by Charles Davis, Loubna Mrie, and Kareem Chehayeb
THE last year has been one of the worst in history for Syrians, whose country continues to be torn apart by dictatorship, the Islamic State, various rebel groups, and both U.S. and Russian imperialism. As the regime has solidified its grip on Aleppo–one of the last urban strongholds of opposition forces–the Islamic State continues to be a significant force in the country, as shown by its recapture of the ancient town of Palmyra.
The rise of Donald Trump and his desire to openly work alongside Russia and the Syrian regime as part of an escalated war on terror demands change with respect to how the Western left engages the issue of Syria. Some have spent years downplaying or even openly denying the well-documented suffering of Syrians, dismissing such reports as part of a ploy by Clintonites and liberal interventionists seeking to sell the world a no-fly zone that hasn’t come. The presidential election has all but settled this policy debate; moving forward, the left now needs to figure out how it can organize on behalf of those whom the world has united against. Rehashing the past while displaced Syrians are bombed and deported would be a historical dereliction.
Refugees need to be supported wherever they are, and imperial designs for the partition of their homeland–as well as the normalization of a hereditary regime that has killed hundreds of thousands–must be opposed. Meaningful solidarity could take a number of forms that the global left should pursue immediately, lest it continues to fail Syrians as it has for the last half decade.
Let 2017 mark the transition toward solidarity with oppressed peoples, not oppressive states, and opposition to depravity without regard for the identity of the wicked. It should be clear by now that we can’t trust anyone–whether they be on the nominal left or hard right, in Washington or in Moscow–to reject oppression, mass murder, and collective punishment on principle. Instead of looking to centers of power for cues, we need to concern ourselves with people across national boundaries, impoverished and brutalized by the powers that be and which we must pledge to oppose.
Here is how.
Oppose All Imperialisms
President Barack Obama spent months devising a plan to bomb Syria alongside his Russian counterparts, up until the scheme was made politically unpalatable by the bombing of a United Nations aid convoy by pro-regime forces. But President-elect Donald Trump is far less concerned with public relations, and has indicated his intention to join up with Vladimir Putin to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” and formally position the U.S. on the side of the Syrian regime in the name of fighting terror.
This is a ghastly development for the people of Syria, but it does sharpen the dividing lines. All states that rain death on Syrians must be opposed proactively. Such resistance can include protests outside symbols of U.S. and Russian power, like embassies and consulates; campaigns to boycott U.S. and Russian war profiteers; and radical antiwar actions at ports and train depots, blocking the tools of mass murder set to be deployed against Syrians. Anti-imperialists in the U.S. have done this to protest Israel’s U.S.-backed killing of Palestinians and colonization of Palestine; consistency and humanity demand we recognize shifting allegiances, discard antiquated dogmas, and condemn–in word and action–the new reality of a U.S.-Russia consensus to kill Syrians.
The alliance of the world’s leading imperialist powers calls for a unified opposition. Those who continue to apologize for members of this united imperial front are not the allies of those struggling for liberation, and will instead be remembered as enemies.
Demand More Refugees
Top Trump adviser Kris Kobach was recently photographed holding a secret document that appeared to outline Trump’s first year homeland security plan, including a pledge to reduce America’s refugee intake to zero. With a growing far-right threat in Europe, we could now see a push, in concert with the Syrian regime and neighboring states, to not only block refugees but also force them back into Syria.
Syria is the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century: Hundreds of thousands of people are dead, millions have been forced from their homes, and the war’s end does not guarantee peace. With the 45th President of the U.S. promising to block refugees’ resettlement in the states, organizing on behalf of Syrians everywhere, at home and abroad, is a necessity.
We can demand that those who have already gone through 24 months of vetting, expending precious hours and dollars trying to get to the U.S., be allowed to resettle. Thousands of Syrians are in the country today and feel worried after having spent those months navigating the labyrinthine asylum process and listening to the next head of state compare them to snakes. If Trump keeps his pledge, they will again lose their homes.
We can organize to comfort and protect this vulnerable population by standing between them and the agents of a state that will be led by a racist demagogue who consolidates his power at their expense. We must shelter them by any means necessary.
Help Those Who Are Already Here
Many barely escaped with their lives, their home and businesses destroyed by the regime’s barrel bombs and Russia’s cruise missiles. Now “M,” a man in his twenties from Homs and currently living in California, is struggling to survive with his wife and eight-month-old daughter in the United States.
“I’m a professional baker. I’m young. I want to work and support my family,” he told Lama Alzuabi, a math teacher trying to help refugees that have resettled in Southern California, “but no one is helping us. I don’t know where to go and look for a job. I want to learn English and get a driver’s license. I don’t want to live on welfare.” With no one to guide him and his family through an alien bureaucracy, he doesn’t know what to do.
“We have no furniture. No clothing. No kitchen supplies,” he said. “We are all alone. Why did they bring us here to the U.S. if they don’t care about us?”
The left has a lot of things to care about, and caring about the most vulnerable among us–those a liberal government has abandoned, and which a far-right government wants to remove–should be at the forefront. It is a duty, not charity.
“Our refugee work is not strictly humanitarian,” said Terry Burke, an activist with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria. Humanitarianism is crucial, of course, but it is best complemented by political shows of force. This could consist of organizing rallies to welcome refugees, building local support for welcoming them into our communities, and lobbying state and local politicians to reject the xenophobia in Washington, D.C.
