Sometimes it’s hard to understand the logic that guides the international community. Global power brokers such as the U.S. and the U.K. espouse utopian ideals of human rights, human dignity, democracy and a host of universal axioms no one with an ounce of conscience would argue against. At the same time, they act with apparent disregard, or at the very least disarray, when the moment of truth arrives.
In Syria, the moment of truth withered months ago. It stood up and waved hello when the Syrian regime, headed by increasingly brutal President Bashar al-Assad, began to slaughter his own people. He, or his potentially insane brother, Maher, broke the laws of warfare. And the world did nothing.
Now the world is indignant after a chemical attack killed hundreds in the Damascene suburbs. The tens of thousands of dead that preceded them were apparently not enough to warrant action. Instead, a chemical attack of still undetermined origin, significant only in degree and not in kind (smaller chemical attacks have been reported for months) has galvanized the international community into action.
But to what end?
It seems a self-serving act to claim moral outrage at this point. It borders on Orientalist reductionism, where a single event is transformed into a symbol for all that is barbaric in the Arab world. Now they need our help, those poor suffering people. Now the cruel, inhuman leaders of a despotic regime need a good old-fashioned spanking.
Too little, too late is too facile a statement to describe the international response to the Syrian tragedy. What was needed, and not only in Syria, was a concerted effort years ago to support the emergence of a dynamic, intelligent, self-aware group of young Arabs who had found the courage to challenge authoritarianism. Many of those people are now dead. They fought valiantly against regimes bent on retaining their positions of power, at all cost, regimes acutely aware that the world would not dare intervene.
The cause for which Syrian youth died has now been hijacked by the self-interested elite in the officially recognized Syrian opposition, or subsumed into the cause of Islamists and global jihadists. These groups fight each other and make a mockery of what it was the Syrian youth sacrificed their lives to achieve.
Of course, we in the West will all feel better after cruise missiles demolish the Syrian regime’s military installations. The video game of war will play out in our living rooms and it will feel good. Our moral outrage will be vindicated. We will have done something.
But the reality of war will continue to play out on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo. On the streets of Cairo, Amman and Beirut, people will remain mystified by international community’s fickleness.
Here in Cairo, the U.S. now occupies a surreal space between secular imperialist and terrorist sympathizer. The confusion is understandable from the perspective of the Cairene people: no one is exactly sure what it is the U.S. wants. They’ve heard all the anodyne statements emanating from Washington: calling on murderous regimes to show restraint, invoking abstract notions of freedom and democracy — as if the pot-bellied powerbrokers who have (mis)ruled for decades actually understand what those terms mean. But when the time comes for action, Egyptians have watched the Great International Freedom Machine grind to a screeching halt.
Much the same feeling permeates other Arab nations. While the world plays at geopolitics, the people suffer and die. Most are tragically aware that raining bombs down on the Syrian regime will accomplish next to nothing. The blowback could be disastrous: Syrian missiles launched at Israel, or Turkey (a key NATO ally). The Syrian war could quickly spill out of Syria and consume the region, creating the ideal environment for the Islamic extremists operating in the region.
That frightening narrative could have been prevented if the dominant nations in the world, including Russia and China, had let go of narrow national self-interest and acted instead in the interests of the Syrian people themselves. Sounds altruistic, perhaps a little naïve, but no more so than thinking lobbing a few missiles will change the trajectory of the Syrian conflict.
The fact is President Assad will come out the winner in all of this. He will retain his chemical weapons, they will not be targeted by U.S. missiles), and thus his bargaining power. He will continue to play the terrorist card, an increasingly powerful one in light of the mess that is now the Syrian opposition. And Syrians, sadly, will continue to suffer and die.