It was May of this year that IS reached the gates of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Suddenly there was renewed focus on the conflict, with many outraged by the wanton acts of a group prepared to not only destroy a country’s present and future but also its past.
Around the same time, Assad’s regime bombed a school in Aleppo as children sat studying for exams. One month earlier, Yarmouk camp, already the site of clashes and a two-year siege by Assad’s forces that caused 200 to die from starvation, found itself on the defensive against IS militants.
The difference—last weekend 53 UN member states agreed to sending peacekeepers to protect world heritage sites, including Palmyra, from attack. Yarmouk’s residents, meanwhile, joined by Palestinians from other camps, were left to face their new attackers head on. UNRWA still struggles to get much needed supplies into the camp, whilst its Syria crisis appeal has only received 34 per cent of funds needed for 2015.
Which raises the question: Why Palmyra?
I would agree with the argument put forward in The Guardian this summer that “What matters is not just how many people live but how we live.” Yet this is an argument in favour of providing funding to the arts, in favour of not closing down libraries, and in favour of free university education. It is not an argument in favour of sending troops to stand silently around heritage sites whilst thousands die down the road and hospitals and schools join the rubble.
Also, whilst Palmyra may well symbolise Syrian history and culture, this sudden concern seems a little hypocritical considering the US and its allies neglected to protect Iraq’s cultural heritage as it opened the country up to the ruin of museums, libraries and historical sites. UNESCO has described the demolition of a Palmyra temple by IS as a war crime but presented only dubious reports on the destructive building of a US military base on the ancient city of Babylon.
There is therefore something bigger at play that the history and culture argument obscures. We see it not only in the concern over Palmyra, but also in the hysteria surrounding the ‘refugee crisis’ and the focus on IS itself, as Assad continues the indiscriminate shelling that kills up to 1,000 at a time. Self-interest is the missing link and it is all the more dangerous for its invisibility.
The privileged of this world (and that includes the elites that sit around tables in Geneva as well as those of us with enough money to spend on holidays abroad) have grown up to believe in the right of access and in the right of possibility. Many of us would be outraged if we were denied access to one country despite the fact that many live under occupation or in situations that relegate the idea of travel to a pipedream. Similarly, it was also this May that people began lamenting the last remaining male northern white rhino. It wasn’t the idea of death that disturbed us, or else the outrage would have been more widespread before this point; rather it was the idea that a part of the world was disappearing, a part of the world that we believed to belong to us all, that we disliked. And it is these rights of which Palmyra has become the most recent of symbols.
It is a similar self-interest that plagues states and immobilises the UN. Research has found that states provide troops to peacekeeping missions based on a number of factors. These include judgements on potential increases to their global political strength, economic benefits, national security interests and their domestic situation. Only a few states were found to think in normative terms – supporting UN peacekeeping missions because they believed it was ‘the right thing to do’, and even then the belief of countries, such as China, that the UN acts as an alternative power hegemony can be seen simply as an attempt to decrease the power of other world hegemons.
The US, in particular, can be seen to regard UN peacekeeping as a national security issue. This year Obama has been pressuring governments to commit more troops to missions in Somalia, South Sudan, and other areas that it views as hotspots for the growth of Islamist extremism. There is even a push to increase the military force of peacekeepers so that they become peace ‘enforcers’, a move India and China seem to suspect is little more than an attempt to transform peacekeepers into US military pawns.
And so we are left wondering what is left of the UN and its desire to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. If a somewhat utopian idea of world peace has been reduced to putting our ancestors’ past before our children’s future, and to acting not out of concern for the international but in the interest of our own states, it seems the answer is not much.