Photo by Bakr ALKASEM / AFP
Artillery Row

International disorder

Tyrants are breaking with civilisation

Watching scenes of such tragedy from two of our oldest civilisations, Turkey and Syria, it was hard to escape the thought that we were seeding unfathomable cruelty in the aftermath of those earthquakes. The landscape before our eyes made a mockery of the unwritten rule book we used to call the international order, which has guided humanity, warts and all, through such disasters since the end of World War Two.

The nightmare was all too visible. Survivors in one country, Syria, were left to pick at rubble with their bare hands, crying out for the world to help, whilst across the border in Turkey the world dispatched teams to work 24/7 to produce daily miracles live on TV. Who was responsible for this miscarriage of humanity? 

To some extent, the world at large was clearly to blame — along with that international order, built upon a United Nations capable of delivering humanitarian corridors. More importantly, look at the despot in Syria who has waged war on his own people for years: Bashar Al-Assad. He saw a chance to kill off his opposition in this natural disaster, because the quakes hit the final strongholds of rebels who have been fighting his regime for more than a decade.

Then ask where he learned to deliver such brutality to his own people. He learned it from his dictator father, yes, but also from his mentor in recent times — a leader who has threatened that so-called international order every day for the past year: Vladmir Putin. For some of us, the writing on the wall in that endless rubble was stark. Assad in Syria, Putin in Ukraine, attacking the way the world thought it worked, and that rule book of humanity — from Aleppo, Syria to Kiev, Ukraine.

There was a time when a monumental earthquake like this triggered a multi-national response, universal grief and empathy, hands and help reaching across whatever divide, political, religious, tribal. The best of humanity went to work, crossing frontiers and age-old conflicts, to reach those in need with rescue teams, food, tents, medicine.

There was a time when, yes, the UN had the clout to negotiate those corridors in and out of such disasters. From personal experience, I think of endless conflicts in Lebanon, famines in war-torn Uganda and Ethiopia, then a massive quake in Kashmir in 2005 when old enemies, India and Pakistan, worked together. The UN didn’t need a Security Council resolution to cajole such warring parties into forming humanitarian corridors.

Russia routinely vetoed Security Council condemnation of Assad

No more. No longer do the unspoken rules work, when you watch the worst of humanity challenging, indeed ignoring, the core principle of search and rescue. Look at what happened to those in north-west Syria, where thousands died in an instant, and millions ran anywhere they could, in the hope of survival.

Kids were left to pick at mountains of debris, looking for lost parents, without an excavator or a team of hard-hats in sight. The elderly roamed the streets in search of shelter from the cold, let alone food. Grieving adults asked why the world had not come to their rescue. Then let us ponder aid trucks held up for days at the border, seeking entry permits that were written only when there was no chance of finding anyone alive.

In the words of one United Nations veteran, “Assad saw his enemies dead or dying, millions of opponents made homeless, and he made sure we had no way to rescue anyone until it was too late, leaving so many in despair of our world. People simply abandoned.”

Abandoned, yes. That was the very word used by the UN’s Humanitarian aid chief, Britain’s Martin Griffiths, the one leader who owned up to the world’s failure. “We have failed the people in north-west Syria,” he declared, refreshingly honest and contrite about the shortcomings of his own organisation. “They feel rightly abandoned.”

Griffiths and the UN knew what was at work here and how deeply compromised they were, by having to work with the Assad government on Syria’s terms. Likewise they recognised how years of lost credibility during Syria’s war — when Russia routinely vetoed Security Council condemnation of Assad — had undermined the UN’s voice. The aid trucks moved finally, but slowly, waiting every day for clearance from a Syrian military bent on making the earthquake aftermath the ultimate weapon to end their war with rebels.

Our world needs a new go-to mediator for handling natural disasters

Lest we wonder who taught Bashar Al-Assad such inhumanity and impunity, he’s a chip off the old block. In my time as a Middle East correspondent, Assad’s father Hafez murdered, demonstrably, some 20,000 of his own people — Islamist rebels, with massacres in the streets of the central Syrian city of Hama.

We must pause and recognise the role of Vladimir Putin, too. Without Putin, and Russia’s heavily-armed intervention in Syria’s civil war, dating back to 2015, the Assad regime would not have survived. Putin’s generals spared no one as they bombed civilian targets, everything from hospitals to schools to bus stops, to crush the rebellion. Long before Ukraine, Putin’s Russia threw out the Geneva Convention rule book on war. As we have pointed out in these pages, Putin has clearly used his Syrian model for his invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, Putin’s top commanders in Ukraine once led Russian forces in Syria.

“Starve them into submission, freeze them into submission, or murder them; the goal is Evil in capital letters” were the words used privately by a General on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C., discussing Putin’s strategy as the second year of the Ukraine war dawned. He could have been talking about those earthquake victims in Syria too. 

The world at large has no immediate playbook for handling such natural disasters, for delivering the aid needed to all, for preventing millions from feeling abandoned, given a seriously weakened UN — with the likes of the Red Cross, the only alternative, in no position to step into the breach. It is an understatement to say that our world needs to look at itself in the mirror and come up with a new go-to mediator for such crises.

We must adjust our lens and see clearly not just the poor souls scrambling to survive a bitter winter in Syria, but likewise the war in Ukraine, with the Russians inflicting murder and destruction on a scale not seen in Europe since World War Two. This is nothing less than an evil and multi-dimensional assault on the international order, that rule book of humanity as we have known it for almost 80 years. As the Munich Security conference, a symbol of the Western alliance, called it, it is nothing less than “breaking with civilisation”.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover