Gascoigne: Syria, the Invisible Massacre

Martin Gascoigne writes in a guest essay for Informed Comment

The ongoing conflict in Syria, in a year of tremulous conflict across the region and beyond, singularly fails to ignite passions in the West. Oddly, even professional media coverage is relatively lacking, certainly compared to the interest in, say, Egypt. It is not as if nothing momentous is happening in Syria. The likelihood is that the scale of deaths in the Syrian crackdown on its uprising has been underestimated by the United Nations and others. Even Iraq, mostly ignored in the past couple of years by Western media, found itself centre stage in many news reports following a series of bomb attacks recently in Baghdad. Syria however, somehow, so far, fails to stick in the mind of Western consciences. Why?

That the situation is grave is unquestionable. The British-based Avaaz group maintains that it has evidence of over 6,000 deaths, of which, a minimum of 400 are children (the United Nations recently estimated the death toll at 5,000, including casualties among government troops). Reacting to the regime’s claim that 2,000 of its security forces have been killed in the unrest, Ricken Patel, executive director of Avaaz countered that, “one in every 300 Syrians has either been killed or imprisoned.” An astonishing figure. Conflict has not been widespread throughout the country. Protests that began in Dara in March 2011 have not been as widely embraced in Damascus and Aleppo. Disparate cities that count for 25% of the population. As one of the worst weeks for deaths concludes, as an Arab League monitoring team was due to arrive, there were reports of 111 deaths close to the Turkish border.

The regional situation is less black and white than the internal one. Not all of Syria’s neighbors have led a charge against the regime, and Iraq, which now has important relationships with Europe and the US, has been notably skittish in this regard. Syria does 30 percent of its trade with Iraq, over $2 billion a year. Some 200,000 Iraqis work in Syria, and the total number of Iraqi refugees there may amount to about a million (Syria’s population is about 22 million). Likewise, Lebanon’s current government has been reluctant to denounce Damascus, and remains fearful (like Iraq) of the instability in its neighbor spilling over onto itself.

There is also the not inconsiderable issue of Syria having very well connected friends in Russia and China.

There has been some hardening of statements from Russia recently. A draft resolution put forward to the United Nations Security Council last week, deploring violence on all sides. Russia, however, will be very reluctant to lose its last remaining Mediterranean Sea port access. China similarly vetoed the October Security Council vote on sanctions. Along with Russia, China has significant economic interests in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented, “Hopefully, we can work with the Russians who for the first time at least recognize that this is a matter that needs to go to the Security Council.” Unfortunately, the US is not in a good position to complain about the vetoes of other great powers on the Security Council, given its own trigger-happy deployment of that prerogative on behalf of its own clients in the Middle East.

Perhaps this consideration hints at yet another aspect to the uniqueness of the Syrian situation. Damascus is 136 miles from Tel Aviv. The highly disputed Golan Heights are home to an estimated 19,100 settlers. With the exception of ultra-hawkish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, Israel probably is not looking for yet another conflict with a close neighbor. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have adopted a relatively cautious stance toward the upheaval next door. Had the Israeli government spoken on Syria in a more unified way and taken a more transparent position on it, that stance might have affected world opinion.

Regional intricacies aside, it may well be that wider geo-political concerns have dampened enthusiasm for more active involvement in the arena (beyond financial sanctions) on the part of the United States. Hilary Clinton has appeared reluctant to ‘engage’ with the Syria issue in a sustained way. Syria may remain (for now) in the realms of a ‘too big to fail’ situation. As far as the State Department seems is concerned. It may also be difficult for the Obama administration to undertake another major foreign policy engagement in an election year.

In Syria. President Bashar al-Assad has suggested that he is a pragmatic politician trapped by circumstance. Whether, however, his plan of conducting more open elections in 2012 has any hope of offering a way out of the impasse has a rather big question mark over it. The legitimacy of the regime may well have been fatally wounded. Syria, unlike Tunisia or even Libya, risks becoming trapped in a cycle of debilitating violence rather than seeing the sort of political progress for which the opposition Syrian National Council hopes.

It might help if the rest of the world would at least pay attention.

——

Martin Gascoigne is freelance writer based in UK and S.E. Asia

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10 Responses

  1. The media is paying attention to Syria. There is no specific suggestion here of what the media should do that it is not. Google News will reveal probably tens of thousands of stories in various world news sources about Syria over the last year.

    Unless Martin Gascoigne is Syrian, then he, like Barack Obama, is not in a position to answer any questions about the legitimacy of Syria’s government, nor or his own questions relevant.

    • Mr. Evans speaks with such an authoritative voice. A skeptical armchair geopolitical junkie might dare to ask from what depths of expertise and knowledge (bearing in mind that “expertise” so often has a negative correlation with “competence” or “decency,” see, e.g., Condoleeza Rice and so many others) he lays down such terse, seemingly unanswerable assertions and injunctions.

