My Twitter feed is full of photos from the Syrian government’s airstrikes on the market in Douma this past Sunday. The photos depict rescue workers dragging wounded bodies, hastily working to remove the injured before another strike comes; civilians lying in pools of blood on floors of overwhelmed and understaffed medical facilities; corpses laid out in rows waiting to be identified; and a child mourning the deaths of his dad and two brothers, killed at the hands of their own president.
The reports and photos coming out of Syria, documenting the horrific airstrikes that killed nearly 100 people and injured another 200, beg the question: Will this latest, patently unlawful attack on civilians in Douma finally spur action by the international community and the U.N. Security Council?
Given the weak statement offered on Monday by Stephen O’Brien, UNOCHA’s [U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] new emergency relief coordinator, it seems unlikely that action will be taken. Like O’Brien, I too am appalled by this most recent attack and “absolutely horrified by the total disregard for civilian life,” but we don’t need any more public declarations of outrage. After four and a half years of massacres, we need policymakers and officials to stop pretending that their hands are tied. Instead, we need them to take effective action to stop the bloodshed.
While reportedly not invested in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, Russia has yet to use its influence to compel a peace process that could end the carnage. Western governments are also to blame for failing to drive Russia and Iran to pressure the Syrian government to end attacks on civilians, let alone the conflict altogether.
As the international community remains unwilling to take effective action, increasing numbers of Syrians (those who have not been killed or forced to flee the country) are driven to support the self-declared Islamic State (ISIS), which is thriving amid Syria’s power vacuum. The violations committed by ISIS must be addressed, but not without regard for the larger political and human rights crisis in the region. A coalition of countries led by the United States continues to focus all of its attention on ISIS, deluding themselves into thinking that an air campaign will degrade and destroy the organization, when in fact these airstrikes have only fueled support for ISIS. And as the U.S.-led coalition continues to strike ISIS locations – while blatantly ignoring the Syrian government’s violations – Assad is further emboldened. In the fifth year of one of the most horrific conflicts of our time, I am shocked that the attacks seem to occur more frequently and get even deadlier, and still there is no effective international response.
When widespread detention and torture of human rights activists and peaceful protesters started in Syria in 2011, the international community was unmoved. When the peaceful protesters were then killed outright, the international community was still unmoved. Massacres of Syrian civilians in their villages by pro-Assad militia groups prompted U.N. investigations, but – on the whole – the international community remained indifferent. The millions of refugees flowing into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians starving in besieged areas, the routine use of barrel bombs far from the front lines, and the systematic attacks on medical facilities and medical personnel have still not spurred action.
Now, will the international community be motivated by the most recent atrocity, in which the Syrian government bombed the main market in Douma – a city of 150,000 that has been besieged since 2012 – with a guided rocket, waited for the first responders to arrive, and then bombed the market again with a guided rocket to kill the first responders? Will the international community be roused by the story of the fifth-year medical student, who had left school to work at a medical point, killed in the second strike as he was evacuating those wounded in the first? Or will his story, one of the hundreds from that attack alone, once again be ignored by the international community?
So this past Sunday, more Syrians died needlessly, and the international community responded as we have come to expect: by issuing more ineffectual calls to protect civilians and comply with the laws of war. Meanwhile, Assad continues to sit in his presidential palace, 12 miles from his latest massacre in Douma, knowing that he will not face any consequences. Over the last 150 years, both governmental and nongovernmental leaders have fought hard to establish international humanitarian law, hoping to ensure that all future wars would be a battle among soldiers, rather than a death lottery for civilians. It’s long past the time for the U.N. Security Council to unwind the imaginary ropes tying its hands and to preserve these hard-won norms. It must choose to tackle Assad’s intransigence and ensure markets, hospitals and civilian spaces are no longer sitting ducks for Assad’s forces.