How would you prefer to die? Suffocation by sarin or suffocation by sandstone? Do you favour starvation over succumbing to shrapnel wounds? Or perhaps your extermination of choice is a more straightforward summary execution at the hands of an irregular militia, extreme jihadist group or simply the nearest intelligence agent?
Fortunately, such questions don’t arise for most of us. If you are a Syrian civilian, though, who kills you and how you die are apparently more important to Western observers than the fact that you have been killed. Sometimes – and increasingly so nowadays – Syrians leave this world at the hands of a foreign air force; indeed, there is now an even greater chance that it will be US aircraft which are killing them (and Iraqis). No matter, say the supporters of intervention – which necessarily prolongs the Syrian civil war – these Syrians are dying in the right way and are killed by the right people.
Since the “war on terror” began, the West has been obsessed about the way that Muslim civilians have died, and not that they are dead per se. This is perhaps just as well, given that the West has killed many more Muslims in, for example, Iraq, than former President Saddam Hussein and his regime ever did (mainly when he was “our” man in Baghdad, it must be said). Western sanctions, the 2003 invasion and the ensuing military occupation are said to have killed hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Iraqis. The BBC report of at least four hundred and sixty one thousand dead between 2003 and 2011 must be added to the half a million children killed as a result of US sanctions (“We think the price is worth it,” said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1996). Even though Saddam is notorious for killing an estimated 200,000 of his people at Halabja and Al-Anfal, this means that in eight years of full-on occupation, American and British politicians were responsible for at least twice as many Muslim deaths in Iraq as the former Iraqi dictator managed in nearly two and a half decades.
Supporters of the Iraq invasion will say that civilians who died as a result of the destabilisation of their country by politicians in Washington and London died for “the right reasons”; or will point out that they weren’t killed by British or US armed forces. Of course this is true, particularly the latter point. What is also true is that reputable American academics have found that the “wartime crude death rate” was 4.55 per 1,000 people, more than 50 per cent higher than before the invasion. Iraq did not, at least during the occupation, become any safer than it had been before. In fact, it got considerably worse.
The same was true during Washington’s drone campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan; the civilian deaths (“collateral damage”) are justified when the West’s bombs are responsible, but when extreme jihadists are behind it, well, that’s different; the way in which they kill their victims, and the reasons why, it is argued, are not the same.
Now, this same cruel dynamic is playing out in Syria. As a recent news report from Khan Shaykhun tells us, one eyewitness to slaughter asked, “Do you only care how we die or that we are dying?”
A Syrian citizen journalist pointed out that “there is no type of death” that the people of Syria have not experienced: “Death by chemical weapons, death by drowning, death by phosphorous, death by rockets, death by air strikes, buried under rubble, death by suffocation.” What type of death have they not tasted yet, he asked. “How many more ways to die are still left for us to face?”
Their grim conclusion is clear: “The US strike only provides a red line to the Assad regime not to use chemical weapons. The message to us is that the US wants the Assad government to continue to kill us, just not with forbidden weapons.”
That quote really gets to the heart of Western indifference over Syria, from both peaceniks and interventionists. Nobody is interested in how many Syrians are dying. They are more concerned about how they die.
Let us consider being suffocated to death in a sarin gas attack; whether at the hands of the Assad regime or the rebels in Khan Shaykhun — some European intelligence officials remain unconvinced about those responsible until a proper investigation is conducted — the result is still awful. Then compare this with being crushed to death by falling masonry in a mosque, finding yourself trapped in a tiny pocket of air that runs out just as you hear the shouts of your would-be rescuers and you drown with your mouth full of sandstone grit and blood. That’s a horrible way to go too, and very real; it happened to some other Syrians less than a month ago, thanks to an errant American air strike. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described the scene in Jinah as a “massacre” and claimed that those killed were mostly civilians. Photos from the area “showed rescue workers pulling mangled bodies from a mound of rubble.” According to Mohamed Al-Shaghal, a journalist who arrived at the scene shortly after the attack, “Bodies filled the space.” He said that the mosque had been destroyed.
How would you prefer to die: sarin or sandstone? Even asking that question should expose the callousness of the West’s calculations about Syrian lives.
In the six years of the war so far, nobody has yet properly explained the qualitative difference between the rage and sadness felt by a family bereaved by Assad’s bombs, and the rage and sadness of a family whose members have been killed by the West, Russia or Daesh. If your brother, mother, sister or son has been killed, who killed them and how is often a secondary consideration.
Nor has anyone explained the difference between getting killed by a bullet or by being blown up by a barrel bomb. Shouldn’t the real concern be that a human being has been killed? We are missing the point if we start thinking and saying that, “Assad is killing people deliberately but we just do it by accident.” The point is someone has been killed, and we have a responsibility to stop people being killed.
If it isn’t methodology, then what about numbers? Assad has killed far more than anyone else in this conflict, for certain; it’s a stick which is rightly used to beat him. In recent months, however — and confounding popular perceptions — more Iraqis and Syrians have been killed by the US air force than its Russian counterpart. This has barely been noticed, and it is extraordinary. In January, February and now March, civilian casualties from US-led coalition action have for the first time outnumbered those caused by Russia. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that the death toll in the Syrian civil war has yet to reach the number of deaths caused by the 2003 invasion of Iraq (although at this rate it undoubtedly will).
America defends its actions by claiming that they were accidental deaths; the Russians, insists Washington, killed people deliberately. It is the way they died, not that they died, which interests Western warmongers.
The point about Syria is no longer which side is “right”; both have used chemical weapons and committed war crimes. Neither have a particularly promising manifesto for post-war Syria. The conflict has brought the world closer to world war than at any time since the Pristina airport incident in 1998 (an episode which looks almost comedic in comparison). Certainly, the conflict now has the feeling of an early twentieth century conflagration between the great powers, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of us, or the twenty-first century.
The most important thing is to stop vying with each other to see which side can justify deaths and which can’t; to stop worrying about how people die, and be a little more concerned about how many are dead. Killing people is wrong, no matter how it is done. Arguing about the use of chemical weapons but turning a blind eye to the daily killings by other means is morally indefensible, and suggests that all of those responsible are simply two sides of the same coin. Ordinary people, meanwhile, continue to suffer from the West’s disturbing obsession with how they die.