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June 4, 2013

By predicting the fall of Syria, world helped it crumble

Amal Hanano and Yakzan Shishakly

Jun 4, 2013


A Syrian man from Homs used to run a tiny felafel stand in Reyhanli, Turkey, to support his family. He had fled the violence at home and lived in this Turkish town near the Syrian border.

Since twin car bombings hit the town on May 11, killing over 46 people – including Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees – and wounding over 100, the man has been nowhere to be found. His felafel stand was outside the smoking video frames and chaotic images frantically being shared across social media sites.

Responses to the attack varied. The media focused on the latest episode of violence and its regional repercussions. Ankara condemned the attacks and blamed the Syrian regime. The Assad regime then blamed Turkey for sheltering Syrian rebels. Meanwhile, many Syrians’ eyes were on the screens, looking for loved ones, like the man from Homs, horrified that this safe haven had become as dangerous as the land across the border.

Reyhanli has become a vital hub for aid organisations to funnel emergency humanitarian and medical supplies into Syria’s northern, liberated areas that still suffer from both constant bombardment and extreme shortages of basic necessities such as food, water and medicine. Reyhanli is also a main artery of aid for tens of thousands of displaced Syrians (IDPs) stranded in makeshift, under-served camps along the border. These IDPs settled into a life of misery, reasoning that at least this area was safe. Or so they thought.

For Syrian Americans who provide aid while living abroad, there is a separation of realities between attempting to alleviate the devastating humanitarian crisis on the ground and watching the endless discussions of “red lines” in the media. Analysts and politicians ask: were these lines crossed already? And if they were, what’s next?

Outsiders deal with the question of chemical weapons or the flow of Russian advanced weapons to the regime in the abstract – through the prism of strategic interests. But while they crunch numbers and predict scenarios, we know that an influx of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the threat of “small scale” chemical weapons attacks will be catastrophic.

Over 5 million Syrians are internally displaced or refugees – almost a quarter of the country’s population. According to Oxfam America’s president, Raymond Offenheiser, Syria’s humanitarian crisis numbers compare to historical crises like Darfur’s. To those who manage IDP camps, each number is an additional mouth to feed, another tent to erect, another child without a school. Each number is a red line to Syrians, a line that has been crossed over and over again.

For many months, experts have warned of the spillover of violence from Syria into neighbouring countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and of course Israel. But Syrians have watched the reverse spillover of violence into their country from all of these countries.

Over the last two weeks, hundreds of Hizbollah militiamen along with Assad regime forces have launched a massive attack on the town of Qusayr, in Homs. These “resistance” fighters seem to have no problem slaughtering civilians and fighters alike. Families in Qusayr have been trapped for days with no access to humanitarian relief and no way to escape. Yet this escalation seems to cross no red line.

Syria has become the regional catastrophe that the president, Bashar Al Assad, promised it would become during the early days of the peaceful uprising. It is the catastrophe Mr Al Assad and his allies constructed out of brutality, a catastrophe exasperated by an impotent political opposition, regional meddling and international silence.

There’s a Syrian joke about a man walking down the street when he saw a banana peel on the pavement. He slapped his hand against his forehead and exclaims: “Wow, that’s a major fall!”

Too much time has been spent predicting the aftermath of Syria’s fall – the acts of revenge, sectarian genocide, religious extremism and warlordism. Predictions without preventions. Meanwhile, hundreds of Syrians perish every single day and the IDP camps swell by the thousands every single week.

Isn’t it time to pick up the peel and save what’s left of Syria instead of foreseeing its fall? Here’s a prediction: what the world is unwilling to pay for now, it will pay for in the future – many times over. Another one: what happened in Reyhanli on May 11 is a sneak preview of future terrorist blasts that will be exported across the region.

The worsening humanitarian crisis must be central to the “Geneva II” talks expected to take place between the regime and the opposition. Aid must flow easily into besieged areas and IDP camps on the borders. Regime air raids must end so these IDPs can return home and begin to repair their towns and communities. And yet, Russia’s veto to the UNSC’s draft resolution to stop the bloodshed in Qusayr and allow immediate relief delivery to the trapped civilians proves the exact opposite is happening.

Every minute that passes is the difference between death and life, torture and freedom, rape and safety, forced exile and home. This is the reality for millions of Syrians. The world has played the waiting game, but if it had acted instead of passively watching, Reyhanli would not have been the victim of the terrorist bombings and the man who makes felafel would not have been a missing refugee. He would have been safe, with his family, in Homs.


