There are times when silence speaks louder than words, and right now — with the new escalation of violence in Syria, where airstrikes in a rebel enclave have killed at least 335 people since the beginning of the week — is one of them.
That’s why the United Nations Children's Fund reacted to the reports of mass casualties among children in eastern Ghouta, in the capital Damascus, with a “blank statement” containing just one sentence: “No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones.”
But for journalists, whose job is to put words on facts — even on the most atrocious ones — only the strongest terms will serve to describe the horror of what is now happening in Syria.
“With every child who dies, with every act of brutality that goes unpunished, eastern Ghouta more closely resembles what Kofi Annan once called the worst crime committed on European soil since 1945,” The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall writes. “Eastern Ghouta is turning into Syria’s Srebrenica.”
Wednesday’s editorial in The New York Times strikes a similar tone, “Degrading the Islamic State has not created an opening for peace in Syria,” the newspaper argues. “Instead, the country’s vicious president, Bashar al-Assad, and his enablers in Russia and Iran have exploited the battlefield successes against ISIS to unleash a new round of carnage on civilians, as the leaders of the United States and other world powers largely stand by, unwilling or unable to do anything to stop it. Shame on them all.”
As columnist Stefan Ulrich notes in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, Russia’s constant use of its veto power (sometimes joined by China) has so far blocked the UN Security Council from adopting a resolution on Syria. Even so, “the world community is not as powerless as it’s pretending to be,” he argues. “If the Security Council continues to fail as brutally as it has for years in Syria, then the UN General Assembly, which includes almost all the states of the world, can convene a special session.”
During the United Nations Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria on Feb. 22nd — Photo: Li Muzi/Xinhua/ZUMA
It’s done so before — in 1950, during the Korean War — with what’s known as a “Uniting for peace resolution,” Ulrich explains. “Acting as a kind of world parliament, the General Assembly embodies the will of humanity far better than the Security Council, in which only 15 states sit,” the columnist writes. “Under ‘United for peace,’ the General Assembly could make recommendations to the UN member states and, with a two-thirds majority, to the Security Council as well, as to what must be done to end the war in Syria.” Ulrich says the move would create “considerable political pressure,’ especially on the Security Council’s veto-holding powers.
But the bigger — and more difficult — question at this point may no longer be how peace in Syria is possible, but rather whether it is at all possible. It’s hard to believe that just five months ago, various pundits around the world believed the war was nearing its end, with a victory for Assad. Now, beyond the tragedy unfolding in eastern Ghouta, the conflict, which has been raging for close to seven years now, appears more complicated diplomatically and geographically than ever.
“Syria is more at war now than it’s ever been,” journalist Alain Frachon writes in his weekly column for the French daily Le Monde. “The survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which has been on Russian and Iranian life support, might be guaranteed. But each day, dozens of Syrians are killed, hundreds injured and thousands displaced. The burning fires of the main conflict — the one that opposes Damascus to what’s left of a rebellion dominated by Islamists — are being fanned by two other ones: The Turkish-Kurdish fight and the Iran-Israel confrontation. Which makes it three war fronts for Syria, repository as it were of the region’s infinite complexities.”
Seen from that angle, the Russian intervention in September 2015, which quickly and clearly tilted the balance in Assad’s favor, is now backfiring badly and placing Moscow in front of a dilemma, Frachon argues. “Should it allow itself to become overwhelmed by Turkey and the Kurdish question and therefore have to arbitrate between Ankara and Damascus?” he asks. “Or should it let itself be overwhelmed by Tehran and take the risk of a major conflict between Iran and Israel torpedoing Russia’s gains in Syria?”
Complicating matters is a U.S. administration “without a global vision,” international relations expert Renaud Girard argues in the French newspaper Le Figaro. That, combined with a weak Europe, could soon bring us to a point where the West is “strategically powerless,” he warns.
Given this week’s carnage in Syria, and the lack of any meaningful reaction from Western powers, that may already be the case.