Jo Cox, a British parliamentarian who was murdered by a right-wing nationalist on June 16, 2016, claimed in an article published by Labourlist on October 12, 2015 that “President [Bashar Al] Assad and the civil war in Syria is…the greatest test of our generation – it is certainly the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. It is a test that so far…we have failed.”
In one of her last parliamentary speeches delivered on May 3, 2016, Cox argued that “both President [Barack] Obama and…Prime Minister [David Cameron] made the biggest misjudgment of their time in office when they put Syria in the ‘too difficult’ pile…[this] will, I believe, be judged hardly by history.”
Cox’s remarks are not to be taken lightly. The United States and its allies have traded humanitarian action in Syria for an indecorously complacent containment policy instead—one that sidelines Syrian suffering as irrelevant. This became quite apparent when Obama failed to follow through on his alleged “red-line policy,” which promised that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians would be met with action. Yet, with approximately 1500 people killed by chemical weapons to-date, Syrians continue to be subjected to chemical warfare as they wait for help that will never come.
What is arguably worse than the lack of humanitarian action from global leaders, however, is the international community’s tacit endorsement of this lack of action. Otherwise morally conscientious political activists and intellectuals have, much like Obama and Cameron, willingly thrown Syria into the “too difficult pile” and reduced the war’s narrative to the rise of ISIS, the refugee crisis, and the impact of these phenomena on the West.
One way in which some intellectuals and activists have unwittingly supported U.S. policy on Syria is by heralding the Obama administration’s June 30, 2016 announcement that it would “deepen military cooperation” with Russia—one of Assad’s strongest allies—in order to defeat certain terrorist groups in Syria, according to The Washington Post. This policy, which effectively endorses the regime’s counter-revolution, has been advocated by leftists, like journalist and activist Tariq Ali, who has argued that serious efforts to “resolve” the Syrian conflict require cooperation with Russia and the Assad regime.
One can only wonder why, in making these political calculations, Ali does not mention the Syrian people. Indeed, his “Western-centric” assessment of Syria—which, like U.S. policy, refuses to treat the war as the humanitarian crisis it is—has given little attention to the tribulations, desires, pleas, and needs of Syrians, treating them, instead, as pawns on a political chessboard.
As journalist Janine di Giovanni observed in an article published by Politico on February 27, 2016, the Syrian war’s human suffering is what many people—particularly in the West—are not talking about, for “[t]he truth is that the world, at least much of the United States, is not watching.”
As the world trained its focus on the recent bombings in Baghdad, Istanbul, and Medina, for example, it forgot that on July 6, 2016—the first day of Eid—the Assad regime bombarded Western Aleppo and killed at least three civilians while injuring dozens more. Among other tragedies, the international community also ignored the twelve year old girl who died in the Damascene suburb of Daraya on June 1, 2016, as a result of a “starvation siege” the Assad regime has enforced on the town since 2012, which has killed nearly seventy people in total.
To approach the Syrian conflict from a civilian-first perspective, we must first begin by changing mainstream narratives about the war. In this, we must be more like Jo Cox. She distinguished herself as a noble humanitarian. In the face of an otherwise demoralizing global silence, she used her voice to amplify the legitimate grievances and aspirations of Syrians. Simply put, Cox cared about Syria for the sake of Syrians. We would do well to honor her memory by following in her footsteps.