An Associated Press photo that accompanied a lengthy news report about Syria on June 8, filed by the Washington Post’s correspondent in Beirut, Louisa lovelock, shows a large billboard of President Bashar Al Assad, positioned on the border with Lebanon, greeting those Syrian refugees who in recent months have opted to buck the odds and return home, with the welcoming slogan: From victorious Syria, peace be upon you.
The sad fact is that, though war in Syria began to wind down a while back, swinging heavily in favour of the regime after air strikes by Russian fighter jets and support from militias backed by Iran, peace is not now, nor is it likely to be any time real soon, upon us.
The sadness of the fact lies in how, despite its claims to having emerged “victorious”, the Syrian regime continues to harness itself to a military wagon, marching on like a vulture hobbling after carrion, while the people of Syria continue to endure unspeakable suffering. And that suffering — exemplified by the death since 2011 of half a million souls, and the uprooting of a staggering 12 million others, representing the flight of 5.6 million abroad and the displacement of 6.6 million internally — remains the same in kind as in degree.
Two dozen hospitals have been attacked since April 30, hundreds of civilians have been killed and as many as 270,000 people have been driven toward the border with Turkey.
Think, for example, of the looming catastrophe in Idlib Province, home to three million people, half of them civilians who had sought refugee there from other previously rebel-held areas conquered by regime forces over the last three years. Idlib also has 20,000 fighters from sundry opposition groups — some with dubious agendas — determined to make the province their Alamo, their last stand, their fight to the death, as it were. It promises to be a bloody showdown whose pre-ordained outcome, given the odds against them, the rebels may as well concede from the outset, much in the manner of a football team stipulating defeat even before taking to the field.
That posture aside, we as ordinary folks have ceased, afflicted as we are with Syria-fatigue, to turn in outraged disbelief at the butchery taking place in a land that at one time we had viewed as a cradle of our culture. But butchery there continues nevertheless. When the Syrian army, joined by Russia, launched its offensive in Idlib less than two months ago, we were given a glimpse of what is to come: Barrel bombs and artillery rounds rained down on schools, marketplaces, hospitals, homes and shops.
According to the United Nations, two dozen hospitals have been attacked since April 30, hundreds of civilians have been killed and as many as 270,000 people have been driven toward the border with Turkey. But since Turkey has sealed its border, thousands have found themselves ‘living under trees or plastic sheeting on bare patches of land”, reported UN official Ursula Mueller, who appeared last month before the Security Council. That’s the case of a deracinated people compelled to wander the earth and dwell in the open fields in partial return to the manner of beasts. Yet, paradoxically, the terrible and stark insight we gain from all this is that in the very essence of that suffering — that endurance — lies these folks’ claim to dignity.
As far back as last September, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stressed that “it is absolutely essential to avoid a full-scale battle in Idlib” because the consequences of such a battle would “unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any other we have seen before”.
A nightmare unlike any other we have seen before? Lord have mercy!
And, Oh, yes, that billboard at the Lebanese-Syrian border welcoming Syrian returnees back to their homeland.
For a while now, President Al Assad has been urging Syrian refuges to return home, solemnly promising that those who are “honest” citizens would be forgiven for having opposed him. But the facts on the ground attest to a different reality. Hundreds of returnees have been arrested upon arrival, some tortured, conscripted or, at best, harassed. Many, many more have discovered that they were victims of legislation that had been passed in their absence formalising the seizure of property, including homes, belonging to suspected “terrorist supporters”.
Meanwhile, in an uncharacteristic tweet posted on the evening of June 2, President Trump wrote: “Hearing word that Russia, Syria and to a lesser extent Iran are bombing the hell out of Idlib Province in Syria, and indiscriminately killing many innocent civilians. The World is watching the butchery. What is the purpose, what will it get you? STOP!”
The Washington Post, in an editorial on June 5, responded: “Unfortunately, since then the bombing has only intensified. If Mr. Trump wants to stop the latest Syrian butchery, he will have to do more than tweet”.
So do we. So do we, I say, unless we opt to become complicit in that which leaves us indifferent.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.