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Intervening Against Assad

Reflections from Syrian refugees

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September 17, 2013

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post on Sept. 16, 2013.

By Wendy Pearlman

On Tuesday, President Obama called upon Congress to postpone indefinitely a debate on a military strike on Syria. Among the Syrian refugees whom I am interviewing in Jordan and Turkey, there is a palpable sense of being abandoned by the world -- yet again.

The Syrians I meet do not speak for all their compatriots. However they generally reflect that large portion of the population opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. Among them, the overwhelming majority support decisive American action not simply to deter Assad's use of chemical weapons, but also to help terminate his rule, once and for all.

These Syrians tell soul-crushing stories of the authoritarian regime that strangulated their country for 40 years. This was a system in which the few who had power abused it without limits, while citizens were treated as if they were disposable. Pervasive corruption rendered personal connections or bribes requisite for everything from medical care to opening a mini-market. An omnipresent security apparatus left many people afraid to speak of politics even in their own homes. Again and again, Syrians tell me that they were raised on the warning lil-khaytan ithaan -- "the walls have ears."

Encouraged by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrians dared to go out into the street in 2011 to call for freedom and dignity. Armed only with their voices, they faced a regime determined to crush dissent with bullets and tanks, and then missiles that dropped indiscriminately from the sky. People tell me that they got used to the reality that they could be killed anywhere, at anytime. Their only fear was being tortured or raped in prison.

After several months of peaceful protests, demonstrators took up weapons. Poorly armed forces carried out defensive and then offensive operations. The Assad regime responded with the full arsenal of war. Iran and Russia intervened to support Assad politically, financially, and militarily. Various international actors offered more limited aid to different components of the Syrian opposition. These countries' contradictory interests fed fragmentation within rebel ranks and facilitated the emergence of Islamist agendas side-by-side the uprising's original call for a civil, democratic state.

As months passed, Syrians appealed for humanitarian protection. The international community responded with hollow talk. Regime loyalists vowed to burn the country to the ground rather than let Assad lose power. Undeterred by outside powers, they have carried through with that promise. Now in its 30th month, the lopsided war in Syria has left more than 100,000 dead and some one-third of the population forcibly displaced. Huge swaths of the country have been turned to rubble. Every family I meet has lost a home, buried a relative, and/or wonders about the fate of a friend who was arrested and never heard from again. Most refugees are barely surviving on paltry charitable support or personal savings that dwindle by the day. Too many children face a second year without schooling.

It is thus that many Syrians, with hearts already been broken by unimaginable suffering, look to the international community to bring this nightmare to a close. "Imagine you have to transport a weight 75 kilograms, but you can only carry 50 kilograms," one man explains to me. "You need someone to help you carry the rest." No one believes that the new Russian proposal for international monitors offers that assistance. On the contrary, they see it as a game to give Assad more time for his brutal campaign.

Syrians I meet believe that Obama's backing down from his declared "red line" on chemical weapons marks the end of whatever credibility the United States had left in the Middle East. They suspect that U..S. is discussing military strikes only for the sake of appearing to do something, and not actually to weaken the regime in Damascus. I hear a range of theories about why Western powers are in fact content to watch Syria be destroyed. What else can explain why they are doing nothing to prevent it?

Syrians I meet in Turkey and Jordan are convinced that Americans' fears about what will happen after the collapse of the Assad regime pale against the horrors that are already unfolding, day in and day out. For them, Western concerns about jihadist groups are grounds to demand meaningful international action, not postpone it. Such groups appeared only after Syrian blood flowed for months and rebel cries for assistance went unanswered. The longer the crisis continues, the stronger jihadist groups become. Americans' worries that Syria will become another Iraq also seem ill founded. Iraq -- where the United States initiated a war for regime change -- is quite different from Syria, where a popular movement for regime change began from the grassroots.

Syrians refugees continually refer to what seems to be understandable only as a lack of humanity in the world. Increasingly, I hear them invoking a single Arabic word to label Western countries' delays and empty posturing before the Syrian nightmare: arr. It means shame, disgrace, ignominy. They say that history will neither forgive nor forget the West's complicity as Syria burns. No less, history warns that no country is immune from its spreading flames.

- Wendy Pearlman is an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University.