The Syrian Trauma
For the public at large, as well as most officials tasked with the chore of “managing Syria”, such visions come and go, leaving at best a fleeting malaise – subliminal inserts disturbing, imperceptibly, an otherwise repetitious film. But for those who have experienced more intimately the monstrosity of this conflict, these impressions stick, accumulate and take over. Repressing them becomes a largely unconscious daily struggle, and a losing one at that: they lurk in the shadowy parts of the mind; they thicken and grow heavier with time; and they pounce in a moment of weakness.
Millions of Syrians of all stripes have incurred massive psychological damage, and sport unmistakable telltale symptoms. On the frontlines, fighters have long been anesthetized to the point of becoming indifferent to their own fate and that of their comrades. Yet numbness also permeates society more broadly. Syrians in exile often feel too guilty vis-à-vis the dead and dying to get on with their own lives. Obsessional behaviors – notably following the news in ways that reinforce both one’s opinions and anxieties – are the norm, but often coexist with nagging self-doubt and depression. Many mechanically go on whitewashing a regime or a revolution that long ago betrayed everything they claimed to stand for, simply for fear of facing the void – the collapse of whatever is left to cling to.
As this trauma deepens and protracts, Syrians grow ever more isolated and alienated — from one another and from all those gravitating around them, often meaning to help but generally failing to listen. This failure has to date precluded a coherent policy toward Syria, and — if not addressed sooner, rather than later — will continue to shape the conflict in the months and years ahead.
Layers upon layer of pain
Syria seems nonetheless to bring in something different, hard to pin down — an elusive truth that is precisely what we should not fail to understand. Indeed there are many layers to the Syrian trauma. First, Syrian culture, in normal times, is remarkably civil. The Syrian dialect of Arabic is ravishingly polite. Education is a source of national pride. Unlike many other parts of the Arab world, urbane mores permeated the countryside more than a rural ethos reshaped the city. Communal coexistence, edgy on occasions, was nevertheless a profession of faith.
Violence was there, no doubt, but only occasionally burst forth from beneath the surface: honor killings in the countryside, sporadic clashes between Kurds and Arabs, and failed uprisings led by the Druze or elements of the Muslim Brotherhood were among the rare exceptions. The most pervasive species of violence — the detentions, torture and executions perfected by the regime’s security apparatus — was all the more sinister for its absolute secrecy. Then, after 2011, violence became all-encompassing: swelling, escalating, engulfing and ravaging everything Syrians once believed in. All the horrible exceptions of the past were now the norm, shaking to its core the Syrian sense of self.
Second, Syrians are devastated by their own delusions. The sublime revolutionary illusion, which still drives many of them five years on, has degenerated beyond redemption. Meanwhile, on the other side, most presumed “loyalists” discern, deep down, that the regime has committed the irreparable and unforgivable, hurtling down a path from which there is no return. They know, although they can’t admit it, that what is left of a state is a fallacy and a fraud. And still, all continue to make immense sacrifices in the name of a cause however corrupted. There is, seemingly, no way back for anyone.
Organs were eaten, head chopped off, children gassed
In truth, Syrians are remarkably pragmatic and realistic already. They have been extraordinarily resilient and entrepreneurial in every aspect of this tragedy: in challenging the regime; putting down the uprising; adjusting to the economy of want and violence; crafting horrendous improvised weapons; innovating in the field of desperate emigration; and meticulously documenting all the above, arguably more extensively than in any conflict in history. Not to mention formidable communication strategies designed to grab the outside world’s imagination – from the English-language witticisms emanating from the rebellious village of Kafranbel to the regime’s proven magnetism with visiting journalists, officials and experts.
But their resourcefulness has been stretched to its limits, and denying their pain won’t help them go beyond. On the contrary, meeting Syrians’ anguish with indifference makes them still more obsessed with it. In response, they circulate more icons of horror, hoping someone will act, or at least understand. Such images may bounce off our comfort zones, but they endlessly reverberate within the boundaries of Syrians’ worlds, jumping at them from one or the other of the many screens that populate their lives. As such, in trying to be heard, Syrians confine themselves to a self-reinforcing cycle of trauma.
Meanwhile, statements and commentaries on the conflict all too often illustrate the dearth of sensible, poised thinking taking into account the anguished subjectivities of the victims. They run the gamut from detached pontificating, as if this war was merely an intellectual object of interest, to simplistic punditry, deliberately disregarding (if not provoking) the sensitivities of large constituencies that are needed to move toward a solution, through to high-pitched cries projecting all sorts of fears and fantasies irrelevant to the Syrian plight.
