Editor’s Note: Nick Paton Walsh is a senior international correspondent for CNN International. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Distance commentary is never a healthy task. And with Syria, with the drumbeat of shrapnel in children and starving, drowsy mothers in the background, it often feels fraudulent – as the writer is so far away from a reality seen only on YouTube.
I wrote a piece last month, expressing frustration at how the UN had said there were “no words” to describe the agony of Eastern Ghouta, how the West needed to stop pretending it was heartbroken over the conflict and just accept that it didn’t care.
We are now marking the seventh anniversary and I have been asked to update the piece – because an anniversary is a time we are mandated to pay attention to things we otherwise prefer to ignore.
But it is difficult to find something new to say, because the war is ongoing, as it has been for seven years of exhausted vocabularies, and because – really – we still don’t care.
Yet it is also quite an easy task, as nothing has really changed. Over the past 19 days, there has been a UN Security Council vote – which declared the need for a ceasefire. Russia, which for once did not use its veto in the council, agreed that the fighting needed to pause, but not when. So it never did.
The bombing continued, as did the siege. And then, exactly as happened in eastern Aleppo in 2016, a ground assault began.
If you put the abhorrent moral vacuum to one side – as is Russia’s default in warfare – it is militarily quite an effective strategy: the Syrian regime will soon control Ghouta again.
This isn’t a new tactic. It is what the regime and its Russian backers do. They use negotiation to distract from their military maneuvers – and to provide a space to complete them – while diplomats act as if their due process and fine language translate into change in the rubble.
It is not a surprise that Moscow is not an honest broker: it has so far only admitted to invading Ukraine once, rather than twice. A similar fate probably awaits rebel-held Dara’a in the south and Idlib in the north of Syria. The West will then express shock in varied and creative ways, but the same thing will happen.
So, in those 19 days, what else has changed? Well, technically, all of US policy on Syria. The problem is that these changes don’t appear to have materially changed anything, because the policy the US had in the first place wasn’t serious enough to change anything.
Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State who was sacked on Tuesday, did in his brief tenure articulate a very detailed Syria policy.
It was partially the stuff of dreams: retaining the key features of the Obama administration’s 2012 belief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would eventually leave power if you were rude enough to him.
It also contained enough US demands for what the end state in Syria should look like to potentially keep US troops in the north there indefinitely. But now Tillerson is gone – and given the White House never explicitly signed off on his Syria strategy – we are back to square one. There is only slight relief in that we never had enough time to take the Tillerson plan that seriously.
In those 19 days, a chemical weapon has, however, been used again. Allegedly by Russia, but this time on the streets of NATO’s second largest military contributor: the UK.
London and much of the West does care about that. Meanwhile, nothing changes in Ghouta.
So, I get to the bit where I can recycle the end of the last piece. We still don’t care about Ghouta, or Syria:
This kind of massacre didn’t register enough when it began in 2012. I saw nine children’s bodies pulled out from one rocketed house, one survivor alive only because she was breastfeeding and protected by her mother’s corpse.
It didn’t register in 2013 when the savagery grew so fierce that we saw exasperated Syrians allow al Qaeda to dominate some areas and a group called ISIS marched into Raqqa.
In Homs, Hama, Aleppo’s east, even with Sarin gas use in Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, the crimes are never enough to elicit a serious and committed Western response. So far, Assad has lost an airfield to 59 cruise missiles and finds international banking transactions tricky. Nothing else.
It is distressing to conclude that the repeated discussion of “never again” and bemoaning Western indifference hides the real issue at stake here. We simply don’t care. The Western world will act only if the crucible of Syria generates a horror so extreme its militants threaten our own cities. The illusion that our disgrace and outrage may slow the massacre is giving the people of Ghouta false hope. The West’s efforts are best put to aid in the aftermath.
We aren’t minded or able to do anything. But where would you like us to send the flowers?