Over the past three years, I have often commented on the events in Syria that have unfolded with cruel intensity. And during this period, I have also been struck by the sheer audacity of the regime and – later – by the barbarity of so-called jihadist elements that together have used the Syrian people as cannon fodder in pursuit of their objectives and interests.
Mind you, I have been at the receiving end of some carping comments too. After all, is it conceivable that I – ostensibly a Westernised secular Armenian with middle-class professional aspirations and a deep commitment to my Christian faith – would speak out against the excesses of the Syrian regime? Surely not when some church hierarchs are speaking out in support of the regime as it feigns to defend ‘minorities’ from extreme Islamists while also contributing to the creation of a breeding ground for those same groups? Or else when takfiri Islamist rogue elements are wreaking havoc from Raqqa to Kessab with everything I deem precious – from the rights of women and freedom of worship to those fundamental choices they hardly care about? Shocking: I must be complicit in the regression of Syria to the dark ages!
And then over a week ago, I came across an article by Professor Alon Ben-Meir, senior fellow and professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. In his bracing piece entitled 'The Forgotten', he quoted in some detail a UNICEF Report that had come out earlier this month about the plight of Syrian children.
I followed up on this gruesome report. Do you know that the number of children affected by the crisis since March 2013 has more than doubled from 2.3 million to over 5.5 million? And that the number of children displaced inside Syria has also tripled from 920,000 to almost 3 million? Are you aware equally that the number of child refugees has quadrupled from 260,000 to more than 1.2 million, with 425,000 of those under the age of five? Is this not shameful?
Three years into the Arab uprisings that have macerated all the rooted constants of this region, I can only come up with one ineluctable lesson that I repeat with stubborn conviction and unerring frequency. And it is one that does not always sit well with people because our human tendency is to take sides – usually predicated on our emotions and our interests.
So let me scrub up a few salient facts that often slide under our radars when we talk about Syria. Those spontaneous uprisings that started in March 2011 went on as peaceful protests for six months despite the violent response of the regime. But why did the regime respond violently in the face of unarmed protestors? This is broadly because the genome of dictators or totalitarian regimes is programmed to brook no dissent and believes instead in its powerful superiority. So how dare those Syrians contemplate rising up against their rulers? A sad case of reverse colonialism here: what the colonial powers did not dare do to the citizens of this region, or what Israel as an occupying force could not do to Palestinians, this regime did – and still does – with impunity against its own citizens. Is this tolerable in our day and age?
But the barbarity of the response by the regime – bullets, shabihas and tanks that soon graduated to chemical weapons and TNT barrels – also weaponised an equally radical bunch of people who carry with them the cloak of religiosity although they do not care a jot about the future governance of Syria. Their purpose transcends Bashar Assad as it does Bourhan Ghalioun, Mouadh Al-Khatib, Ahmad Jarba, George Sabra or Abdulbaset Sieda and is solely homed into dragging Syria – and the region incrementally – into the dark ages of a theocratic and feudal rule that shows no mercy or compassion.
But the Syria that I seek out - and the region I would wish to believe in – is the one that I also mourn today. It is that vast middle ground of men, women and children caught up in a vice grip between a regime of power-obsessed dictators and a motley bunch of imported and brainwashed religious misfits. And this is the Syria that would have emerged – and perhaps can still emerge tentatively and timidly should we get our act together – if only the world had supported them or at least had not fought against them. This should have been the redemption that most Syrians would have sought after four decades of one-family rule, despite the unedifying biases of political or religious hierarchs of different persuasions.
The lesson of those three years confirms that might still remains right and fear overrides trust. Syria today is a pseudo-failed country no matter who wins those battles, and the Syrian people have almost been broken despite their courage, tenacity and – perhaps more critically – their integrity. But the lesson we ordinary citizens - read, mere mortals – are being taught is that we cannot tinker with the global interests of the powers-to-be or else we burn our own hands.
But this piece is not an obituary despite its obvious eschatological underbelly. After all, leading Arab intellectuals across the whole Middle East North Africa (MENA) region have often felt this same sense of despair, let alone self-questioning, but have nonetheless continued their struggle undeterred by failure. So while those ructions are clearly rending the MENA region, this dystrophy today should not simply steer us into dystopia tomorrow. Instead, we should draw hope let alone inspiration from the likes of Razan Zaitouneh, Mazen Darwish, Khalil Ma’touq, Mohamed Bachir, Hussein ‘Essou or Samira Khalil.
Reading the UNICEF Report about those hapless children of Syria, I share Professor Alon Ben-Meir’s written passion but I also believe that the resilience of the human spirit remains indomitable despite the crushing burdens of time.
© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian