Editor’s Note: Nick Paton Walsh is a senior international correspondent for CNN International. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Saying there are “no words” to describe a horror is infuriating. But now not saying anything has become the new way to talk about the world’s nastiest war.
It is essentially the job of the United Nations to find the words – to articulate the savagery being again unleashed on the people of Syria. Instead, they put out a statement saying that “No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones” following yet another day of brutality in Ghouta.
It’s not as if the carnage escapes the boundaries of language – it doesn’t. But the “no words” statement alluded to two things that are far more chilling.
First: after seven years of condemning violence in the “strongest possible terms,” the UN – the main mediator and supplier of aid – has instead concluded that saying it can only say nothing about something is the only way in which it can grab attention.
The second, more chilling conclusion from the statement, is that the UN effectively accepts it no longer has a role in Syria. Russia’s UN Security Council veto stymies any meaningful resolution – which is often dismissed by the Assad regime that stands accused of using sarin gas again, despite a resolution demanding they surrender all chemical weapons.
Where the peacemakers and diplomats should have a mechanism for de-escalation and mercy, now there is a deliberate blank space.
Hot on the heels of the UN’s well-meaning intransigence comes the US State Department, who only a few weeks ago articulated a multi-point strategy for Syria so wide and all-encompassing that it essentially committed the US to a more or less permanent presence in the country – as well as Assad’s departure.
The US State Department spokeswoman insists the administration is “fully engaged” when it comes to the situation in Ghouta. Yet when pushed as to what the US is explicitly doing, she says, exasperatedly, to a hall full of reporters: “I don’t know what some of you expect us to do.”
It is in of itself a very strange statement. It presupposes that the need for a clear and plain response to Ghouta is some wild media fantasy. Yet it is also wildly honest. What really – outside of Tillerson’s long and studied dream sequence of strategy – can the US really be expected to do?
Even when Angela Merkel says Germany “must do everything we can to end the massacre,” she then proposes calling one of its co-sponsors, Russia.
The truth of these overreaching and underwhelming statements is they recognize the reality. Unless the West is prepared to blow Russian-backed jets out of the sky over Ghouta to impose a no-fly zone, its hands are tied.
This isn’t a new series of tactics by the regime and Russia: they have previously talked about a ceasefire, before bombing, besieging and pursuing their military objectives – eventually demanding that all human life leave an encircled area.
This is what they do. And confused, powerless atrophy is what the outside world does in response.
This kind of massacre didn’t register enough when it began in 2012. I saw nine children’s bodies pulled out from one rocketed house, one survivor alive only because she was breastfeeding and protected by her mother’s corpse.
It didn’t register in 2013 when the savagery grew so fierce that we saw exasperated Syrians allow al Qaeda to dominate some areas and a group called ISIS marched into Raqqa.
In Homs, Hama, Aleppo’s east, even with sarin gas use in Ghouta in 2013 and Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, the crimes are never enough to elicit a serious and committed Western response. So far, Assad has lost an airfield to 59 cruise missiles and finds international banking transactions tricky. Nothing else.
It is distressing to conclude that the repeated discussion of “never again” and bemoaning Western indifference hides the real issue at stake here. We simply don’t care. The Western world will act only if the crucible of Syria generates a horror so extreme its militants threaten our own cities. The illusion that our disgrace and outrage may slow the massacre is giving the people of Ghouta false hope. The West’s efforts are best put to aid in the aftermath.
We aren’t minded or able to do anything. But where would you like us to send the flowers?