Feb. 5, 2020
As we planned this event, my friend Amenah Masri lamented to me, “Syria needs us now more than ever. The whole world failed them.” As a Syrian-American from Aleppo, Amenah has been paying close attention to events in Syria. But if you talk to most people in this area, even some of the most highly-educated people on the nearby Notre Dame campus, they are at best barely aware of the genocide unfolding over in Syria’s province of Idlib. The U.S. government (which has committed its own war crimes against Syrian civilians and has consistently taken steps to keep Assad’s regime in power such as conditioning and then revoking aid to Free Syrian Army militias) also turned its back on Idlib’s civilians and declines to publicly pressure its ally Turkey to open its border to Syrians fleeing Assad’s bombings. The world is not trying the mass murderers Assad and Putin at the Hague. In the words of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, “the international community has failed to uphold the commitment of ‘Never Again’” when it comes to Syria.
The world turns away as the Syrian and Russian governments have bombed more than 60 of Idlib’s hospitals since May and as the lopsided violence has killed one child a day in the province. The world turns away as 6,500 children flee their homes every day in Idlib. The world turns away as Idlib is transformed, in the words of Syrian-American doctor Zaher Sahloul, into a “large concentration camp” and where genocide is, according to Genocide Watch, in the highest “extermination” stage.
The Syrian activist Dani Qappani, a survivor of Assad’s August 2013 chemical attack, describes the global abandonment of Syrians is a massive form of solitary confinement. He wrote that solitary confinement works because “without our fellow humans we are isolated, hopeless and, after long enough, even suicidal.” As the world abandons Idlib, the situation has become as grim as Qappani described it and indeed many Syrians are feeling isolated, hopeless, and suicidal. Loubna Mrie told Democracy Now! that she spoke with a friend in Idlib on New Year’s Eve; this friend had been sleeping in a car with his wife and children without anywhere to go, and he said he is “considering committing suicide.”
I hope that we, here, today, will withdraw our complicity from this psychological torture that is being inflicted on Syrians on top of all the other war crimes and crimes against humanity. The province has seen, during this past week, more than 200 airstrikes. It has seen 700,000 civilians flee toward the Turkish border which they will almost certainly not be allowed to cross.
I want to share, therefore, some of the voices of Syrians hit me hard this week and that deserve to be widely heard.
On Wednesday, an airstrike killed 11 civilians, injured 50 others, and put a hospital out of service in Idlib’s town of Ariha. Local rescue worker Walid Aslan said, “We had to pull children out of the rubble and work quickly before the area was struck again.”
A video published that day showed a Syrian who fled from Idlib’s air raids and joined other displaced people to live in tents in ancient ruins: “We don’t feel safe here, even though we’ve been living here for almost a month. We don’t know if we’ll stay here longer or if the bombardment will increase. Only God knows.”
On Thursday in Idlib’s town of Saraqib, the rescue worker Laith with the White Helmets described surviving a Russian bombing that injured 7 volunteers: “In just a few moments, the light turned to dark and darkness turned into light.” The rescue center had been destroyed, and Laith said, “We withstood and endured everything to always be there to help our people. Now we are a target for the Russian warplanes.”
An English teacher in the east of the province was quoted on Thursday, “Every single day there is bombing. If a day passes without us hearing any missiles, any aircraft, any warplanes, we are afraid that they are preparing for something bigger than this. People feel fear, angry, hopeless, helpless. It’s not only the bombing. It’s the cold… the high prices, the living expenses. We live day by day… We don’t think about tomorrow.”
On Friday, people took to Idlib’s streets and insisted that their 2011 revolution has not ended and they demanded an end to Assad and Putin’s slaughters in the region. A protest sign read, “We aren’t terrorists. We are those who wanted to live free and dignified lives.” A banner said, “the people want to topple the regime.”
Today the BBC mentioned that an 11-year-old child Mohammed, who fled with his family after their home in Saraqib was barrel bombed, now lives in a muddy field with open sewage. Asked what he would do if he had a magic wand, Mohammed replied, “I will get rid of the sewage water and fix the camp and won’t let the regime advance in any area or let airstrikes take place.”
As a dissident and anti-authoritarian, I can understand why world governments would turn away and even aid Assad’s atrocities. I am reading a book about how FDR refused to take many basic steps to protect Jews during the Holocaust. I am seeing echoes today in Syria of what happened to some of my ancestors and their friends and family.
But what I can’t understand is why fellow dissidents have not shone their flashlights into the shadows of Syria where the last few years have seen the 21st century’s most exciting revolution and its most terrifying counterrevolution. In a region where supposed experts long said democracy wasn’t possible, a population rose up and not only demanded democracy but put it into practice by establishing horizontally-run local coordinating committees and hundreds of self-governing local councils. In Idlib, these councils ran the first free elections since 1954.
A major theorist of Syria’s popular uprising, the Anarchist Omar Aziz, defined revolution as “an exceptional event that alters the history of a society while also transforming each human being.” I want to focus on that word “transformed.” The Palestinian Anarchist Budour Hassan has written that the Syrian Revolution “transformed” her by teaching her to truly see the world in terms of human beings rather than just nations and states. It taught her that moving toward horizontal self-governance is possible even in “conservative and traditional neighborhoods.” I think it’s fair to say that the Syrian Revolution transformed me in a similar way, teaching me the importance of transnational solidarity with people, not with states, and showing me that revolution is indeed possible in even some of the most hopeless circumstances. I hope that it will transform us all, and that together with the people of Idlib and the people across Syria, we will take down the world’s tyrants including Trump, Erdogan, Putin, Khameini, and Assad. Free Idlib and free Syria!