The quiet of the graveyard looms over Syria's Idlib

The quiet of the graveyard looms over Syria's Idlib
Comment: In Idlib, as in Daraa, the world will choose to remain passive while brutal violence tears lives apart, writes James Snell.
6 min read
11 Sep, 2018
Government forces bomb al-Habit at the southern edge of rebel-held Idlib [AFP]
We know what it means by now.

The first shots have been fired - or rather, the first bombs have been dropped - of a new offensive in Syria's civil conflict.

The Assad state and its Russian and Iranian backers have declared that Idlib, the last province under partial rebel control, is a nest of terrorists who must be slaughtered so that Syria may be "saved".

No mention of the millions of civilians in Idlib, many of them displaced, many of them with nowhere else to go. But why mention them? There is no need. Why mention the hospitals which, in the past, have been the first things to be bombed before an attack, and which are being bombed as we speak?

Why mention any of that, as though it were a novelty? We know what it means by now.

But although knowing what came before - and what is likely to come to pass again - is plainly insufficient, it can still tell us something worthwhile.

As Kareem Shaheen, the former Syria correspondent for The Guardian, reminds readers in an 
extraordinary meditation on Idlib and the coming violence, the province is as much a refugee camp as a refuge, its millions of inhabitants expecting imminent liquidation.

Knowing that prompts something in people who have empathy. It is not enough simply to know what has been, or what comes next.
The province is as much a refugee camp as a refuge

It's why there is still use and value in straightforward condemnation - condemnation of the slaughter which is likely to be unleashed if the regime and its allies attack. And though inertia is powerful, as are abjection and despondency, an accurate, morally informed recognition of what has happened and will happen, still matters.

It prompts observation. And that observation finds the response of the world left wanting.

We know how it works by now.

Observation of the easy way in which the international community has resigned itself to this violence is bad enough. Noticing the conscious resignation of the world's leading nations to effective inaction - not acceptance of probability, but conscious passivity, is hard to bear.

The United States' diplomatic apparatus has proven insufficient to meet this predictable task. It has mixed its messages as well as its metaphors. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, was reduced to stating - with conviction the words he uttered did not deserve - that the world was watching.

Hundreds of Syrians, many of them injured by regime shelling, have fled ahead
of large-scale government attacks on Idlib [AFP]

Watching, as they have for almost eight years. The world has seen how this goes. And when the world resigns itself to watching, it rules out action.

Some in the international firmament have proposed minor schemes. 
Steffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy, articulated a plan of his own.

He suggested that the population be allowed to leave Idlib, moving through corridors to safe areas, before the oncoming army swept the land and bombed its settlements to rubble - all with his sanction.

Read more: Four killed as air raids pound Syria's Idlib

Remember those words. Safe areas. Idlib itself is a designated "de-escalation" zone - not exactly a safe zone, in nomenclature or reality; but the word was held to mean something.

So was Daraa, by the way. Daraa: the last rebel redoubt in Syria's southwest, which was only recently overrun. In Daraa, there was no deal that held, no ceasefire. There was nothing safe about Daraa; nor is there anything safe about Idlib. Nothing in either place was ever "de-escalated".

De Mistura's plan would effectively underwrite the violence, provided certain trifling bureaucratic conditions were met. Observation makes this clear. So does the not-so-distant past. We have seen it happen before.

There was nothing safe about Daraa; nor is there anything safe about Idlib

It is difficult to foresee what will happen in Idlib because the world is engaged in public prediction. This prediction is often at the expense of activity, which could at least offer the possibility of determining or affecting events.

The tide of prediction continues. Some of this prediction is alarmist, while other voices are
 nefarious attempts to prepare the ground for barbarism. Talk of "fraudulent" chemical attacks, with staged conspiracies apparently already planned, have proliferated among media close to the Russian state.

This is an attempt to obfuscate and deny in advance a massacre which has not yet been committed. It is not new, though it has uncommon brazen hallmarks.

Any reports of a chemical attack would put this propaganda groundwork into motion. Prediction would give way to action. But if an attack is credibly alleged, a reasonable observer could reasonably conclude that the regime was responsible, and hope against expectation that the weight of the world would exert punishment so great as to deter further atrocity.

But what if there is no chemical attack? What if the specific threats the United States was eventually guilted into issuing - to punish the regime if it encroached on a segment of the spectrum of war crimes - are not called?

What, indeed, if the immoral plans were enacted, and the land was overrun, but bureaucratically, within the internationally allowable lines?

How would a moral agent, a good-faith observer compelled to pay attention by the prospect of evil being done, react?

A massacre predicted but unstaged can looks less like a false alarm than a conspiracy, even when bodies are eventually unearthed. We have seen the massacres before. We have seen the bodies unearthed.

And when the world resigns itself to watching, it rules out action

This does not end here; that is the story of the Syrian war. Aleppo was not the end; Daraa was not the end. Idlib itself, though it plausibly is the end of the road for millions, would not represent the war's careful conclusion, even if its subjugation could be achieved with minimal noise and fuss.

Syria's war would not end even with Idlib taken. The north of the country contains Turkish and Kurdish hold-outs. And if the regime proves willing, as it currently seems, to attempt to reconquer every inch of the country, the spectre of incredible violence would remain - an unwelcome guest, but a potent omen.

All this is done in the name of a murderous regime - a regime which cannot end a war it has claimed to be winning for half a decade, a regime which insists one more massacre, one more chemical attack dangled before a watching world, will bring Syria at least the peace of the graveyard.

That the world chose studied and persistent passivity rather than to confront this corrupt edifice should prompt reflection, and shame, and anger, from any moral citizen. Anger and shame built from an observation of what has come before, and what will be.

Indeed, we know, by now, what it means.

James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The TelegraphProspectNational ReviewNOW NewsMiddle East Eye and History Today.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.