Last month, Josie Ensor, a journalist for The Daily Telegraph, described the anguish of covering Syria’s war. Leaving the dissonance of Beirut, and the horrors of Syria, behind, she wrote, ‘Syria is where the world collectively lost its humanity’.
While covering the war, her copy included of the aftermath of gas attacks, the remains of bombed-out houses and hospitals, and the endless grim parade of Assad regime crimes. As Syria’s war became more costly and its worst actors more depraved, the world ceased to take notice.
Ensor cites the example of Marie Colvin, a journalist deliberately killed by the regime for covering its siege of Homs from inside the city. It was Colvin’s hope that if her reporting and that of others could ‘move the needle’, the deprivations of Syria’s war could be exposed and explained, and the world would act.
Colvin is dead, and her hope remains unrealized. Her successors covering Syria for the Western press are beginning to move on, with the war in its tenth year, and no rescue or salvation in sight. President Trump’s appeal yesterday for the release of Austin Tice, a reporter abducted eight years ago near Damascus, was another reminder of just how long this has all been going on. Yet the needle and the world remain unmoved.
The horrors of Syria’s war do not lack for evidence. Footage of individual deaths and fighting abounds, jostling for space on the phones of the diaspora with video of protests and happier times. It, and documents relating to the mass murder, are collected by humanitarian monitors and international legal campaigns which aim to prosecute Syria’s many war criminals.
‘Activists, civil defence workers and defectors have gathered more evidence of war crimes than was recovered from Nazi Germany’, Ensor notes.
The murder and torture practiced in regime prisons has no post-war analogue. They are documented by thousands of photographs, large numbers of documents, and a deep reserve of testimony united by the horror those serving as witnesses were powerless but to experience.
Occasionally, regime figures are either issued international arrest warrants or deposed for trial. One is due to begin soon for state-sponsored torture. But Syria will likely never have its Nuremberg. Its tyrant and criminals know this, and act in that knowledge.
‘She looks elderly’, one soldier says. ‘It’s clear she’s coming to pack her belongings, then she’s leaving’.
‘I’m watching them, they are about to enter a house. Yallah, I am firing now,’ another replies.
Intercepted radio messages show Russian aircraft bombing civilian targets with their pilots’ full knowledge, slyly expressed. They say they have ‘sent candy’ when their murderous cargo has been delivered.
This evidence is uncovered through investigation, but more is available in the open. Recent footage of regime forces digging up fresh graves, smashing their headstones, and desecrating the bodies within was shot and disseminated by the defacers themselves.
One million civilians in Idlib and Aleppo have fled north since the regime began its newest, and now temporarily stalled, offensive. A large proportion of them are children, who have faced a cold winter without aid. Many of these children have frozen to death.
Extensive reporting has uncovered the most definitive evidence that vicious things are being done. They are unlikely to bear a cost.
Journalists covering Syria increasingly talk about the strain it has placed upon them personally. This sounds strange, egotistical even, but it reflects the war’s duration and perversity.
Many have lost friends who were sources. All have felt the loss of figures of admiration, such as the civil society activist Raed Fares, uncountable rescue workers for organizations like the Syrian Civil Defence (also known as the ‘White Helmets’), and James Le Mesurier, who ran Mayday Rescue.
We have seen the deaths of emblems of Syria’s war, like Abdalbasset Sarout. And still the conflict persists.
The former Guardian correspondent Kareem Shaheen, who visited Idlib in the course of covering Syria’s war, said in a recent interview that ‘all this talk of “never again” and international law and the international order were meaningless’. He remembered reporting on the deaths of children and many members of a single family in a chemical attack.
Shaheen described the children’s father, whom he interviewed, barely remaining conscious at the funeral, until he was reassured by a friend of an Islamic parable: that he would see his children again in paradise, and that their souls would help him to cross the Siraat bridge on the day of judgment, sparing him the possibility of damnation if he bore their loss with humility.
This story itself induces tears. But the reason the interview received much of its circulation was Shaheen’s answer to an almost parenthetical question: ‘You’ve seen a lot over the course of your reporting. Do you feel OK?’
His voice and demeanour clearly conveyed an answer: that Shaheen is not ‘OK’ with any of this. But in doing so, he could not escape from the bitterness of the war whose evils have given him such upset: ‘It somehow feels a bit frivolous to think about our own mental health and taking care of ourselves, because the people we’re writing about are going through so much more’.
The sympathy offered to observers rather than participants in an ongoing mass slaughter can only grate. It is as though the world has passed the war itself and is now content to deal with its effects on those who are one step removed from events.
Attention directed in this way is not illegitimate, but it rings false. Observers of Syria’s war feel strain because they see the immense suffering of others and cannot induce the world to see the same things and draw the same imperatives.
The state of Syria’s war is clear. Mass killing and terrible crimes predominate and are neither prevented nor punished. Those who fled north in Idlib await the failure of another ceasefire. Many who have lost family members now suffer in the expectation that their sacrifice was in vain. Even those who are buried with dignity by their families are not saved from the barbarism of a long war fought by brutalized men.
This is what the conflict has reached: not just the victory of the graveyard, but the unearthing and desecration of those lost. Syria’s war is more than nine years old. This is the state it occupies: developed and cultivated depravity, confidently wielded by vicious men, certain that there is no will left to stop them dead.
This essay was originally published at al-Jumhuriya.