By Sacha Perera
Tensions between Britain, America and Syria are not a new phenomenon, and the formers’ involvement in the region has contributed to the suffering and instability which the people of Syria now face.
Within every crisis lies an opportunity for change. So, what can we do to help affect a future for the benefit of the Syrian people and for all those who, no matter their origin, desire democracy over the despots that currently dictate their lives?
Ten years have now passed since the outbreak of civil conflict in the nation, nestled near the heartland of Mesopotamia; a conflict which has reshaped how many of us view the region. Now, when you hear the name Syria, rather than picturing the cradle of civilisation, countless images of destruction, desertion and death come to mind. This is because, in the last decade, a desire for democracy has driven a desperate people to challenge their despotic leader – Bashar Al-Assad – who, with the support of his British wife, has waged war on the population he has a duty to protect.
Assadian atrocities and a resilient revolution
In 2011, a wave of revolutions swept from Tunisia, across North Africa and into the Middle East, leading to the demise of some of the most established and ruthless regimes these regions have ever seen. But in Syria, the Assads have clung to power by brutalising their population and depriving them of international aid.
As with the other movements that rose under the banner of the Arab Spring, these youthful protests began peacefully. One young individual – Omar Alshogre – who was unfamiliar with the covert aggression of his government and still blessed with idealistic innocence of youth, rushed to revolutionise his country alongside many of his friends.
Omar was only 15 years old when the radical protests reached the streets of his city – Daraa. But he was also amongst those who, for better or worse, were able convince their parents to let them participate in the mass movement.
Armed with a white rose handed to him by a fellow protester, he entered the crowd who chanted for freedom. In response, Al-Assad sent in soldiers, intelligence operatives and tanks. In hope, and out of fear for what may come, the protesters changed their chants to appeal to those who had been dispatched to crush them: “The Army and the people are siblings,” they called, “The Army and the people are siblings!” But the military caried out its orders indiscriminately, committing the fratricide Omar and his counterparts had pleaded against.
Apart from a brief hiatus in April – when Assad sat down with a rebel delegate from Daraa – repression continued for nine months until protesters lost faith in their tactics. Belief in their cause, however, did not suffer the same fate. As a result, roses, pickets and placards were replaced with weapons, escalating the conflict into a civil war which has since torn the country apart.
Same but different
Tensions between the West and Syria are as deep as they are old, and the current crisis is in part a by-product of a 40-year-old conflict which began between Bashar Al-Assad’s father (Hafez Al-Assad) and the then US Secretary of State – Henry Kissinger.
Whilst in power, Hafez had wanted to strengthen and unite the Arabic countries to bring stability and power back to the region; a state which he believed was only possible if peace was brokered between the Arab nations and Israel, allowing Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. However, Kissinger believed that such a change would prevent the creation of the world order which he had envisioned. In turn, he set out to fractionalise these nations and break their alliances.
To combat this, Hafez turned to Iran and its new revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who had come to power after spearheading the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which replaced an authoritarian monarchy with a repressive theocratic republic.
The World’s response to Syria
Today, this relationship between Iran and Syria remains strong, as does their understandable distrust and disdain of Britain and America’s ideas or influence within the region. As a result, Khomeini’s government has backed local militias who have attacked Syrian rebels on the ground, while another of the West’s notorious rivals, Russia, has provided crucial, and often devastating, air support to the Assad regime.
Russia’s role has also been influential at a diplomatic level: vetoing all 15 resolutions put to the UN Security Council which have aimed support to rebel groups, as well as the general population. The situation has been further complicated by the involvement of groups such as ISIL, Al-Nusra Front, and other organisations considered terrorists, who have taken advantage of the chaos to establish their own control.
Despite stating that the only solution to the situation is a political one, Britain, America, and their allies have resorted to supporting their own local militias, primarily Syrian-Kurdish groups such as the SDF & YPG, whilst also carrying out their own airstrikes on ISIL and Iranian-backed militias. The most recent of which was authorised by President Biden last month.
Nightmare to utopia
So far, Britain and America have looked backwards, not forwards, to deal with the crisis. Ghosts brought home from Afghanistan have haunted our actions and hindered our ability to think of proactive ways to help create a future of stability in Syria.
Uncertain of our intelligence, we have refrained from putting troops on the ground for fear of being caught in the middle of another complex civil war that our governments do not understand. Instead, Britain and America have resorted to watching from on high as Syria is torn apart by an oppressive government and competing rebel groups, while its people lose their lives and livelihoods.
But we have a chance to make change. Those who have managed to survive Syria and escape to Europe are our opportunity to help create stability in the country, whilst setting an example to despots around the world that Britain and America will not sit idly if they deny the freedoms which their citizens’ desire. Not as an act born out of self inflated vanity but simply and solely as a means of protecting innocent people if they want to change their political reality.
Our first point of call must be to understand those who have fled. What have been their experiences? What has this done to shape their understanding of the world? And what does this mean for their approach to politics home and abroad?
If the case of Omar Alshogre is to be any indication of what we might expect from Syrian survivors, then the future looks hopeful. Because the boy who attended that first protest in Daraa has faced unimaginable atrocities and yet as an adult now looks for resolution over conflict, seeking ways to rebuild his home by “adapting his nightmares and turning them into dreams”.
Once we understand where these people are coming from, we can then begin to help manifest their ideas by providing them with the political means to construct the foundations of the society they desire.
This is not to suggest that we impose our own ideas on to them. Instead, together we can attempt to form a situation which suits their people who have fought and fled for freedom. It might also be that, through this process, we can learn something about ourselves and rediscover a meaning in our lives that has been so apparently absent since abandoning the reassuring but dangerous ideologies of the last century.