Why all the silence when it comes to Syrian refugees?

Palestinians, African migrants and even Dreamers have everyone’s sympathy. Meanwhile, one of the great humanitarian crises of the century is unfolding in Syria, and the world just yawns.

Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Palestinians, African migrants and even Dreamers have everyone’s sympathy. Meanwhile, one of the great humanitarian crises of the century is unfolding in Syria, and the world just yawns.

Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Wikimedia Commons.

Sympathy for refugees and immigrants is very much in fashion these days.

In Washington, Democrats threatened to shut down the government in order to try to force the Trump administration and the Republicans to find a solution to keep Dreamers—illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children—in the country.

In Israel, the plight of some 40,000 African migrants—who entered Israel illegally and are now threatened with deportation—has aroused liberal American Jews and many Israelis to protest the Netanyahu government’s actions as violating Jewish values.

Elsewhere, the millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees continue to command the world’s sympathy and largesse via the United Nations Relief Works Agency, the organization that is solely devoted to their care and in keeping them from being absorbed elsewhere. That ensures that the century-old Palestinian war on Zionism continues. In Gaza, there is much talk about a looming humanitarian crisis, yet little about the fact that it has been caused by a Hamas terrorist government that continues to abuse its power amid an ongoing struggle for control with an equally corrupt and violent Fatah Party.

But in the heart of the Middle East, a tragedy far greater in scope and suffering than any of those issues is unfolding. In Syria, in what may be the last stages of a bitter civil war, attacks on civilians by the Assad regime and their Iranian, Hezbollah and Russian allies continue. Damascus is still using chemical weapons on its own people. Indiscriminate bombing of remaining rebel strongholds also continues. More people are dying regularly, adding to a death toll already numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The New York Times reports that Russian shells and bombs are devastating the capital’s suburbs, burying entire families in rubble. The crescendo of violence has driven approximately half of the country’s population from their homes with more than 13.5 million refugees needing assistance.

What is the reaction from an international community that is otherwise obsessed with illegal immigrants in the United States, Africans in Israel and the Palestinians?

For the most part, the answer is crickets.

The same is true of the Jewish community that normally prides itself on rushing to the rescue whenever a humanitarian crisis looms, even when Jews are not directly in harm’s way.

How is that possible?

Part of the answer to that question is more a matter of practicality than indifference.

The international media can’t do a good job covering the war in Syria, largely because journalists simply can’t get in. Even if they manage to do so, correspondents remain in a poor position to report on Assad’s forces, chemical weapons, ISIS or the U.S.-led coalition currently fighting the terrorists. They’re also in mortal danger.

It’s also true that Assad and his allies have stymied humanitarian efforts. It’s hard to generate momentum for a cause when the logistics of war render all efforts of assistance futile.

Let’s also stipulate that major Jewish organizations, including the Joint Distribution Committee, have raised millions for Syrian refugees. Others have advocated for the admission of some of them into the United States, though that effort has been hampered by concerns about whether it’s possible to vet them on entry. The efforts by Israel to extend aid across the border to Syrian civilians, despite the presence of hostile forces in the area, have also been commendable and underreported.

But even if we acknowledge all this, it’s still a fact that one of the greatest human-rights catastrophes in recent history is happening right in front of our noses, and the usual suspects who can generally be counted on to raise a ruckus about such events are not paying much attention.

Perhaps the sheer length and savagery of what is happening in Syria have demoralized activists. Moreover, when even the United States declares that suffering in Syria is not worth bothering over—the clear and unmistakable message sent by the Obama administration when the former president backed down on his “red line” threat to Assad about chemical weapons—despair about doing something to halt such violence is understandable.

Nor, despite a successful campaign against ISIS by the Trump administration and a commendable decision to stay in the country to stabilize it after ISIS is defeated, has Washington expended much effort. The only exception seems to be U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’ tongue-lashings of Syria and Russia, which don’t do much to alleviate the problem or isolate those carrying out these war crimes.

The fact remains that while most self-described human-rights activists are wearing themselves out ranting against measures to deal with illegal immigration in both the U.S. and Israel—or to buttress the Palestinian war against the Jewish state—very little energy has been put into efforts to draw attention to the plight of the Syrians, let alone what to do about it.

Is the comparison a case of “whataboutism” aimed at delegitimizing one side in a dispute by pointing to other, possibly analogous stands that undermine the argument?

I don’t think so. There’s nothing wrong in caring about the plight of illegal immigrants or refugees, even though those causes can be diminished by the way advocates exploit the suffering of innocents in order to promote partisan causes. But there is something very wrong about the way the international community and human-rights gadflies have decided to treat Syria as a “no-go” zone for political debate and activism.

Jews who once took to the streets to protest genocide in Darfur, and who are now inveighing against the Trump and Israeli governments enforcing their own immigration laws, ought to be saying more about Syria. The fact that they prefer to carry on about other less pressing causes, including those that target Israel, says a lot about what it means to be a human-rights activist in 2018. Unfortunately, none of it is flattering. Nor will it do any good for the millions who need our help as Assad, Russia and Iran keep at their barbarous assault.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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