'Abandoned by the world': Syrians speak out on the eighth anniversary of their revolution

'Abandoned by the world': Syrians speak out on the eighth anniversary of their revolution
Mass displacement, death and detention, chemical and barrel bomb attacks, and widespread torture have all characterised the past eight years. What comes next?
7 min read
15 March, 2019
What comes next for Syrians remembering the eighth anniversary of the revolution? [Anadolu]
The fate of Syrians and their country changed forever over the course of a few fateful days in March 2011.

The revolutionaries' initial demands of freedom, justice and dignity still feel distant for Syria's millions displaced at home and abroad.

Eight years on, Syrians have faced mass displacement, forced disappearances, brutal aerial bombardment, chemical attacks, torture, rape and the deaths of at least 500,000 of their compatriots.

"On this eighth anniversary, I think of the Syrian people who have been resilient in the face of death, destruction, and displacement," Adham Sahloul, a Syrian-American policy analyst told The New Arab. "Syrians of the world are now like bread looking to mop up what is left of Syria on the plate."

Like many Syrians both inside and outside the diaspora, Sahloul charges the world with failing to respond to Syrians' demand to oust Assad. Many say the failure to back the Syrian revolution has been a key moral failing which assisted Assad and his backers Russia and Iran in retaking the majority of rebel-held areas.

"I think of the popular calls for reform and democracy which were ignored by the international community and drowned out by the carnage that ensued when Bashar al-Assad decided to wage war with his own people," he said.

"I think of Syria's best and brightest, the young and the hopeful, who have been killed by barrel bombs or in cramped jail cells, or who have been forced to flee their beloved homeland."

More than 5.6 million Syrians have been forced to seek refuge outside of their home country.

The majority of them now live in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Another 6.6 million people have been internally displaced, according to the UNHCR.

The majority of those fleeing their homes have fled violence perpetrated by the regime and its allies, with the regime responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths and chemical attacks.

"As a displaced Syrian, I feel abandoned by the world," Syrian journalist Zouhir al-Shimale told The New Arab, saying that Turkey - previously the "main supporter" of the Syrian revolution - seems to have given up on Syrians and turned to collaboration with Russia and the US to secure its own interests in the country's northern provinces.

At least three million people are packed into the northern province of Idlib, where the regime directed both civilians and fighters from Eastern Ghouta, Darayya, Homs, East Aleppo and Daraa after those areas were retaken by Assad's troops.

Humanitarian organisations and civilians fear further mass displacement and a significant death toll in the likely scenario that the regime begins an all-out offensive to retake Idlib.

"There is no safe area for Syrians like they said in their conferences like Sochi and Astana", Aaref Watad, a photographer based in Idlib, told The New Arab.

"The situation is not like in the past, in 2012 and 2013 when we were taking many areas from Assad's government... In northern Syria, there are very poor public services, unemployment has increased a lot and there are no organisations which help with the food and medicines like in the past," he explained.

Syrians in rebel-held areas are not the only civilians whose fate hangs in the balance as many pundits claim the war, now in its ninth year, is coming to a close.

"It burns my heart that I started my work advocating for detainees in year one of the revolution, and today after eight years, I am advocating justice for their souls, after they were killed in Assad’s detention," Mansour Omari, a Syrian activist and journalist told The New Arab.

Thousands of people have been detained over the course of the past eight years, most of whom have been subject to torture, according to activists and human rights organisations.

About 128,000 people are currently in detention, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) claims.

At least 82,000 people have been subjected to forced disappearance - arrest or abduction without a confirmation of the victim's location or whether they are alive or dead - since 2011, according to Amnesty.

SNHR placed that figure closer to 100,000.

Last year, the regime began to issue "death notices" which, although they finally acknowledged the presence of many disappeared people in detention, confirmed the deaths of at least 836 people.

"Assadists have been addicted to killing," activist Fouad Hallak told The New Arab.

"They killed detainees only to extinguish their lust [for murder] and their impulse against humanity," he said, adding that the internationally community had failed to advocate for detainees.

For many, the torture and killing of detainees, chemical attacks, serial aerial bombardment and mass displacement make it hard to remember the days when Syrians were hopeful that their popular protests would lead to less tyranny, not more.

"The anniversary means nice memories of the peaceful, spontaneous demonstrations I participated with in Aleppo and its university," said Shimale. "However, the overwhelming memories are of my friends who died in these demonstrations, the attacks and the war that was brought to us by Assad and his tyrannical rule."

Despite the brutality many Syrians have experienced, some say the revolution did lead to some positive change.

"The revolution that was based on demonstrations, civil resistance and then armed struggle that was a few miles away from Assad's palace in 2012, is gasping today, but has given life to long-suppressed freedoms in Assad's Syria and sectors of the Syrian society," Omari explained. "It revived the civil society, which was shut down by the Assad regime for decades."

Watad added: "I see that the revolution is still in the hearts of many Syrians, even people who are living in Assad-held areas are with the revolution. We are not regretful of this revolution."

Even in regime-held areas, which also face shortages of basic materials and the monopoly of regime militias, Syrians have gained from the revolution, Hallak says.  

"This is also the fruit of the Syrian revolution, the revolution gives even supporters of the regime courage to speak [out against it]," he said. "In fact, this was what the revolution wanted, the dignity of all the Syrians."

Many Syrians such as Shimale and Hallak are putting their last hopes - buoyed by the recent arrest of two intelligence officers in Germany - in the potential for international prosecution of Assad and other regime figures, or transitional justice.

"There are small victories at the margins," explained Sahloul. "But the Syrian peace process is broken, with Russia bastardizing the Geneva process and the United States looking for the exit door."

Many believe it unlikely that the international community will produce true justice or peace for Syrians.

"I see no reason why the world would act to save [Syrians], as it hasn't for eight long years", said Omari.

Reconstruction, Watad and Hallak explained, is equally impossible in the hands of the regime and its Russian allies.

There are no easy answers for Syrians on this anniversary of the Syrian revolution, then, only ideals, hopes and fears for a future already scarred by the suffering of the past eight years.

Perhaps the only thing Syrians are able to promise is that, going forward, they remain steadfast in remembering the crimes of a regime which promised it would burn the country rather than let the revolution succeed.

"The Syrian crisis has changed the world as we know it," Syrian-American Dr Zaher Sahloul of MedGlobal told The New Arab.

"As we are entering the ninth year of the revolution, let us reflect on our failure to protect the innocence of the Syrian children, the courage of the peaceful demonstrators who were killed by brutal snipers, the victims of chemical weapons who were gassed while they are asleep by a brutal regime and its heartless allies, the screams of the women whose houses were destroyed by barrel bombs, the hunger of children put under siege under the watchful eye of the United Nations in Ghouta, Zabadani and Madaya and the 890 healthcare professionals who were murdered because [of] their humanitarian duty.

"Let us remember that the six million Syrian refugees are still refugees and that the regime they dreamt to change is still brutally destroying what is left of their homeland."

Omari added: "Eight years in the age of nations is like a couple of days in our lives. The road is still long ahead."

Mel Plant is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @meleppo