“Never Again” – But Not For the Besieged in Syria

Here is Madaya on the map. Right now, right this minute, people are being starved to death. 

Desperate images have come out of Madaya, Syria, a town besieged by Al-Assad’s forces and the Hezbollah since July of 2015 and the last food aid which was allowed through by the UN was October. Their agreement was whilst the rebel forces fight Al-Assad and Hezbollah, food and aid will be allowed safe passage so that civilians don’t starve. So far, that promise hasn’t been kept. There are tens of thousands of starving people, children, whittled down to skin and bones. Desperate mothers, fathers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles, begging for help, even if just food and medicines for their children. The charity group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said 23 people have so far died of starvation since December 1. The situation is dire. MSF is updating their Twitter feed as they get updates.

madaya baby
A starving child in Madaya, Syria

The slogan “Never Again” was adopted by the newly formed state of Israel after World War II, when the full horrors of the holocaust was revealed. The rest of the world also adopted this sentiment (12 million people died in holocaust, 6 million were Jews, 6 million were others). “Never Again” to Israel means, never again for Jews. But to the rest of the world, “Never Again” is never again to genocide, to mass starvation as a way of forcing surrender, to forced labor to an oppressive regime, to mass rape of women and abuse of innocent children. It means the world will not stand by and watch whilst one population is being wiped out or starved to death and do nothing.

The sad thing is it’s happened over and over again since the end of World War II and it keeps happening and we are doing nothing. The Yugoslavian civil war in the 1990s where 8000 Muslim men and boys were killed and buried in mass graves in Bosnia. Thousands of Muslim women were raped and abused. The siege of Sarajevo was particularly horrific, it was the longest siege in modern warfare. This happened on the back doorstep of Western Europe (Germany, France), no one batted an eyelash and treated it as a ‘slavic’ thing until news started filtering out of Yugoslavia of what’s really going on. Mass graves are still being discovered in Bosnia today. The Rwandan genocide in 1994, which was a mass genocide by the Hutus against the Tutsi (and moderate Hutus) minority. By the time the world found out about it, it was over. It begun and ended in about 90 days.

There are scores of ethnic and religious conflicts happening all around the world. Central African Republic has been in a state of civil war since 2012, a battle between Muslims and Christians. One of the most resource rich and beautiful parts of Africa is now in shambles, ungovernable. Elections were held but is ungovernable if rebel factions don’t put down arms. Boko Haram is terrorizing Nigeria and its neighbors in the name of radical Islam. In Asia, the Rohingya Muslims are one of the most oppressed peoples in the world. They are stateless, citizenless and can be homeless at any moment. For all the praise and accolade the Myanmar politician and human rights activist Aung San Suu-Kyi receives, so far she’s said or done little about the millions of Rohingya Muslims which live in her country in appalling, substandard and near concentration camp conditions. When asked about what she would do about the Rohingya issue, she said it requires “careful handling” under their Citizenship Act of 1982. For someone who was kept under house arrest and kept away from her family years at a time, all in the name of democracy and civil disobedience and peace, I expected her to have a more decisive response than “we’ll wait and see which way the political wind blows”. If she does nothing for them in her period of political honeymoon, I’d suggest she return her Nobel Peace Prize.

madaya baby 2
A baby suffering from hunger, malnutrition and disease. 

And then there is Syria, specifically the town of Madaya, is in a desperate situation. The brave medics with MSF, risked their lives to let the world know what kind of condition the resident are in, and for the first time there are no denials from the Assad government and have arranged for safe passage for the UN to deliver food, medicines and other aid. When Putin threw in his lot with with his friend Al-Assad, it was assumed by the West that Russia’s aim is to assist in destroying ISIS and bomb their targets. So far, that’s not happened. They are bombing other non-ISIS groups, other armed more moderate rebels. They’ve also killed many rebel targets which have high civilian population, they are doing what Assad is doing.

One could be sympathetic (if only a little) to Assad if he has to fight butchers like ISIS and how his forces, which now almost solely comprises of Hezbollah fighters are overwhelmed and he needs his Russian allies help to advance on ISIS. But since the official Russian involvement in Syria, Assad has only revealed himself to not just be a butcher (we already knew that), but he is every bit immoral, inhuman and beastly as ISIS. He is just the opposite side of the coin, ISIS is Sunni, Assad is Alawite but they are really the same thing: vile, depraved monsters who don’t deserve to be considered human.  What he is subjecting Syrians to,”Kneel or Starve”, is no different than what ISIS is doing. In fact, ISIS might be a bit more merciful by just gunning everyone down at the same time. Starving to death is a slow and long painful death. And even if you recover from that type of Nazi concentration camp like starvation, their health will be compromised for the rest of their lives. Some of these are just children, infants. If I were to face death, I’d choose execution by gunfire and get it over with.

