I’ve been watching a lot of television news bulletins from Syria of late, each one more disturbing than the last.
Some have detailed the killing of Marie Colvin, a fine and fearless war correspondent alongside whom I have worked on many occasions. Before the shellfire that took her life on Wednesday in the city of Homs, she went to great lengths to reveal to the world the fate of countless innocent civilians caught up in the carnage being wrought there and in other parts of Syria.
Reading her dispatches I was struck by the similarity of the story she was covering to the one we were reporting when we first met in the early 1990′s. Back then, too, we were in a city where civilian neighbourhoods were indiscriminately pulverised by rockets and shellfire.
Like Homs, it was a place where snipers sickeningly picked off those who ran for their lives in the streets. Men, women, children or the elderly, it made no difference to the gunmen. In that city too there were makeshift triage centres in people’s homes, blood seeping into the carpets and limbs amputated by torchlight.
Survival was all that mattered in this hell-hole where food, clean water and medical supplies were scarce, while bombs and bullets flew around in devastating abundance. That city was Sarajevo.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, in response to the vexed question of international intervention, yesterday said the Syria situation was “not like Libya”.
Purely on the geopolitical level I’d probably agree on that one. To begin with there is the obvious problem of Syria’s geography and the pressing issue of its neighbouring states.
In Libya’s case, most of the regime targets for Nato airstrikes were close to the Mediterranean coast and within easy reach of air bases in Italy. Yet even then it took some 21,000 missions over nearly six months to enforce the no-fly zone and suppress Gaddafi’s tanks, artillery and command centres.
The Syrians are an altogether different proposition – being better equipped, trained and co-ordinated than anything Gaddafi could muster.
Then there is the question of Syria’s neighbours, many of whom have their own volatile sectarian mixes and external political tensions.
Take Lebanon, where the Hezbollah militia – strongly allied with Syria – remains a force to be reckoned with.
Syria’s other neighbours would also be less than enthusiastic to be used as jumping-off points for foreign troops. For Jordan’s monarchy there could be domestic political repercussions.
Turkey – a Nato member whose foreign minister compared President Bashar al-Assad with former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic – would risk a deluge of Syrian refugees and possible revenge and mischief-making on its own soil by Damascus.
Perhaps more crucially, when it comes to intervention in Syria there is nothing like the international pressure or support from the Arab League that existed at the outset of the Libya crisis.
Yes, Mr Hague, the Syria situation is not like Libya, but perhaps a more apt comparison would be how Syria’s crisis is beginning to bear a marked similarity to the terrible events that unfolded in Bosnia in the early 1990′s. Like the carnage in the Balkans 20 years ago, what is happening in places like Homs is relayed to our mobile phones, computers and televisions daily.
For correspondents like Marie Colvin and others who covered the plight of civilians in Bosnian cities and towns such as Sarajevo and Srebrenica all those years ago, there is a terrible sense of deja vu about all the diplomatic hand-wringing and talk of humanitarian corridors and safe havens being suggested as a response to the killing in Syria.
I remember how we watched, waited – and waited some more.
When intervention did come to Bosnia it did so in a sluggish, tortuous, bureaucratic process that took four years – during which tens of thousands died and millions lost their homes.
Bosnia was a small republic of Yugoslavia, a European crisis on Nato’s doorstep. Syria is a major Arab republic situated on a strategic crossroads with powerful friends in Russia, China and Iran.
In Sarajevo last week, Hollywood star and human rights campaigner Angelina Jolie screened her new film about the Bosnian war, In the Land of Blood and Honey. Jolie says she hopes it will be as “a wake-up call” to the world to stop Syrian atrocities.
A few days ago in Homs, correspondent, Marie Colvin, gave her life to serve up a wake-up call of her own.
“They’re doing terrible things there,” she told a colleague who asked why she wanted to undertake such a hazardous assignment. “We have to be there.”
The question now is just who, if anyone, will heed such wake-up calls and be there in the months ahead for those innocent Syrian civilians caught in the crossfire.
Source: The Herald