I stuck religiously to my holiday resolutions, losing myself in Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante and confining my social media posting to family pictures on Instagram. For nearly a week, nothing interrupted the blissful tranquillity of my Mediterranean getaway.
And then, one day, while I was lazily watching the children on the beach, the real world intruded with a photograph of a boy two years younger than mine. It was little Omran Daqneesh, perched on an ambulance seat, his look dazed as if he’d been lost, his face and body caked in dust, his tiny feet dangling from the seat. The image of the five-year-old Syrian boy, rescued from the rubble of Aleppo, instantly became a new symbol of a senseless war.
I turned to Twitter to find out more and my feed was flooded with news of a video of Omran in which he touches his hair and looks, confused, at his bloodied hand. The video, I later learned, had been viewed more than 3m times.
What was so piercing about the image? Over the past six years, I’ve seen dozens, perhaps hundreds, of more horrific pictures of Syrian children, dying, maimed or starving. Omran’s projected the pain of a child without showing it, drawing us to look at him rather than turn away. Those who saw him had the impression they could feel his suffering before he could realise what was happening to him.
On social media, the outrage over Omran’s fate took many forms, with some posts placing the image of the boy between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, the American and Russian leaders, as if to shame them into action; in another post, he occupied Syria’s seat at the Arab League, an indictment of the Arab world that watches on and of a Damascus government that destroyed the child’s home in an air strike.
The most moving was a cartoon in which Omran is featured next to Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy whose body washed up on a Mediterranean shore a year ago, turning him into an emblem of the refugee crisis. The caption simply said: “Choices for Syrian children”.
But if Aylan’s death moved Europe, driving millions of dollars in donations for refugees and galvanising politicians, Omran’s predicament will not have much impact beyond jolting many of us out of our summer daze. A few days after his rescue his family suffered a fresh tragedy when his 10-year-old brother died of his wounds.
Syria’s war never had an easy way out. It has become fiendishly complicated as it evolved into a three- pronged conflict — between a brutal regime backed by Iran and Russia, a monstrous Isis organisation and an Arab and western-backed rebellion with unsavoury jihadi elements of its own.
There was — or should have been from the start — an international responsibility to protect civilians from the government’s fury. Alas, the creation of safe havens on the Turkish and Jordanian borders and the imposition of no-fly zones were never seriously attempted.
Instead, world powers are, in one way or another, involved in Syria primarily to wage war on Isis while they claim to be pushing for a negotiated peace settlement between the regime and the rebels. In reality, western governments are doing nothing to stop the fighting, while Russia is actively feeding it.
The battle for control of Aleppo — a city split in two, one half in regime hands, the other under rebel control — has been one of the fiercest in the more than five-year war.
The regime, with its superior military might, appears intent on dealing the rebels a decisive blow. It has resisted increasingly desperate calls to loosen a punishing siege on the rebel-held east where Omran lived. The regime’s objective has never shifted: it seeks military victory, not political compromise.
For families like Omran’s, talk of American-Russian diplomacy while the bombs rain on Aleppo must seem cynical and empty. What they need above all is a ceasefire.
Yet even a brief humanitarian truce the UN has sought to broker
has been elusive. As Stephen O’Brien, the top UN aid official, warned at the UN Security Council this week, Syria’s “callous carnage” has long since moved from the cynical to the “sinful”.
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