What western ‘experts’ get so wrong about the conflict in Syria

Too many foreigners uncritically accept Bashar Al Assad’s version of events, without understanding the basics about the causes of the civil war and the condition of the Syrian people, writes exiled activist Loubna Mrie

Protests against the government of Bashar Al Assad continue both inside and outside Syria, but they don’t always attract media attention. Here a burning poster reads: “Where are the reforms, Mr President?” John Kolesidis / Reuters
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Like thousands of Syrians, I joined the 2011 uprising and participated in street protests to which the government responded with live fire.

By 2012, I was forced to flee government-controlled areas for Turkey. From there, I went back to rebel-held areas, where I documented government atrocities for several media organisations.

Though I have spent time with both sides of the conflict, I could never make grand claims to be speaking on behalf of the Syrian people or the Syrian opposition. Today, Syria is a divided country with heated differences. Even within the opposition, views are heterogeneous.

Rather than making grandiose assertions about Syria, we should be more circumspect in our judgements.

When I first arrived in the United States in 2014, I was immediately surprised by how many people there made sweeping statements about the Syrian conflict.

Many “experts” take short trips to government controlled areas on “fact-finding missions” to “reveal” some hidden truth about Syria, though they have little to no knowledge of the country’s complexities.

Even for someone who was born and raised there, such as myself, the situation cannot be packaged in a 1,000-word newspaper article. If a Syrian cannot provide a pithy assessment of the country, what does that say about someone who makes grand claims based on a short tour with government forces?

A number of general slogans have made the rounds among those who are supposed to be helping the western reader to understand the conflict and are often called “Middle East experts”.

Here I analyse some of them:

“It is a regime change conspiracy through a non-existent revolution sponsored by the US.”

Given a brief history of the Syrian government, you will understand that this was never a regime-change conspiracy and Syrians had every reason to revolt against the Asaad government.

Hafez Al Assad, the father of Bashar Al Assad, came into power in 1970 after a military coup. After his death in 2000, Bashar became president.

So, for almost 60 years, Syrians have not known what it is like to vote. My generation, and the past several generations, don’t know what it’s like to have a choice of candidate. Syria was always Syria Al Asaad.

Those who accuse the opposition to Mr Al Asaad of being puppets of the West don’t know what it is like to grow up in a police state where you believe that the walls have ears and anything you say might lead you to jail.

It’s very important to note here that the first chants of the Syrian uprising called for fair elections and reformation of the system.However, the police brutality and the killing of protesters escalated the situation and people started to call for overthrow of the government. Then they started to take up arms to defend themselves and their towns.

“It’s extremist Islamism against a secular government. Who do you want to rule? Al Qaeda?”

Islamists are so strong today because the government has fostered them. During the early days of the revolution, it released the most hardened jihadists from prison. It targeted the secular opposition while allowing ISIL in Iraq and Syria to grow. Worse, it has colluded with it, buying oil and other commodities. Its scorched-earth policies favoured the most extreme groups that called for a war of extermination against the Alawis. This was all part of its grand plan to paint the revolution as a binary conflict between a secular government willing to work with the international community and jihadists bent on destroying it.

Examples of activists who were detained and killed by radical groups are always absent from such arguments.

Ahmad Al Abdo, for example, was detained by the Syrian government in 2012, when he was filming a protest in his hometown, Jisr Al Shughur. In 2015, he was detained for almost 90 days by former Al Qaeda affiliates Jabhat Fateh Al Sham.

Al Abdo was one of the lucky ones who was released, but hundreds of activists remain detained in Jabhat Fateh Al Sham’s prisons. Nobody even knows if they’re alive.

Those who revolted against the government in 2011 also revolted against Al Qaeda and ISIL.

When the dust settles and the fighting stops, Syrians will not welcome anyone who wouldn’t support what they stood up against since the very beginning. Every time there is a ceasefire, protests against extremists groups and the Assad regime spread around the country.

But for some reason, these protests are considered either “fake” or non-existent, because some experts don’t think our testimonies are valid.

“I visited Syria and many Syrians support Assad.”

In America, president Donald Trump has many supporters. The Egyptian government also has supporters. It does not mean that the entire population supports them or even that half of it does. Similarly, to claim that all Syrians oppose Mr Al Assad is a reductionist view that has little merit.

Under Mr Al Assad’s rule, only government supporters can voice opinions. You can hear their voices easily: just turn on state TV. Or read the newspapers. But dissenters have no public space. Instead, they have been detained and face violent intimidation. This is not a post-2011 phenomenon but a staple of Baath politics for the past 54 years.

During the revolution, the Baath party upped the stakes. No longer did it threaten dissidents with imprisonment. Government supporters responded with the slogan “Assad or we burn the country” and the regime followed up by unleashing its most lethal weapons. What the Syrian revolution called for was for a system that allows all voices to speak equally, and participation in politics.

“No secular opposition exists and those in exile don’t count.”

This is akin to saying that Palestinians in the diaspora have no right to protest Israeli policies. It is unjust to write-off exiles merely because a repressive government forces them to leave their country with the threat of imprisonment and even death.

These efforts to delegitimise Syrian voices from abroad are common, but they are quite weird when you actually think about it.

People frame Syrians abroad as an exception but about half of Syria is now displaced. There are 5 million United Nations-registered refugees and millions more who are abroad through other means.

So a claim that Syrians in exile are less legitimate voices is in effect trying to delegitimise the experience of millions of members of the Syrian population.

Furthermore, in the Palestinian movement, it was often the Palestinian diaspora that was the most radical, the most active.

To write off the politics of Syrian refugees because they are refugees, is like denying the important role that exiled activists have played in so many historical struggles.

Because those people who live in exile today are the people who suffered the most during the war and the most attached to their causes.

What those westerners see of Syria on their government-sponsored junkets is not a reflection of the realities the local population suffer. The bacchanalian upper class who frequent the bars of Bab Tuma in Old Damascus have nothing in common with the destitute farmers and merchants who have borne the burdens of Baathist economic mismanagement and its ensuing corruption. On their next visit to Syria, these government lackeys should ask to visit small villages such as Harem and Kafr Nubul, which clamoured for more freedom through peaceful protests and were answered by bombs from fighter jets.

What is most disturbing about the people who doubt every human rights organisation that has released reports on the Syrian war is that they use the same language that Mr Trump’s supporters use. They claim that it’s all fake news and that the media is just conspiring against an honest leader.

Loubna Mrie is an activist from Latakia who now lives in exile in the United States