“Our work on refugee issues is a way to connect with a broader audience in the community,” Burke explained. “We’ve found that many people will come to refugee events, learn more about the Syrian conflict, and some have become activists.” A few have even gone on to provide medical aid in Syria: one nurse practitioner who started working with refugees has since gone on two trips to work with Syrian refugees in Greece sponsored by the Syrian American Medical Society.
Internationalism, one might argue, begins at home.
Help Those Abroad
According to the UNHCR, there are over 4.8 million registered refugees across the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey. Only 10 percent of them live in camps, while the remaining 90 percent have tried to assimilate in urban, peri-urban and rural areas. This does not include the scores of unregistered refugees.
While Turkey hosts roughly half of them–2.7 million, the largest number in the region–the much smaller Lebanon is hosting over 1 million documented refugees, roughly a quarter of the country’s population (notwithstanding the roughly 300,000 undocumented refugees). Lebanese authorities have proposed forcibly returning these refugees into designated “safe zones,” echoing calls that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad made for refugees to return in an interview last February. This is a violation of international law, including the vital principle of non-refoulement, confirmed by Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director Lama Fakih. This policy has already started to take form, as the Lebanese army demanded on November 11 that refugees in the Rihaniyya Camp in northern Lebanon evacuate in 10 days. The camp hosts some 350 families.
Jordan, which hosts over 655,000 refugees from Syria, has significantly tightened its border control. After an ISIS attack last June at Rukban, a northeastern border crossing, the Jordanian government declared the arid territory a closed military zone and banned the U.N. and other organizations from sending vital aid. Refugees were left stranded in the heat. According to a Human Rights Watch report released in July, 70,000 refugees were stranded in Rukban, and at least 15 injured people were denied entry, including a ten-year-old child with a head injury. A crisis was inevitable given the lack of any aid besides extremely sparse supplies of water. The humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières said that 214 of the 1,300 children stranded in Rukban under the age of 5 were malnourished as of July.
It is important that countries like the United States and Russia, which each spend several millions of dollars a day on the war in Syria, provide more support–financial, material, and otherwise–to host states, making sure that Syrian refugees are provided the basic needs in a safe location, free from abuse and discrimination. That pressure can come from citizens.
For example, Lebanon, which has taken a laissez-faire approach since day one, has just signed a massive aid deal with the European Union, with the latter expected to provide over 400 million euros up front and another 80 million euros over the next two years. One of the main conditions of the deal is that the Lebanese government play a larger role in the refugee crisis, but it’s unclear what this means in practice. Such vague language does not guarantee that Lebanon and the E.U. will respect international humanitarian law and refugee rights. Leftists can fight to ensure that such commitments explicitly mandate that no refugees face oppression and exploitation of any kind, whether or not they live among us. Regardless of how much funding or material support a country receives to manage its refugee population, we have to make sure that refugees are guaranteed their human rights, including freedom of movement and the right to seek asylum.
Syrians Aren’t Voiceless–Give Them a Platform
Syrians are treated as objects of imperialism, terrorism, or pity, reducing human tragedy to a story of big states and their proxies. But they are people, and they have voices that can and should be leading the debate on their country. And yet? Panels and roundtables and intra-left debates in the West are dominated by the same people who dominate every discussion in America: the white and male, speaking on behalf of Syrians they claim agree with them.
It’s true that there’s more than one Syrian position on Syria, making it all the more inexcusable that Syrians themselves are so often excluded from the discussion. It’s particularly egregious when those excluding them purport to be speaking on their behalf–viewing the conflict through a myopic, U.S.-centric lens–while raising insulting rhetorical questions to imply that the only people who oppose Assad are radical Islamists.
People who actively oppose both Assad and radical Islamists and support a free Syria often find their voices censored by many different parties. But their perspectives can be found among the more than 4 million who have fled Syria, and–despite a global effort to liquidate them–in Syria itself. Every time there is a ceasefire, we see large protests in Syria against both the regime and the Islamists. There are still daily protests in Mareet al-Nu’man against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra before it ostensibly broke ties with al-Qaeda.
As for those outside: We see continual efforts to delegitimize Syrian voices living abroad, as if these people weren’t representative of a country where half the population is displaced. To claim that Syrians in exile are less legitimate voices–more liberal or pro-intervention than the masses back home–is to de-legitimize the experience of millions of members of the Syrian diaspora. The hypocrisy of this double standard is clear when one considers that many who doubt the accounts of Syrians living abroad continue to support members of the Palestinian diaspora in their radical campaign for a free Palestine.
To write off the politics of Syrian refugees by virtue of their refugee status is to deny the important role that exiled activists have played in so many historical struggles. Those who live in exile today are people who have suffered greatly as a result of war, and are arguably among the most attached to their causes. We should remember the left is supposed to take the side of the oppressed, not seize their platform away from them.
There is a large pro-democratic opposition now living in exile–in Istanbul, in Beirut, in Berlin. Many of them are wanted by the regime for the crimes of protesting and political organizing. They should be able to return to their country at the time of their choosing in order to take part in the extensive negotiations required to build the political architecture of a new Syria. Imperialist powers seeking to impose a settlement on Syrians must be pressured to listen to these survivors of war. After all, it is their country.
Charles Davis is a journalist in Los Angeles.
Loubna Mrie is a Syrian activist in New York City.
Kareem Chehayeb is a journalist in Beirut.