      “The media” pays attention to “the Syria story,” far as I can see, to about the same depth as the “So You Think You Can Dance,” “Survivor”-level handicapping and box-scoring and poll-surfing of the US presidential race, and the leading=bleeding reporting about whole-family murder-suicides. Does that mean that all that “content” output, with millions of Goggle hits in nearly infinite categories, provides the baffled citizen or foreign observer with any of the information that might inform voting decisions on who, of the beasts in the stampede, might actually be best for the whole country? Quantity and quality are two very different, only occasionally overlapping categories.

      One might infer that Mr. Evans thinks Bashar “The Basher” al-Assad sits on a legitimate throne, and anyone critical of the net efforts of “the media” and “the players” in the Great Game, directed apparently at enhancing the chances of a less kleptocratic and despotic, more democratic political economy in Syria just doesn’t know what they are talking about.

      That’s a little broad, don’t you think?

  2. “Oddly, even professional media coverage is relatively lacking, certainly compared to the interest in, say, Egypt.”

    Yes, that is bizarre. Syria is in the media every day; there is a heavy concentration on what is going on. Particularly in Britain, where the writer comes from.

    I see also that Gascoigne swallows whole, without question, the figures for casualties given by opposition sources, e.g. Avaaz.

    There is a lot of evidence now that the opposition have been exaggerating their reports. For example, the daily accusations of shelling: they have never been able to come up with a video showing the results of government shelling. Machine-gunning, yes; artillery, no. The buildings are all complete. The nearest I have seen was a photo of a room with two 20 mm cannon shell holes.

  3. Arnold Evans: “Unless Martin Gascoigne is Syrian, then he, like Barack Obama, is not in a position to answer any questions about the legitimacy of Syria’s government, nor or his own questions relevant.”

    What a strange assertion. We have to be Syrian if we want to comment with authority on the Syrian situation. Really? I can see what JT McPhee is implying. It seems that you have your own agenda.

    Grumpy Old Man: “If the régime falls, what follows will be worse, especially for Syria’s Christians. Be careful what you wish for.”

    Thanks but no thanks. I will not be careful when it comes to wishing every day for the downfall of a murderous regime which is slaughtering its own people with impunity. I feel sick to the core that the world is standing idly by while this outrage is happening.

    Alexno: “There is a lot of evidence now that the opposition have been exaggerating their reports. For example, the daily accusations of shelling: they have never been able to come up with a video showing the results of government shelling. Machine-gunning, yes; artillery, no. The buildings are all complete. The nearest I have seen was a photo of a room with two 20 mm cannon shell holes.”

    How magnanimous of you to concede that machine-gunning is taking place. How dare the opposition embellish their case in such a cynical way. Their credibility is shot to pieces. All those tanks we see, they just happen to be patrolling through a whole host of city centers, but their intentions are in no way malevolent. The hundreds of eye witness accounts and videos cannot possibly be trusted. Awful that the Assad regime is being misrepresented.
    Bravo Mr Alexno, the great, objective, truth-seeker.

    • Mr Burgess

      It is wonderful of you to drink the Kool-Aid and not to trust what you, or I, can see with our own eyes in the videos. No.Destroyed.Buildings. Despite the endless claims.

  4. Harvey, I don’t my statement was as unclear or incomprehensible as you’re acting like it was.

    Just in case, I’ll put it another way: the people of Syria decide how legitimate the Syrian government is. Not me, you, Barack Obama, Juan Cole, Gascoigne or JTMcphee.

    Much unlike Egypt, the biggest rallies in Syria have been pro regime, but of course elections are far more reliable indicators than rally sizes. We’ll see what the elections say.

    Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama say, without elections and without polls, that Assad is illegitimate. The reason is that, unlike the people of Syria, Clinton and Obama don’t like Assad’s opposition to Israel. That is an invalid position and Gascoigne offers support for that invalid position.

    There is no indication that the exile Syrian Council that is communicating with the Obama administration has as much support in Syria as Assad or that it could gain control of Syria with less violence than Assad is currently exerting. It is more than possible that the opposite is true in both cases.

  5. The NY Times and the Guardian have been giving the Syria protests substantial front page/Web site coverage since they started so the Western media have been playing attention. What I have noticed is the reader comments on articles/blog posts on Syria have been much less than on the previous Arab uprisings. It could be “protest fatigue” or a wariness about the next step Western governments have in store for Syria or a genuine lack of interest in Syria. Who knows.

    Until Russia gives up on Syria, I do not see Bashar Assad going any where. All the Saudis can do is scheme behind the scenes.

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