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.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Obama winding down US conflict zones is the stage for Jeb Bush (a PNAC signatory who rigged the 2000 Florida election via voter scrub lists) to go head to head with Hillary Clinton! You can bet that Dick Cheney & Eric Cantor's call for maintaining US military strength this week is because of this: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peterfoster/100261375/why-are-americans-so-darned-deferential/

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    “Remember, I'm not running against Rick Perry; I'm running against apathy,”

    Kinky Friedman

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    "May the God of your choice bless you."

    - Kinky Friedman

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    44. Scotch Git,

    Oh yeah, Sweaty socks! Glad to hear it (and not smell it)!

    You're so kind and cheerful! You're an inspiration!

    "When will Kinky Friedman become Governor of Texas?"

    It's going to be a wild race anyway, so why not throw his hat into the ring again?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    "The world inevitably tires of complex, long conflicts where there are no clear answers about how to end the violence." - This is lazy journalism. There's a dearth of mainstream media attention and this is equated with 'the world'. This woman has a restricted world view. To believe that people will just go out onto the street spontaneously whenever an imperialist driven event occurs is arrogant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Marie: Investigative journalism has become an oxymoron

    I was watching documentary yesterday about two investigative reporters who wanted to do story on hormones made by Monsanto found in our USA milk (which are banned in Canada and UK)

    The reporters went to court over it in Florida in which they lost the case

    As for Syria, I don't feel like we get the full story from our media

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Marie: Whatever your plan is, you're going to have to do Syria behind our backs

    Anything deals done under the cover of darkness are wrong

    Good deals are done in broad daylight

    That is why I am so suspicious of TPP- the new trade deal Obama is trying to do because its all secret

    I feel for Syria but I think its really up to its neighbors to help it such as Saudi Arabia, Dubai, ect

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.


    Life in the land of Sweaty Socks (Jocks) is lookin' purty good right now!

    When will Kinky Friedman become Governor of Texas?

    Re: 39, 41

    Spot on, ma'am!

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    42. Are and always have been. Islamic fundamentalists the current vogue, following bin Laden's 'caliphate' notion and realizing serious gains from North Africa through the Middle East to Malaysia. And don't discount the American evangelicals (US Taliban) who are wreaking havoc in the Red states with Armageddon as their objective - hence the support for jingoism by Israel and homophobia in Uganda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    religious extremists will be the next global threat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    re 39. correct to: "investigative reporters."

    Investigative journalism has become an oxymoron. In fact, let's ditch the word correspondent while we're at it. thx.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    When we don't intervene, these barbaric cretins kill eash other. When we DO, they go after and kill US.
    Staying far, FAR away from this morass is the ONLY sane, sensible option.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Sorry, corporates. Whatever your plan is, you're going to have to do Syria behind our backs. And when that happens, we'll want to hear from real investigative journalists please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Its sad whats happening in Syria but its sad what is happening in Ukraine too as well as its sad what is happening in Africa as well with Boko Haram

    There are a lot of places in the world hurting right now
    I think in regards to Syria we simply don't have any interest
    and we simply don't have any money

    Right now the biggest issue in USA is stopping illegal immigration

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I think the U.S. and its people would support military intervention in Syria in the context of a significant INTERNATIONAL commitment to do so. After Bush and Iraq, we can no longer claim any grounds whatsoever to act unilaterally in such conflicts. Many of us no longer trust our own government's assertions of threats to national security, or its claims of moral and ethical purity and insight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The reality is for us here in USA we are facing a massive illegal immigration problem with the economy still in recession and we simply don't have any extra money to help

    Obama has promoted illegal immigration again and again
    but the majority of Americans is still against it

    Same with Syria- no matter how much Obama promotes it,
    the majority of Americans don't want any intervention

  • Comment number 35.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I think we in America are not falling for anymore wars. We are are tired of the endless wars. It's time for Europe, India, Brazil, Japan, and other countries to step-up.

  • Comment number 33.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    The US have paid a heavy price every time we intervene in the Middle East. Instead of placing the onus on POTUS Obama and the US, instead the UN, the Europeans, the Chinese and the Arabs should step up to the plate. Let's heal our wounds and fix our economy after more than 15 years of continuous war fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan before getting involve in another military adventure.


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