Images and Intervention
See the boy in the back of the truck, his short legs dangle off of the orange seat. His hair, long and matted, almost covers his dark, ghostly eyes. He lifts his hand to his face and rubs it, then looks at his palms: crimson blood. He doesn’t cry but coughs and sneezes; soot rises off of his body. The house he once lived in is a cloud of scattered particles on a crusted and bloodied “cat-dog” t-shirt.
See the boy face down on the beach. The tide comes in and wets his black hair, and comes out. His purple and cold skin is visible, even from a distance. He doesn’t cry as the chilled water comes over him and washes away. On his black worn shoes are bubbles and suds from the ocean. He has been there for a while.
These two boys have become the face of the Syrian Civil War. It is images like Omran Daqneesh and Alan Kurdi that have historically spurred some type of unified response and in some cases intervention.
In 1972, during the Vietnam War, it was the image of 7-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc naked and screaming, running from her napalmed village of Trang Bang in South Vietnam. It was also the image of the Saigon Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executing a Vietcong officer, his face contorted with tears and pain in front of news cameras that displayed the war’s brutality.
Shortly after these images were released, public opinion turned from complacency to outrage, from idleness to activism. Protestors took to the streets and demanded the end of a prolonged and bloodied conflict. The U.S. government, under extreme pressure domestically and internationally, slowly withdrew troops from the area.
A similar story echoed in 2004. In the basement of the Abu Graib prison, three years into the Iraq War, Ali Shallal al-Qaisi stands on a cardboard box. His arms are outstretched, crucified with obedience, past the black shawl he wears. His palms face outward with wires attached at the fingertips to a battery within the box and on his head is a black hood.
Al-Qaisi was just one of many who were tortured, defiled and abused within the prison walls of Abu Graib. Following the release of these images, the world demanded the reinstitution of human rights for U.S. prisoners of war; although the Bush administration was slow to change its policy on this matter, eventually the prison was shut down and those responsible were punished accordingly.
In 2016, a deafening silence lingers, broken intermittently by the condemnations of a few, but largely quiet.
The impugnation of Kerry, of Merkel, of Cameron, of Clinton, of secretaries, of ambassadors, of prime ministers, of diplomats, of politicians and political scientists, of international relations experts have rung hollow—they are drowned out by the screams of those homeless, hungry and bloodied. They are swallowed by the bombings and devastation of Aleppo. Washed up, quiet, like a three-year-old child on the beaches of Turkey. And for what?
Why is the United States willing to inject itself into a foreign war, into Iraq and Afghanistan, into Vietnam, proclaiming ideals of humanitarianism and democracy and yet neglecting one of the most pressing crises of the 21st century? If you asked an international relations expert, or perhaps observe the trend over the last hundred years, the answer is very simple: the lack of national interest.
In the most basic sense, the United States has nothing to gain by intervening in the war in Syria. There exists no geopolitical advantage, no oil to be gained, no resources to extract from the dry plains of the Sahara or the devastated cities of Aleppo or Damascus.
In terms of the “balance of power” principles, the U.S. remains gridlocked in a war of theory between Russia and the Syrian government. As Russia attempts to assert a sphere of influence over the region, it will continue to support the Assad regime by whatever means necessary, as it has continued to do this past weekend. It will continue to pound Aleppo with bunker busters, with cluster bombs and munitions.
The recent and failed cease-fire agreement, I would imagine, is to be one of many failed diplomatic efforts over the next few years.
But perhaps there is hope. Perhaps Putin or Assad will come to the realization that their war against the civilians of Syria, that the creation of more Daqneeshes and Kurdis, that the totality of destruction placed upon a country, a people, a child, is not the means by which diplomacy should be negotiated. Perhaps a more striking image than the ones described in this article will emerge from the trenches and shock the world into action.
Until then, I will wait. As will the citizens, the people and the children of Syria.
Josh Raposa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.