Wars, public outrage and policy options in Syria

A man reacts to the destruction of his home in the Syrian city of Aleppo on 22 February, 2014 Tales of Syrian suffering are not enough for Americans to rise up and demand action

"Please take us out of here," pleaded 60-year-old Wafiqa in Yarmouk camp outside Damascus while 13-year-old Kiffah burst into tears: "There is no bread."

The unspeakable pain and horror of living under siege for months, in a war where food has become a weapon, is on full display in this poignant report by my colleague Lyse Doucet.

We've heard these pleas before. The BBC reports regularly from inside Syria, as do several American papers, and although coverage of the Syrian war is not wall-to-wall on American networks, it gets regular, consistent attention.

So where is the public outrage about a war so chaotic and dangerous that even the UN has stopped keeping track of the death toll? Have we all become numb to the pain of others?

Start Quote

What's happening in Syria is an abomination, one that the world is watching coldly from a distance”

End Quote Stephen Hawking University of Cambridge

Perhaps it was always like that - I remember living through 15 years of war in Lebanon. There were moments of international attention and efforts to help, in between long periods where we felt the world had forgotten us.

The world inevitably tires of complex, long conflicts where there are no clear answers about how to end the violence. This cartoon in the New Yorker is a harsh but perhaps accurate look at how the collective conscience deals with the relentless stream of bad news from Syria.

There is a renewed chorus to do "something'' about Syria, with appeals to people's conscience. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Stephen Hawking recently wrote:

What's happening in Syria is an abomination, one that the world is watching coldly from a distance. Where is our emotional intelligence, our sense of collective justice?

In a similar vein, Nicholas Burns, a former senior state department official, asked: "How many more lives will be claimed by Syria's ceaseless civil war before we are finally shamed to stop the killing?"

(Spare a thought for the North Koreans, too. A UN report out last week, too horrific even to read, compares the abuses committee by the government to Nazi Germany. I have yet to see much outrage or calls for action. )

But would our sense of shame and public outrage actually make a difference? When they discuss US policy options for Syria, administration officials repeatedly point to the fact that Americans have bigger concerns closer to home and that President Barack Obama is very mindful that the public has no appetite for interventions abroad, no matter how limited.

So I asked a couple of officials what would happen if, theoretically, hundreds of thousands people suddenly took to the street in the US to demand action to end the fighting in Syria. It's a tough question and they had no real answer, because no matter the outrage, the policy options remain exactly the same, none of them perfect. The question is whether it would become more tenable for the president to take action if the public demanded it.

Possibly, but that's not how public opinion works. People demonstrate to end wars and bring the troops home, like with Vietnam. They protest against invasions, like Iraq in 2003, when their country's troops are about to be shipped overseas. Or they support military action when their own country has come under attack. But people rarely rise up to demand action because of a sense of collective justice.

Start Quote

The United States of America is different”

End Quote Barack Obama US President

Lack of public pressure conveniently reinforces Mr Obama's conclusion that it's too difficult and politically too risky to take action in Syria, but it's in fact up to the president to galvanise public opinion.

In early March 2011, when the Libyan uprising turned violent, there was little appetite in the US for military action. Americans were in the same mood then as they are now about the rest of the world. By the end of March, the US was engaged in military strikes against Libya, and polls showed a plurality supported the strikes.

As this piece points out, people didn't have a sudden change of heart about Libya. They were becoming more exposed to the story in the media in a consistent way and hearing clearly and repeatedly from the president and others as to why the US was involved.

On 28 March the president said: "Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different."

The military operations in Libya didn't come with guarantees, but an assessment was made that there was reasonable hope for success.

Libya and Syria are different, and the policy options on Syria are much more complicated - and they don't necessarily involve direct military strikes. When the president becomes convinced that the chances of success in Syria are higher than the cost of doing nothing, and he makes the case in a compelling way that some form of more direct US action is needed, public opinion will rally around.


More on This Story

Syria conflict



This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Why do you even bother having a site when obviously all you have raving lunatics reading and posting?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The USA has been following a plan that calls for the toppling of seven MENA countries. Where possible, toppling is effected with the aid of proxies while announcing “humanitarian” pretexts.

    Toppling boosts the power of radical irregular forces.The toppling process is totally illegal and has disastrous consequences for the targeted country and for its population.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    USA is like a wife-beater to the whole world
    Acting tough slapping people around warring
    is the old way and is illegal and indicative of violent mental illness
    Slapping a woman will always backfire
    when they hold a permanent grudge against you
    and will make you pay and destroy you

    14 years in Iraq and Afghanistan were total abortions
    (money scam plan)

    Libya is another destroyed country in vacuum

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Assad, in hindsight, should have crushed the protesters the first day they started defiantly demonstrating for revolution and an overthrowing of his regime. The west would have vilified him for it, some of his own people would have secretly cursed him for it, but 130,000 of his citizens would be alive today, his country wouldn't be in ruins, nor would it be overrun with psychopathic terrorists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    A man was looking for a dog at the pound. After reviewing the dogs, he settled on two. The first dog was as happy as could be, but needed some special attention for a broken leg (Ukraine). The next dog was a strong, powerful and handsome beast. Upon approach, the handsome dog wagged it's tail but as the man stretched out his hand the dog became violently angry(ME). Which one would you help?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Obama USA
    condones NSA
    and is useless
    and clueless
    at everything
    except spying
    which he's denying
    as its not legal
    so its classified lies
    disgraceful yank eagle
    regular slyly killing
    phones by drones
    and innocent civillan
    humans in homes

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Enough, people. Honestly, enough. The USofA cannot pretend to be World Police while pursuing a myriad of hidden agendas ad infinitum, (or perhaps not so hidden actually) and continue to bleed its people and its economy. Let Putin fix Syria - the Soviet Union supported it for decades: time to clean up the mess. Or whomever - as long as its not the Yanks. They have "done" enough, recently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    My heart goes out to the Syrians - BUT, what possible outcome would result from US intervention? After 3 years living in the EU, I am convinced Europe has no stomach or capability for such adventures - they rather have the US pull the load - then either way it turns out, we are "wrong" - but our troops pay the price.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    "Wars, public outrage and policy options in Syria"

    Sometimes it is good to read BBC HYS articles contents

    Other times it is better to just read a title and shoot from the hip

    I accidentally read whole article & wish I hadn't

    Writer is missing whole point

    Nobody asks or supports war

    They protest against it

    They ask & support for peace

    Obama / NSA are plagiarisers of ideas
    Fed up with both

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    There seems to be an assumption a US led or international force could stop the fighting on the ground in Syria. Anything is possible with infinite resources, but it would be much more difficult than can be imagined at a distance. When the Syrian government, Russia, and the foreign fighters decide a stalemate has been reached and negotiations are to their advantage, then the fighting will stop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The public mood has no appetite for US involvement in further wars. Last week Eric Cantor attempted to resurrect PNAC to get the US military engaged in actions (including Syria): http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/02/eric-cantors-foreign-policy-ideas-would-consign-us-to-perpetual-war/284028/ While yesterday Secretary Hagel indicated a reduction of US forces strength. Good luck Eric.


Page 3 of 3


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.