed, because that would require a degree of empathy and resolve that the NATO countries have proven incapable of mustering. The United States is NATO’s leading military power, and President Barack Obama has required NATO to align behind a doctrine that has amounted to the most disastrous American foreign-policy debacle since Vietnam. It’s too late to change any of that. It is “only statistics” that tell the full story.

In the three years since Obama invited Russia to help him renege on his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 136 occasions in which the Assad regime has deployed poison gas in its war on the Syrian people.

Related: Why using the word genocide matters

We’ve allowed ourselves to be persuaded that the big problem in Syria is the threat posed by Islamic State. The number of Syrians slaughtered by them in three years: 2,686. The number of civilians slaughtered by Russian bombers since the Kremlin scrambled its air force to protect Assad only 11 months ago: 2,704. The number of times Russian warplanes showered civilian districts with internationally outlawed cluster bombs in June and July this year: 47.

Last October, Russia’s UN ambassador insisted that the Assad regime had stopped bombarding civilian neighbourhoods with “barrel bombs” — metal containers filled with explosives, a napalm-like chemical and shrapnel that will destroy everything within a 250-m radius. The number of barrel bombs the Assad regime has dropped since then, counted by the Syrian Network for Human Rights: 10,987. On Feb. 10, Assad told the BBC: “There are no barrel bombs.” The number of barrel bombs dropped on civilian areas during the month of July alone: 1,183.

The number of Syrian civilians killed since Assad decided to turn his country into a slaughterhouse rather than cede to the demands of the non-violent democratic uprising that began in 2011: nobody knows. In April, the UN special envoy for Syria reckoned a death toll of 400,000 (the UN stopped counting in 2014), which matches the directly killed February body count prepared by the Syrian Center for Policy Research. A further 70,000 deaths since 2011 are attributable to the collapse of Syria’s medical infrastructure, the spread of disease and starvation.

Roughly nine of every 10 Syrian war dead since 2011 are on the butcher’s bill accumulated by Assad and his friends in Iran’s Quds Force, the Iran-allied Hezbollah and the Russian air force. The Syrian civilian deaths enumerated during the aerial bombardment of Aleppo, Idlib, suburban Damascus and Hama in the week that little Omran was photographed in that ambulance chair: 508. The number of children among the dead: 96. Among them was Omran’s 10-year-old brother, Ali. It is still not clear whether the bomb that demolished their home was dropped by one of Vladimir Putin’s bombers or Assad’s.

There is always hope, of course. History is full of unforeseen twists and reversals. There may be another Alan Kurdi, another Omran Daqneesh, some little boy who will strike a particularly poignant pose while writhing in agony in the rubble of an Aleppo backstreet, and the conscience of the world will at last be roused to bring the Syrian genocide to an end. Or perhaps it will be some dismembered little girl, breathing her last breath in some endearingly photogenic way.

That should tell you something, to be reduced to hoping for something like that.


Omran Daqneesh, the face of global neglect in Syria

  1. Your closing line is so cynical., yet so true. Unfortunately this is our new reality. What can we do here in Canada? Stop watching social media? Bomb the hell out of everybody? Neither option seems palatable. So instead we are left with demonizing whichever side we feel is the “badder” of the two. Choosing the lesser of the evils perhaps? We are being dragged into the conflict and forced to take sides with wide ranging international ramifications. Social media does that where in the past foreign affairs departments of governments were saddled with this task. It ain’t easy. I just fear that populist leaders will feel they have a mandate to do “something” that has wide support from the uneducated public. (Trump) In the meanwhile the forced migration of displaced citizens puts unfair pressure on neighbouring countries. We need compassionate and strong leadership worldwide to take the “long game” view.

    • No. It is best to watch what is happening in the world. Ignorance is bliss but we don’t deserve bliss. I have a Russian hair dresser. She has a mother who still lives in Russia. Her mother can’t meet her in Greece, only in certain other places. My hair dresser will say nothing negative about Vlad. She says the “Russian people seem to like him.” People with family there are afraid to say a word about him.” Perhaps people hate Hiliary but maybe she can do something about Assad. She is sneaky and vicious. It is time for the Syrian people to be able to live at home in some semblance of peace under a ruler who doesn’t poison them.

  2. Well, everybody was gung-ho to run into Syria and ‘help’…..and this is the result.

    In fact it’s ALWAYS the result.

    • Actually Vlad Putin was the one who was “gung ho” to help. He was gung ho to help Assad bomb the hell out of his own civilians so he could hold onto the country. Apparently he was also gung ho to help Assad poison the civilians with chemicals. You like Vlad though so transfer your disdain onto others who were actually fighting ISIL and trying to get Assad out and so the refugees could go home. You also like the Chinese who take people into their jails and steal their organs while they are alive and sell them to westerners. All in the name of business. So you say. Your a bit of an ugly customer. Keep up your disgust for decent individuals who are trying to make it possible for these displaced people to go home. Keep up your disgust for journalists who report on the realities of the people you pander to ….despots like Vlad Putin, Assad and the Chinese govt. You could be a living organ donor but you are little on the old side but hey your kids and grand kids are just about right.