Listening to What Syrians Actually Want Instead of Assad’s Propaganda

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad of the University of Stirling has an excellent article in Dissent on the importance of listening to what Syrians want and acknowledging the reality on the ground:

If Syrians haven’t been heard, it’s not for lack of trying. There are compelling voices covering the conflict—reporting, analyzing, prescribing. All are ignored.

Syrians want self-determination, but they are thwarted by a ruthless regime backed by Russian arms and UN vetoes. Western governments are unwilling to act because they see no vital interests at stake in Syria; Western publics are leery because they see everything as a replay of Iraq; both are united in the patronizing, orientalist assumption that the stability of a state is more valuable than the rights of its people. The unfiltered Syrian story is thus an inconvenient one. It is far more comforting to treat Syria as a domestic debate in which right and wrong can be deduced from ideological principles rather than examined facts.

In spite of the erasure, Syrians have strived to ensure that the defective first draft of history does not become the final word. In images and words, they have tried to preserve an unvarnished record of the years of revolution and war. They have been aided in this by the heroic efforts of the Local Coordination Committees (a network of local groups organizing and reporting on civil society activism) and the White Helmets (a volunteer organization providing search, rescue, and medivac services), and by the painstaking record kept by the Violations Documentation Center and the Syrian Network for Human Rights….

Western civil society wasn’t stirred into action until the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore. The sympathy that was denied to Syrians as citizens fighting tyranny seemed more forthcoming as depoliticized victims seeking refuge. For four years most progressives had actively embraced, or tacitly internalized, the regime’s portrayal of all its opponents as Islamist terrorists, yet they were suddenly indignant when far-right xenophobes borrowed the same tropes to malign refugees. But in the middle of all this, as Putin intervened in Syria, generating new waves of refugees, many progressives saw no contradiction between their sympathy for refugees and their support (overt or unspoken) for Russia’s intervention.

Syrians have died overwhelmingly at the hands of the regime; they have been detained and tortured en masse by the regime; they have fled primarily because of the regime (the crimes are being better documented than “anywhere since Nuremberg,” according to American lawyer Stephen Rapp). To them, the regime is the root of Syria’s evil. But if, in spite of the facts, the dubious logic of lesser evilism has prevailed, it is because most Syrian people have been written out of their own story. Journalists, activists, intellectuals, politicians, and diplomats have participated in this erasure. Even the sympathetic ones have reported Syria mostly as a tableau of horrors. The horrors are undeniable, but what the story lacks is a chronicle of resistance—resistance against impossible odds, with grace, without hope, and through constant betrayal. Samar Yazbek, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila Al Shami, and others have ensured that the answer to “What do Syrians want?” is no longer a mystery.

Samer Attar, a surgeon with Northwestern Medicine in Chicago who volunteered in Aleppo, meanwhile, describes what it is like to see the regime’s crimes up close:

The hospital shook from the blast. The victims were not terrorists or soldiers. They were civilians shopping for the upcoming Eid celebration. Twenty-five people were killed. Dozens more were injured. There were not enough beds, so patients were placed on floors smeared with blood and body parts, with barely a place to step. Dead bodies were piled into the street to make room for incoming wounded.

The screaming never let up. Children covered in blood and dust and pockmarked with shrapnel screamed for their parents and siblings. Some would be reunited whole; others would learn whom they had lost, or which of their children’s limbs were missing or mutilated. Some had the bone shards of disintegrated bystanders embedded in their skin — routine findings after such attacks.

I saw a child, breathing but silent, with severe burns and his intestines protruding from his belly. His skin and hair were burned off. He died a couple of days later. A 5-year-old had just died before him due to respiratory failure — shrapnel from a bomb cut his spinal cord and paralyzed him from the chest down. One surgeon cut open a man’s chest in a last-ditch effort to clamp a bleeding vessel near the heart. It worked temporarily, but the man had lost too much blood, and there was no more blood to give him. Two children would later bleed to death in the operating room for similar reasons. I did an above-knee amputation on a stretcher in a hallway because all the operating rooms were full. Others whose limbs were traumatically amputated in the attack had to sit with tourniquets until an operating room opened. We later learned that a child had been decapitated by the blast.

Such slaughter occurred daily. Here, innocent civilians being blinded, amputated, burned, paralyzed, crushed and mutilated by bombs is the routine. Here, the world has shown little solidarity with innocents being massacred. This was not the work of the Islamic State. The terrorism I saw in Aleppo came from helicopters and jets in the sky.