FOR the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria to launch a chemical attack on innocent civilians while UN inspectors were visiting the country was either an act of supreme confidence or of blind stupidity.
Or perhaps the cold calculation was that no one would believe the regime could be so brazen. Although the last proposition would suggest that al-Assad and his cohorts give a damn about what anyone else thinks, and this self-evidently isn’t the case.
Far from being cowed by Obama’s threat of military action, members of the Syrian government have been publicly sneering at the US president’s decision to consult Congress before acting, rightly interpreting this as a lack of resolve.
It appears then that the Syrian regime was far from stupid. Rather, it was convinced that it could get away with using chemical weapons. And it was right. As is becoming clearer by the day, any action taken against al-Assad’s government will be a token gesture; amounting to a mere slap on the wrist. And even that much is not certain.
Meanwhile, the Syrian people continue to suffer. The UN estimates that more than 100,000 people have been killed; seven million are in need of humanitarian assistance (more than half of them children); and 4.25 million have been driven from their homes. If this doesn’t constitute a humanitarian catastrophe, then it is hard to imagine what would.
The UN acknowledges that for each of its estimates the true figure could be as much as double.
To provide some context, the number of Syrian people driven from their homes is roughly equivalent to the entire population of Ireland. Many of these “internal refugees” are living in schools, mosques, and abandoned buildings. Having fled with only what they could carry, for the most part they are without water and electricity supplies (the government having cut these off). They have little food and no money, and cannot access even the most basic medicines, never mind medical care.
Even worse off are those people who can find no shelter, most of them are living under trees, struggling to survive in daily temperatures of around 40C.
The refugees who have made it to camps outside the borders of Syria have suffered horrendously, but they are comparatively fortunate. They are at least safe, and have access to the essentials of life, which is more than can be said for the people still stuck inside the country. Not only are they struggling to survive in terrible conditions, but are still subject to frequent aerial attacks by government planes.
GOAL is one of the few humanitarian agencies working in Syria, and the only one from Ireland. We are doing all that we can to help the internal refugees and the hard-pressed host communities amongst whom they have taken up residence.
There is no doubt we are making a huge difference in the areas where we are working. However, comparative to the scale and breadth of the humanitarian catastrophe within Syria, our contribution is but a drop in the ocean. A full-scale, international humanitarian operation needs to be mounted. And of course, prior to that, the conditions created to make this possible.
The Syrian people I regularly speak to are bewildered and angry that, to date, their plight has been all but ignored by the international community. I was chatting to a man last week who lost his two young sons when their house was struck by an aerial bomb. “How can the world stand by and watch us being slaughtered, and do nothing about it,” he asked me. I could give him no reasonable answer. There is none. The people here frequently talk of how “the [al-Assad] regime has declared war on its people, yet the world is doing nothing about it”. It is hard to disagree with them, on either point.
I was in northern Syria the other week when news began to filter through of the chemical attack in Damascus, and the West’s reaction to it. Naturally enough, people were angry that yet another mass atrocity had been committed against them. But they were angry too, and puzzled, at talk of “red lines” having been crossed because chemical weapons were used.
They can’t understand why world leaders are suddenly becoming agitated, after standing by and doing nothing for over two years while in excess of 100,000 Syrians were killed by rockets, bombs, gunfire, and grenades. As one Syrian woman put it to me, “So it’s okay for the regime to destroy our homes, and butcher us in our tens of thousands, as long as they do it with the gun and the bomb?” Every Syrian I spoke to reacted similarly, and what right-thinking person could fault the logic, that indeed appears to be the message the international community is sending.
It makes no difference to the ordinary person who has lost a child, parent or sibling what type of weapon was used. That they have lost a loved one is all that matters. And they are hurt and angry that no one seems to care. Or at least no one seems to care enough to do much about it.
Why on earth would the Syrian regime not have been confident that it could get away with using whatever weapons it chooses to against its own people? After all, the rest of the world has turned a blind eye to more than two years of the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians. To paraphrase the people of Syria: What’s new?
***David Adams is a GOAL Media Officer, currently based in Northern Syria, where GOAL is delivering humanitarian aid. GOAL has been working inside Syria since October, 2012. Within a few weeks, the organisation will be supplying food and other aid to 120,000 people in Idlib Governorate, and distributing vouchers to 133,000 people (the GOAL vouchers can be redeemed by beneficiaries at selected local shops for essential items of their choosing). Visit www.goal.ie to donate.