Monday 20 January 2020

Until the West stands up to Putin, the slaughter in Syria will continue

Russian President Vladimir Putin Photo: AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin Photo: AP

Fergal Keane

Widad Fardossi looks much older than her 60 years. She crossed the mountains in the dark three days ago. Widad was propped on a mule, a man on each side to hold her up as they negotiated the steep track from Syria to the Bekaa Valley. Even with support she slid from the mule three times. They avoided Syrian guards and Lebanese border forces.

This border is closed to those fleeing the carnage of Syria. Yes, it is worth remembering, there is now no legal way out of Syria into Lebanon or Turkey for most who are fleeing the war.

Some 75,000 refugees are trapped in the middle of the desert between Syria and the Jordanian border, refused permission to go further. Jordan is already catering for 1.2 million Syrians and spends $870m (€774m) a year helping refugees.

I saw Widad lying on the floor of the tent where her son and his nine family members now live. They escaped two-and-a-half years ago from Aleppo. Widad was breathing with difficulty. Her heart medication had been lost on the mountain crossing.

She told the story repeatedly: she had gone to visit her daughter in Jarblus, but Islamic State had captured the town and she was trapped there. When the city fell she made her way back towards Aleppo, but it was encircled. There was no way and nowhere to stay.

There are an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a nation already hosting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled earlier conflicts. It amounts to a quarter of the country's population. The United States has agreed to take 11,812 refugees.

Lebanon is a mess these days. Competing sectarian factions feud - politically for the moment - as they have always done. The private army of Hezbollah ensures the continuing influence of Iran against the Sunnis backed by Saudi Arabia, a toxic little cockpit that reflects the wider regional battle.

These days our European politicians call Lebanon a "safe country" in the region. They say the same about Turkey, which has recently experienced a coup and which is at war with Kurdish militants. How do we define safe these days?

Lebanon is safe in the sense that a Syrian or Russian bomb is not going to be dropped on your apartment block or grim-tented encampment in the Bekaa valley. (The Israelis did that in Beirut in 1982 with catastrophic effects on civilians. So far the Syrian war has not spilled over in violence to Lebanon.)

But Lebanon is nobody's idea of a politically stable or secure environment for numbers of Syrians.

International and local NGOs and the United Nations do what they can to alleviate the plight of the dispossessed, but so many Syrians tell stories of exclusion and discrimination that it is easy to understand the impulse to escape and head for Europe.

A 12-year-old boy told a local charity he was constantly bullied at school, so much so that Syrian children had to be educated separately. Around 73pc of Syrians in one study reported difficulty in being able to move from one area to another.

I walked the Beirut Corniche the other night. At the Pigeon Rocks in Raouche, Lebanese families were taking selfies against the red blur of the Mediterranean horizon.

An eight-year-old girl darted between the silhouetted figures offering red roses for sale. She was from Aleppo and, understandably, did not wish to give her name.

But her life in Lebanon, like so many thousands of Syrian children, is a routine of drudgery. How quickly children become invisible on these streets, flitting shadows exiled beyond our care.

The sidewalks of Rue Hamra - that most invigorating of Middle East thoroughfares - are home to Syrian shoeshine boys and cigarette sellers.

Long before the latest war, Syrians were present in their thousands as migrant workers. The Syrian interventions in Lebanon in the past made them unpopular in some quarters. That antagonism lingers and has attached itself to new arrivals. There is also the very understandable Lebanese fear of being sucked into the quagmire next door.

Syria is a mess because there were no good options to begin with. A Western-armed intervention might have overthrown Assad, but the American and European public would never have agreed. Congress would certainly have revolted.

And even if it had worked, what then? Would the West have been willing to bear the costs of occupation and ongoing civil war with the Iranian and Russian backed Alawi/Shia forces?

Oh, and let's not forget to add Al Qaeda affiliates and other Sunni Jihadis to the battlefield.

The idea that these characters would up sticks and settle down to enjoy democracy and harmony is laughable.

I have never heard a credible argument for how military force might have worked at the outset. After Iraq and Libya?

It is tempting to say that the deployment of Western troops and air assets might have prevented the rise of Islamic State in Syria, but who can prove that? Putin understood that Assad had a plan. Do whatever you have to do to stay in power and keep talking about a political transition.

This does not automatically rule out the idea of a no-fly zone over cities where civilians are being slaughtered every day and night. This would be a targeted action to limit a humanitarian disaster. Putin would veto this at the UN. Obama would then have to go eyeball to eyeball with the Russians, threatening to shoot down any aircraft involved in the bombing of Aleppo.

This will not happen.

Putin and his client, Assad, will keep bombing. The civilians will continue to be buried alive. There is no will in the West for such a confrontation.

The other struggle is at the UN Security Council, where the Russians are immune to moral pressure. It has become the automatic Kremlin response to simply deny the truth and muddy the waters with fictional scenarios that thrive in the post-truth, "believe what suits your ideological position" era of politics.

So you can invade and annex Crimea, there is compelling evidence your weapons are used to shoot down a civilian airliner, you continue to sponsor an illegal war in eastern Ukraine and in Syria you bomb Aleppo as you once bombed Grozny, to rubble.

We have reached a new age of brute power. The air is brittle with redundant condemnations. They change nothing.

Remember TS Eliot and The Hollow Men:

We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats' feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar.

The demagogues and iron men are in the ascendant. The public is overwhelmed with compassion fatigue. There is a weariness, a sense of helplessness, as people watch the nightly images of children being pulled from the rubble.

It is far away from us, in distance and concern. Human beings are once again reduced to what the German corporal called "biological plasticine".

What we are losing in the ruins of Aleppo is our humanity.

This should frighten us all.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

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