Reasonable officials who claim to be working to solve the conflict (and oftentimes truly believe it) generally assume that they are the only ones who make sense, and yet virtually all the “realpolitik” ideas bandied around are premised on some wild assumption. Just defeat the Islamic State and bring the opposition to heel, and a regime that has gone to every extremity not to reform, will somehow do so. Multiply local ceasefires – generally based on starving and bombing areas into capitulation – and true reconciliation will come. Or keep the regime’s structures, remove Bashar Assad, and things will fall into place. As if the tyrant hadn’t long proofed himself against any imaginable alternative—which is precisely why things escalated and degenerated to this point in the first place.
Virtually all realpolitik ideas are premised on some wild assumption
Everywhere, it appears genuine victims are too shrill to be heard
Listening to the suffering, saving ourselves
Syrians don’t need more people lecturing them on what their future should be. There are plenty of them, none with any claim to knowing what is best until they do some demonstrable good on the ground. A mere ceasefire may be a start in principle. But it also has been, repeatedly, an alibi, for the US and the UN to pretend to have achieved something, and for others—such as Russia and the regime—to regroup and push their advantage militarily. Whenever gaining time is the only outcome, Syrians lose collectively.
Our moral stupor is not inconsequential, although many people would be tempted to say so, on the basis of some cynical view about archaic struggles between sects and tribes, the intrinsic ugliness of war, a lack of “national interests” in Syria, or foreign policy understood as the natural realm of unprincipled goals. A parallel with a molested child bluntly illustrates the callous logic that seems to apply to Syria: should a victim, raped by its relatives, stay silent? Is it more convenient than shame? Is it more cost-effective than years of an arduous process toward uncertain recovery? Why even take the trouble? How can such questions have obvious answers when applied to one person, yet meet only confusion when they concern millions?
There are serious, practical consequences to our bewilderment, some of which affect us directly. Indeed the Syrian conflict, as currently managed, is fast eroding the international system of governance constructed since the Second World War, largely in America’s image. That US hegemony would today be beaten back is an inevitable and—for many—welcome development, as the set of values underpinning international affairs was always contrived and prone to double standards. But the wholesale undoing of what structured the interplay of nations is a frightening prospect nonetheless.
Syria is essentially putting paid to human rights. Such principles as protection or asylum are becoming a bad joke, along with any notion of international justice. Sacrosanct norms like the prohibition of chemical weapons are being spectacularly reversed. It is mystifying that people who like to see the Syrian regime as a “lesser evil”, preferable to chaos, evidently favor anarchy over the existing system of international governance, with all its warts.
The wholesale undoing of what structured the interplay of nations is a frightening prospect
As these old organizing pillars are being demolished, the only conceptual and operational framework to truly shape foreign policy is counterterrorism in its various forms. But “terrorism” is a conveniently protean concept: unlike chemical weapons, it has no clear-cut definition, and can be reshaped and reframed to fit anyone’s needs. Terrorism, all told, serves only to legitimate another variety of typically unrestrained violence. In other words, it furthers the dismantling of any agreed-upon norms. It is ironic that Obama — still seen by his supporters as epitomizing the best of Western liberal values—would in fact have presided over their destruction as the organizing factor, for better or worse, of world affairs.
It is not just the US hurting itself. Allowing a crisis of this nature to fester on the doorstep of Europe has predictably played a decisive role in tearing the continent apart. Even Washington’s enemies should think twice before rejoicing. The kind of meltdown Syria has witnessed sets a precedent for equally nightmarish scenarios elsewhere—Russia and China’s decaying backyard in Central Asia springs to mind.
It is counterintuitive that such a diminutive country, with few natural resources, a small population, and military-assets and institutions worthy of a banana republic, would become the crux of our global order. This bizarre contrast is no excuse for having no semblance of a policy – aside from punting and prevaricating – five years in. Wishing for this anomaly to go away guarantees it will haunt us for many years to come.
Syrians from all camps will have to be listened to, if we are to build any realism into our purported solutions. Any way forward that would avoid cyclical violence and instability will flow from the victims. Crimes will ultimately be avenged, forgotten or redeemed on their terms, not on the whims of officials sitting in Washington, Moscow or Tehran. Certainly, there is much we cannot do to advance the cause of peace, to prevent horrors on the ground, to distribute food and medicine to those who need them, and to host Syrians in our societies. We surely could (and should) do much more, but certain limitations are real. There is, however, not the smallest obstacle to improving our listening, empathy and understanding.
This is more important to Syrians than we tend to assume, and so much more useful than crowding them out with our empty words. And if we can’t muster the humanity to do it for them, perhaps we can do so to save ourselves from the self-destructive consequences of our own moral foundering.
28 September 2016
Peter Harling is the founder and director of Synaps