ISIL has taken Palmyra and the fear that they may destroy an ancient site is reverberating across the world. There is only one Palmyra, and its destruction would be a loss to all humankind. There is something about the annihilation of heritage that wounds us; our cultural memory is erased, not to be resurrected.
Nevertheless, as Michael Young has argued, the focus on the ancient site is also more tragic evidence of how unimportant the Syrian people are in this crisis. Over 200,000 deaths and millions displaced, and the world is more concerned over Palmyra (and the mediatic manipulations of ISIL) than the plight of Syrians.
The barrel bombs or the quieter suffering in the refugee camps, whether the elderly slowly dying or children with hobbled futures, are less visible, and of less concern.
The loss of Palmyra is indeed irreplaceable, but the loss of hundreds of thousands of individual lives seems less so.
Each of these people, with families and full lives, is a blur to us. Palmyra appears large and significant while they are a vague abstraction that comes and goes. Why should one be bothered about this particular human tragedy?
Indeed, it is not only the fate of Palmyra and ISIL’s evil acts that trump the lives of the Syrian people, it is also the political ambitions of all involved.
Iran’s regional interests mean the defence of Hezbollah and Syria at all costs. Russia will not entertain another Western “success” after Libya, and Syria is a front line for its honour and geopolitical self-importance.
After Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is AWOL, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are full of spite against Assad. Above all, the Syrian regime destroys the very country it claims to protect, while the opposition groups are the hapless partners of regional agendas, or the carriers of viral extremism. Syria is indeed the playground for unmitigated selfish calculation.
This all adds up to a very active killing field, as well as the paralysis of diplomacy. It is Syria that has exposed the failure of the games of power, and the diplomatic methods of the last two centuries. Meetings and negotiations don’t stand a chance against this array of “live” political forces. The patient will probably die while the doctors are busy in consultation.
There are however incipient signs, slim rays of light, that the bloody gridlock of Syria is forcing a reassessment, even among highly experienced diplomats.
Ironically, despite the geopolitical ambitions, the Middle East is worse off today as a result of the Syrian disaster with all powers losing control. Instability and confrontation are only rising, but these risks seems preferable to letting the enemy win.
There are, however, incipient signs, slim rays of light, that the bloody gridlock of Syria is forcing a reassessment, even among highly experienced diplomats. Former UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has written a human plea for countries to protect and shelter Syrian war refugees.
Among others, Fred Hof, an expert on Syria and a former American official, has written about the imperative of protecting civilians. I have recently heard senior and experienced policymakers from the region indicate that the Syrian people must be put front and centre to override the gridlock of classical interest-driven diplomacy.
The US and Russia are trying to find common ground, including by engaging regional actors, but, as Marwan Bishara reports, even Ukraine and Iraq get tangled up in the deal-making. The interests and varying perceptions of all actors involved are about as easy to resolve as a Rubik’s Cube.
New thinking patterns
The hope, however, is that the difficulties encountered by conventional geopolitics may create pressures strong enough to eke out new thinking patterns. Over time, a clearer crystal lens may shed light through the confusion: Until the needs of the Syrian people become the paradigm that trumps all others, there will be no solution to the Syrian mess.
Common sense dictates that Syrians, like others, require the straightforward setting up of a government that meets their natural emotional and material needs. In that “new world”, Syrians will have the right to criticise Assad without going to jail, and have diverse perspectives on their future without vilification. In turn, that will ensure calm and stability in Syria and beyond.
Today, such ideas will not easily penetrate the political habits and interests of decision-makers. Will Russia, Iran, the US and Saudi Arabia, or Syrian politicians put the Syrian people ahead of their policies and interests? The clear answer today is no.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that some Syrians believe Bashar al-Assad is the assurance for the future, while others see him as the largest obstacle. Many Syrian actors wish to compel others to their ways.
This can be mitigated if geopolitical actors, instead of favouring one actor, strongly support principles in favour of the Syrian people, including the territorial integrity of Syria and a political space that excludes all oppression, and guarantees the rights of all individuals, groups, and sects. Even if this does not work for Syria, geopolitics will have been humanised, and a forward step taken.
Although Syria suffers today, it can be any other nation tomorrow. Therefore, such politics will also be to the advantage of all.
It may also be time for many across the globe to stretch their imagination and see that each of the victims in Syria has a life as unique as Palmyra. Even if we don’t know those suffering personally, we have to push to implement policies as if we do.
A more human politics would recognise and partake in a “universal law”: We all share the same basic emotional and physical needs. If politics are aimed at having these these needs met, then we will flourish. If not, then Syria is there for all to see.
John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.