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How the Syrian War Became the Gravest Mistake of Our Era

When the Kwantung Army of Japan invaded Manchuria crushing Chinese forces in 1931, the world did nothing. It was the first sign of the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations as a force to preserve peace. Then, in 1937, Japan started to invade China capturing city after city. When Nanking fell, they killed hundreds of thousands of people.

When Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the world did nothing. Over 250,000 Ethiopian combatants were killed. It was just another major setback of the League. In fact, many world leaders praised Mussolini’s conquest.

Adolf Hitler was bolder. Even so, when German troops occupied the demilitarized Rhineland in March 1936, the world did nothing. Understanding that the League had no guts to stop him, Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. He provoked little response from the world. Then he staked claims on the Czech Sudetenland. The situation was going downhill when the territory was conceded to Germany in the Munich Agreement, but British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke the words remembered as an irony: “I have returned from Germany with peace for our time.”

The world’s response to the Spanish Civil War was even worse. Not only Hitler and Mussolini lent military support to General Franco, but also U.S. companies including Ford, GM and Texaco provided machine tools, trucks and oil despite the embargoes. Many Catholics rallied to support Franco’s campaign. The Republic fell and Franco won in 1939. At least 500,000 were killed. Roosevelt would go on to admit that their policy toward Spain had been a grave mistake later.

The world did nothing to help Jews when Kristallnacht was carried out in 1938 by SA paramilitary forces and civilians throughout Nazi Germany and Austria. Encouraged, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia breaking his promise in 1939 while labeling the British and Jews as warmongers on the other side. His next target was Poland.

World War II, which is viewed as the war won by the good forces against German Nazism, Japanese militarism, and Italian fascism, was just starting after years of ignorance, selfishness, and foolishness. Some were too late to see the deterioration and to prevent the death of millions, while some were unbelievably cruel, like Henry Truman who said, “If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.”

Decades have past, the world has barely changed. The situation deteriorates further every day, yet the world does nothing. After mass killings and large-scale use of chemical weapons against his own people in almost ten years, Assad regime is still standing. The world does nothing but give defective reactions with little protest. ISIS has risen and grown from the ashes al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) due to the violence in Syria. The notorious terror organization has carried terror attacks into a whole new level of violence. The instability in the Middle East and the hostilities in the region, which are still going on, have been mostly related with the different policies of the world leaders, especially the Western allies’ opposite views. Islamophobia, xenophobia, and skepticism have risen all over the world as the chaos in Syria has not been stopped. The violence, hatred, and terror spilled out of the war-torn country’s borders and poisoned the whole world. The far-right leaders have become popular, polarization has peaked, and populism has become the new sheriff in town.

People around the world are suffering from lack of trust. Today nobody trusts anyone. People feel they are not safe or secure. Especially after the spread of global coronavirus pandemic, their distrust and fear has expanded enormously.

People have lost their trust in political parties, governments, and establishments in their countries. Even the countries do not trust each other. While cooperation among the ally countries is decreasing day by day, hostilities have increased. Trust in the world order and global institutions is less than ever.

Have you noticed that Western world leaders are not preaching about Western values anymore? After the refugee influx and the rise of far-right groups, they have abandoned those social norms, customs, and values along with the basic principles of democracy, human rights and freedom. All they want is to protect their borders. They are now facing their own paradoxes. The number of refugees and the people desperately in need of protection and humanitarian aid are at the highest level since World War II. 

Meanwhile, even media and human rights advocates have become deaf and blind to the atrocities in Syria. Hundreds of thousands are dead now, millions have become refugees, and more than half of the Syrian population have been displaced. In Assad’s prisons, the violence, torture, rape and killings are still going on and nobody cares. They are like slaughterhouses.

I know that it’s been too long since the Syrian civil war has started. It’s all water under the bridge now. No one discusses how we all ended up here. No one even remembers how they all started. That’s why I traveled down memory lane at the beginning of this piece, to the exact place where the world could have stopped the bleeding and prevent the necrosis. If something was done in Syria, there would be a road map for Yemen, Libya and so forth.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama was the first world leader to say, “Bashar al Assad must leave.” He left the White House four years ago. His successor Donald Trump is leaving now, and Joe Biden’s term is about to begin. But the Syrian butcher, Assad, has not gone anywhere. Neither the new U.S. President nor a new cabinet will do anything about this cancer. I don’t have hope, not a bit. Perhaps the world leaders have only succeeded in avoiding a third world war, let’s celebrate them; but we are still so far from peace. I wonder which one of them will admit first that their policies in Syria were a grave mistake when the time comes, although it is already too late to be sincere in our regrets.

Merve Şebnem Oruç is an award-winning Turkish journalist and columnist for Daily Sabah and HABER. She is on Twitter here.