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Syrian lives matter

Muhammad al Yousef/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images. All rights reserved.Inequality is a top policy
issue in the US presidential campaign. In fact, inequality impacts
perceptions throughout the world, and the way we think about Syrian lives is no
less prejudiced. We all know Syrians are victims of barrel bombs, torture,
sieges, and mass displacement. But their suffering is seen through four
distorted lenses. Why have Syrian lives mattered so little for five years?

A ‘religious’
war? 

In his last State of the
Union speech, president
Obama said the region was “rooted in conflicts dating back millennia”. His
stance echoes a longstanding tradition in western academia and policy: blame
culture when policy fails. Is this deterministic line of argument really
serving the president’s broader interests? The Middle East has experienced
religious wars in the past. But shouldn’t all people have the opportunity to
escape their history?

A popular misconception
about the Syrian uprisings was that Sunnis were fighting Alawites to
establish a Sunni fiefdom in Syria. But as was the case in post-2003
Iraq, sectarian strife in Syria was a result rather than a cause of
war. In reality, Assad pitted Alawites against Sunnis to spread insecurity
and ensure the regime’s survival. This political game was domestic and
geopolitical. Iran was not merely interested in supporting its Shi’a brethren
to support the Alawite regime, but also to preserve a political ally in its
confrontation with the US and Israel.

President Putin
benefited from the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State by receiving a
blank check to intervene militarily alongside the Assad regime. Russia’s
unexpected recent withdrawal of troops from Syria on the basis of nearly
achieved objectives confirmed that opposition forces and not the Islamic State
were primary targets. Through this Syrian quagmire, the Arab Gulf states
found a golden opportunity to weaken Iran. 

As for non-state winners in
this conflict, their success was not immediate, but a calculated political
opportunity. Even Hizbollah was not primarily motivated to support Assad
because of religious affinity – there was no common religious behaviour
between Hizbollah fighters and the Syrian regime and army – but because of
pressure from Iranian sponsors. It was almost a year into the Syrian revolution
in February 2012 that Ayman al-Zawahiri declared Syria to be a land of jihad (ash-sham
ard jihad wa ribat
) in a video recorded in Afghanistan. And al-Baghdadi
proclaimed the Islamic State only later in June 2014.

Assad or Islamic
State?
 

The simplistic choice
between Assad and the Islamic State allowed the international community to
ignore two important facts. First, Assad created the conditions that favoured
the penetration of al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State into Syria from Iraq.
Regime officials actively pursued and reached agreements
with the Islamic State for the distribution of water and oil resources from
the Tabqa dam regions under Islamic State control.

Second, this binary choice
ignored viable long-term contenders for political power inside and outside
Syria. Political representatives in the opposition have struggled for five
years to claim their rightful place at the Geneva negotiations. But examples of
successful resistance to both governmental forces and extremist groups include Syrian
opposition like Raed Fares of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus in the
city of Kafranbel (Idlib province) and civilians in Maarat
al-Nouman who demanded in protests the release of Free Syrian Army
members arrested by the Islamist al-Nusra Front. Despite the relentless aerial
bombardments last February by Russian and governmental forces in Aleppo, the
local council has maintained its activities in neighbouring Azaz.
Meetings with Syrian activists who provide food sovereignty in the
areas besieged by government forces and who work toward common notions of
citizenship in the Syrian
League for Citizenship bear witness to the vibrancy of Syria’s civil
society today.

Refugees as a security threat

Today’s global discourse
has so internalised the different values attached to different lives that the
Islamic State is seen mainly as a threat to Europeans and Americans, and
refugees as a burden. In reality, the primary targets of the Islamic State are
Syrians. And because people are still identified in relation to their group
belonging and not for who they are, Syrians seeking refuge in Europe are
collectively suspected of allegiance to the Islamic State. This prejudice cuts
across class: it extends to affluent socioeconomic groups such as wealthy Syrian
merchants and corporate investors who have contributed to the prosperity of
the countries to which they transferred their monetary and human capital, but
were never acknowledged to be one of the positive consequences of the crisis.

Partition as a
solution for Syria 

A further inequity lies in
the way we imagine political solutions to conflicts. Most European governments
feel threatened by political dissolution, but happily advocate it elsewhere. The
partition of Bosnia achieved peace, but kept the country under international
tutelage. And Iraq is still a failed state subject to corruption, authoritarian
rule, and widespread insecurity. Who wants partition in Syria today? Not
the majority of the population. The regime would be well served by a
resource-rich Alawite enclave—and the Islamic State, as well as radical
Islamist groups sponsored by foreign actors, would reap gains.

Lives do not matter
equally within the US. Nor do they matter equally on the global stage. To find
a sustainable political solution in Syria, we must move beyond clichés that
confine Syrians to categories. Instead, we must recognise their plight and
contribution, and strive for a settlement beyond the short-term gains dictated
by dominant domestic and geopolitical interests.

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