NPR logo A Viral Syrian Moment: Will It Be Different This Time?

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A Viral Syrian Moment: Will It Be Different This Time?

This January 2014 shows thousands of residents of Yarmouk, a Palestinian neighborhood of Damascus, lining up for food. The photo went viral and drew attention to civilians at risk in Syria, but the fighting has continued unabated. Uncredited/UNRWA via AP hide caption

toggle caption Uncredited/UNRWA via AP

This January 2014 shows thousands of residents of Yarmouk, a Palestinian neighborhood of Damascus, lining up for food. The photo went viral and drew attention to civilians at risk in Syria, but the fighting has continued unabated.

Uncredited/UNRWA via AP

A single photo of a drowned Syrian child shocked the world's conscience this week and focused international attention on a conflict that has left a quarter million dead and sent 4 million fleeing in the past four years.

But beyond the powerful emotional impact and a surge in aid donations, will it change the way the international community responds to Syria's war or to the surge of migrants descending on Europe?

Syria has had similar, shocking moments in the spotlight over the past few years:

  • A chemical weapons attack blamed on the Syrian government left more than 1,400 dead in 2013.
  • A photo showing a crush of refugees desperate for food went viral in March 2014.
  • This July, a photo exhibit in the U.S. Capitol highlighted the deaths of thousands of detainees who'd been tortured in Syria's prison system. The Syrian photographer responsible for the images testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2014.

But little, if anything, changed after these episodes. In fact, suffering increased, fighting intensified and more and more people fled Syria or were killed.

This week, the picture of the child, 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, appeared on front pages and social media, where it elicited anguish and outrage, and was held up as a symbol of the world's failure to deal both the Syrian war and the migrant crisis.

A Syrian man mourns after a chemical weapons attack blamed on government forces near Damascus in 2013. Uncredited/AP hide caption

toggle caption Uncredited/AP

A Syrian man mourns after a chemical weapons attack blamed on government forces near Damascus in 2013.

Uncredited/AP

"I hope the world will learn something from it," Aylan's father, Abdullah Kurdi, told reporters on Friday.

"I hope this people will be helped, that these massacres are stopped. We are human beings, just like Westerners," said Kurdi, who also lost his 5-year-old son and his wife when their dinghy capsized as they attempted to reach Europe. The lone survivor in his family, Kurdi buried his wife and two boys Friday in Kobani, the northern Syrian town they had fled.

The photo has added to the pressure European leaders were already feeling when it comes to their policies on accepting Syrian refugees.

Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, said Thursday that the photo of Aylan Kurdi "deeply moved" him. He said Britain would take in thousands of Syrians directly from refugee camps and announced an extra $100 million in aid.

Images of dead bodies in Syrian prisons, taken by a Syrian forensic photographer, were displayed at the United Nations earlier this year. They were also put on exhibit at the U.S. Capitol in July. Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Landov hide caption

toggle caption Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Landov

Images of dead bodies in Syrian prisons, taken by a Syrian forensic photographer, were displayed at the United Nations earlier this year. They were also put on exhibit at the U.S. Capitol in July.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Landov

Activists in London are organizing a Sept. 12 march in support of refugees, ahead of emergency European Union talks on the migrant crisis scheduled for the 14th.

Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army and shown here in 2006, remains at large despite an international campaign to capture him that started in 2012. STR/AP hide caption

toggle caption STR/AP

Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army and shown here in 2006, remains at large despite an international campaign to capture him that started in 2012.

STR/AP

"Europe is facing a moment of truth," Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Friday. "This is the time to reaffirm the values upon which it was built."

However, there's been no sign that any Western or Middle Eastern government is preparing to alter its policy toward the war in Syria, the root cause of the refugee crisis. The largest number of those heading to Europe are from Syria, though many are also coming from other Middle Eastern and African states.

Other long-running conflicts have also had moments where a single event prompted outpourings of sympathy, outrage and support. But in most cases, the moment passed and the conflicts continued to grind on.

A 2012 video and aggressive social media campaign put the spotlight on the abuses of Joseph Kony, the Ugandan-born leader of the Lord's Resistance Army responsible for abducting tens of thousands of children and forcing them to become child soldiers. The goal: to capture him and bring him to justice.

The extremist group Boko Haram kidnapped 267 schoolgirls in Nigeria last year. The group said some of them appear in this still image from a video. AFP/YouTube hide caption

toggle caption AFP/YouTube

The extremist group Boko Haram kidnapped 267 schoolgirls in Nigeria last year. The group said some of them appear in this still image from a video.

AFP/YouTube

That did lead to stepped-up action: The U.S. military sent in a significantly larger team to track him down. Four senior members of Kony's faction, wanted by the International Criminal Court, have since been arrested or surrendered. But Kony himself has once again disappeared into the shadows.

Last year, the world was outraged after Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria. A global "Bring Back Our Girls" movement was launched and continues to agitate for the girls' safe return. But last week, the girls' families marked 500 days since their disappearance.

So what might this all suggest for Syria's refugees?

The photo of Aylan Kurdi "broke our heart and shattered our soul," said Italy's prime minister, Matteo Renzi. But, he conceded, "We have seen too many European leaders who have been moved, but very few have taken action."

Perhaps that will change with the European Union meets on Sept. 14. In the meantime, everything has changed for Aylan Kurdi's father, Abdullah, who is back in Kobani. He said he no longer wants to live anywhere else.

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