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'We should examine ourselves before we jump to mock Trump and his reaction to Syria'

There is no moral outrage.Perhaps we should remind people of their own children and grandchildren?, writes Derek O’Rourke.

Derek O’Rourke

LAST APRIL, THE forces of Syrian President Bashar al–Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in Syria’s northwestern Idleb province.

This wasn’t the first time that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. Assad had previously crossed that notional ‘red line’ set by President Obama in 2012, killing 1,500 in an attack later that year. The death toll in Khan Sheikhun of 86, including 30 children was actually – shocking as it may seem to say – relatively small when set against previous attacks.

The number, sadly, is tiny when compared to the at least 300,000 fatalities of the Syrian war, now nearly seven years old.

What set last April’s attack apart was that it elicited a response from the US administration.

It is said that advisers, including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, presented the President with a dossier of photographs of the victims of the attack, particularly of the 30 children who were so cruelly murdered by the regime.

The intention was to provoke the President in to an emotional response that would lead to his approval of military action against Assad in response.

In 2013, on Barack Obama’s watch, Trump had argued against intervention in Syria.

His ‘America First’ rhetoric was hardly encouraging from the perspective of those of us who were frustrated by the paucity of the Obama response. Just a week previously, Trump’s then-press secretary Sean Spicer had said that the continuing rule of Bashar al -Assad was “a reality that we have to accept”.

This policy volte-face on the part of Trump is often cited as an example of his capriciousness.

It strikes me though, that we should examine our collective response to the Syrian Civil War before we jump to mock a President who was moved by images of slaughtered children.

They reminded him, it is said, of his own grandchildren.

The war has now lasted longer than World War II and has accounted for the deaths of between 300,000 and 500,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians. More than 5 million people have fled Syria, while over 6 million are internally displaced within the country.

In excess of a million of those internally displaced people have ended up in Idleb province – an area the size of County Galway – in the northwest of Syria, just south of the border with Turkey.

Idleb is the largest opposition-held part of the country and the last refuge within Syria for those who oppose the regime.

Over the past week, the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies have launched an offensive in the southeast corner of Idleb province which has made rapid and substantial gains.

The UN estimates that at least 100,000 people have fled before the advancing armies, leaving the area entirely deserted. Many of those are people who were already displaced from other parts of the country.

They have only one way to run – north, towards the Turkish border.

But where are those people to go? 

The only option is closer to the Turkish border. Turkey already has more refugees than any other country in the world (3.4 million) and unsurprisingly doesn’t want another million or more.

This phase of the government’s offensive has targeted the least-populated corner of Idleb. If it were to continue, the next phase would affect an area of 400,000 people.

Eventually, 2.65 million people could be pushed up against the Turkish border, with no way out.

It is that area of Idleb, close to the Turkish border where Irish charity Goal has worked since 2012, and it’s where it has already provides food and water to three quarters of a million people. The organisation has seen major influxes of people before and met them with emergency aid. We have already begun responding to those arriving now.

But what’s happening now is bigger than anything it has seen before.

A potential humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding.

And the other major problem is that it is unfolding unnoticed.

There is no moral outrage.

Perhaps we should remind people of their own children and grandchildren?

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The world has, for the last seven pitiful years been absolutely abject in their inability to do anything about the conflict in Syria. I say the world, and I mean the world.

The UN, the US, the EU, the Gulf States. Everybody has been utterly useless and only seem to pay attention when the war has direct consequences for them in terms of refugees or terrorism.

You would, I suppose, in the interests of fairness, have to concede that the governments of Russia and Iran have made definitive interventions in support of Assad, turning the war in favour of a man who has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens.

The latest round of the UN Peace Talks in Geneva, which has been going on since June 2012, were in December. As usual, the talks collapsed on the fundamental positions: the opposition delegation insists that the Syrian President be removed, and the government delegation says he must stay. Neither will be budged.

In six years of ‘dialogue’, the talks have never moved beyond that one issue. The UN has not been able to get the delegations to put that issue to one side while other important issues are looked at.

Meanwhile, the slaughter and the displacement continues.

What we are seeing in Southeastern Idleb right now is familiar: deadly airstrikes on medical facilities, bakeries, water stations, and market-places. Why? To rid the population of its basic services. Faced with an approaching army and a lack of food and other essentials there is no option but to get out alive.

For now, there is still space in central and northern Idleb to run to. How long will that last?

Having viewed the photographs of child victims of Assad’s chemical weapons attack, Trump said, “My attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much… (the attack) crossed a lot of lines for me.”

He went on to say: “I now have a responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly.”

There is little for anyone to be proud of in relation to Syria and the responsibility of the world goes far beyond a once-off attack on chemical weapons facilities.

The people of Idleb wait, in trepidation, to see if anyone will intervene before their last refuge is brutally and bloodily removed.

Derek O’Rourke is GOAL’s Middle East Security Advisor

Read: Critically ill adults and children evacuated from besieged region of Syria 

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Derek O’Rourke

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