We get overwhelmed. Rightfully so. If we had only to focus on one international travesty, the rest of the world united behind us, solutions would be simple. Bad guys would be identified. Good guys would mete out punishment. Our emotions would be backed by concise opinions and it comes easy to imagine that the backlash for war crimes would be swift and justified. Unfortunately we live in a diffuse world, and the multitude (sometimes magnitude) of crimes against humanity can be demoralizing. Fraught with dissolution, we turn a blind eye to the mess. The far-off problems of other countries and cultures are not of our particular interest. Besides we have our own problems here, right? We are not morally obligated to help. We are not even morally obligated to care. Shit, all I do is write about it and I express a markedly higher level of concern than most people. So to what do we owe the millions of citizens across the world? How do we determine what the right reaction is? And forget about helping. That seems a far cry from what the majority of people are willing to do. But I do think we are obligated to know and open discussion about the affairs of other nations. During the uproar of the Kony2012 campaign, there was a tug-of-war between the compassionate and the skeptical. Neither side maintains an accurate account of virtue, but the fruits of that argument are what make the campaign worth while. It forces us to defend our opinions with knowledge. It follows from that knowledge that we take on the responsibility of correcting those who are false, or in turn reexamine our own platitudes. This is our moral obligation. We, as a populace without censorship, without oppression (in comparison), should take up the responsibility of the moral high ground. We should judge other nations and cultures for their indiscretions and we should be able to defend our opinions in doing so. When an authority violates the basic rights most of the world agrees that its citizens have, and they are unable to defend themselves, we become compelled to (at the very least!) chronicle the disaster. Let us argue over the worth of other lives.
For many of the lay people here in the States, of all generations, the Arab countries are the paradigm of turmoil, violence, sectarianism, and more recently terrorism and religious fanaticism. Between the rogue American Soldier murdering Afghan civilians, Koran burnings with subsequent riots, and the girl in Morocco that committed suicide to not suffer the indignity of marrying her rapist, it is easy to dismiss the prospects of a thriving, civilized Arab world—one, in which America takes place in the civilizing process. Let us not debate the accuracy of those descriptions and grant for now that it is a troubled chunk of the globe. Within the last year we have seen a turn for the better though! And with the advent of the “Arab Spring” we have seen major change in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Protests against a culture of oppression have accumulated in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Oman in relative peace (particularly in comparison with our own revolutionary war). While the results of these protests and revolutions remain to be seen, there is still hope that over the horizon there is an era of peace, prosperity, and justice—even if it is only marginally so. What is important is that these movements, similar to the Occupy or Tea Party crowds here, is that they are movements of the people. The powers that be are being challenged by the general consensus of citizens, not political factions (that comes later on). This is very important because it says something about the youth movement against traditional regimes, and about the power of quiet rumblings of dissatisfied civilians.
Speaking of regimes, the ruling faction in Syria is fighting the dream of liberalism to the best of its ability. While Egypt and Tunisia were stealing the spotlight for much of 2010 and ’11 Syria was quietly boiling over. What started as school-age mischief has turned into mass extermination. A quick and (overly)simplified introduction to how the Syrian rebellion began:
1) The unrest started in the southern city of Deraa in March when locals gathered to demand the release of 14 school children who were arrested and reportedly tortured after writing on a wall the well-known slogan of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” The protesters also called for democracy and greater freedom, though not President Assad’s resignation. – As BBC reports.
2) When the people marched for their release which was a minor protest, the government’s security forces opened fire on the crowds, which included suppressive sniper fire.
3) The following day, mourners of those killed in the protests were fired upon during funeral processions by the police forces under orders from the government. It is an act of protest to mourn the loss of loved ones that were considered traitors, and apparently this act is punishable by death.
From there the rebellion spiraled out of control, as I’m sure you could imagine. Uprisings against local police forces in isolated cities prompted a military response using heavy artillery, including tanks. The cities of Deraa, Baniyas, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and the capital of Damascus have been targets for leverage used by rebels and the government. Homs in particular has been the most heavily shelled city.
The death toll in the conflict is nearing 10,000 by some reports, though the exact number is hard to calculate because no one is offering a clear representation of the conflict.