From the beginning, when it was just the uprising stage, Assad has blamed everything on “terrorists”, or “armed-gangs”. Snipers are shooting protesters and unarmed civilians off of government buildings, it’s the terrorists, not Syrian forces. The Syrian government keeps iron tight security on their government building and military compounds, many of which are secret prisons and torture chambers for dissidents, and yet “terrorists” can make it to the roof to shoot protestors? The barrel bombs, it’s dropped by ISIS or terrorists not the Syrian forces. Chemical weapons, it’s released by ISIS, they breached our stockpile. Every single human rights abuse, every single military excursion, it’s all “terrorist” or “armed gangs”. When he spoke to Barbara Walters in 2011 when Syria was on the cusp of a full blown civil war, he had this to say about his “crackdown” on the protestors:

Walters: Well in the beginning these protests, the women were marching with children carrying olive branches nobody at that point was asking for you to step down. It has escalated. Do you think that your forces cracked down too hard?

Assad: They are not my forces, they are military forces belong to the government.

Walters: OK, but you are the government.

Assad: I don’t own them. I am president. I don’t own the country, so they are not my forces.

Walters: No, but you have to give the order?

Assad: No, no, no. We have, in the constitution, in the law, the mission of the institution to protect the people to stand against any chaos or any terrorists, that their job, according to the constitution to their– to the law of the institution.

Walters: The crackdown was without your permission?

Assad: Would you mind, what do you mean by crackdown?

Walters: The, the reaction to the people, the some of the murders some of the things that happened?

Assad: No, there is a difference between having policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials, there is a big difference. For example, when you talk about policy it’s like what happened in Guantanamo when you have policy of torture for example we don’t have such a policy to crack down or to torture people, you have mistakes committed by some people or we heard we have some allegations about mistakes, that is why we have a special committee to investigate what happened and then we can tell according to the evidences we have mistakes or not. But as a policy, no.

I saw this interview when it aired and it was painful and irritating to watch Assad’s repeated denials, feigned ignorance, and how he tried to pass himself off as some genial regular guy and he doesn’t understand what the whole uproar is about. He also came across as weak and indecisive leader, who apparently had NO CLUE what his “forces” are up to. “I am only the President”, he says. When asked how he felt about been seen as a dictator:

Assad: What’s important how the Syrian people look at you, not how you look at yourself. So I don’t have to look at myself. This is… second, it’s about the system. You have a dictator and you have dictatorship, there’s a big difference between the two, dictatorship is about the system, we never said we are democratic country, but we’re not the same, we– we are moving forward in, in reforms, especially during the last nine month, so I think we are moving forward, it takes a long time, it takes a lot of maturity to be full fledge democratic country, but we are moving that, that direction, for me as a person, whatever I do should be based on the will of the people, because you need popular legitimacy and this is against dictatorship for person.

“You have a dictator and you have dictatorship, there’s a big difference between the two, dictatorship is about the system,” this is a difference without distinction. What dictator doesn’t know what his military is doing at all times. To run a successful dictatorship you need an equally successful and brutal army to carry it out for you.

When Russia joined forces with Assad, it is the hope across the world that with increased firepower and resources, this long, ghastly, brutal and bloody civil war will come to an end and civilians can stop suffering. It was obvious Assad’s army had run out of steam. They had a large number of troop defections and no new conscripts. They’ve resorted to abducting young men at gunpoint to join their army. Even if there is no decisive win by any one faction, but at least it can end. A peace deal or political solution can be brokered. Safe zones can be created where urgent humanitarian aid can enter and exit unhindered, without needing military-like planning and execution to enter and exit. Refugees and internally displaced civilians can return home and begin to rebuild their shattered lives in peace and security.

It is now clear that Assad’s aim is not to find a quick end to the war in his country. If this were the case, he’d spend most of his resources on defeating his most powerful foes, ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, but he hasn’t. He’s still fixated on the smaller rebel forces holding small swathes of territories on the border with Lebanon. Instead of finding a quick and merciful end to all the human suffering, he’s chosen to starve his citizens into submission, because, according to him, they are all “terrorists” or harboring terrorists.

The UK, EU and US have already begrudgingly agreed that Assad may stay in power during the transition time, as bad as he is, we don’t really want to repeat the Iraq fiasco and leave a huge power vacuum up for grabs. Also, Assad and his Alawites and Shiites are the minority in Syria, to exile or depose Assad would be akin to sanctioning the wholesale slaughter of the Shia and Alawites, which comprise about 15% of the Syrian population. In that tinderbox of sectarian hatred and conflict, after the Alawite government inflicted so much pain and suffering to majority Sunnis, a wholesale indiscriminate slaughter can happen. And as sick as some of his supporters are, posting pictures of delectable Syrian dishes on Twitter to taunt the starving Madayan residents, to sanction a wholesale slaughter of any religious minority or sect is repeating the same evil we seek to prevent. In this ugly war, in one of the most beautiful and culturally rich part of the world, where thousands of ancient cities, towns and villages which existed since the Roman times are destroyed, millions are displaced, and hundreds of thousands dead, a million wrongs do not make a right.


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