Global inhumanity toward crimes against humanity
Few were prepared for the June 6, 1982, bombardment of Beirut because never before had Israel blitzed and occupied an Arab capital. As the bombing gained intensity that morning, we phoned my daughters’ school, only to be told that, during a brief lull in the assault, they had sent the children home by bus. Yet the bus never arrived. We later discovered that the driver had taken shelter alongside a hospital as the air raids recommenced. However, my husband and I endured seven hours of pure horror, frantically searching burning streets amidst explosions and gunfire, all but convinced we would never see our two daughters again.
After the overwhelming relief of being reunited, we joined a refugee convoy taking the road to Damascus. Yet Ariel Sharon’s warplanes began bombing these bedraggled columns of women, children and the elderly, exterminating anyone daring to flee the invaders. Hearing news that 40 people had been slaughtered on the road ahead, we turned back and eventually escaped via another route, departing Jounieh on a US frigate. By God’s grace we lived to see our precious girls grow into successful women. Other Lebanese families lost everything.
I recalled these painful memories this week as I watched footage of Russian planes and regime barrel bombs raining death upon the citizens of southern Syria. Since Bashar Assad’s southern campaign began, an additional 270,000 Syrians have fled their homes; most heading for borders with Jordan and Israel that remained stubbornly closed in their faces. Having been told by his paymasters to pull some of his forces back, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah is declaring “victory” in Syria. Yet Nasrallah’s victory is manifested as mangled bodies of children and desperate mothers searching for daughters they will never again see alive and unblemished.
In Lebanon, forced “voluntary return” programs are now underway, overseen by Hezbollah and their Aounist allies. Having endured appalling conditions and harassment by paramilitary thugs, returning home to be tortured or murdered perhaps feels like a blessed relief. Already there are testimonies from returning families questioning why their sons have been detained and interrogated. Convoys of returning refugees made excellent propaganda footage for Damascus TV channels; fluttering flags and regime emblems adding a celebratory air to busses loaded with families heading back into hell.
Under US and Russia-brokered “de-escalation agreements,” families were cynically bussed from other warzones to Daraa and Idlib, purely so they could be killed more efficiently when these “safe havens” came under attack. When the US State Department vacuously promised to take “firm and appropriate measures” if the regime went to war against the south, and when British ambassadors, with breathtaking pomp and impotence, declared “this must stop,” we went beyond farce into a twilight zone where words have lost all meaning.
The Syrian opposition was previously offered little more than comforting Western rhetoric about “solidarity.” Today the world strenuously ignores them altogether. This short-sighted approach is fueling a time-bomb: A generation has endured a childhood of horrors and minimal schooling. We should not expect these disaffected youths to smoothly reintegrate into normal life — if there ever is a return to normality. This underskilled and traumatized generation is the perfect breeding ground for extremism. Boys who picked up a gun before they learned to pick up a pen may decide that their best prospects lie in militancy, fueling a regional climate of paramilitary anarchy.
Abominations are perpetrated by Assad, Putin and Hezbollah, yet international inhumanity has cultivated a climate where such crimes occur with impunity.
US President Donald Trump and his National Security Adviser John Bolton deludedly believe they can sweet-talk Vladimir Putin into a “grand bargain,” within which Iran and its proxies will meekly grab their things and depart Syria, after having invested billions in perpetuating their presence. After Putin’s recent deal with Israel, pledging the departure of “foreign forces” in the south, Hezbollah operatives simply donned Syrian military uniforms and temporarily adopted a lower profile. Tehran’s hold over Syria can and must be broken, but the Trump administration has yet to learn that global challenges aren’t neutralized by tweets, hubris or a sweep of the presidential pen.
Syria is our collective failure: A failure of conscience, empathy and foresight. This conflict raises fundamental questions about the world we want to live in. Should we not be roused to action by thousands of innocent children slaughtered by barrel bombs and poison gas? Don’t we desire a world where fleeing victims of the horrors of war are greeted with compassion, rather than with closed borders and xenophobic campaigns of demonization?
When those mandated to enforce the law decline to act, they go from being enforcers of justice to enablers of anarchy. Just as judicial systems in Latin American narco-republics are bribed and threatened into becoming a silent part of the problem, institutions and states responsible for international justice have decided it’s better for justice to remain blind. These abominations are perpetrated by Assad, Putin and Hezbollah; yet international inhumanity has cultivated a climate where such crimes occur with impunity. The outbreak of the Syrian conflict precipitated endless Western hand-wringing about whether to act, yet by the time of the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar few even asked whether the world had a role to play.
In Europe, citizens are dragged before the courts for neglecting their pet kittens, yet the world long ceased bothering to estimate the Syrian death toll to the nearest hundred thousand. We’ve seen 90-year-old Nazis hauled from peaceful anonymity to the courthouse, and aging African and Serbian war criminals sentenced at The Hague. One day — in a fairer world — Assad’s cronies must face a judicial reckoning, a Qaddafi-style reckoning, or certainly a divine reckoning.
Assad and Tehran today enjoy the impunity conferred by global disinterest. Yet evidence quietly accumulates from prisons of extermination and chemical atrocities, ready for that moment — whether in five or 50 years — when inevitable bouts of change sweep the ground from beneath their feet.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.