Yakzan Shishakly is the director of the largest IDP camp inside Syria, near the village of Atma. He lives in Reyhanli, Turkey. Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian American writer

Syria’s Lost Generation


June 3, 2013

Syria's Lost Generation 1

Andrea Bruce, The New York Times

An outdoor cafe at Damascus U. was struck by mortar shells in March, killing at least 10 students.

By Keith David Watenpaugh

Within sight of the Syrian border, the Za’atari refugee camp spreads out in a sea of white-canvas tents across barren hills into the cerulean sky of the Jordanian desert. Home to some 140,000 people, it’s hard to call it a camp, having become one of Jordan’s largest cities. Most of the refugees are from the villages and towns of southern Syria, where the uprising against the authoritarian rule of Bashar al-Assad began two years ago.

In mid-April I traveled to the camp with colleagues to meet with Syrian university students as part of a joint research project of the University of California at Davis’s Human Rights Initiative and the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund. Before we went, U.N. officials and relief workers had told us that there were no university students there; we would find only poor and uneducated villagers. We were even cautioned against going at all, because the refugees might be openly hostile to Western visitors and had attacked employees of nongovernmental organizations in the past. Indeed, the day after our visit, a riot broke out between refugees and Jordanian guards.

And yet, sitting under a giant tent, around white-plastic picnic tables, and speaking entirely in Arabic, we met with 18 university students whose studies had been interrupted by the war. Most were women, though we also spoke with a handful of men. These were polite, though often intense, conversations, punctuated with laughter. We learned that they had been students at Damascus University, its branch campuses, or Al-Ba’ath University, near Homs. Some had been in the camp for months; others had just arrived. They had been studying law, history, biology, education, engineering, computer science, and pharmacy. And they were only a handful of the tens of thousands of Syrian students dispersed throughout the region.

I had lived in Syria—Damascus and Aleppo—for much of the 1990s and have returned every few years since then. It was where I did the research for my first book, Being Modern in the Middle East (Princeton University Press, 2006), about the emergence of the Syrian middle class. Higher education had been part of that process.

When the father of Syria’s current president seized power, in the early 1970s, the country embarked upon an ambitious expansion of higher education. The chance to send one’s children—especially young women—to college became a key element of the country’s development, but also of the ruling Ba’ath Party’s “authoritarian social contract,” by which political quiescence was exchanged for the approximation of a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and the chance for social advancement.

The misconception that there were no university students in Za’atari stems from the way aid workers often imagine refugees. Historically, whether it’s Armenian survivors of genocide, Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel, or Iraqis fleeing foreign invasion and civil war, Middle Eastern refugees can appear to be an undifferentiated, opaque mass in the collective consciousness of international humanitarianism.

Not understanding the diversity of refugees and the societies from which they come is a problem in addressing their immediate suffering and helping them either to begin new lives elsewhere or to return and rebuild their societies. This is certainly the case for Syria’s ambitious and talented university students, who could be a modern and moderating force in a post-conflict Syria.

I went to Za’atari with Adrienne Fricke, a human-rights expert who wrote the Human Rights Initiative report with me. We wanted to know what future the students envision for themselves, and to document the obstacles they face as they seek to continue their studies. Those problems range from the practical—lacking transcripts—to the intractable: choosing between paying rent or tuition. Still, the students we spoke with expressed an intense desire to renew their studies, even if it meant leaving their families and traveling farther abroad. As one law student in the camp told us, “In our home, studying is holy”—and her home at the moment was a tent.

Our conversations also gave us a glimpse into the horror the young people had fled. They told us about demonstrations and growing political consciousness on campuses, followed by violent crackdowns by plainclothes militiamen, known as the Shabiha, or “ghosts,” working alongside secret police and soldiers. The students reported that their dorm rooms had been searched, computers taken, and colleagues arrested or “disappeared.” But it was the fear of having to fight in a war they wanted no part of, and unrelenting insecurity, that drove many of them and their families into exile.

Others fled because of their political activism. One of the urban refugees we met was a young man in his early 20s, whom we will call Majid. He had been at Damascus University when he became involved in organizing antiregime demonstrations using Facebook and Google Maps. After a secret-police raid on his family’s home, during which his laptop and books were seized, he was brought before a military court and accused of the Orwellian crime of “undermining nationalist sentiments in a time of war.”

Released after 25 days in the Damascus central jail, he was summarily suspended by the university’s ethics committee and so became eligible for induction into the army, where he would probably have been killed. His family paid thousands of dollars for a forged exit permit and bribed a border guard to get him to safety.

