The Syrian civil war defies any erudite conception of violent conflict
Consider the YouTube video of a sarin gas attack in Ghouta, Syria that surfaced this summer. Its contents are extremely disturbing: An estimated 1,700 innocent civilians, including children, died from the gas’ toxic biological effects. Most intelligence experts agree that the large-scale strike, which decimated a suburb just outside Damascus, was orchestrated by Syria’s official head of state, Bashar al-Assad.
Assad lives approximately 10 miles away from Ghouta in a presidential palace situated on Mount Qasioun with guard watchtowers, sprawling fountains and a barrage of empty rooms clad in Carrara marble. Video interviews with the dictator are a chilling event for virtual onlookers: In interviews with NBC and BBC, for instance, he spews harrowing statistics about warfare as if engaging in a coffee table discussion about the day’s weather.
It’s difficult to envision how a state leader could evoke such a calm and collected demeanor while video evidence suggests that a military strike left civilians writhing from chemically induced contractions on hospital floors. Yet this is one of many tragedies unfolding in Syria right now, and it left me speechless on my apartment couch this summer.
I call the disjunction between the horrors of Ghouta and the Syrian leader’s calm façade the Assad disconnect. At its most fundamental level, the Assad disconnect refers to a block in communication between those who speak and those who are meant to listen. It is when proletariat demands are not met by governing forces. It is when political actors oppress their people in violent fashion, sipping tea all the while.
The Syrian civil war is the Assad disconnect at its highest magnitude. At first brush it might seem preposterous and disrespectful to apply the designation to other fields of action — fields that don’t involve mass murder and terrorism and a cataclysmic refugee crisis. Nevertheless, I would like to enumerate two examples in which the Assad disconnect manifests at lower magnitudes — magnitudes that still involve fatality.
In March 2016, the North Carolina state legislature passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, which overturned landmark anti-LGBT discrimination policy and instituted a notorious bathroom clause. In it, legislators mandated that transgender citizens may only use restrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates. Transgender representation in Congress is, of course, nonexistent. And when predominantly white, male and cisgender legislators operate under transphobic premises, key marginalized voices go unheard. At its worst, the divide between transgender citizens and the people tasked with representing them worsens the reality for transgender citizens on the ground, driving a surveyed suicide rate of 41 percent.
A second example of the Assad disconnect occurs on this neo-Gothic campus: the epidemic of sexual assault at Yale. Students have been justifiably outraged at a slow administrative response to campus rape and harassment. Jimmy Carter, in a talk with President Salovey two years ago, scorned Yale’s mishandling of these cases.
These examples illustrate a broader point: When those with power become detached from those without it, tragedy usually follows. The Assad disconnect and its various offshoots must be prevented at the grassroots level. We as Yale students have personally executed change — last November, I watched hundreds of my peers march to cross campus in a historic effort to protest campus racism. These efforts must continue through purposeful action in communities ranging from Latinx groups to the Af-Am House to queer circles and beyond. If Syria teaches us anything, it is that reactive movements must materialize before harmful — and potentially fatal — decisions do.
Isaac Amend is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .