Ordinary Syrians are being forgotten

Julia Wickham on how the Syrian revolution has been misrepresented

If the barbarous mess that is Syria were easy to solve, it would have been solved by now. The struggle to implement even a short-term truce to enable humanitarian access in the Old City of Homs, the only result of the UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva at the end of January, and now further deadlock in the February talks, illustrates how hard it is. The deadlock lies not just in the enmity between the regime and its opponents, but among the fighters on the ground and in the disconnect between the fractured internal opposition groups and the splintered political opposition trying to represent them externally. Arming the ‘rebels’ amidst such chaos is too little too late, and risks entrenching the fighting further. To do nothing is not an alternative. It is essential, but not enough, to initiate and sustain a process to map a way out of a situation that has cost more than 130,000 lives, maimed many more and displaced around 40% of the 22 million population inside and outside Syria. Providing humanitarian aid, accepting refugees and helping Syria’s neighbours (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq) to deal with the influx of people fleeing the violence is a moral obligation. However, what is most urgent is an end to the bloodshed.

Chemical weapons

One thing the chemical weapons attack in the opposition-held suburbs of Damascus on 21th August 2013 proved was that political will can be generated among the international community to act with real intent. It seemed the West would finally resolve to support military action in the form of US air strikes against the Syrian regime believed to have carried out the attacks. Amidst the diplomatic disarray following the UK Parliament’s rejection on 29 August of a government motion to support intervention, and days before the US Congress was to hold a similar vote, Vladimir Putin executed his champion chess move. He averted retaliation against the Assad government by persuading it to relinquish its chemical weapons arsenal, thus letting Barack Obama off the hook of defending his ‘red line’. Despite the efforts of journalists, human rights organisations and others to publicise the carnage, many images of mutilated corpses had been withheld in the two years before the chemical attack: detainees tortured to death, families slaughtered in their homes, attacks on hospitals and medical workers who dared to treat anyone involved (even peacefully) in supporting the uprising, summary executions and gang rapes. In the new era of citizen journalism there was no shortage of footage. So why now the ‘no holds barred’ about the chemical weapons?

syria imageApparently it is so much less acceptable to be murdered by a chemical weapon than by a conventional one, no matter what the degree of barbarity involved. The conventional means listed above had not been sufficient to galvanise the international community into action early on. The first red lines were crossed in Dera’a in March 2011 with the brutal treatment of schoolchildren by security forces for spraying ‘Arab Spring’ slogans on walls; with the first sniper bullets fired from rooftops at peaceful protesters; and the detention and torture of innocent men, women and children. Even now, despite the rhetoric, the proposed limited strikes were detached from any wider political strategy to topple the regime.

Air strikes

Before Putin’s manoeuvre, I sat in the tension of Beirut on the last day of August, communicating with friends in Syria. Most were against air strikes, on the basis they would only harm them and not the regime. Arguments raged on social media sites between those who wanted the same outcome – to see the end of the regime and the killing – but taking a different route. My own anger was a response to the hypocrisy of trying to hide the geopolitical muscle-flexing, the protection of a weapons norm and saving an American president’s face behind a sudden concern to protect Syrian civilians. A young Syrian neighbour in Damascus who supports the revolution, a smart entrepreneur sick of the corruption, had written to me in 2012 when opposition forces were gaining ground but the ‘Assad must go’ rhetoric from outside was still not translating into tangible support. ‘God damn politics and politicians’ expressed his sense of abandonment shared by ordinary Syrians who had risked their lives to call for the same freedoms people were demanding in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain. How were they to know that Homs would not equal Benghazi in the eyes of the ‘international community’ and its purported resolve to protect citizens from being savaged by the state?

