Unheard Voices from Syria and the Middle East
Author: Harout Akdedian
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 12/13/2011
This article is based on interviews conducted in Syria throughout the months of July and August with members of Syrian minority groups: Christians, Kurds and Armenians. Away from mainstream opinion, these unheard voices channel a reality that hasn’t received much attention internationally, and contribute to a more accurate narration of the current situation in the Middle East. The first part of the article focuses on Syria. The latter parts are a general political assessment of the Middle East today.
Gaddafi is dead. “Maybe a trial would’ve been better. But here’s to a better Libya.” That’s what a very close friend from Europe posted on Facebook. I couldn’t share his optimism. A few days later, as Gaddafi’s sodomization video was released, Libya’s future was still looking just as blurry. After all, the brutality in the images shows more continuity than change.
East across the Mediterranean, the same prospects loomed before the frustrated and hopeless Syrians I interviewed regarding the fate of their own country. “We would like to do without the current regime [in Syria], but what’s going to replace it?” This rhetorical question could easily summarize the feedback I received during the 45 days I spent in Syria between July and August of 2011.
The mainstream representation of the Syrian crisis has been either that of demonizing the state or, based on the pro-Syrian media reports in Lebanon and Syria, demonizing the protestors. Aside from ousting the regime, the prescriptive suggestions were almost absent from both the media coverage and the official declarations of state actors. Turkey was quick on blaming and shaming; the US and its NATO friends in Europe have been vigorously pushing for sanctions and intervention; Iran, China and Russia are radically against the NATO camp; and most significantly, the Syrian opposition is still having a hard time consolidating the internal diverging views on Syria’s future. Yet, every time I talked about Syria to my friends – most of them remote from the grassroots reality – they, too, vigorously tried to demonstrate their perfect grasp of right and wrong; good and bad; justice and evil in the given context. The general approach – mainstream media reports and public opinion – is simplified into concepts of good and bad. It’s almost intuitive to assume that the reality is more complex than that. The opinions of the Syrian people I interviewed deconstructed those oversimplifications.
The population selected for my interviews were random people from the minority groups in Syria, mainly Christians, Armenians, and Kurds, who comprise more than 10% of the 21 million Syrians. Apart from a brief letter published in the Peace and Conflict Monitor, I haven’t written more on the topic. The interviews were left as dry ink on papers piled high, one on top of the other. For a couple of months, I could see from a distance on my desk the random notes in Armenian, Arabic and English. The disorganized and chaotic notes on those papers very much resembled the Syrian situation or that of the Middle East in general. There was just too much to be said, and it was a bundle of inter-tangled information, reactions, and statements. In a modest attempt to reflect the situation in Syria and the Middle East, the following paragraphs echo the unheard and marginalized voices in Syria.
The unheard voices
From the very first moment I arrived at the border, the experience promised to be different than my previous trips to Syria. My old Lebanese ID in hand, depicting a photo image of a 13-year old me, I approached customs. The long beard and the 20-something-year-old person standing before the officer did not perfectly resemble the picture on the ID. I was asked to step aside and open my luggage. After all, who and why would someone dare to enter Syria during these times? The inspector extended his arm to reach inside my bag. He felt something solid and asked me what it was; I told him it was a bottle of scotch. I was ordered to empty my entire suitcase. This was not the first time I was going to Syria with bottles of booze with me. It had never been an issue before; it wasn’t an issue this time either.
After going through my stuff, everything was fine until he saw the five books that I had brought with me. He asked me what they were, and without even waiting for an answer, started inspecting them one by one. The first book was in English and had a black hard cover with nothing written on it. Without understanding a word, he put it aside. It was the same with the second book–English, and a black hard cover with no words on it. As he skimmed the cover of the third book, I could see his eyes widen. The picture of Kofi Annan, the UN symbol representing the notion that it’s the only hope for peace, and the picture of George W. Bush were just too much for him to handle. He took my stuff and went away. He came back asking me to escort him to one of the customs offices. At this point, I couldn’t help but remember how prisoners in Syria would never see daylight once they got locked in. I had nothing to be afraid of. But I could feel my heartbeat getting faster and my breath becoming heavier. I was interviewed for about ten minutes by someone who was surprisingly very civil with me. After taking down all possible information about me, they allowed me to cross the border.
