By Noor Barotchi
Back in February 2012, the Syrian regime formed a ‘revised’ constitution in Syria, following a referendum that aimed to assuage its critics and put forward the idea that Bashar al-Assad was leaning towards reform. The referendum purportedly allowed for multiparty elections (government approved, of course), all under the guise of political plurality. This hadn’t existed in Syria since the Ba’ath party took power in a coup in 1963.
In 2007, Bashar al-Assad won the last presidential elections with 98% of the vote. Ba’athists will tell you this is because the Syrian people are a single, monolithic block, who all unequivocally support Assad as a righteous and legitimate ruler. Yet voting in Syria has never been a complicated matter. Under the hawk-like watch of regime-affiliated election officials and where anonymity is unheard of, who would dare to vote against Assad? Citizens were dragged into polling stations; identity cards stripped off them, and forced to vote. It didn’t even matter if they were brought in multiple times. There were no objections because the Syrian officials knew exactly how to reach you if you were to refuse. This is the system with Bashar much like it was the system with his deceased father, Hafez al-Assad.
After the referendum in 2012, Bashar al-Assad alluded to running again in the 2014 presidential elections, confident that he had his people’s support. At least, this was the image he wished to disseminate. At the time, Syrians found the idea that Bashar al-Assad would still be in power by 2014 ludicrous. It was a stretch of the future too far ahead for us to envisage – and besides, the revolutionaries would most likely have deposed of the president by then.
And yet, here we are.
We have passed the three-year mark for the Syrian uprising, and still, there remains no clear solution in sight. All that is certain is that death and destruction are widespread.
Media outlets commonly recycle the figure of 100,000 killed in Syria, yet this is a profound underestimation. The United Nations estimated the death toll in July 2013 to be 100,000 back and has since stopped counting due to the difficulty of keeping track of those killed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights provides figures of around 150,000, but the likelihood is that even these figures are conservative. What we do know, nonetheless, is that hundreds are still dying in Syria every single day.
Tuesday 26th March saw 256 Syrians killed. On Monday, it was 244 and the day before that was 298. But is there any use in quoting these figures? Do they tell us anything about the individual stories of those who were killed? And what of the hundreds of thousands detained, or those missing and about whom we know nothing? They could very well be rotting in unknown mass graves this very second, with no one able to share their names, let alone stories.
Some people try to depoliticise the conflict in Syria and insist upon looking at it solely through a humanitarian lense. However, this is reductionist and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the conflict. Civilians aren’t just dropping dead; they are being killed as a direct result of ballistic missiles, indiscriminate shelling, snipers, torture, chemical weapons, starvation or lack of medication/medical personnel.
And disaster doesn’t just strike in the death count. Some would even say the dead are blessed, to not have to see what has become of Syria.
Half of Syria’s population – 23 million – are now now displaced, both internally or externally. According to UNICEF, 5.5 million children have been affected by the Syrian conflict. In several areas, civilians are living in the most calamitous conditions due to the strict siege that has been imposed by the Syrian government, which prevents the entry of food, water and medication. Each of Syria’s 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites have been at least partially destroyed due to clashes between forces loyal to the regime and opposition fighters. The people have lost their livelihoods. Areas that were once considered home are now unrecognisable. My grandmother once informed me during a Skype call that all the trees in her neighbourhood had been cut down so that people could use the wood as fuel during the winter to heat themselves. Civilians can’t leave their houses in the evening anymore. The education of millions of children has been affected, including some whose education has been on standby for 3 years now.
The Syrian community in Britain was greatly mobilised during the start of the revolution. At demonstrations and rallies, we would hold up placards that read ‘You can crush the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring’ and ‘Hey world, how many children should be killed before you start to care?’ (This figure still hasn’t been reached). In 2011, they responded to the conflict through setting up UK-registered charities through which they could co-ordinate fundraisers to raise money for much needed medical and humanitarian aid in Syria. These charities are still running and continue to do awe-inspiring work.
However, people – Syrians included – have become tired of the crisis in Syria. The resilient optimism of Syrian activists has started to wane. The tragedy that has befallen Syria has marred the idealistic vision that we once had for a better and brighter future.
The political sphere is so complex that I believe it unfair for anyone to declare themselves an analyst on Syria unless they have experienced what’s going on first-hand. I will not claim to know what’s going on, because it’s much more than I can begin to comprehend. The only sureties I have are the experiences drawn by my family and friends who have suffered as a direct result of the conflict, such as how the body of one of my second cousins was returned to his parent’s home with his head emptied. Another relative was killed by the shelling as she attempted to flee from Aleppo with her children. My uncle went to buy food during Ramadan and came back, after searching for hours, with only five cucumbers to show for his efforts.
And I am very lucky. Every single Syrian has been affected by the crisis to some extent, with there being at least one death in almost every family, but I have had it easy in comparison to millions of others.
We speak from the comfort of our homes. We gaze at the same stars, share the same sky and breathe the same air as them, and yet, we are so detached from their suffering.
In the early days of the revolution, victory looked like a clear-cut, impending reality. We thought it would perhaps take a year at most. Now, three years down the line and with fruitless elections ahead, the misery doesn’t seem to have a foreseeable end. Instead of regarding Syria as a pawn to be played on a chessboard, we should focus on what matters most: the civilians suffering as a result. Our inaction – be it on a political or humanitarian scale – simply results in further devastation and perpetuates the big pot of mess that has become of Syria. Once we give those suffering the significance they deserve, then perhaps the resilience will be reinforced.
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