NO global outrage rained down on the United States and President Donald Trump after the latter ordered a missile attack on Syria in retaliation for what witnesses claimed was a sarin gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the northwest province of Idlib, a rebel stronghold since it was captured by Islamist militants in March 2015.
Israel, Japan and Turkey, as well as the United Kingdom and the European Union gave the US action a nod of approval as justifiable and understandable. The dissenting voices came from Russia and Iran, both supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father in July 2000. Before that, the Assad family had been in power for a quarter of a century. Also protesting the US air strike was North Korea, a state similarly under a dictatorship.
At dawn last Tuesday, a Russian-made Sukhoi 22 fighter bomber approached the skies over Idlib at low altitude and dropped four bombs, according to media reports citing witnesses. Three of the bombs detonated on impact, followed by the characteristic billowing dark smoke. But the fourth bomb hardly made an explosive sound. Instead it released a thick white smoke on impact that soon enveloped Khan Sheikhoun. What ensued was a harrowing scene of pandemonium as people, including children, still in their beds woke up to a strange odor that made them retch. At least 70 people died and scores were injured. The Syrian government denied launching the gas attack.
It is so easy to forget, with billions of information relentlessly assailing the human senses daily, courtesy of the internet, how it all started—this mess in the Middle East and North Africa or MENA—less than 10 years ago in Tunisia. “’Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream,’ wrote the great Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran.” That was Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund managing director, quoting the poet in a speech she gave at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. in December 2011.
In her speech titled, “The Arab Spring, One Year On,” Lagarde noted how street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after Tunisian authorities forbade him from selling in a public market.
The winter was harsh in December 2010, as most winters often are, when the self-immolation occurred. Bouazizi’s act of desperation—regarded as heroic by many in the Arab world—in protest of poverty and injustice sparked a movement in Tunisia that spread across the MENA states. Protests erupted in Oman, Yemen, Egypt, Syria and Morocco. On January 14, 2011, the dictatorship in Tunisia was overthrown.
“But at the time, few realized where this journey would lead. When Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire last year, who could have predicted that his tragic death would herald a whole new Middle East?” Lagarde told her audience.
In October 2015, the BBC reported how many analysts were confounded that Assad had held on to power unlike his ousted counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. And when protests against his government began in March 2011, Assad gave orders to crush the dissent.
The United Nations estimated two years ago that the armed conflict in Syria has left more than 250,000 people dead, or more than the entire population of Marinduque province.
With the US seemingly joining the fray, there is no telling where the conflict would go. Amid the US call for Assad to be ousted at all costs, the UN must exercise its mandate to set the tone for peace and diplomacy as equal options to war.
A diplomatic solution is always the best option in spite of the seeming hopelessness of the situation. That option must be examined now and put on the table by the UN Security Council to stop more carnage of innocent civilians.