Sep 10 2013
The desperation of ordinary Syrians for an end to the civil war has even progressive-minded secularists reluctantly backing war. But history is not on their side.
By Sonali Kolhatkar
Jay Jihad Abdo is a familiar face to Syrians but most Americans have never heard of him. He is a well known actor, who, in Syria, was pressured by the Bashar Al Assad regime to denounce the rebellion. He refused, faced threats, and fled to the US with his wife Fadia Afashe. Fadia, an articulate and passionate women’s rights activist is an artist in her own right, creating paintings that depict the grim situation in her nation.
Both Jay and Fadia are a microcosm of an educated, secular Syrian population who vehemently opposed the Assad regime in their collective call for democracy and participated in their own way, in Syria’s Arab Spring movement. Fadia told me “I was very optimistic, to be honest with you.” She thought the same thing that happened in Egypt and in Tunisia with the fall of their dictatorships would happen in Syria initially.
But that didn’t happen. And now, Syrian activists like these two, at one time championed by left and progressive movements worldwide, find themselves at a difficult crossroads. Even if they understand US bombs will not liberate them, desperation for any sort of international attention sometimes veers unwittingly into support for military action.
I interviewed Jay and Fadia weeks after President Obama’s re-election last November. At that time, Obama was recalcitrant toward a Syria attack. But Abdo and Afashe pleaded publicly, not for a military strike, but for the kind of alternative support that could tilt the equation in favor of the Free Syrian Army.
Specifically Fadia told me, “Russia and the US both have interests [in Syria] and they are the powerful countries in this game.” She wanted the US to use its diplomatic strength to stop Russian and Iranian flows of weapons to President Assad. She also wanted a “no fly zone” from Turkey to provide “safe passage for injured people and for children and for women to just be able to leave the country when the regime is bombing their neighborhood.” Fadia was hopeful that “with this we would be able to tackle the regime.”
I asked Abdo why he left Syria even though he is a well-known celebrity. He told me, “I know the fame is nice, it’s cool. But when you see the situation deteriorating, there’s no other way. Some of our friends were detained and arrested and tortured. Even actors, writers, directors, professors at the university.”
Then his voice dropped to a near whisper: “Some of my friends are already killed. They are dead now.”
His wife, Fadia, echoed that fear, saying “I’m still very afraid. Every night I have nightmares about my family. It’s very hard to be apart from your family. They have no medical care. They don’t have the basic things to live. It’s very hard to get food. It’s very hard to leave their homes. So I hope I can go and see them.”
Her voice trailed off: “I will give everything to see them now.”
The diplomatic alternative that Fadia and Jay wanted nine months ago never came. Instead the US authorized arming the rebels this Spring. The civil war escalated. Chemical weapons were used. Hundreds and thousands died before and since.
Students of American imperial history do not have to look too far back to see the disastrous consequences of bombing dictatorial governments. As the debate over a US military strike on Syria heats up in Congress, American antiwar activists are clear in their opposition to the push for war. And they are correct to oppose any sort of military strikes if the long arc of destructive US foreign policy is to be trusted to remain the same.
I invited Fadia and Jay back onto my radio program this week to find out where they stood on the impending military strikes.
Their pain was more palpable than ever. Fadia revealed that one of her students was among the dead in Ghouta’s deadly chemical attack. She relayed how she asked her family to leave Syria in the wake of the attack but was shocked by her father’s reply: “No – we now have an easier way to be killed.” He told her he wished there was a chemical attack in their neighborhood because he didn’t want to see Fadia’s mother slaughtered or tortured in front of him.
Fadia explained that life in Syria has become untenable. Even small things that do not appear in the media, such as overflowing sewers, rats, and contamination, have made day-to-day life impossible. She decried the lack of medicines, especially pain killers. “Syrian people from all sides want to just end this atrocity.”
She explained a situation that so many populations of embattled nations face: “We have a regime now killing us en masse, we have … extremist groups supported by other countries. We have Russian and Iranian [interests] in our country, Hezbollah, killers, jihadis supported by Saudi Arabia. Everyone is killing us. We need someone to help us. People are dying every single day… because of money and politics.”
I asked her what her position was today on a response from the international community. She said without hesitation, “I’m so mad at the international community. It’s too late. We had started peaceful demonstrations, asking for some help and negotiation between the big two countries, Russia and the US. But they are still having a proxy war [so now] we have to die for them and their interests.”
“We are shouting and pleading: Can’t the US for once do something good? All of you Americans, please do something.”
I countered to her that the US President and some Congressional representatives feel they are “helping” Syria via military action.
“If the strike would end the regime, I am for it,” said Fadia after I pressed her on what sort of American help she is looking for. She added a caveat: “if this strike is just for American pride, and for their ‘red line,’ I’m so sorry. We are human beings, we have a right to live, and we have a right to be defended.”
When I asked Jay if a military strike is what he thinks is needed, his answer was frustratingly vague:
“I don’t know…. I just don’t know.”
He added after a pause: “What I need is [for] this regime to be stopped. What I need is for my friends who are prisoners to be out.”
Fadia went on: “We don’t have oil in Syria – we just have human beings… could you please once in history, do something good, and have a good intervention to end the atrocity and to take out the dictatorship of Syria? So that the rest of our children can start a new future?”
“Everyone is following their interests. They want a “balance of power” [in Syria] so that everyone will kill each other slowly… We need absolute help.”
But, I countered, help from somewhere else always comes with strings attached. The US would never take action in Syria unless it has something to gain. She nodded in agreement, but said, “I hope Obama will make history with a good intervention.”
Voices like those of Jay Abdo and Fadia Afashe are crucial to our understanding not just of what is at stake in Syria, but the desperation felt by Syrians who began a revolution only to see it crushed under the weight of powerful interests. Unfortunately for Syrians, in all likelihood, history will remain true to its disastrous arc no matter who is in the White House.