Syria after four years: back to the dark ages
In the town where I grew up the council have started switching off most of the street lights at night to save money. Warwickshire County Council say the night-time switch-off is needed because of budgetary deficits - it’s a so-called “austerity” measure, as well as a way to reduce carbon emissions and light pollution.
Not everyone’s happy about it. My mother, for one, fears there’ll be extra crime - people breaking into garages and garden sheds in the pitch-black streets. Maybe, though I don’t think there’s any evidence that this is actually happening, while the council say they’re saving £500,000 per year.
If the leap from a (relatively) peaceful north Warwickshire town to war-torn Syria is not too great (possibly it is), try to imagine instead what it must be like to have had nearly all of the lights where you live extinguished not because of municipal budgeting but through wholly violent means - the present case in Syria. Recently-released research shows precisely this: that 83% of Syria’s entire lighting network has been knocked out by four gruelling years of conflict. In some places - notably Aleppo Governorate - it’s approaching 100%.
To be sure, putting up with imposed darkness is not the height of suffering. In terms of Syria’s monumental agonies - 220,000 violent deaths, tens of thousands of people jailed or “disappeared” (many enduring torture), nearly 12 million forced out of their homes (more than four million of these forced out of the country entirely), crippling military sieges, chronic shortages of food and medicines, all with no end in sight - living without functioning street lights must seem … almost trivial.
It’s surely not though. Our sense of community - even our sense of civility and civilisation - is dependant on public services like street lighting, refuse collection and road maintenance. Take these away for long and people begin to give up hope. The eastern half of the Syrian city of Aleppo is a graphic example. Syria’s largest city, one of the oldest continually-inhabited locations in the entire world, is suffering a slow annihilation. Amid almost apocalyptic scenes of destruction, 300-400,000 people are struggling to survive in the remnants of a shattered city that used to house one million people. Because of severe heating fuel shortages, residents have chopped down all the city’s trees for firewood, turning afterwards to school desks and chairs. Food is scarce and expensive, as is infant formula, and electricity is intermittent and the water supply damaged. But most of all, eastern Aleppo is under almost constant aerial bombardment, terrorising and traumatising its rump population. (While no-one would want to deny Aleppo’s extreme beleageurment, I think the journalist Martin Chulov overdoes it when he compares it to the infamous German siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. This is reckoned to be the most destructive and lethal siege in modern history, with upwards of 1.5 million deaths, mass hunger and even fairly widespread cannibalism. Then again, it’s a sign of how bad things have become in Aleppo that people are now reaching for Leningrad as a possible point of comparison).
And yet, and yet …is any of this actually resonating around the world right now? This huge chain of human suffering - from the millions struggling to survive in an increasingly war-ravaged country to the boat-loads of Syrians drowning almost weekly in the Mediterranean in their desperate attempt to escape their homeland. Is this humanitarian disaster truly capturing the hearts and minds of the rest of the world?
Seems to me it isn’t. Instead, increasingly, politicians and policy-makers the world over are discussing ISIS. They, not the Syrian government’s armed forces or their murderous allied militias from Lebanon or Iran are the “existential threat”. Regardless of the fact that, according to Najib Ghadbian, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces’ representative to the UN, Syrian government forces are killing civilians at nearly 50 times the rate that the self-publicising ISIS fighters are, it’s ISIS everyone’s talking about.
Interestingly enough, Ghadbian’s remark on the deadly disparity between ISIS and Bashar al-Assad’s forces came during a grim photo exhibition in the UN building in New York. A selection of highly graphic torture images from the “Caesar” collection was put on display in a corridor in the UN headquarters to remind staff “not to look away” from the crisis in Syria. You’d rather hope that of all people UN workers wouldn’t need to be jolted into re-engaging with what the organisation’s secretary general Ban Ki-moon has called a “nightmare of suffering”. But if a reminder’s needed, then so be it …
And perhaps everyone requires a jolt to re-engage over Syria. With its abortive uprising-turned-bloodbath now into its fifth punishing year, there’s a danger that Syria will slip further into the background as the world “moves on”. And on top of international “fatigue” over Syria, the bloody theatricality of ISIS is now serving as a form of cover for the Damascus-based killers and torturers of Assad’s government. I’ve remarked elsewhere (Parodies of Islamic State podcast item, 2:05 onwards) that ISIS’s YouTube-d theatre of blood is clearly designed to transfix and mesmerise, to set the agenda on ISIS’s terms while side-stepping the horrible, un-filmed reality of the group’s mass kidnappings, its sex trafficking and its rapacious land-grabbing.
ISIS’s staged, HiDef snuff videos on the one hand, grimly un-theatrical citizen footage of barrel bombings and chlorine gas attacks on the other. It’s worth remembering that the vast majority of horror-show videos from Syria in the last four years have shown atrocities coming from the government side. It seems we need a jolt to remind us of this. A “killer stat” (literally) like Ghadbian’s. A sort of lightbulb moment. We need to shine a light on Syria.
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