As famine, mass displacement, and even genocide threatened a faraway war-torn region in Africa called Darfur a decade ago, Americans responded to the horrors they were becoming aware of by demanding a US response. A movement was born.
“Save Darfur” began showing up on automobile bumpers. Groups demanding an end to the brutal repression of the Texas-size province by the government of Sudan were formed on college campuses, in places of worship, in Congress.
Today Darfur still suffers from human rights violations and attacks against displaced populations. But public awareness and demands for action are credited with motivating international powers to take up the Darfur issue and stop the worst of the province’s violence.
Which raises a question: When was the last time you saw a bumper sticker demanding, “Save Syria”?
Unlike Darfur, which caught the attention of enough Americans to lead to a national campaign, Syria and its three-year-old conflict have not experienced the same degree of public interest or urgency.
A conflict that is destroying a Middle Eastern country has already left as many as 130,000 Syrians dead, has resulted in millions of internally displaced people and refugees, and – with this week’s brief humanitarian cease-fire in the besieged city of Homs – has opened a window onto the horrific actions of a regime willing to starve its own people into submission. And yet nothing even close to the “Save Darfur” movement has sprung up.
Some US officials say they have a hunch why that is, but they add that the reasons are probably about as complex as the Syrian conflict itself.
“I would like to see the US mobilization that we saw with ‘Save Darfur,’ but we just haven’t seen that with this crisis aside from the Syrian-American community,” says Anne Richard, the State Department’s assistant secretary for population, refugees, and migration.
Secretary Richard says she first thought the explanation lay in the fact that very few Americans have traveled to Syria as tourists or have a close (family) connection to it – but then she dismissed that reasoning after considering Darfur.
At least part of the answer, she says, must be found in the particular groups that took an interest in Darfur. Interviewed recently on the margins of a Washington conference on “Saving Syria’s Civilians,” organized by the non-profit International Relief and Development (IRD) and the Middle East Institute, Richard says there was a triad of interest groups that made Darfur a national cause.
“With Darfur it started with conservative Christians who pushed Congress on the sanctions” imposed against the Sudanese government, “and then Jewish-Americans intent on preventing a genocide played a growing role,” she says. “And then celebrities joined in,” she adds, “and it really took off.”
Richard says she finds “strong left and right support in Congress for humanitarian aid to Syria” – indeed, the Obama administration is fond of pointing out that the US is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance aimed at the Syrian crisis – but it’s the public pressure that “frankly" is missing, she adds.
“We need to somehow get [the interest] down throughout the society,” she says.
But others, from US foreign policy experts to college students, say there are reasons it will be difficult to make that happen. Among them: Americans are tired of involvement in Middle East crises; people have trouble singling out the “good guys” in Syria they would march (or slap on a bumper sticker) for; in a civil war like Syria’s, it may just have to play out, as sad as that sounds.
“I think most people my age just think there are no answers in Syria, it’s just one more fight in the Middle East, and so they pretty much turn it off,” says Jason, an American University student who, though he preferred his last name not be used, had enough interest in Syria to attend the IRD conference.
The sense of “no good options” isn’t restricted to the public, either. President Obama painted a dire picture of Syria and the dismaying suffering going on there in his White House press conference Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande. But his inability to offer any steps or initiatives that might make the situation any better any time soon was hardly an encouragement to public action.
Another explanation for a lack of public outrage might be the dearth of human-interest stories out of Syria, some regional experts say.
The challenges that journalists face in getting stories from the ground-level of Syria’s conflict “could be the reason the heart-tugging stories that we [aid workers] hear and see every day are going under-reported,’ says Uma Kandalayeva, Jordan country director for IRD.
“Maybe if you could put a human face on this crisis it would make a difference,” she says, “but this is a brutal, vicious conflict,” she adds, “so that makes it difficult.”
Still searching for an explanation, Dr. Kandalayeva says another factor may be the diminutive size of the Syrian-American community. Not that masses of Darfurians lived in the US, but they did have key power groups on their side.
“The diaspora makes a difference,” Kandalayeva says. “It’s not the full explanation” for why one humanitarian crisis catches on, and another doesn’t, she adds. “But it’s true there’s not a large Syrian diaspora in the US.”