Of the stories I heard, this was the one that has most vividly stayed with me. The historian in me felt Majid’s attachment to his books, and with their confiscation his loss of identity and the assault on his dignity. But more important, he had claimed his human rights in the eloquent language of nonviolence and was continuing to pay a terrible price.

The challenge for us who will write the history of Syria and the broader Arab Spring is to remember that many Syrians bravely sought to change their society without guns. The sectarianism and Islamist radicalism that define the war now came only after the regime’s brutal suppression of that movement, the arrival of sanguinary jihadist fighters, and the West’s inaction. Majid is resilient, and I think he will be OK. His family outside Syria has money to help him to finish his studies in Jordan.

As we drove away from Za’atari, I recalled another time of war, in 2003, when I had directed a similar research project, in Baghdad. I had documented the looting of universities and the burning of libraries, and witnessed the incompetence and poisonous arrogance of the Americans sent to run Iraq. Yet the universities functioned, and students attended class. Even in the darkest days, Iraq’s universities remained places of possibility.

This is not true for Syria. There is no reason to believe that the war, which has taken more than 80,000 lives and made millions refugees, will end soon. Syrian society itself is collapsing and, along with it, its universities.

As I sat in the shade of that giant tent, I knew that I was looking across the table into the faces of Syria’s lost generation.

Keith David Watenpaugh, an associate professor, is director of the University of California at Davis’s Human Rights Initiative. His book Bread From Stone: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism is forthcoming from the University of California Press. 


The Day We Broke Fear

Posted: 03 Jun 2013 03:10 AM PDT

It was a clear blue day as I walked to the square where the protest was being held. I felt frightened and nervous having been warned not to do this sort of thing again, but I felt compelled to do something, anything. I couldn’t sit at home and pretend nothing was happening when I knew perfectly well that people were getting murdered in cold blood. It felt as if somebody was hitting me over the head with a hammer, telling me to get up and go, as if I would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t seize that moment. As I got nearer and nearer I could hear the sounds of chants carried to me over the patches of silence in the square. One turn of the corner and I could see the flags, the familiar faces of friends, and my heart instantly felt at ease because I knew then that I wasn’t the only one.

In those early days I suffered from an intense feeling of isolation and loneliness. I used to seek out other Syrians so that we could talk about what was happening and about how we felt. Before that day the tone was always one of worry and fear – fear for our families, for ourselves, for lives which will be upturned. We were always worried of that “report” that might be written about us, that somebody would have our names on a file somewhere and then that would be it, that we would be out in the cold and exiled from our homes and loved ones. What a thing to tell a mother, that her son was marked as an agitator and troublemaker! And yet there was that hammer on the head again, that drive which pushed us on in spite of our nagging worries to speak up and keep speaking. Something was wrong and yet many people wanted to pretend as if nothing was happening. Then I went to that protest and everything changed. It was my second and up until that point I had still been undecided about what position to take. What was happening was clearly wrong, but I felt that change and reform could happen if we made clear how unhappy we were about the heavy handedness.

As we all stood together in front of the embassy the atmosphere was euphoric. I pumped my fist in the air and began to chant, no longer concerned if the embassy was filming us. I began to call for the overthrow of the regime! In the space of a few minutes a lifetime of inhibitions and taboos came crumbling down. There was no longer any fear. It might seem strange to bring this up today, but two years ago when this revolution started the word on everybody’s lips had been about the “fear barrier”. People marveled at the sensation of no longer being afraid to speak their mind, and we would exchange stories about our own individual moments. It was as if, by shattering this glass cage, we were becoming complete again, like fixing that tap which had always been dripping or changing a burnt out bulb after ignoring it for so long.

In those heady days we felt as if nothing was impossible and that we were going to change the world. I remember standing in the crowd on that sunny Saturday in Belgrave Square, wearing a bright blue t-shirt,  jeans and trainers and singing with everybody at the top of my voice. Nothing felt more right in my whole life.

But then things changed. Videos of tens of thousands of people demonstrating against tyranny gave way to the images of deserted streets in derelict towns. Of tanks driving up main streets and planes bombing villages. The cynics who didn’t bat an eyelid for the thousands of innocents who were shot like dogs now nod their heads knowingly and speak of a revolution “hijacked”. They can go to hell. This revolution was not about an ideology or a religion, and it wasn’t about grand political scheming, it was about normal people who stopped what they were doing to stand up for what they believed in, and they did that even though they were afraid and, in many cases, would lose their lives. Injustice can only sustain itself through fear, and on that day we broke fear forever. This is what the revolution was about I don’t ever want to forget that.


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