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Listen to Syria

Listen to refugees - Planet Syria

A little background: Last month, I was asked to write an op-ed for Il Manifesto Sardo, a Sardinian left-wing fortnightly magazine published on line. It is not an analysis and it does not claim objectivity or neutrality. This piece conveys my very personal point of view – a perspective undoubtedly influenced by the time I spent in Damascus, by my sorrow for the Syrian people and by a measure of outrage and – let’s face it – rage at the attitude and behaviour of many important actors. It does not reflect in any way the position of Il Manifesto Sardo. It is almost a cry for the international community to listen to the Syrian people.

The Syrian situation is an unresolvable tangle made of blood and ruins. It’s one of the darkest times in contemporary history. Four years ago, when the Syrian people started their own Spring, filled with hope and soaked with non-violent, democratic and inclusive ideals, they were not expecting that outcome. The brutal, criminal reaction of the regime took them by surprise, as it did the appearance of Islamist forces and the advent of the heinous Da’esh. Furthermore, they were disappointed by the virtual indifference of the Western democracies, which did absolutely nothing to support their legitimate aspiration to freedom and dignity.

This revolution started with children writing on a wall, in Dera’a, “as-shab yurid isqat an-nizam” (the people want the fall of the regime), with girls writing “hurriya” on the walls of Bab Touma, in the Old City of Damascus, with demonstrators offering sandwiches and flowers to the security forces mandated with guarding them.

What happened to this spring revolution?

Banksy, flower chucker, tattooed on my shoulder blade - photo by Federica Ciccariello ©

Banksy, flower chucker, tattooed on my shoulder blade – photo by Federica Ciccariello ©

So many things occurred. A list of the crimes committed during the last four years by every side in this fight would be long and futile. In sum, the Assad regime showed its heinous face – yes, as heinous as the face of Da’esh; some of the Syrians that imagined a revolution armed with flowers – just like Banksy’s flower chucker – reacted to daily brutality reaching for guns; Islamist forces – helped by the secular Bashar – infiltrated the revolution; Da’esh penetrated Syria with its horde of fanatics and bulldozers; the international community did not react sensibly and consistently.

At the United Nations, the Parliament of Man, Syria recurs sporadically. Most recently, the tense and familiar opposition between the United States and Russia took the stage. The former are irresolute and fickle; the latter is adamant about its support to Bashar’s regime. Hence, with the Americans and Europeans “dangerously disconnected from Syria’s realities” and terrified by Da’esh, the Russians started their own military campaign. Their stated target is Da’esh. interestingly, however, their raids happen to hit rebel-held areas, like Hama or Idlib. They also damaged one of Syria’s Dead Cities, Serjilla – apparently, Da’esh is not alone in devastating the Syrian archaeological heritage.

Let’s go back to Western democracies. I said they are completely cut off from the situation in Syria. They are obsessed with Da’esh because it designed a project so heinous that it escapes any attempt at rationalisation. It’s really something obscene (in Arabic is fahesh, as Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal defined it) that, like a cancer, needs to be eradicated. However, the truth is that the West is obsessed with Da’esh because it perceives it as a direct and close threat. Western democracies did not feel compelled to react to the Syrian crisis until a massive migration flow crossed the Mediterranean Sea heading to Europe. That is to say that, as long as the issue was confined to Syria and the neighbouring countries, it wasn’t really our problem.

In the meantime, millions of people were forced to leave their homes, most of them are internally displaced persons (IDP), while about 4 millions are refugees. Hundreds of thousands of people died, millions of people lost everything, including the hope for a better Syria and the faith in human solidarity. However, this story does not start in 2011. It started in 1971, when the first Assad became the President of the Syrian Arab Republic. People say the family’s name was originally Wahsh (monster) and not Assad (lion). Hafez changed it. How ironic. Hafez and his son Bashar are indeed monsters. The former can’t be punished for his crimes, any more. The latter shouldn’t be allowed to continue the violence of a forty-year long regime.

Usually, when talking about the brutality of the regime, people cite the most famous and striking cases, like the Hama massacre (1982) and Mustafa Khalifa’s novel ‘The Shell’. However, you fully understand the reach of the regime brutality in the physical and psychological violence that ordinary citizens experience every day. Their daily lives undergo a rigid control, so internalised that triggers defence mechanism such as self-censorship. The Mukhabarat men are nothing like the spies in American or English films. You can easily spot them. They might be wearing a long 80s mackintosh coat, some times they’d be carelessly carrying a machine gun while guarding an anonymous building that, fair guess, is a Mukhabarat station. You can’t actually spot their informers. Might be anyone, maybe a passer-by. You need to be careful about what you say, to whom you talk, what websites you visit, what phone numbers you digit. You end up talking softly about mildly suspicious topics in a corner of your house. If the regime has a doubt over the conduct of a citizen and over his or her allegiance to the President, the citizen is questioned, interrogated – maybe somewhere like al-Khatib, a prison in Damascus – tortured and locked, even for entire decades. The Syrian prisons are full of dissidents and – this is the scariest part – of random citizens. This is indeed what illustrates best the entity of the physical and psychological violence that the Assad regime inflicts upon the Syrian people.

If, when we talk about Syria, we bothered to listen to the Syrian people, the cruelness of Bashar’s regime would be blatant. We’d find out that most of the Syrians fleeing their country are running from Bashar, rather than Da’esh. We’d find out that Bashar, not Da’esh, is responsible for most of the destruction of the country. We’d find out that we let down the Syrian people, and that they are disillusioned because they had to face the simple fact that the Western democracies never actually wanted to hear what they had to say, let alone help them. Unfortunately, however, we rarely listen to the Syrian people. More often than not, I come across analyses and commentaries that absolve Bashar. Then, I think of a post published by an Italian journalist, Francesca Borri. With a lot of bitterness, she wrote about outdated ideological postures: “The left, simply, stands on Assad’s side because Assad is against the United States. Or better: because the Arab Spring is a CIA covert operation.” There’s no place for postures like these, detached from reality, detached from the atrocities unfolding at the hand of the Assad regime, detached from the destruction of Syria and the defeat of her people. Bashar can’t sit at a negotiation table, he must face a court for crimes against humanity.

The original version of this article was published in Italian on Il Manifesto Sardo on October 16, 2015.


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