“Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon/The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave/They buried us without shroud or coffin/And in August the barley grew up out of our grave.”
These lines are from the poem “Requiem for the Croppies,” by the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who died last week. They were pointed out to me by a dear friend of mine, also an Irishman, who instructively observed how Heaney’s verse—which commemorated the merciless British crushing of an Irish uprising in 1798—eerily conjures up the terrible reality of Syria in our own time.
Let’s recall a few basic facts. Firstly, by the time the Western powers began to seriously consider intervention in Syria, more than 120,000 people had already been killed. Secondly, the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime at the end of August was decidedly not the first time these had been deployed. Back in June, as I and others reported, the French government declared it had “no doubt” that “the regime and its accomplices”—which include the Islamist terrorist organization Hezbollah—had engaged in chemical attacks against civilian centers. Thirdly—and this is what I want to focus on here—when presented with devastating and credible evidence of chemical weapons use, the response of many Western politicians has been to equivocate and demand further evidence, as though obtaining such proof in Syria’s killing fields is a mere walk in the park.
The insistence upon further evidence has been accompanied by other rationalizations for not getting involved, all of them constructed from myth rather than fact. To begin with, there’s the view pushed by both left-wing and right-wing isolationists that Syria’s warring groups are all as bad as each other, and that the end of the Assad regime will usher in an Al-Qaeda one. That view was comprehensively debunked in recent days by the journalist Elizabeth O’Bagy, one of the few
foreign correspondents to have spent lengthy periods of time in Syria, who provided an eyewitness account of politically moderate Syrian rebels defending Christian and Alawi villages from both the regime and from Islamist extremists.
As little as a month ago, O’Bagy said, she saw “daily protests by thousands of citizens” against Islamists in the north of the country. Her conclusion? “Moderate opposition forces—a collection of groups known as the Free Syrian Army— continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime.”