On March 10, the United Nations declared that the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the organization’s birth in 1945: 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria are facing starvation. Although the reports were tailored to these countries, the scope of the problem is far more widespread. Civilians in Syria are also facing mass starvation. Both rebel and government forces have used hunger as a weapon, and at least 400,000 Syrians do not have steady access to food. Of course, prominent Western newspapers have published these headlines, but there have been no coordinated, global reactions to this humanitarian crisis. In fact, after the United Nations asked for $4.4 billion dollars to address the hunger crisis, the United States announced a proposal to cut its monetary aid to the United Nations.
Given this track record of apathy and inaction, the sudden global outrage in response to the Syrian chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun seems surprising. Why does a chemical attack evoke an immediate, large-scale response, while the starvation of hundreds of thousands in Syria, and millions more across the world, is brushed aside? Both are extremely important humanitarian crises that should be addressed, but only one captures the public’s attention and generates backlash. Global politics and the fight for international dominance play a large role in answering this question, but on a deeper level, the public tends to focus its attention only on issues which it sees as both imminently threatening and narrow enough to be solvable. Chemical attacks are perceived to be preventable, whereas starvation seems a persistent, inextinguishable force.
Outrage over these attacks comes in part from the fact this is not the first time President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons on his people. Chemical weapons are classified as weapons of mass destruction, and despite international laws against their use, Assad’s regime has purposefully and strategically used them on several occasions. After the first set of attacks, near Damascus in 2013, President Obama and the international community organized the removal of chemical weapons from Syria instead of taking military action against Assad’s regime. This time, haunted by the ineffectuality of its earlier effort, the international community has responded more aggressively. This has left plenty of room for blame and debate on what actions against Assad should have been taken four years ago.
Moreover, the public is able to direct its fury against the Syrian attack because there is a single person to blame: Assad. The dropping of bombs requires the approval of a commander. In contrast, there is never one person to blame for starvation; the responsibility lies in combination of sustained conditions, such as lack of economic resources and political conflict. Tragically, most of the concern for the Syrian attack within the international community is not due to its humanitarian implications, but rather, because it demonstrates the community’s impotence. The international community is more concerned with hiding its lack of authority and mitigating the potential for dangerous great power conflict than it is with ending the violence and suffering inflicted on the people of Syria. Had the international community been truly concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Syria, it would have taken measures to provide aid to Syrian citizens, and accepted more of them as refugees.
In fact, the use of chemical weapons by Assad has highlighted what the conflict in Syria is for international relations: a proxy conflict for a larger, international dispute between the West and Russia. The public is impassioned by this battle because it threatens the notion of Western dominance over the Middle East. According to this line of thinking, if the United States cannot prevent Assad from slaughtering his people, then its global influence is diminished, and it has ceded ground to Assad’s major supporter, Russia. In contrast, the starvation of millions is seen as fait accompli, something outside of the United States’ control. As long as this mentality persists, people will continue to die, and the Western world’s attention will be captured only sporadically by short outbursts of extreme violence, such as those brought about by Assad’s bombs.
Image Credit: Flickr/Freedom House