In Taking Action for Syria, No Easy Answers

Sunday, July 5, 2015 | Syria (map)

Extending a hand: a Greco-Roman mosaic at the Syrian National Museum (Damascus, 2005)
In response to my post last week ("In Syria, Humanity and Heritage Suffer War's Irreparable Devastation"), a regular reader back in the USA wrote me to express his dismay at the state of affairs in Syria: "Why all the killing and destruction? It's just evil... and it seems like it is all around us." He concluded, "[It] seems there is little hope."

When you stop to reflect on the Syrian crisis, it can be easy to reach this conclusion. What hope exists for a place that seems to have generated nothing but bad news for five straight years? For a people whose desperation grows exponentially month after month?

Fatigue with the seemingly intractable sectarian conflicts of the Middle East has pushed many people outside Syria to simply tune out. Many ordinary Syrians feel the international community has abandoned them. (Sadly, it's largely true.) In
February 2014, as yet another round of Syrian peace talks ended in failure, veteran NPR Middle East correspondent Deborah Amos was asked about this feeling of abandonment, and whether Syrians she had met had also given up hope for outside assistance. Her response was insightful:
"I think they've been saying this for some time. You know, 'How can the world watch?' We all said 'Never again.' We said it over Rwanda. And now we are back to this wholesale humanitarian crisis in the region that is destabilizing most of the Middle East, and Syrians feel that there is no one who is standing up for them. But there's been no bumper sticker for Syria. There was for Darfur, and people in this country understood what was happening, in a place that was really far away that maybe they didn't even understand. But that has not happened with Syria. It's a complicated conflict. People understand that Syrians are dying, but it has not captured the imagination—certainly not in this country."
Sadly, her words remain largely true today, and apply not just to Americans. Sadder still, several advocacy and aid groups have produced creative, moving ads—like this one—to raise international consciousness of the Syrian conflict, but widespread concern for the Syrian people has not followed. (A recent Atlantic piece attempting to identify "the best charitable cause in the world" didn't even consider refugee relief or peacemaking efforts in Syria.) Why not? How can people sit safe at home around the world and not feel some compassion for the suffering of innocent Syrian men, women, and children?

Beyond general fatigue with conflict in the Middle East, my best guess is that fear of Daesh—the so-called "Islamic State"—has eclipsed much of the humanitarian concerns for Syria in the global public consciousness, mirroring the shift in foreign governments' priorities the moment Daesh entered the scene. Giving importance to the fight against Daesh is understandable—they are a reprehensible bunch who must be contained and combated—but it's sad to see the world slip back into the familiar "Global War on Terror" approach to a conflict that has so many other facets worthy of our concern and efforts. Amid the cries of "Daesh, Daesh, Daesh", when was the last time we heard a serious discussion about the need for regime change in Syria? About the humanitarian crisis in refugee camps across the region? About the thousands of civilians still being killed in the daily crossfire?

* * *

The narratives that have come to dominate the Syrian conflict have distracted or discouraged many around the world. But for various reasons, some of us still have not tuned out. In my case, it was those brief but formative few months I spent in Syria ten years ago that have kept me emotionally engaged. Others have Syrian friends or relatives. Perhaps some have heard a story of the suffering in Syria that tapped some deep humanistic nerve.

But for those who care and want to help, the question becomes: How? What are the options?

In my search for an answer to that question, I have found numerous noble initiatives, from major humanitarian efforts by international organizations to small-scale campaigns by Syrian expats to raise awareness in their adoptive communities. Last year, I also came across 7 For Syria, a tiny website launched in 2013 by a pair of fellow Syria-philes back at Georgetown seeking to connect concerned members of the public to resources that could help them make a difference. Seizing on the opportunity to translate my concern into action, I volunteered to help retool and expand the site, whose resources were organized around seven categories of action (learn, connect, advocate, organize, donate, share, give feedback).

After several weeks of tinkering with the content and design, I felt I had made some visible improvements, but 7 For Syria was still far from a professional effort, and its reach had grown only negligibly. I stepped away—just briefly, I told myself—to focus on other responsibilities, but later I found it hard to return. Though brief, the experience had been enough to show me that an independent, part-time, online-only organizing effort can only achieve so much. I have a greater appreciation for just how much sweat and time effective organizing requires, and a greater recognition of my own limitations.

Today, I haven't lost hope for Syria; far from it. Ten years after that idyllic summer in Syria, I have marked the anniversary with a lot of reminiscing, both alone and with friends who were there too. The juxtaposition between the horrors in today's news coverage and the sunny memories I hold of Syria testify as much to this tragedy's staggering scope as to the urgent need to halt it, alleviate the suffering it is causing, and one day to reverse it as best one can, through rebuilding.

There are many ways we can contribute to those efforts, even if we can't all dedicate ourselves to them fully. I, like many, am still searching for new ways to help. If you are too, 7 For Syria is one possible starting point, and I would welcome suggestions for others.

1 comment:

Yacout Djellal said...

Andrew, these are some very deep thoughts.

What has been unfolding in Syria over the last few years is, as you've quoted it, another reflection of the "wholesale" problem that continues to grow in the region. The history of the areas over the last 100+ years has been one of turmoil - of different scales - but nothing like we're idly watching today. I've been to Syria, toured around the country, and fell in love with the people. To see that the convoluted conflicts within the country are tearing the already-torn places and hearts puts many of us in a position of deep questioning and evaluation. I am have not lost hope for the country or the people, but as an Algerian who lived through terrorism and was forced to move around and adapt to the motions - it does leave us with very deep wounds that no one can ever understand, and that impact the way with which we see the world. While I may not have lost hope, I remain fearful of what will happen to the next generation. People will have to build their lives again while battling political and psychological vacuums; and people will have to very strongly fight these demons and try to move on together through forgiveness and communication. But these are hard, the politics and all the differences that make up the societies in the region are very engrained in their minds. I am not sure what will be happening next, but I do certainly know that there is quite a heavy load that must be accepted now in order to work slowly towards hopefully solutions with exponential positive outcomes.

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