Considering the Syrian context, it was a symbolic moment for me to realize that a bottle of scotch has never been a problem, but that books could create so much difficulty: the impact of scotch on the people is desired by the state, but the impact of books is problematic and even threatening.
On my way to Aleppo, tanks and soldiers were stationed left and right every few hundred meters on the road near Hama and Homs. In Aleppo, the second largest province of Syria after Damascus, however, people were living the same way as always. But that’s only on the surface.
A young Armenian, aged 21, was telling me about how, regardless of the outcome, it is clear for him that he cannot build a future in Syria: “I live in Aleppo, things are very stable here. But still, you never know what the future brings. I feel like I’m sitting on a barrel of gunpowder.” This same man travelled with me on the bus returning to Lebanon, hoping for a chance in one of the country’s graduate schools.
Another interviewee, a Kurdish father of three, was complaining about the economic ramifications of the events in Syria: “We didn’t choose this; we didn’t do anything. Why can’t all of them just let us live so that we can feed our family?” Obviously, the economy was a bit stagnated. I had the impression that those people were blaming the uprisings for the reality they dislike. When I asked them why they were defending the system, they refused my terminology. “We’re against the system, but we’re against chaos as well.” It seemed that through the eyes of those people, the options in Syria are either to stick with the current system or take a chance with chaos.
The most interesting opinion, though, came from an Arab Christian woman from the region of Jala’: “Overall, I’m really happy with this whole thing. We used to wait in line forever if we wanted to have a government official sign a document for us. Today, they are different; finally, we feel like the government is realizing that the state should be in service of its people and not the other way around.” When I asked her whether she wanted to see the situation go on this way, she affirmed that prolonging the crisis will take the country into the abyss of civil war. She decided to end the interview with a rhetorical question addressed to me: “Do you think the ones who will replace him will make this a better place for us?” She walked away with a grin on her face. This was an opinion that was, for the most part, reiterated by the majority of interviewees.
I was having a hard time getting people talking. For some, I was suspected to be working for the government. For others, I was a spy or an undercover opposition member. Many of them told me that I should be careful; sooner or later, I was going to attract undesired attention. Despite all of this, I did try to go beyond the socio-economic issues that people were mainly concerned about. There were many others who weren’t afraid to voice their strong political opinions. One of the supporters of the regime, who came from an Armenian background, was describing how a bunch of civilians suppressed a July 1st opposition demonstration. The attempted uprising against the system was dubbed ‘Volcano Aleppo’: “We kicked the hell out of them. This is the future of my kids that we are talking about; I will not allow them to bring chaos to my town.”
The term chaos has been reiterated very often in my interviews. Even the national TV stations were warning people against a return to ‘chaos’. For the government, chaos means the change of the regime; a prospect that the political leadership does not necessarily enjoy contemplating. Nonetheless, the interviewees had a different definition of the term. For most, chaos signifies the change of the prevailing order in such a manner whereby security and protection would be absent. On a micro-level, the people in Syria have different factual understandings of this concept. For some, chaos will come about by the change of the system. For others, if the system remains, chaos (the absence of security and protection) will perpetuate. For instance, an opponent of the regime was telling me that it is too late now: “things can never go back to the way they were. It’s either us or the regime. Either we leave and they stay, or we stay and they leave.” With the contrast between the stability in Aleppo and the bloody situation in Hama, those contradicting public perceptions on chaos made perfect sense.
Baffled and confused, I constantly checked what the media had to say about the situation. Despite accusations to the contrary, I was still considering Al Jazeera to be one of my credible sources on Syria; that is, until one day, when I joined the infamous funeral of Sheikh Ibrahim Alsalkini on the 6th of September, 2011. Despite scattered anti-regime chants, I was impressed by the peaceful atmosphere of the gathering. However, as soon as I checked Al Jazeera’s reporting, it stated that a number of participants were injured and some were dead. Obviously, the report had exaggerated, or even fabricated the truth. These exaggerations are characteristic of media coverage on the events in Syria in general. Based on mutual mistrust, the government was not allowing any media coverage of anti-government protests from Syria. Hence, most of the reporters and journalists were covering the events in Syria from Lebanon, removed from the reality on the ground. Credibility was hard to establish.
