Nearly a year ago, I published a short piece in which I questioned why we seemed to care about Omran Daqneesh more than other children in Syria suffering even more terrible circumstances. Omran, who was said to be five years old at the time (it was recently revealed that he is actually four years old), was rescued by the civilian first responders known as the White Helmets, after his family’s home was destroyed by an airstrike in East Aleppo. When photos and videos emerged of the toddler sitting in the back of an ambulance bloody, gritty, and glaring bleakly, he became a global spectacle.
I explained that Omran’s story may have received an exceptional amount of attention because of its “cinematic appeal.” Though the image of him was quite disturbing, it was not nearly as horrifying as the severed limbs and macerated faces that more fully capture the tragedies suffered by Syrian children. Omran’s condition was, in short, relatively palatable.
Recently, a much healthier and happier Omran has reemerged, leading many to celebrate the toddler’s improved circumstances. Even apologists for President Bashar Al-Assad have joined in to champion Omran. This is conspicuous if only because, last year, many of these same individuals either decried the boy’s devastating image as a “fabrication” (as did Assad himself), blamed (and continue to blame) rebel forces for the attack that led to his injuries, obsessively insisted his image was part of a propaganda campaign to bring “regime change” to Syria, or simply ignored the incident altogether. Omran was, at best, a footnote in these debates.
The reason for this about face is clear: Omran’s story has become a helpful tool for the Assad regime. Indeed, Omran’s public reappearance is the result of a television special produced by the Syrian government media outlet, Sama TV, in which the boy and his family were interviewed.
Conducted by notorious pro-Assad “journalist,” Kinana Allouch (who once took a smiling selfie amid a sea of dead rebels), the interview includes statements from Omran’s father, expressing unbridled support for the regime. He also claimed his son’s image had previously been used by the White Helmets and others as a “tool” in a propaganda campaign against the legitimate Syrian government, and that he had remained silent, until now, about his support for Assad out of fear for his son’s safety.
Since the interview aired, many have questioned whether the family was forced to agree to it. As CNN noted, the well-known Syrian opposition journalist, Mousa Al-Omar, has claimed that “Daqneesh was speaking to the cameras under duress.”
It doesn’t actually matter whether Omran’s family is, in fact, supporting Assad. It changes nothing about last year’s airstrike, including the regime’s responsibility for it, or the nature of the war in general. Assad is still a fascistic despot engaged in a protracted battle against his own population. The fact that Omran’s father expressed support for Assad does not wash the regime’s hands clean of these crimes. Nor does he speak for most Syrians, who are being oppressed by the regime, or for Omran himself, who is still too young to understand what is unfolding in Syria, or what happened to him last year and why.
Regime apologists all over the world, who once berated the White Helmets for exploiting Omran’s story, are now doing exactly that to bolster the regime’s legitimacy. Those who are endorsing the interview are, like Assad himself, using Omran to legitimize their “regime change” narrative, and make it seem as though most Syrians want Assad to stay.
For anyone with a moral compass, the debate about Syria is not centered around whether Assad should be ousted. Rather, the conversations should be about how best to achieve that goal.
To wholly oppose “regime change” is to effectively prefer Assad’s fascism over the “ominous” possibility of an “Islamist takeover.” Nor is stability and safety a morally conscionable reason to reject the Syrian people’s desire for freedom and democracy in favor of continued Assad-rule. Regime-controlled areas may currently be safer and more stable than rebel-held territories, but this is understandable given the economic and political support Assad receives from his international allies—especially from Russia. Rebel-held areas face constant bombardment, infighting, and corruption—problems absent from regime controlled places. But, to use this fact as leverage to support a hellacious regime is unscrupulous. At best, Syrians living under Assad’s rule are “safer” in the same way that Palestinians living in Israel, rather than West Bank or Gaza, are “safer.”
All in all, Omran Daqneesh will continue to be used and abused by the Assad regime and its supporters. Perhaps, someday, when he is old enough, Omran will speak out against them and their exploitation.