It’s been just over three months since the world was shocked by the picture of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on the Turkish coast after the boat in which his family escaped Syria overturned. Last week, Aylan starred in the media once again, this time in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, which featured him in a cartoon captioned, “What would have become of little Aylan had he grown up?” The drawing is brutal: It shows a “grown-up” Aylan with the face of a pig, chasing a panicked European woman, trying to grab her buttocks.
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The cartoon was denounced on all sides – especially by refugees, who viewed it as a collective smear against bedraggled people who have lost their homelands, families and property. But freedom of expression is sacred.
Clicking through another few Facebook pages would have led the cartoonist, Riss – who was wounded in last year’s deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo – to pictures of other children who, if they manage to stay alive, will doubtless grow up to become sexual harassers. The information center of the city of Moadamiya, west of Damascus, posted shocking pictures on its Facebook pages of babies Leen, Yusef and Maram, all just a few months old. Their swollen bellies, along with those doctors who still remain in the city, both attest that they are suffering from malnutrition and lack of medicine, and their days are numbered.
The fear is that Moadamiya’s fate will resemble that of the town of Madaya, which “earned” media coverage after some 30 residents died of starvation. The shock Madaya’s story generated overseas aided its residents, who received food and medicine last week. But no similar international attention has yet been bestowed on Moadamiya or another dozen or so cities besieged by the Syrian army and Hezbollah, which refuse to allow food and medicine in until rebel fighters leave.
The rebels, however, are clinging to every inch of land they have conquered, hoping to use it as a bargaining chip in political negotiations over terms for ending the civil war. Those negotiations, meanwhile, are going nowhere, since the numerous parties to the dispute can’t even agree on who will represent the rebels at an international conference slated to be held next Monday on forming a transitional government for Syria.
For instance, Moscow has told Washington it won’t allow either Jaysh al-Islam or Ahrar al-Sham to be part of the rebel delegation. But these are two of the largest rebel militias, and they are backed by Saudi Arabia.
Russia also refuses to accept the rebel delegates approved at an opposition summit in Riyadh three weeks ago, mainly because Iran objects. That objection stems partly – perhaps primarily – from the fact that Saudi Arabia organized the summit. Given the current poor relations between Riyadh and Tehran, it’s hard to see either accepting delegates proposed by the other. Nor is it clear that the rebel militias will accept any list proposed by Russia and Iran.
Moreover, Russia insists on including the Kurdish militias, to which Turkey, backed by Washington, vehemently objects. The United States, for its part, is supporting the “Saudi” list.
The bottom line is that the Free Syrian Army is the only rebel group everyone can agree on – everyone, that is, except all the other rebel militias.
When Washington and Moscow reached an agreement to let Syrian President Bashar Assad remain in power until new elections are held, it briefly seemed this would extricate the talks from their impasse. But no more.
The rebels have their own demands, including implementation of a UN resolution requiring both sides to free all prisoners and allow aid into all besieged cities. But the Assad regime rejects these demands. Like the rebels, it wants to expand the territory under its control before the talks begin, and it therefore insists the rebels vacate besieged towns before any food is allowed in.
Under the ambitious timetable set in the UN resolution, the transitional government is supposed to be established within six months, and elections are supposed to be held within 18 months. As things look now, those deadlines will suffer many delays.
Meanwhile, babies in Moadamiya and other besieged towns will continue to die of hunger or disease. Moreover, another snowstorm is expected, and many towns have no trees left for heating. So residents are reduced to collecting old clothes, newspapers and plastic shoes to burn for warmth, hoping they can survive until summer comes. After all, it’s only another four months.