Thursday, August 18, 2016

Why Aleppo's Little Omran Matters

Omran Daqneesh, age 5, from a video by Mahmoud Raslan

It's a fact:  99 percent of everybody on our planet doesn't understand what's going on in Syria these days.

And that's probably a conservative estimate.  It could be as high as 100 percent.  But let's assume that there are at least a few international policy experts, diplomats, government officials, military strategists, relief workers, and Syrians themselves who can at least partly explain what's happening in places like Aleppo.

Aleppo, Syria, is the hometown of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, whose image has captured the world's attention.  In a video taken by Mahmoud Raslan outside a hospital in Aleppo - a hospital that goes by the code name "M10" for security reasons - we are reminded yet again of the horrors of war, and the indiscriminate ways violence of the most brutal sorts can impact innocent little children.

After all, little Omran isn't out killing others.  He's no terrorist or front-line patriot or whatever passes for a "good guy" in Syria's sprawling war.  He was in his home when it was bombed.  He was likely asleep.  From the expression on his face, presumably one of utter shock and bewilderment, it's easy to imagine him trying to figure out what had just happened, and where he was now.  His family would arrive soon; they were waiting for his mother to be pulled from their home's rubble before the rest of them came to the hospital.

The chaos of yet another night in Aleppo seems foreign to us.  How does a kid like this end up in an ambulance looking like that without a frantic parent alongside?  Fortunately, his wound wasn't serious; little Omran was cleaned up, patched up, and sent away with no medical complications.  But his mental and emotional complications?  They're probably beginning to kick in, even now, as I type this, and as you read it.

Yet another victim in Aleppo.  Wounded for what reason?  I don't know.  And the chances are almost complete that you don't know, either.  Little Omran doesn't know, and probably few members of his family even know where to begin with the true reason for what they're enduring.

What we do know, however, is that what's taking place in Syria is a brutal battle between factions of Islam.  We do know that different foreign governments around the world have tried to intervene.  We do know that most of this intervention has been woefully counter-productive.  We don't have a clear understanding of who's fighting for what, or why.  We don't know what it will take to make any sort of cease-fire hold while a longer-term peace can be constructed.

Still, it's easy to suspect that the tensions and viewpoints fueling Syria's current bloodbath have been brewing for longer than a few years, or even a few generations.  It's easy to suspect that most popular iterations of Islamic teaching across the Middle East are bathed with scalding rhetoric of epic religious proportions.  It's easy to suspect that the hundreds of thousands of refugees who've fled Syria have their secret allegiances, even if they're too scared to stay home and work for peace in their families, their neighborhoods, their cities, and their country.

Indeed, as Syrian refugees have swamped many European countries for over a year now, many white, non-Muslim Europeans who used to consider themselves so tolerant and welcoming are growing weary of playing host to them.  Depending on the news source, whether it's more mainstream or left-wing, or right-wing, anecdotal stories of increasing crime perpetrated by displaced Syrians, and decreasing sanitation standards at Syrian camps, are putting political pressure on government officials to figure out ways to send the Syrians home.

Even some Syrians themselves have begun to grumble about their new status in life.  Apparently, it's not enough that they're safe from the incessant bombardment in their homeland; different media reports paint a picture of refugees as at least bored, if not frustrated that their hosts aren't even more accommodating.  Then there are initial assessments by various government agencies that don't look promising for the ability of many Syrians to find suitable employment in Europe.  There are questions about whether the educational standards back in Syria are compatible with Europe's.  Then there's the question of long-term accommodations.  Housing is quite expensive in Europe; it's one thing to find a cheap apartment here or there, but housing for hundreds of thousands of families?

"Send them back," a few Europeans have begun saying.  And frankly, might that be the best thing?  Not because the refugees will be re-entering a war zone, but because none of the rest of us seem to understand what's going on over there.

Refugee parents fled Syria so their own children wouldn't end up like Omran... or worse; dead.  Yet might this be a case of the people being fought over needing to take their own stand for their country?  Instead of running?

Indigenous people groups the world over tend to complain when Western governments "meddle" in their home country affairs.  Yet to be fair, isn't our meddling often at least an overture of concern and compassion for the oppressed?  Sometimes it's easier for onlookers from abroad to see what's happening and provide support to the side which best represents the good of the country as a whole.  It's not always perfect, or well-timed.  And when strategic natural resources are concerned, we Westerners can get a bit greedy.  Yet overall, since we tend to value democracy and capitalism as the most effective processes for civil rights, our advocacy in other countries, while perhaps unwanted by some, isn't malicious at its core.

