Robert Fisk — The Independent April 18, 2017
It was the Mother of all Hypocrisy. Some dead Syrian babies matter, I guess. Other dead Syrian babies don’t matter. One mass murder in Syria two weeks ago killed children and babies and stirred our leaders to righteous indignation. But the slaughter in Syria this weekend killed even more children and babies – yet brought forth nothing but silence from those who claim to guard our moral values. Now why should this be?
When a gas attack in Syria killed more than 70 civilians on 4 April, including babies and children, Donald Trump ordered a missile attack on Syria. America applauded. So did its media. So did much of the world. Trump called Bashar al-Assad “evil” and “an animal”. The EU condemned the Syrian regime. Downing Street called the gas attack “barbaric”. Almost every western leader demanded that Assad should be overthrown.
Yet after this weekend’s suicide bombing of a convoy of civilian refugees outside Aleppo killed 126 Syrians, more than 80 of them children, the White House said nothing. Even though the death toll was far greater, Trump didn’t even Tweet his grief. The US navy launched not even a symbolic bullet towards Syria. The EU went all coy and refused to say a single word. All talk of “barbarism” from Downing Street was smothered.
Do they feel no sense of shame? What callousness. What disgrace. How outrageous that our compassion should dry up the moment we realised that this latest massacre of the innocents wasn’t quite worth the same amount of tears and fury that the early massacre had produced. It fact it wasn’t worth a single tear. For the 126 Syrians – almost all of them civilians – who have just been killed outside Aleppo, were Shia Muslims being evacuated from two government-held (ie Bashar-held) villages in the north of Syria. And their killer was obviously from al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) or one of the Sunni “rebel” groups we in the West have armed – or quite possibly from Isis itself – and thus didn’t qualify for our sorrow.
The UN, clip-clopping on to the stage-boards as usual, did speak out. The latest attack was “a new horror”. And Pope Francis called it “ignoble” and prayed for “beloved and martyred Syria”. And having been brought up by a pretty anti-Catholic dad, I said what I often say when I think the Pontiff has got it right, especially Francis: Good old Pope! Why, even the virtually non-existent anti-Assad “Free Syrian Army” condemned the attack as “terrorist”.
But that was it. And I recalled all those maudlin stories about how Ivanka Trump, as a mother, had been especially moved by the videotape from Khan Shaykoun, the site of the chemical attack on 4 April, and had urged her father to do something about it. And then it was Federica Mogherini, the EU’s ‘High Representative” for foreign affairs and security policy, who described the attack as “awful” – but insisted that she spoke “first of all as a mother”. Quite right, too. But what happened to all her maternal feelings – and those of Ivanka – when the pictures came in from northern Syria this weekend of exploded babies and children packaged up in black plastic bags? Silence.
There’s no doubting the flagrant, deliberate, vile cruelty of Saturday’s attack. The suicide bomber approached the refugee buses with a cartload of children’s cookies and potato chips – approaching, I might add, a population of fleeing Shia civilians who had been starving under siege by the anti-Assad rebels (some of whom, of course, were armed by us). Yet they didn’t count. Their “beautiful little babies” – I quote Trump on the earlier gas victims – didn’t stir us to anger. Because they were Shias? Because the culprits might have been too closely associated with us in the West? Or because – and here’s the point – they were the victims of the wrong kind of killer.
For what we want right now is to blame the “evil”, “animal”, “brutal”, etc, Bashar al-Assad who was first “suspected” to have carried out the 4 April gas attack (I quote The Wall Street Journal, no less) and then accused by the entire West of total and deliberate responsibility of the gas massacre. No-one should question the brutality of the regime. Nor its torture. Nor its history of massive oppression. Yet there are, in fact, some grave doubts about Bashar’s responsibility for the 4 April attack – which he has predictably denied – even among Arabs who loath his Baathist regime and all it stands for.
Even the leftist but hardly pro-Syrian Israeli writer Uri Avneri – briefly, in his life, a detective – has asked why Assad should commit such a crime when his army and its allies were winning the war in Syria, when such an attack would gravely embarrass the Russian government and military, and when it would change the softening western attitude towards him back towards open support for regime change.
And the regime’s claim that a Syrian air attack set off explosions in al-Nusra weapons store in Khan Shaykoun (an idea which the Russians also adopted) would be easier to dismiss if the Americans had not used precisely the same excuse for the killing of well over a hundred Iraqi civilians in Mosul in March; they suggested that a US air strike on an Isis arms lorry may have killed the civilians.
But this has nothing to do with the weekend’s far more bloody assault on the refugee convoys heading for western Aleppo. They were part of a now-familiar pattern of mass hostage exchanges between the Syrian government and its opponents in which Sunni opponents of the regime in villages surrounded by the Syrian army or its allies have been trucked out to Idlib and other “rebel”-held areas under safe passage in return for the freedom of Shia villagers surrounded by al-Nusra, Isis and “our” rebels who have been allowed to leave their villages for the safety of government-held cities. Such were the victims of Saturday’s suicide bombing; they were Shia villagers of al-Foua and Kfraya, along with several government fighters, en route to what would be – for them – the safety of Aleppo.
Whether or not this constitutes a form of ethnic cleansing – another of Bashar’s sins, according to his enemies – is a moot point. Al-Nusra did not exactly urge the villagers of al-Foua and Kfraya to stay home since they wanted some of their own Sunni fighters back from their own encircled enclaves. Last month, the governor of Homs pleaded with Sunnis to leave the city on “rebel” convoys to Idlib to stay in their houses and remain in the city. But this is a civil war and such terrifying conflicts divide cities and towns for generations. Just look at Lebanon 27 years after its civil war ended.
But what ultimately proves our own participation in this immoral and unjust and frightful civil war is our reaction to those two massacres of the innocents. We cried over and lamented and even went to war for those “beautiful little babies” whom we believed to be Sunni victims of the Assad government. But when Shia babies of equal humanity were blasted to pieces this weekend, Trump could not care less. And the mothering spirit of Ivanka and Federica simply dried up.
And we claim that Middle East violence has nothing to do with us.