On ‘Never Again’
I wrote about what we mean when we say ‘Never Again’ back in 2014, and again when Russia stepped up their role in the war. It seems appropriate to paraphrase part of that again now.
In 2014, I spent the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide in the neighboring DRC, having arrived fresh from eighteen months completely immersed in the Syrian conflict. While we looked at the ongoing destabilizing effects of the genocide in North Kivu province, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, joined other dignitaries for the traditional remembrance celebrations in Kigali.
Newspapers around the world focused on how far Rwanda had come in two decades, citing their truth and reconciliation process as evidence that the conflict was a distant memory, a short but brutal period of history has been neatly dealt with and forgiven. It is not so neat a process there, nor anywhere.
These are convenient narratives the world constructs, which allow us to avoid internalizing the meaning of repentance when we shake our heads and say “Never Again”. And, most importantly for our consciences, to pretend that the aftermath is not just as complicated, compromised, and as much of a constant effort to keep as were those solidarity campaigns during the massacres.
At the time, the hypocrisy of the words burned as I returned to Syria, a country that was enmeshed in a humanitarian crisis, the size of which hadn’t been seen since Rwanda. It has only gotten worse. The country is being emptied and ground to pieces. What looms is the continuation of a heartbreaking and brutal phase of the war.
Under Bashar al-Assad’s leadership, the Syrian armed forces, regime militias, and allied foreign combatants have killed over 400,000 people, injured 1.9 million more and displacing 45% of the population of Syria. Assad is no ally and no partner for peace. This brutality gave rise to the Islamic State that now threatens the safety and security of many other countries. Assad’s continued rule in no way aids our foreign or domestic policy objectives. Rather than stepping down, or truly seeking compromise with the opposition to end the war and deal with the Islamic State (ISIS), the regime seeks to grind down all alternatives to its rule so the only other choice left is the so-called caliphate.
At a certain point, inaction becomes complicity. In Syria, the west peddles the need for diplomacy and dialogue, while Russian airstrikes pulverize the country and forcibly displace those who remain defiant.
Newspapers write stories saying Syria will be burned into our collective conscience, just as Rwanda, Armenia, the Holocaust, or Srebrenica. But if we were really collectively sorry, if we really believed the killing of one million people was an unconscionable act — either when it happened in Sierra Leone, or 20 years past in the Balkans, or in Occupied Europe, or more than a hundred years ago in the killing fields of the great colonial powers, with all the benefits that hindsight offers — surely we wouldn’t be allowing it to happen again.
Syria as we knew it is gone. The residents of Aleppo are being saved from annihilation with displacement, those in besieged areas face starvation and evacuation. If they do not kneel, they will die. And both ISIS and Assad would sooner burn the country than see any other chance for peace.
Our policies on Syria have failed and continue to implode. Syrians will pay for our missteps with their lives. The rest of us will feel the effects of this incredible moral and political failure for decades to come.
We look at the complicity we are collectively capable of and say “Never Again” because in our state of permanent, unrepentant, adolescence we hope we will do better. We fail because, although we do not like it, this is who we really are.