Look at South Korea or Japan; two countries that have flourished amazingly well after American intervention in their political affairs.

Then there's the Middle East.  Boy, howdy:  Talk about your quagmires.  Talk about your intransigent belligerence.  Talk about your holy wars and vitriolic religious rhetoric.  Isn't it interesting that with so many refugees from Syria - and other Muslim-majority countries - wanting to flee their homeland, almost all of them head directly for Europe, instead of other Muslim-majority countries?  True, Turkey has a lot of Syrian refugees, but Turkey is considered by many to be Europe's turnstile, as Muslims leave the Middle East with their eyes set on European or American prosperity and peace.

Meanwhile, where's the open embrace by such fabulously wealthy Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and the glittering Persian Gulf states?  Why aren't the Middle East's oil barons eager to demonstrate the best of Islamic faith by welcoming into their lucrative embrace the tempest-tossed huddled masses from Syria?  So it's okay to accuse the West of meddling when you're secretly funneling guns and money to your favorite Muslim factions in Aleppo and elsewhere?

Maybe this little diatribe here does little more than express my own lack of understanding regarding Syria's current turmoil.  But even that possibility proves my point, doesn't it?  Most Westerners want to help, at least in theory.  We hate suffering, we hate seeing photographs of kids like little Omran.  Shucks, this photo is powerful BECAUSE we don't want things like this happening to children like him.  If we had no compassion, this photo would be worthless.

For her part, ABC News correspondent Sophie McNeill has taken a sanctimonious stance when it comes to the West and Syria.  On her Twitter feed, she promotes the defiant hash-tag, #wecantsaywedidntknow, insinuating that the five billion of us whom she suspects of merely dismissing Omran's image are turning a blind eye to Syria.  She posts that she wants "the world to act," as if the entire world would act in unison, in accord, with the same objective in mind, when it comes to Syria.  Or anything else, actually.

Hey lady:  Here's a tip.  Don't patronize us.  You may be on the ground in Aleppo, but can you explain what's going on over there?  According to your Twitter feed, you just want the violence to stop.  Well, guess what:  Most of us do, too.  That's not news.  Yet the violence exists because something - likely, many things - provoked it.

Brokering a peace strategy in places like Syria requires a deep working knowledge of what has led us to this photograph of little Omran.  Ninety-nine percent of us don't have that working knowledge, and we suspect you're one of us.

Nevertheless, just because we don't understand what caused it doesn't mean we don't care.

Update August 19, 2016:  A friend of mine with close ties to Aleppo has suggested we consider something called "Apocalyptic Islam" as the reason for why we Westerners are confounded by Syria, and Muslim-centric violence in general.  Never heard of Apocalyptic Islam?  Neither had I.  But this piece by the National Review helps explain a lot. 

From Joel Rosenberg's article:
"There is a dramatic shift underway in the Muslim world. The most serious threat we face in the Middle East and North Africa is no longer radical Islam but apocalyptic Islam. We face not just one but two regional regimes whose rulers are driven not merely by violent political ideology, or by extremist theology, but by apocalyptic, genocidal eschatology, or End Times theology. The first is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The second is the Islamic State, or ISIS. The leaders of the former are Shia. The latter are Sunni. Both believe that we are living in the End of Days as predicted in their ancient prophecies. Both believe that any moment now their messiah, the Mahdi, will be revealed on Earth as he establishes his global Islamic kingdom and impose sharia law. Both believe that Jesus will return not as the Savior or Son of God but as a lieutenant to the Mahdi, and that he will force non-Muslims to convert or die. What’s more, both believe that the Mahdi will come only when the world is engulfed in chaos and carnage."

Update August 26, 2016:  Regarding Apocalyptic Islam, in which civilian casualties are actually crucial to the cause, consider this excerpt from a compelling article on the crisis in today's New York Times:

"Because Syria’s combatants rely on foreign sponsors, rather than the local population, they have little incentive to protect civilians. In fact, this dynamic turns the local population into a potential threat rather than a necessary resource.  The incentives push them to “utilize collective violence and terror to shape the behaviors of the population,” the researchers found. The images we see of dead mothers and children may not represent helpless bystanders but deliberate targets, killed not out of madness or cruelty but coldly rational calculation.  Severe, indiscriminate attacks on civilians bring little near-term risks and substantial benefits: disrupting the enemy’s control or local support, pacifying potential threats, plundering resources and others.  Pro-government forces have conducted by far the most attacks against civilians, but opposition fighters have led some as well. Among the insurgents, individual groups that refuse to attack civilians end up at a disadvantage compared with the groups that will."  - Max Fisher


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