The next right thing

I might appear to be making the case for military intervention in Syria. I am not; at least not of the ‘arming the rebels’ kind. In 2012, while I was still living in Damascus, I wanted intervention. The newly formed Free Syrian Army needed support. The terror unleashed on a defenceless civilian population warranted the same collective action that had been taken in Libya in 2011 and Bosnia in 1995. But unless there is a cogent political strategy and peace plan, sending a few tanks and missiles into a chaotic and unpredictable situation is naïve. Ordinary Syrians have had enough. I asked a former student of mine, a brilliant young woman, now a refugee in Lebanon trying desperately to get her family out of Syria, what she would like to say to people in the UK. “Primarily they should realise that it is the long, long, long time of conflict that has brought all of the armed and extremist groups into Syria, which most Syrians who support the opposition do not support. Please point out that the best help Syrians now aspire to is help in putting an end to the massive bloodshed.” The tragedy in Syria is being misrepresented. The average person could be forgiven for believing it is ‘six of one …’, another case of ‘they just can’t live together’; or another showdown between Al Qaeda and its enemies. So Assad moves down the list of ‘baddies’, vindicating him – so it would seem – in the conspiracy theories he propagated at the start of the uprising. The winners of this are those fuelling the conflict; the losers are ordinary people in Syria and the surrounding region. Obama is no Bush, but the spurious ‘war on terror’ has rooted itself insidiously over a decade into our transatlantic language and belief systems. By extension, the word ‘terrorist’ is a blanket term for enemies whose grievances you are not willing to countenance. It is especially convenient for dictators and despots. It is striking that politicians and even seasoned journalists commonly refer to a ‘war’ that has been raging for almost three years. It did not start as a war. The situation evolved into conflict, crisis and civil war owing to failure on the part of the international community to act. Political self-interest and enduring Cold War reflexes ensured the violence was stoked. Syrians soon realised there were no honest brokers. Labels such as ‘rebels’, ‘moderates’, ‘extremists’ and ‘militants’ obscure the origins of the bloodshed. What happened to the words ‘revolution’, which means the overthrow of a social order in favour of another one as much as of a particular regime? And to ‘uprising’, which in the case of the ‘Arab Spring’ countries, including Syria, meant ordinary people having the courage to demand economic justice, political freedom and the right to live in dignity? These aspirations have not gone away. Ordinary Syrians have become eclipsed behind the stories that make headlines.

The deadlock lies not just in the enmity between the regime and its opponents, but among the fighters on the ground and in the disconnect between the fractured internal opposition groups and the splintered political opposition

They are still there, striving with unbelievable determination to hold together their families and communities. Many have left the country only to find themselves unwanted and destitute, to the extent that increasing numbers have returned to the hell of home. There are no easy solutions. But what we can do incrementally is ‘the next right thing’ and for the right reason. The benchmarks for concerted action should be based on international law and common humanity. It is a no-brainer we should accept Syrian refugees, and more than the paltry 500 or so currently proposed. Public opinion supports this. It is not an alternative to providing humanitarian aid.

Stopping the killing

All energy should be focused on stopping the killing. The UK should take a leading role in advocating for the full array of political, economic and diplomatic tools to press allies and foes alike to cease the shameful exploitation of the conflict to further their own self-interests. The political space created by cooperation between the US and Russia should be built on, as should the rapprochement with Iran. A process of internationally mediated talks is crucial in persuading parties to the fighting to renounce their maximalist positions.

An ugly betrayal

Once again I wish to bring it back to ordinary Syrian people. Those involved in the original peaceful protests never held ‘maximalist’ positions. They were not even calling for the overthrow of the regime, but economic and political reforms. Many Syrians trusted Assad would lead them down a different path from his fellow miscreants in the region. The path he chose was an ugly betrayal of his people. The atrocities beamed into our homes last August have not gone away with the spotlight. The same towns and villages targeted then, and many more around the country, are still under siege and people are starving to death. Another young Syrian friend and former colleague trapped in one of these towns joked with me on Facebook: ‘We have internet but no food.’ A political solution and peace plan are needed to solve this conflict. But the people of Syria – those still alive and striving for justice and those who died for daring to do the right thing – should not have to wait a moment longer for the bloodshed to be stopped. This, too, is the right thing, for the right reason.

Julia Wickham is a Middle East affairs specialist, teacher, writer and peace-builder. She was formerly Director of Labour Middle East Council and recently lived in Syria and Lebanon.

This article features in the latest issue of CHARTIST but has been renamed here at the request of the author.