x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

Any unknown future would be better than Syria's agony

In their desperation, Syrians have become cynical about America's true stance on Assad's regime

Asking "who's going to win the election?" is not a preoccupation for Americans alone. It's also the question I've had to answer most often lately when I speak to Syrian activists.

They follow it up with "who's better, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?" I answer the first question this way: "I don't know". To the second one I say "For America, they are very different; for Syria, not so much." This answer causes silences heavy with disappointment.

Most Syrians inside Syria have long rejected foreign military intervention. But they didn't expect to find themselves, after 19 months of revolution, in this deadly stalemate. The flip side to the principled policy of "no intervention" has become the paralysis of watching rivers of blood flow through Syria's cities, towns and villages.

In their desperation, Syrians have become cynical towards America's true stance on the Assad regime. Still, they have given the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt, telling themselves that nothing will change before the US elections.

But as the number of dead steadily increased, the hope of a shift in US foreign policy towards Syria after the elections has faded. This was clearly expressed on October 19, the first Friday since the revolution began to have been given an anti-American name: "America, your silence is complicit in thousands of our deaths."

In their recent foreign policy debate, the two presidential candidates dedicated a few minutes to the catastrophe in Syria with vague, hollow statements, from the emotional ("Syrians are going to have to determine their own future" and "What's taking place in Syria is heartbreaking") to the responsible ("We have to make sure we arm the right groups") to the optimistic ("I am confident Assad's days are numbered").

The interchangeable phrases were little more than self-centered bickering about who's taking a "leadership" role in Syria.

But leadership on Syria is nowhere to be found, not in Syria nor in the rest of the world. Instead, the Syrian crisis has been reduced to these cliched statements, by politicians, journalists and pundits, that seem to create some kind of equality between the two sides.

In fact, the gross inequality between the opposition's actions and the regime's response has been clear since the beginning: peaceful protests are met with gunfire and mass arrests; guns are met with tanks; cluster bombs target residential areas; barrels of explosives are dropped on innocent civilians; and no place is immune, not places of worship, not archaeological treasures, not national heritage sites.

As the violence increases on both sides - most lately the repeated breaking of the so-called "Eid truce" - the vast majority of war crimes (measured by scale, intensity, and sheer numbers) are being committed by regime forces and by their loyal shabiha gangs.

Even the Syria expert Joshua Landis, who has long criticised the opposition and often toed the Assad line, now says the regime no longer has anything but "senseless destruction" to offer.

Another popular question is "What is going on in Syria? Does anyone really know?"

Some journalists and politicians use this misleading question to complicate the narrative. If we don't know what's going on in Syria, how can we possibly stop or prevent certain events?

Landis and others argue about which weapons should be supplied to which group, which sections of society to support, and so on.

Mr Obama boasted in the debate that he had been able to prevent massacres in Libya. But in contrast, the latest US efforts in Syria entail finding out which non-violent activists deserve strictly non-lethal aid. Does anyone imagine that sending satellite phones and cameras at this stage will help the US find out what is "really going on" in Syria?

It is obvious what is going on. There has always been a clear, historically-proven precedent: Bashar Al Assad and his cronies, like his father and the same cronies, are willing to kill thousands and destroy Syria to stay in power.

The Syrian people have been telling the world for months, with their words, chants, songs, blood and lives, that they no longer fear their known enemy. But still the world obsesses about the unknowns, demanding alternatives in the midst of a political vacuum of the regime's making, complaining about a fractured, weak opposition, fearing that violent extremism is on the rise while "stable" secularism is in danger, as Assad's planes keep dropping bombs.

The documentary filmmaker and activist, Matthew Van Dyke, currently in Aleppo, points out the obvious: it is a moral problem to base one's analysis on hypotheticals but ignore facts. As the Syrian activist Amer Al Shami recently tweeted, "Would you choose a hopeful unknown or a dangerous known?"

After 19 months, with 30,000 dead, tens of thousands vanished, hundreds of thousands made refugees, and Assad's violence spilling into Turkey and Lebanon, what unknowns about this regime are left to be uncovered? The "red line" on chemical weapons that must never be crossed? Is it "leadership" to remain paralysed by that?

Washington sources predict a drawn-out civil war. While they analyse and watch, Syrians live a nightmarish waiting game, paying the price of what is known.

In Syria and in the US, we are a long way from hope and change, and a long way from yet another spring. Another cold winter is coming, and this year there will be less fuel, less electricity, less shelter, less food and fewer Syrians in Syria. Thousands of refugees will be huddling in their tents, shivering on the morning of November 7, wondering if the smiling, victorious face on TV will possess some kind of magical "leadership".

But for Syrians, hope has become a burden. Even in their hopes, Syrians continue to doubt.

 

Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian American writer

On Twitter: @amalhanano

 

Editor's note: At the writer's request, this text has been amended from the print version to indicate, in paragraph 10,  that violence on both sides has increased recently.