Saving Syria’s Children

Last night on December 11, 2013 Ambassador Frederic C. Hof delivered opening remarks at the US premier of BBC’s Panorama film Saving Syria’s Children hosted by the Embassy of the United Kingdom. The forty-five minute documentary follows the efforts of two British-Syrian doctors on an assessment mission to determine the needs and capaity of field clinics in Syria, when the unexpected reality of the Syrian war forced them into action. The heartbreaking film exemplifies the magnitude of the human cost of war—one that receives only passing attention by the global media—and reminds the audience of what is at stake for civilians in conflict. Please read Ambassador Hof’s comments below:

We are here this evening to introduce to the United States a remarkable video production that bears witness, without flinching, to the terror and physical pain being inflicted on the young people of Syria. BBC’s Panorama has recorded the work of two British physicians who willingly risked life and limb to protect the most vulnerable of Syrians; two remarkable human beings who have provided an example of courage and selflessness for us all. I will acknowledge feeling honored to help introduce Saving Syria’s Children. I will admit feeling absolutely unworthy to do so.

Those of you who were part of this production or who have had the opportunity to view it, will fully appreciate the inadequacy of words on an occasion like this. Those of you who will see Saving Syria’s Children for the first time will, I think, be rendered speechless. There is something about the suffering of children that transcends, for most of us anyway, the descriptive power of language. As a parent—even as the parent of children who have been adults for quite some time—what I fear most is that they should feel fear; that they should feel unprotected and vulnerable in the face of adversity. Indeed, even as one of my parents was dying what scared me the most was the idea that he would feel afraid. When President Roosevelt said eighty years ago that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself he was speaking, I suspect, to the central fear of many of us.

As I watched this remarkable story unfold what struck me most directly was the ability of these two heroic physicians to deal with fear: their own, that of their young patients, and that of panicked parents and siblings. The steadiness and unblinking eye of a professionally superb BBC crew were also striking. And those Syrian physicians and their assistants stopping at times only to donate blood for their patients certainly represented Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage: “Grace under pressure.”

Toward the end of the film one of the British physicians, after dealing with the medical consequences of a particularly gruesome aerial attack on a school, tearfully lamented that the world has abandoned Syria and its children. My hope is that this remarkable piece of work—Saving Syria’s Children—will help bring to an end to the collective back-turning and gaze-averting that has characterized the world’s response to mass murder in broad daylight.

For thirty-three months the avoidance of accountability has prevailed, as artillery, aircraft, rockets, and missiles have, with fine impartiality and impersonal cruelty, rained down ordnance on residential neighborhoods, killing people, ruining lives, scattering the living, and terrorizing all. We wring our hands and blame the absence of Security Council consensus. We call on people to step aside and warn them not to cross red lines. We comfort ourselves with the expectation that never again will Syrians be set upon chemically by their own government. And yet day-by-day the killing, ruining, scattering, and terrorizing continue. If this is not abandonment, what shall we call it?

In 2002, a book was published that should serve as our guide when confronted with campaigns of mass murder in faraway places. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide earned for Samantha Power more than literary awards. Her eloquently critical examination of 20th century American responses to genocide made her a powerful advocate for those around the world—including children—often overlooked by political leaders who sometimes find it inconvenient to make the preservation of human life a top policy priority.

Whether or not the Syrian crisis is of a genocidal nature is debatable. No doubt populated areas have been attacked, sacked, looted, cleansed, and soaked in blood for reasons centering on the sectarian identity of the people residing in them. No doubt Bashar al-Assad can persuade himself, as he authorizes deadly, massed fire assaults on residential neighborhoods, that the sectarian identity of his victims is a non-issue: that the terror and murder is not genocidal, but aims mainly at preventing opposition forces from governing. The end results are the same, whether the murderous intent of Mr. Assad and those who kill on his behalf has genocidal motives or not.

Samantha Power cited four major findings in her seminal work:

  1. “Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists, and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their heads down will be left alone. They urge ceasefires and donate humanitarian aid.”
  2. “It is in the realm of domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide is lost. American political leaders interpret society-wide silence as an indicator of public indifference. They reason that they will incur no costs if the United States remains uninvolved but will face steep risks if they engage.”
  3. “The US government not only abstains from sending its troops, but it takes very few steps along a continuum of intervention to deter genocide.”
  4. “US officials spin themselves (as well as the American public) about the nature of the violence in question and the likely impact of American intervention. They render the bloodshed two-sided and inevitable, not genocidal. They insist that any proposed US response will be futile. Indeed, it may even do more harm than good, bringing perverse consequences to the victims and jeopardizing other precious American moral or strategic interests.”

Again, set aside debate about the genocidal nature of all or some of what is happening in Syria. Do Samantha Power’s findings sound familiar in the context of America’s Syria policy? They should. They described with prophetic accuracy in 2002 the American reaction to mass murder in the Levant nearly a decade away.

In the case of Syria it was the use of chemical weapons that prompted an American president to consider a punitive, humanitarian military intervention. It was the promise that those weapons would be removed and destroyed that erased a credible threat of military force and permitted the Assad regime to continue its practice of terrorizing populated areas beyond its physical control. It is understandably tempting for President Obama to see Syria mainly in the context of an arms control problem soon to be solved. It is understandable that he and his colleagues should exhibit all four of the symptoms of avoidance cited by Samantha Power. It is all so understandable, especially if you are not Syrian; especially if you are not a Syrian child.

Crisis Action, the Embassy of the United Kingdom, CARE, and the staff of the Capitol Visitor Center all deserve deep thanks for organizing this event. Yet it is two courageous physicians—two women who personify decency, compassion, professionalism, and bravery—as well as a skilled and courageous BBC crew—who have earned our undying admiration. The day will surely come when Syria will be resurrected; when it will become a place where those who govern feel the responsibility to protect their fellow citizens. When that day comes the Syrian people will remember who was present and who was away during their hours of greatest fear and greatest need. The video we are about to watch will record for posterity the work of those who tried their best to save the children of Syria; the sacrifice of those who will be recorded, in the annals of Syrian history, as having been present for duty.

Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Screenshot from the BBC Panorama documentary "Saving Syria's Children." (Photo: BBC)