The picture has spread at lightning speed across social media, making him a symbol of the relentless suffering being experienced at this very moment by millions of Syrian civilians, including countless women and children.
Of course, we already know that hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died. But raw numbers, statistics, rarely have the emotional punch of a single life, especially that of a child, whose innocence makes it impossible for us to blame the victim -- or excuse our own failure to stop the suffering.
But this is not the first time in this disaster that we have had our consciences reflected back at us in an image. If Omran is the face of Syria's anguished residents, then Aylan Kurdi is the embodiment of the plight of refugees, of those families who opted to flee for their lives.
, taken last September, was just as haunting. His lifeless body lay face down on the beach. In his red T-shirt and blue shorts, his arms by his side, he looked as if he might wake up, rub his eyes, and start laughing. But he was dead; one more dead Syrian refugee among thousands.
His family, Kurdish Syrians, had decided to take a risky voyage via Greece. But soon after the overloaded rubber raft left from Bodrum, in Turkey, for the short trip to the island of Kos in Greece, it ran into trouble. With waves crashing over it, the boat capsized and Aylan drowned along with his mother and brother. His father Abdullah, the only surviving member of the family, took their bodies back to their hometown of Kobani
. He said he had buried his soul along with his family
As for Omran, doctors reportedly found him strong enough to leave the hospital, so he was discharged. The building where he lived collapsed shortly after he was pulled out. Rescue workers say several other people were killed
and more, including women and children, were wounded by the airstrike that nearly ended Omran's life.
Omran and Aylan, their images engraved in our minds, remind us of the excruciating decision faced by the Syrian people today, and for every day over the past five years: Do you stay or do you leave?
Imagine having small children, elder relatives, a life of your own, and having to choose between remaining in place in the middle of a brutal war, or leaving behind everything you know and launching on a journey that you and your family may not survive.
The wretched choice, each one entailing the possibility of death, captures the nightmare that has become Syria for its inhabitants.
The war in Syria stands as the supreme failure of the international community. The right actions years ago could have taken it in a different direction. This war is not the fault of President Barack Obama, or of Angela Merkel or Ban Ki-moon. But world leaders should hang their head in shame for standing back much too long and allowing this wound to fester. It is a disaster of overwhelming humanitarian proportions.
For world leaders, this is a complicated geopolitical conflict: a battle of ideologies, with local, regional and global power politics.
All of that is true, and is part of the maddeningly complicated reality that makes it so difficult to stop the conflict. But we should never forget that at its heart, this is a monumental tragedy for millions of people.
Consider Aleppo, Omran's home. The city, once Syria's thriving commercial capital, is now divided between a rebel-held east and a government-controlled West.
The government, with muscular support from Russia, Hezbollah and Iran, has tried to strangle the population, apparently deliberately bombing hospitals
and cutting off food supplies in an effort to starve the rebels into surrender. In recent days, the rebels broke the siege
, and then tried to impose one of the their own against the other side.
If you're looking for good guys in Aleppo, look at the rescue workers, the White Helmets, and the doctors working under fire.
Among the fighting sides there is little to cheer. There's the government of the country's dictator, President Bashar al-Assad, who has used chemical weapons against civilians
. His regime is fighting a rebel force dominated by radical Islamists, led by a group that was the al Qaeda franchise in Syria until just a few days ago, when it rebranded itself
. They officially left al Qaeda, but it was only a tactical move. Their ideology remains unchanged.
Syria is now effectively controlled by four different groups: the government, the Islamist rebels, the Kurds, and ISIS.
The United States is making progress -- after waiting far too long -- working with an alliance called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)
, led by Syrian Kurds and their Arab allies. They are the good guys in Syria. They deserve strong support.
Just last week, the city of Manbij was liberated from ISIS
by the SDF, with U.S. aerial support. The liberation brought scenes of rejoicing, including women burning the full face and body hijab ISIS forced them to wear.
But joy is in short supply in Syria, and the end of this tragedy is nowhere near. Omran and Aylan, the symbols of this tragedy, remind us that however difficult it is to find a solution to this awful war, we should not allow our apathy to win.