- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
On May 25, 2012, 108 people were murdered in the Syrian town of Houla. Gruesome videos of woman and children slaughtered in their homes spread like wildfire across the Internet, the United Nations issued a report that attempted to discern exactly what happened, and the United States expelled Syria’s top diplomat in Washington.
Fast-forward 11 months: The Syrian military has reportedly launched an offensive in the Damascus suburbs of Jdeidet al-Fadl and Jdeidet al-Artouz — part of a broader effort to secure the capital from rebel assault — and the Local Coordination Committees of Syria are reporting that more than 400 people have been massacred. Other opposition networks cite a lower death toll, but still point to a significant loss of life: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, for instance, is reporting that 101 people have been documented killed, but that the final death toll could exceed 250 Syrians.
The two events may be equally horrifying, but there are few similarities in the international response to them. The coverage of Jdeidet al-Fadl and Jdeidet al-Artouz has been limited to a few newspaper articles — top U.S. officials have not felt compelled to respond, and the United Nations has not sprung into action.
Part of the reason for the lack of an international response this time around is the absence of any information coming from the Damascus suburbs. Even though Jdeidet al-Artouz is only about 10 miles from the center of Damascus, the Syrian military has locked down the area — no journalists or NGOs have been able to get close enough to report on what is going on. The lockdown is also preventing information from getting out of the towns, which explains the murkiness about the casualty figures. Even so, a few videos have leaked out, purporting to show dead men, women, and children.
But it’s hard to avoid another conclusion: The international community is simply growing desensitized to reports of massacres in Syria. At the time of the Houla massacre, the conflict had killed an estimated 10,000 Syrians — 11 months later, the United Nations estimates the death toll at more than 70,000 people. In the face of such unrelenting violence, the world simply looks away.