Of course sympathizers to Syria’s ruling regime are the wealthy minority—minorities, both economically and religiously. This illuminates the driving force of the identities within the conflict though it doesn’t appear anyone has lit the fires of sectarianism. It remains just a near-civil war between the poorer youth and the reigning power of al-Assad. The battle for the government has been to paint the rebels as unsavory terrorists, the type of people no one wants to associate with. If the government is able to cut off popularity amongst the people, it will crush the uprising and come out looking like heroes.
Recently, a series of bombs targeting government buildings have sparked outrage in the capital city of Damascus. The people there, some ways off from the battles of other cities, thought they were safe from the uprising. As one of the most thriving areas in the nation of Syria, it’s easy to imagine where most of the sympathies lie within the Damascans. Local media sources there have tried to cite foreign forces as being responsible for the bombs which killed 27 and injured nearly a 100 more, though interestingly enough it is not being attributed to the Syrian National Council (SNC, the united group officially representing the rebels) or the Free Syrian Army (FSA, a group of defected military persons). This seems like it is obviously a move to sway national opinions in their favor, and preemptively cutting off the possibility of sympathetic countries like the U.S. and Turkey interfering. Aljazeera’s video here shows the complexities of the bombings in Damascus, and the reaction from the people:
The United Nations in their inception was not designed to meddle in the affairs of sovereign nations. Though, as Hillary Clinton has argued, when it comes to crimes against humanity, where better to mediate and interfere? Al-Assad is making all the noises of a war criminal, in which the U.N. would be able to interfere, but in order to facilitate a peaceful transition to a post-Assad government it becomes important to not label him as such, as it will also dissuade other despots from relinquishing power peacefully. China and Russia have voted against motions that were near unanimous in declaring Bashir al-Assad as a war criminal, therefore putting him in the scope of possible military action. As major players on the world stage this is a critical blow the suffrage of the oppressed people of Syria.
Kofi Annan, a major member of the U.N.’s security council has been trying to open talks with the Syrian government to reach a diplomatic solution to the war. However, his role has not been without controversy as he was voted against by Russia and China as the choice for the position. Many fear that the attitude towards Syria has been one that is already predetermined by western and Gulf forces as being similar to those of the Libyan example. Strong arming the ruling party could incite further violence and further destroy and already tarnished image of western foreign policies.
It has been tough for Obama to make a public stance on the matter because it is election season. He runs the risk of losing blocs of voters no matter how he responds. In a speech he had said that all options are still on the table for Syria, though military action is still premature. The declarations of war from the conservative campaign have shown the irrationality of shoot-first foreign policy, not to mention the irrationality of the party itself. It’s unfortunate, though perhaps circumstantial, that an international crisis becomes a risky topic to address to the public. It appears that the diplomatic actions taken by President Obama and Hillary Clinton within the parameters of the U.N. supports the willingness to coalesce an ideal world government. This is by and large a laudable course of action, though the crack downs by the Syrian government has made it hard to not intervene. At what point will it become completely necessary for military action either sanctions or unsanctioned by the U.N.? How many deaths? What kind of tactics? 25,000? 100,000?
What now for us? Well it seems that for the time being we are forced to maintain the discussion about countries like Syria in the same way the virility of the Kony2012 sparked discussion about the accuracy and intentions of the Invisible Children group and their goals. The yaw and pitch of opinions gives a direction that is ultimately desirable for all groups. While it seems that the social fervor for Joseph Kony and the nay-sayers that haughtily criticized the supporters of the campaign were taking pot shots on social media, they were really participating in a learning process! The lull in the post-viral stage of the campaign I think is due to the better understanding of who Invisible Children really are, and how successful, emergent countries like Uganda have dealt with issues like Joseph Kony. We can apply the same argument here with Syria. Let us argue the finer points of diplomacy and military action. Let us delve into how the Syrian people feel. We can debate the legitimacy of government crackdowns or social uprisings, as we did with Egypt. Raising the bar of social conscience is how we take part in the realm of things like foreign affairs and moral dilemmas. The more we argue the more refined and defensible our opinions become. By becoming responsible for our personal opinions we defend our own moral ground, which in turn advocates for the moral grounds of others. This is where our moral obligations lie. Everything else is compassion.