Why Syria Matters To Me

By Shiraz Maher

 

It’s hard really to appreciate or understand the scale of the disaster that is unfolding in Syria today. We have become remote and detached from the tragedy: more than 200,000 dead, and 300,000 missing, 11 million displaced (half the Syrian population), and more than 1 million children living as refugees.

These are number we’ve become accustomed to hearing. They wash over us with ease.

In some ways, our reaction is completely understandable. The civil war can seem confusing, a labyrinthine web of mercurial alliances infused with religious fanaticism. Yes, Assad is a brutal dictator – but Islamic State is no better.

Somewhere between these competing tyrannies we have lost sight of the story of the ordinary Syrian. When the uprising first began in 2011 it was the most secular and progressive of all the Arab revolutions. Unarmed protesters sang songs of freedom and reform. In response they were met with bullets, torture and death.

I grew up in the Middle East, spending 14 year in the region. I stood in Tahrir Square when revolutionaries gathered to overthrow Hosni Mubarak and celebrated with friends when his reign came to an end.

When the Syrian uprising began I called a Syrian friend to get a better sense of life on the ground. He is from Homs, the epicentre of the revolution.

Through him I made contact with a group calling itself the ‘Baba Amr Media Office,’ a small group of activists who documented the regime’s crimes and who helped smuggle foreign journalists into Syria. They were the same team who were with the superb Sunday Times journalist, Marie Colvin, and a freelance French photographer, Rémi Ochlik, the night they were killed by Assad’s soldiers.

The story they had been trying to tell was one of unimaginable horror in Baba Amr, an impoverished district of Homs. Government forces surrounded it and sealed in all its inhabitants. It was then remorselessly shelled for weeks. Hundreds died.

When government forces lifted the siege, they moved through the city and rounded up all the men. Many had their throats slit. Others disappeared into the dark and subterranean web of torture chambers operated by Syria’s Baathists.

Ali Mahmoud Othman, one of the central figures in the Baba Amr Media Office, was caught by the regime. A few weeks later he gave a stilted interview on state TV saying he was working for foreign governments trying to destabilise Syria. He has not been seen again.

A few weeks after the siege was lifted I asked a contact within the media office for the latest news about Baba Amr. He just sobbed over Skype. “It doesn’t exist anymore.”

The story of Baba Amr was a small foretaste of what was to come for the rest of Syria. In the years that have followed, the country has slipped into the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. The scale of the suffering is unimaginable. The peaceful and secular activists who first sparked the uprising are now dead, imprisoned, or in exile. Their lives are ruined, their revolution lost.

The torture and murder of these secular activists is the great and untold story of the Syrian crisis. Theirs is not a story of jihadist extremism or Baathist brutality, just one of ordinary people who sought a better life.

This is not a crisis of numbers or bald statistics. It is the most urgent humanitarian disaster of our era. This is why Syria matters to me – and why its people deserve our support.

Shiraz Maher is a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.
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