Virtual Syria in Davos

It’s not that the elites in Davos find the war in Syria hard to imagine, it’s that they just have no idea how to end it.

01.24.14 4:06 PM ET

This video did not go viral: A cameraman is filming a little girl on a streetcorner in Aleppo. She is singing a Syrian song about freedom when a mortar shell lands nearby. Suddenly dust, like a fog, obscures everything. As it clears, a man is there on the ground covered in blood. People are running. 

Even on a laptop you can almost taste the grit in your mouth and breathe the sharp smell of the explosives. It’s at the limit of one's ability to watch, but not so horrible that it should not be watched. This is the way it is. And yet… and yet it commanded almost no attention. Like the Syrian war itself.

But that YouTube clip has been transformed, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, into an experience of virtual reality. It's a fairly amazing experience, but also a rather sad metaphor for the combination of obsession and detachment that these elites on a mountaintop feel for the millions of Syrians under the gun. 

If they want to get a taste of the Syrian street, business and political leaders can take a break from the endless panels and plenaries to don a helmet with heavy goggles and a sort of Christmas-tree of branches and sensors on top of it. Sensors pick up their movements as they walk around in a space just off the convention center banquet floor. They see the little girl, they see the explosion, the dust is all around them, the wounded man is in front of them.

Nonny de la Peña, a veteran reporter, is developing this experience that she calls “immersive journalism” in cooperation with the University of Southern California film school. Other projects have included a depiction of hunger in Los Angeles and “Gitmo,” about the detainees in Cuba.

The bet is that people surrounded by a virtual experience will feel empathy and sympathy that might otherwise escape them. And the success of video games, which provided the foundation technology for “Project Syria: An Immersive Experience of Child Refutees,” ought to be encouraging. The YouTube video of the little girl singing and the mortar shell exploding has been up since last February and has had fewer than 700 views as of this morning. A game-play video of “Call of Duty,” which puts you in the middle of imaginary combat, gets upwards of 10 million views.

As virtual reality headsets are developed further by companies like Oculus Rift the technology should be as widely available as Xboxes and PlayStations.

Sadly, even if that takes four or five years, the Syrian war may still be slaughtering men, women and children. More than 130,000 people have died so far. More than a million children are refugees, most of them under the age of 11. Neighboring countries are are trying to absorb enormous numbers of people made homeless by the war. “I am very pessimistic,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres told me. And with reason. If the United States had to absorb as many refugees as Lebanon had, it would have to take in 66 million people.

It’s not that the elites at Davos aren’t talking about the conflict (whether they try to experience it through goggles or not). It’s that none seem to have any real solutions.

Billionaire George Soros gave a dinner last night to try to focus the attention of the invited press. Unlike the outcry over the Bosnia War 20 years ago, said Soros, “the opinion of the global is lacking today.” As we drank Champagne and dined on filet mignon, Soros explained with an edge of real anger in his voice that the Assad regime in Syria uses hunger as a weapon of war, a strategy of “starve or surrender.” Yet no one called for military intervention. Nobody believes that is possible. And the calls for UN resolutions and “political solutions” continue to ring hollow on the embattled streets of besieged communities where even the International Committee of the Red Cross is under threat. According to the ICRC’s Peter Maurer the Syrian Red Cross and Red Crescent have lost more volunteers in this war than have died in any other conflict recorded by the organization. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a packed auditorium in Davos this evening that Syrian President Bashar Assad simply cannot be part of his country’s future: that if he stays, the opposition will just keep fighting, and the war that has already made Syria “the world’s single greatest magnet for jihad and terror” will go on. The way Kerry focused attention on one man rather than a regime could be significant, if there’s a Plan B. But alternatives to Assad within the Syrian government have a tendency to die violently.

Even Davos’s famous inclination toward tedious civility has been tested. At one point Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was on a panel with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the two got into a heated debate about whose holy places in Syria, Shiites or Sunnites, had been most desecrated.

There are tiny hints of good news. At a panel today, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif not only talked to each other, they agreed to continue talking. But the reaction from seasoned observers was cynical. “They exhibited their usual polished bad faith,” said a former government minister from one of Syria’s neighbors. Saudi Arabia and Iran are heavily invested in the opposing sides of the Syrian war, which has become a proxy battlefield—not a virtual one—in their ferocious rivalry.