Wars, public outrage and policy options in Syria

  • 26 February 2014
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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?

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.

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.