Regardless of whether Al Jazeera’s coverage was based on reports from Lebanon or adapted from social media, everything Al Jazeera presented as news immensely affected people’s perceptions. Al Jazeera’s questionable credibility in covering events in Syria is especially worrisome given the popular perception worldwide that it is a credible, unbiased news source on events in the Middle East, when the reality in the Syrian case has now proven otherwise. In this respect, the gap between reality and representation of reality has provoked reactions from the Syrian street itself. While I was in Syria, most of the large trash cans in the streets had the Al Jazeera logo drawn on them with the word “Headquarters” written beneath it. The substance of the Al Jazeera coverage and the content of the trash cans were perceived as one and the same. The least that could be said is that the coverage was misleadingly selective and exaggerated.
The rise of the people and the fall of the movement
On a wider scope, there are many common features between the general situation in Syria and that of the Middle East. One of those features is the rise and successive fall of popular movements. It seems that the ‘Arab Spring’, which was a battle between rulers and the ruled, is no longer; the people’s cause has been once again hijacked by states. In Syria, for instance, the fate of the country is being decided mainly by heads of state –sanctions by the EU, Iranian support, Turkey’s role, US efforts in the UN Security Council, Russia and China’s promises of veto, Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s involvement and the Arab League’s ultimatums. It is within this context that moderate voices in Syria have reiterated in despair: “I don’t care anymore; whoever is going to rule this place let them be. I just want this fiasco to end.” As states have become more involved, people in the Middle East have ended up being detached from those movements.
Bahrain is another example illustrating the rise and successive fall of popular movements. While still existing outside the media limelight, the people’s cause in Bahrain has been hijacked by states. Saudi and UAE armed forces and police, amounting to approximately 1000 personnel, entered Bahrain on the 14th of March and crushed thousands of protestors demonstrating for democracy (BBC, 2011). One wonders if the people still have any role in the ‘popular movements’ at all. Furthermore, by disregarding the crisis in Yemen and Bahrain, the international community’s approach is not a case where it is being passive. On the contrary, based on selective reference to the Responsibility to Protect, this is the same old active policy of double standards to intervene or disregard based on interests.
Therefore, between the early stages of the Arab uprising (Tunisia and Egypt), and the latest developments characterized by Kaddafi’s execution and the current situation in Syria, a discontinuity exists. What began as a popular movement transmuted into a race between states. The fact of the matter is that along with disposing dictators, the protestors were altering the political reality; not only becoming a part of the game but also changing its very rules. After all, since foreign policy was only envisioned to be designed in the offices of politicians, stakeholder states had to come up with reactionary policies to contain the situation and make sure that their own interests, influence and the basics of the status quo were maintained. One can easily imagine how those policies were being configured: ‘If they don’t like Mubarak, if they insist on him leaving, fine. We’ll do without him. And we’ll have a bunch of militants used to taking orders fill the vacuum. Mubarak is gone, our interests are still preserved, everybody is happy, people can go back home.’ As the demands of the Egyptian people surpassed the mere ousting of Mubarak, the protestors refused to settle for the status quo. The recent protests in Egypt and the demands of handing over power to a democratically elected civilian government are the manifestation of the Egyptian people’s attempts to reenter the political scene.
The explanation of the rise of the people in the Middle East and the understanding of its impacts on the future will be the effort of many academic writers and political commentators for a long time. Nonetheless, for the time being, based on the attraction and the appeal that the populist discourse enjoys among the masses, it is clear that expansionist states have incorporated this discourse into their foreign policies. In other words, the same old political race in the Middle East has now received a new outfit tailored in a fashion that suits the populist narrative. The reactive approach of containment was substituted by a proactive one. The race over the Middle East between the US (along with its allies in Europe) and Iran (and its axis of influence in the Middle East: Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine) remains the same. US influence in Syria and Iranian influence in Bahrain and Yemen are still the same as always, but now in a populist format.
The Middle East and its prospects
Henry Kissinger once said: ‘You can’t make war in the Middle East without Egypt, and you can’t make peace without Syria.’ If the equation stands, and since peace is not where regional politics in the Middle East is heading, the situation in Syria will keep lingering on the same note, and Egypt will once again become a decisive player.
After Mubarak was ousted, the situation on the borders between Israel and Egypt has witnessed its share of turbulence. In early August, seven people were killed by gunmen in southern Israel, near Eilat. “The attacks hit a bus carrying off-duty [Israeli] soldiers back from their bases, a passenger car and a military patrol” (The Guardian, 2011). Haaretz also reported that “mortars were fired from the Egyptian side of the border” (The Guardian, 2011). Shortly thereafter, five Egyptian officers were reportedly shot by Israeli forces chasing Palestinian militants after the Eilat attack. The event triggered a huge wave of protests against the Israeli embassy in Egypt and the withdrawal of the Egyptian ambassador from Israel (Haaretz, 2011).
