The photo of Omran Daqneesh, the five year old boy pulled out of rubble in Aleppo in Syria, was on the front page of every newspaper in Europe. The baffled look of a child, who was just bombed by people he never would even know, instantly symbolizing the story of every child who is suffering under this brutal Russian bombardment, in this animalistic Syrian civil war, currently in its fifth year. The last time a photo had a similar effect was when Aylan Kurdi was drowned while fleeing to Europe from Turkey with people smugglers and the reaction this time was also similar. It was similar when the French kid with her baby doll was murdered by a rampaging terrorist truck driver in Nice. The reactions to these photos are always predictable, cries for solidarity, donations to charity and calls to “do something”.
Photographs are intensely powerful medium of message. Devoid of broader context and compartmentalized in a visual frame, it gives power and meaning and substance, and simplifies the most complex situations in a binary of good or bad. It also changes meaning, sometimes imposing one where none exists. Perhaps most importantly, it can portray a strong appeal to the highly emotive limbic system of the brain. It clouds rationality.
Unsurprisingly, the worst kind of virtue signaling can start over a visual, and this poor boy was no exception. Historically visuals were used to rally people for a cause. Just one example, during the Indian mutiny of 1857, the power of British press was evident, as paintings of Lady Britannia delivering retributive justice to the evil Indian rebels was used to bring the entire country together in what was one of the toughest time of the Raj. Similar instances are littered throughout history.
This time also, liberals in the west, including academics and journalists alike, not to mention think tanks and lobby groups has started tweeting the photo and demanding to “do something”. Do what is not exactly clear however. In a fantastic piece in Free Beacon, Noah Pollak wrote about the same thing, how the Western liberal intelligentsia suffers from the guilty conscience of incapability, knowing that they are not essentially doing anything, nor are they willing or able, so they try to overcompensate with vague virtue signaling on twitter, by calling for solidarity and tweeting under hashtags. It happened during Aylan Kurdi, and stopped immediately it was found out, that Aylan was comparatively safe in Turkey, before his fathers greed got him on a treacherous journey crossing the Mediterranean in boats of people smugglers, and got him killed.
This time is no different. However, Realist academics and policy makers cannot rely on hashtags or candle light vigils, because simply real life is different and there are more considerations than simplistic narratives. If anyone comes and shows dead children photos, and demands action or inaction, that is “Argumentum Ad Passiones” or in common parlance, an appeal to emotions. That is not however a ground for policy. What could be a policy in this situation?
Syrian civil war, is a microcosm of the greater Middle East. A region ravaged by corrupt but secular illiberal authoritarians on one hand. Due to these unique cultural direction, the societal underground remained deeply reactionary and conservative, not to mention uniquely sectarian due to special forces of religion. In that situation, everything has been tried, but nothing worked, especially an imposition of democracy by means of external actors.
We’ve tried intervention/nation building (Iraq), intervention/non-nation-building (Libya), and non-intervention (Syria). None of them worked. None of them were expected to work either. India didn’t turn from Feudal Mughal period and Sati to a modern state in a day. It took over four hundred years. In relatively modern situation, the civil war in neighbouring Lebanon took 15 years during the 1980s, to stop before peace was achieved through negotiation. The Yugoslavian disintegration took 12 years. Syria and Middle East is barely on its fifth year of turmoil.
So, back to the original question, what is to be done in this situation? What’s the alternative policy. Is it full intervention and nation building? Is it strategic amputation of the entire Middle East and cordoning off the region from Libya to Yemen? Or is it calibrated and asymmetric escalation against affected areas? Now, second auxiliary questions are, given the case of full intervention, who will intervene, and why? The West is war weary and another open-ended intervention, no matter how noble the purpose, will be a hard sell, after almost two decade of failed democracy export. It is logistical and economic impossibility as well, not to mention, the leader of Western liberal order, United States is relatively unthreatened by migrant crisis or terrorists, and therefore it is in no strategic interest of US to join in stabilizing the region, where other powerful countries are vying for influence. Europe doesn’t have the capability or organizational backing, and unity to launch any effort to stabilize even its own backyard in Ukraine, much less Middle East.
And if anyone says, Open Borders for all migrants, Full Nation Building, or candle light Solidarity…it is time to go for a drink. Open borders and/or “solidarity” are just good activist soundbites, in reality is geo-politically naive and socio-economically catastrophic, that it doesn’t even merit a serious policy discussion.
Finally, one needs to understand, the rebels are not going to win, not today not ever, they are too divided for any serious support. The fight for the West in Middle East is one of humanitarian concern with a dose of geopolitics, the fight of Russia and Iran is however existential. Interests matter, and in this case, it matters more to Russia than to US, the survival of Assad and the Shia axis being a matter of Russia’s great power pride and new found military influence. That’s exactly why Russia is hell bent on carving out a new geopolitical role in a region, where it lost influence since 1979, if that means new détente with old adversaries like Turkey and Israel, so be it. Geopolitics makes strange bedfellows.
This war should stop. And it will only stop someday when both sides understand this is unwinnable, without either negotiation (which failed thrice already), or a forced Balkanization. Unfortunately that time has not arrived yet. Which means, there will be more such photos, and more such “appeals to emotions” and subsequent calls for interventions. Interventions however will just keep the fire slowly burning.
(First published here.)