Skip to content

Who will halt the bloodshed in Syria?

A young boy amidst the debris of his parental home in Idlib, Syria
A young boy amidst the debris of his parental home in Idlib, Syria

By Erik van Ommering More than eighty people were killed in two bomb attacks on Aleppo’s university the day before yesterday. It was the first day of exams, yet countless non-students were identified among the victims—people who had sought refuge on campus, fleeing the brutal war between regime forces and armed opposition groups across Syria. Until now, Syria’s civil war has killed more than sixty thousand people, with vast material damage being inflicted and an estimated three million people being forced to flee their homes. Hostilities are likely to turn even more gruesome in the months ahead. Or is there anyone out there willing to halt the bloodshed?

“The next genocide in the world will likely be in Syria,” is a warning recently voiced by former US ambassador Peter Galbraith, himself a witness to episodes of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Would Galbraith be exaggerating? I am he afraid he is not. As we speak, the world consents to the perpetration of yet another series of mass killings, cleansings based on religious belonging, and myriads of other crimes against humanity. And this literally happens in front of our very own eyes. After all, despite major broadcasters shying away from sending reporters into Syria, ‘citizen journalists’ flood us with dreadful images and reports on a daily basis. We know the numbers. We have seen the pictures. No one can honestly claim to be unaware of what is happening today. Yet, despite all of this, the ‘international community’ stands by and watches from the sidelines — in shock, to be sure.

The Syrian crisis has unfolded while I carried out ethnographic fieldwork in neighbouring Lebanon, studying the role of formal education in processes of conflict transformation. During recent months, I was able to assist in developing a project in support of refugee children from Syria. Numerous first-hand accounts made me aware of both the gravity of the war in Syria and the refugee crisis’ potential to disrupt a precarious security balance in Lebanon.

Upon returning home to the Netherlands I shared my concerns with representatives of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Apart from supporting the UN refugee agency, it is with great disquiet that they see the paralysing diplomatic game being played between Russia, the European Union, the United States, and a number of Gulf States. I was told that only the event of an even more mind-blowing disaster could possibly trigger some sort of outside intervention. In other words, we are currently waiting for either a genocide to get going, or for chemical weapons to be deployed, or for the moment a neighbouring state gets seriously drawn into the conflict. How will we reflect on all this a few years from now? Will we, indulging in disbelief, ask ourselves, “how could we ever have let this happen?” — just like we did after Rwanda and Srebrenica? Let us face it: just like back then, we have been warned in advance. And just like before, we stand by and watch.

What can this war tell us about the contemporary social reality in which we live? How can it possibly be that decision-makers can afford a diplomatic paralysis at the cost of tens of thousands of human lives? How can it be that we, well-informed citizens of democratic regimes, so easily disregard what is unfolding before our own eyes, without even holding those politicians accountable? And, finally, do we really, critically, question and define our own, personal responsibilities in these matters? Against all the odds, I keep hoping for someone to turn the tide. Meanwhile, I, as an anthropologist, will try to do anything within my reach to contribute to this goal.

Erik van Ommering works as a PhD candidate within the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University, Amsterdam.


  1. standplaatswereld standplaatswereld

    Dear Erik,
    A compelling call and appeal, causing, once again, dismay, disbelief, even fear about reigning unwillingness, inability or even cynicism in today’s world. I support your call en hope it may remind people about their role – being witnesses of so much cruelty and suffering, and being powerless at the same time. The fact you call upon someone is, I believe, however both the strength and the weakness of your appeal. The strength is that it inescapably reminds ‘the international community’ that it cannot dodge its responsibility in such tragedies. The weakness is that there is no ‘international community’ that can be summoned in such a way. This community, composed of ‘humanity’, may exist in anthropological talk. It does however not exist in international politics. In this realm neither cruelty or suffering, nor compassion, are relevant variables. Interests, geo-politics and shrewd maneuvering are. The ‘international community’ will not respond because humanity does not live there. Hence, I brace myself for having to be the audience of yet more disconcerting broadcasts of bloodshed and death to come. And at the same time, I loathe the tone of my comment.
    Best regards, Ton Salman (

  2. Maaike Maaike

    You express the feelings of many of us Erik. Until world politics sorts itself out, let’s put our money where our mouth is and contribute to humanitarian assistance, as you have already been doing. Apparently Artsen Zonder Grenzen/MSF is one of the few organisations whose medical care also reaches to opposition areas. They rely on donations from the public.

  3. […] Other researchers have described similar dilemmas when conducting research in various conflict areas in the Middle East. A Master student who was conducting field research in Egypt wrote (2) about the challenges she faced when the popular uprising broke out in 2011. She explained how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ official advice to leave the country ran counter to the more nuanced local safety assessments she encountered, and her own desire to stay on. Another colleague wrote (3) how the unfolding crisis in Syria profoundly affected his field research in neighboring Lebanon. Although this led to different types of issues than my own research, he too had to balance the potential risks of staying with the desire to bear witness and lend a hand (4). […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *