A year ago yesterday, a chemical attack on sleeping families in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun killed 72 civilians and left 550 wounded. Today is the 26th anniversary of the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo—the longest and the most brutal conflict in European post-World War II history.
Tomorrow, one year will have passed since the United States carried out one-off airstrikes on the Shayrat air base in Syria, from which the chemical attack had been launched two days earlier.
This time last year, I was reading the reports of the horrifying chemical attack on Idlib while reminiscing about the beginning of the siege on my hometown of Sarajevo. Instinctively, I folded the newspaper page to hide the photographs of the victims from my six-year old daughter, who was sitting next to me at the breakfast table.
She has already started asking questions about why I left my native Bosnia twenty-five years ago: ‘Mommy, why would someone throw bombs on other people’s houses? But there are superheroes to stop these villains, right?’ I think back to April 1992, when my sister and I, then just teenagers, waited out the shelling of Sarajevo in our cellar. My late father had brought down the last bottle of sparkling wine from our apartment to celebrate: the ‘superheroes’ from Washington were on their way to save us. A few weeks later, my mother and father waved goodbye to my sister and me as we left the city with the last humanitarian convoy, before all routes were shut off. It would be three years before the ‘superheroes’ arrived, their intervention at last ending the war and forcing a political agreement.
Today’s cataclysmic Syrian conflict is one of the greatest tragedies the world has witnessed since World War II. Syria has been described as a vortex unraveling the global order, the failure of the international community to take action paralleling the fecklessness of the League of Nations in the 1930s.
How did we get here? It does not take a Bosnian remembering how wrong her father was, as he opened that bottle of wine, to know that the global security system did not function well during the war in Bosnia, either. Yet something has substantively changed since, not only at the international level, but more importantly, in the US domestic narrative.
During the war in Bosnia, there still existed a strong normative framework within the United States that could generate public outrage and produce political costs for inaction. This is what kept Bosnians alternating between hope and despair for three long years. This is why my parents survived.
Back in 1992, Bosnian citizens had placed their faith in the UN based on the post-Cold War triumph of collective security, which materialized in the first Chapter VII Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Cold War was over, and with it, the paralysis of the UN brought about by superpower rivalry.
Bosnians learned the hard way that this was the exception rather than the rule. It took three years of siege and shelling, while the UN stalled, to generate the moral outrage needed to change political calculations in Washington.
Some decision-makers took action in line with their conscience— and the outcries of their children. Al Gore often recounts his conversation with his eldest daughter Karenna about a 20-year-old Bosnian mass rape victim who reportedly hung herself in desperation. Karenna demanded to know why the United States was not doing more to stop the horrors in Bosnia. Anthony Holbrooke, then working for the International Rescue Committee, is said to have shouted at his father Richard, the US envoy for the Balkans, over the massacres in Srebrenica.
Journalists did not shy from confronting the president directly. At a CNN forum in 1994, Christiane Amanpour made Bill Clinton blush, as she pressed him on the ‘flip-flops’ of his foreign policy on Bosnia. Moral outrage increased the political price of non-intervention. It took over 100,000 civilian lives, countless rape victims, and the first episode of genocide on European territory since the Holocaust to reach that tipping point.
Several foreign-service officers resigned in defiance of inaction, while others lobbied for intervention.
Today, devastating images of starving, tortured, desperate Syrians hardly elicit a reaction. After the catastrophic consequences of the Iraq War, the United States seems unable to summon any collective indignation. The Obama administration, to include such champions of humanitarian intervention as Samantha Power and Susan Rice, stood by as carnage enveloped Syria. Obama is said to have snapped at Samantha Power, his US ambassador to the United Nations, who argued for intervention, with a response: “I’ve already read your book.”
A dissenting memo signed by 51 diplomats was sent to the White House in June 2016, quoting the human catastrophe as a moral and strategic rationale for intervention. Despite the large number of signatories, the memo had no effect on Obama’s position. Journalists documented the meltdown more than they made a stand. And social media has splintered rather than focused what moral outrage there is. Ambassador Hof recently summed up Obama’s Syria policy as sacrificing Syrian civilians and American leadership to appease Iran for the sake of getting to a nuclear deal.
The current US administration has been anything but coherent in its policy on Syria. Exactly a year ago, the President was presented with devastating images of civilian victims of chemical attack in Idllib. One of them may have been the photograph of the Syrian father holding the dead bodies of his nine-month-old twins, Aya and Ahmed, in a last embrace. The image of their small bodies wrapped in tiny white sheets, and the desperation on their father’s face, kept me awake for months.
“No child of God should ever suffer such horror”, the President said. Having ordered the airstrikes the next day, the administration had sent a credible signal that could have prompted major actors involved in Syrian conflict to take it seriously. Yet lacking follow up, another window of opportunity was missed, as the administration failed to use the newly acquired credibility to apply sustained political pressure and push for a peace agreement.
It is ironic that the President would announce withdrawal of troops from Syria on the same day, on which a year ago, he had opened up a window of opportunity to reverse the damage done by Obama’s administration. Experts much better versed than myself have discussed the consequences of such decision, which contradicts the Pentagon’s policy of keeping the troops on the ground to contain Iran, Russia, and ISIS.
Humanitarian issues do not even factor into discussion any longer. The cost-benefit analysis for US political leaders has completely changed, despite the catastrophic geopolitical consequences of mass civilian slaughter, wholesale destruction, and the biblical exodus of over ten million Syrians from their homes.
There is no question that finding a solution for Syria has become anything but straightforward. The longer the world has waited, the more difficult it has become to intervene. Voting at the UN has reverted to Cold War era paralysis. The EU is preoccupied with its own problems prompted by the rise of right wing populism, which is, ironically, a direct result of the failure to intervene in Syria. There simply seems to be no will, courage, or even ideas in the United States and the European Union on how to put an end to Syrian tragedy.
Given how impotent governments seem to have become, it is up to us to resist the temptation of becoming completely numb. We must preserve our moral outrage like a flame that cannot be allowed to burn out. Because our children will keep asking the simple, probing, devastating question that our decision-makers have decided first not to answer and then not to even ask: why aren’t we helping?
Majda Ruge is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.