Syria: Do people really care?

The enormity of the crisis in Syria is almost indigestible to those who do not see it directly.

People that fled ISIL-controlled areas arrive at a rebel controlled area in northern Aleppo countryside, Syria [REUTERS]
People that fled ISIL-controlled areas arrive at a rebel-controlled area in northern Aleppo countryside, Syria [Reuters]

As the US-Russian peace talks finally collapsed against a backdrop of intense attacks on eastern Aleppo, Syria appears to have fallen even further into darkness. On Sunday, campaigners organised a global “day of rage” to express their feelings about events.

Yet in London, while a few hundred people marched in the rain in the centre of the city, tens of thousands shopped busily nearby, seemingly oblivious to events. So do people really care about what is happening in Syria?

Soon the conflict will have gone on longer than World War II. In the space of more than 2,000 days of crisis, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and half of the country’s population have been forced from their homes.

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BBC reporters ask how do you report something you can’t show people because it is judged too ghastly for them to see?

Apathy towards the crisis

Journalists, politicians and humanitarians have instead engaged in an arms race of more and more dramatic language to try to shake people out what could be described as an accepting apathy towards the crisis.

Humanitarians in particular pour over dictionaries and thesauruses to find new language to describe Syria’s descent into a Dante-esque hell.

The UN humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien, said recently that Syria is a “living hell” and a “pitiless and merciless abyss of a humanitarian catastrophe”.

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The destruction of hospitals has suddenly become the new normal. Families huddle together in a single room of their Aleppo homes, preferring to die together than apart. A seven-year-old’s Twitter account tells stories of doing homework while the bombs fall around her.

People inspect a damaged site after air strikes on a rebel-held neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria [Reuters]
People inspect a damaged site after air strikes on a rebel-held neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria [Reuters]

Images of dazed and bloodied children sitting alone in the backs of ambulances or lying face down dead on the sands of Turkey spark all-too-brief moments of soul-searching before things carry on as before.

If Syria is a conflict of a generation, we can’t say we didn’t know what was happening, and that knowledge places a burden of responsibility on all of us, not just those who are the perpetrators of violence or its victims. 

The Economist described Syria this month as Obama’s “greatest geopolitical failure”, yet an absence of leadership is partly the product of no public demand for such leadership.

Deep aversion

Simply put, the root of this lies in a post-9/11 deep-seated primacy to concerns about “terrorism” and a legacy of the botched invasion and occupation of Iraq. Combined, this has left a deep aversion to getting seriously involved in the conflicts of the Middle East.

Syria, in the eyes of many, is 'not our problem' - instead it is the fault of others where the blame can lie and justify inaction.


Syria, in the eyes of many, is “not our problem”. Instead it is the fault of others, where the blame can lie and justify inaction.

The enormity of the crisis is almost indigestible to those who do not see it directly. As Stalin once was alleged to have said, “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”.

There are a whole host of statistics demonstrating how bad things are in Syria but perhaps they’ve contributed to desensitising us to the shared humanity and empathy needed for people to care more as to what is happening there.

Fear about the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and concern about small numbers of westerners going there and larger numbers of Syrians coming here dominates European debate.

Indeed, there is far more active politics when it comes to taking in Syrians, as western publics and their politicians debate the symptoms rather than the cause.

The Syrian crisis is a test of our common humanity and global values, and it is one that we are failing. We cannot simply see the people of the region as either regime, radicals or refugees. While there are no easy options more, much more, can and should be done.

‘Good guys’

Tens of thousands have signed up to the Syria Campaign whose central call is for a “peaceful and democratic future for Syria”.

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The recent prominence of the “White Helmets” civil defence teams, the subject of a Netflix documentary and a Nobel Prize nomination, has suddenly given the wider public some “good guys” to get behind.


Meanwhile, at a practical level, there is a huge range of local and international humanitarian agencies that can be supported.

Most important, however, is for people to place political pressure on their representatives to push Syria up the political agenda. To ask what they are doing to help bring an end to the suffering of Syrian civilians.

With the collapse of US-Russian talks, there is already a pivot towards pressurising Moscow to do more to de-escalate the fighting.

Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister, called on FIFA to cancel the 2018 World Cup in Russia following their “barbarism in Aleppo”.

Edmund Burke once said that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.

In Syria, we must work to ensure that easy apathy is defeated by tackling the difficult choices that come with responsibility to act.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.