How do we explain to our children what happened in Syria?

A boy stands on the rubble of a damaged building at the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria. Picture: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

A boy stands on the rubble of a damaged building at the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria. Picture: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

Published Mar 7, 2018


Next week will mark eight years since the war in Syria began. What started as an uprising against the regime quickly turned into a frightening war without end.

With multiple state players, and as many terror outfits, chemical warfare and acts of collective punishment have left more than 470 000 people dead, 1 million injured and 12 million displaced.

The Syrian war is easily the single biggest calamity of our time.

Since mid-February alone, 719 people have been killed and 5 600 injured in the eastern Ghouta area, the latest military operation initiated by Assad’s regime. Hospitals, markets, schools were not spared in a campaign of stupendous brutality.

Eastern Ghouta, long considered a hotbed of anti-Assad sentiment, has been besieged since it fell into rebel hands in mid-2013. More than 400 000 live in the area known for its agricultural expertise. Only a handful can gain access to aid, leaving children hungry and traumatised. The government says the operation is “to restore stability and defend the people who are confronting terrorists”. The UN describes it as an act of “collective punishment”.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, called it “hell on earth”.

Earlier this week, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution that finally allowed humanitarian access to the besieged region. But the resolution is toothless. The reprieve temporary. Not only were member states unable to agree on the scale of the crimes in eastern Ghouta, there is little guarantee the depraved acts against the population would end.

It is this indecision that remains the fundamental problem in solving the war.

For years it has become abundantly clear the war in Syria was merely a playground for a larger ideological war and geopolitical struggle in the Middle East.

Syria is literally the site of imperial struggle. Support Syria’s right to resist intervention and you are anti-democracy, pro-Iran and Hezbollah, and support the murder of Syrians. Support the US-led proxies fighting Assad and you are terrorist sympathiser, anti-Iran and fighting on behalf of Empire. This discourse has made it close to impossible to pick a side, to campaign or mobilise. Each side is both liberator and villain.

In the lead up to the vote earlier this week, representatives from the 47 countries that sit on the Human Rights Council offered perfunctory condemnation, alarm and sympathy for the loss of life in eastern Ghouta. It was Botswana that offered the most compelling critique of why this war continues. Botswana argued the entrenched positions of countries in the Security Council had allowed perpetrators to continue to operate with impunity in Syria.

The damning rebuke not only sums up the reason for the continued conflict but also underlines why countries or people with a conscience need to look beyond the UN on matters of mediation or resolution to conflict worldwide. In fact, Syria ought to be the reason a new mode of negotiation and protest be imagined in a world still largely caught up in binaries that are no longer useful, fitting or fair.

Let’s take South Africa for instance. Critics of South African foreign policy argue that the possibility of it isolating Israel in the face of the colossal murder in Syria is a case of double standards.

UN Watch, the non-governmental organisation that describes itself as a watchdog of the UN, says South Africa “often sides with the majority of dictatorships”, because at the General Assembly, South Africa has abstained three times from resolutions condemning Syria’s human rights abuses, and once from a resolution condemning human rights abuses in North Korea. South Africa also voted against two resolutions condemning Iran’s human rights abuses.

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For those who follow UN Watch, would know that the NGO’s primary task is to accuse the UN of disproportionately picking on Israel. It plays the “what about everybody else?” game.

What UN Watch won’t reveal or admit is that South Africa’s touted stance over Israel and the backing of the Syrian government is actually consistent. South Africa is against regime change especially in the form of western-backed intervention.

By definition, Israel is a colonial settler apartheid project that has expelled people and occupied Palestinian land. South Africa can’t support such a project in the same way it cannot support US intervention to overthrow the Syrian regime; it would be tantamount to working with empire.

This explains why Russia, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela are all on the same page.

But this is no longer good enough.

For one, South Africa’s anti-imperial stance is as perfunctory as the government rhetoric over service delivery or land reform or poverty alleviation. Despite the talk, South Africa has displayed little resolve in cutting relations with Israel.

Second, as member of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa business community (Brics), neither South Africa nor any of the other countries in the grouping display any type of serious radical transformative agenda be it in their own countries or in their foreign policy.

The decision to back Assad no matter what erodes the agency of the Syrian people who only did originally stand up for fair elections, rights and political and socio-economic change.

Or as Syrian writer Loubna Mrie puts it: “and no one can tell us, especially no one from the ‘free world’, that our revolt was not justified”.

And which makes one ask the obvious: what is the purpose of holding out against the empire stance if civilians are still bearing the brunt of this war? Surely, we can hold on to values without being aligned to either side’s thuggery. Why not withdraw our embassies from the Russia and Syria and the US and demand an end to the onslaught, the selling of arms, and the dropping of bombs?

Is it necessary we remain trading with Syria as if it were some normal outpost in the near east? And why is it that we must pick governments when choosing sides?

Why haven’t we picked the people in this war? I just want someone to explain what we tell our children why 500 000 people died in Syria.

* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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