Earlier, on the other side of the Israeli border, “Wave after wave of protesters, mainly Palestinians from refugee camps in Syria, approached the frontier with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israeli soldiers opened fire on those who crossed a new trench and tried to attack the border fence near the towns of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights and Quneitra in Syria[…] It was the worst bloodshed in the Golan Heights since Israel and Syria fought a war there in 1973” (Kershner, 2011). Obviously, things are heating up in the Middle East. Anti-Israel fervor among the Arab popular base is marking its return to the political scene. For some, this is good news. In fact, after the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, Hezbollah proved to be a match for Israeli forces and is still reinforcing its position (Mitchell, 2011).
Neither the race for military power nor hostile policies have changed. It seems that power still never questions power. After the attack on the Israeli-Egyptian border, Netanyahu announced his willingness “to build a wall around the city extending from Taba, on the Egyptian border” (Youm7, 2011). Furthermore, after UNESCO’s bid, the Israeli position was loud and clear. “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his decision to expand construction in east Jerusalem, saying it was Israel’s “right” and “duty” to build in all parts of its capital” (The Associated Press, 2011b). After US and Israeli efforts of blocking the Palestinian statehood bid, Ban Ki Moon was not neutral either. He said that a Palestinian effort to join United Nations agencies is “not beneficial for Palestine and not beneficial for anybody” (The Associated Press, 2011a).
Unfortunately, even regional powers such as Turkey, who previously remained remote from the race in the Middle East, have now proven to be very much involved. Turkey’s foreign policy of ‘Zero Problems’ with neighbors proved to be more of a proactive strategy than a passive one. While strengthening its economic position, Turkey created a situation where it has zero problems with its neighbors, even if its neighbors have problems with Turkey’s interferences. Given such economic influence in the region, Turkey enjoys the privilege of being able to be hostile, even to Syria or Israel, without worrying much about damaging its own interests. Furthermore, given the choice between the current leadership in Syria and the one with which Turkey expects to replace it, the Turkish leadership has chosen to not have problems with the future Syrian leadership rather than engage with this one. However, given the possibility of heightened regional turmoil, not even Turkey will remain remote from regional instability in the Middle East (The Associated Press, 2011 c).
The spiraling escalation in the region proves that something or someone has got to give. Taking into account the rigidity of the situation, no leadership will raise a white flag. If Iran is going down, it’s not going down on its own; and if Israel is going down, it’s not going down on its own either. The entangled interests and the shaky regional balance of power promise to drag the entire region along.
People here, just like in any other place facing turmoil, are once again at a crossroads between the bad and the worst. The majority of the population is passive, and a tiny minority is engaging in fights and battles that will shape the future for everyone in the country. […] I can’t see valiant freedom fighters; I see more people executing their orders and serving the functions that their circumstances have subscribed upon them.
I wrote these words as my original impression after conducting all the interviews. The misconception and misrepresentation of Syria lies in building up expectations of a solution that would protect humanity from conflicts and suffering. Those expectations represent wishful thinking rather than any rational perception of socio-political reality. Similarly, I didn’t find people reiterating Benjamin Franklin’s words, “those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Ordinary people have not been living their lives with such pompous and naïvely simplified notions.
After crossing the Syrian border and heading back to Lebanon, it seemed that I was leaving these experiences behind. As I was wrapping my head around this thought, the bus approached a Lebanese army checkpoint. After ordering the driver to pull over, of all the 30 passengers on board they asked me to step down and show my identification cards. “It’s just because of your beard. They thought you were either Syrian or a Muslim fundamentalist”, a woman in her sixties was trying to calm my worry. Although unfortunately she was right –it was because of the beard–, whatever the future of the Middle East may be, it worries me now more than ever. The options that the people in Syria and the Middle East are dealing with do not extend on a spectrum between good and bad as much as between bad and worse. Between moral comfort for those who truly believe in interventions and opportunists’ hypocrisy, people are left to suffer.
Bio: Harout Akdedian has an MA in International Law and a BA in Political Science. He is currently a doctoral student in International Law at the University for Peace.