UNHEARD VOICES FROM SYRIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
by Harout Akdedian
Peace and Conflict Monitor
Dec 14 2011
University for Peace PhD Candidate Harout Akdedian presents
grassroots perspectives on the Syrian crisis and an analysis of
today’s socio-political reality in the Middle East.
This article is based on interviews conducted in Syria throughout
the months of July and August with members of Syrian minority groups:
Christians, Kurds and Armenians. Away from mainstream opinion, these
unheard voices channel a reality that hasn’t received much attention
internationally, and contribute to a more accurate narration of the
current situation in the Middle East. The first part of the article
focuses on Syria. The latter parts are a general political assessment
of the Middle East today.
Gaddafi is dead. “Maybe a trial would’ve been better. But here’s to
a better Libya.” That’s what a very close friend from Europe posted
on Facebook. I couldn’t share his optimism. A few days later, as
Gaddafi’s sodomization video was released, Libya’s future was still
looking just as blurry. After all, the brutality in the images shows
more continuity than change.
East across the Mediterranean, the same prospects loomed before the
frustrated and hopeless Syrians I interviewed regarding the fate of
their own country. “We would like to do without the current regime
[in Syria], but what’s going to replace it?” This rhetorical question
could easily summarize the feedback I received during the 45 days I
spent in Syria between July and August of 2011.
The mainstream representation of the Syrian crisis has been either
that of demonizing the state or, based on the pro-Syrian media reports
in Lebanon and Syria, demonizing the protestors. Aside from ousting
the regime, the prescriptive suggestions were almost absent from both
the media coverage and the official declarations of state actors.
Turkey was quick on blaming and shaming; the US and its NATO
friends in Europe have been vigorously pushing for sanctions and
intervention; Iran, China and Russia are radically against the NATO
camp; and most significantly, the Syrian opposition is still having
a hard time consolidating the internal diverging views on Syria’s
future. Yet, every time I talked about Syria to my friends – most
of them remote from the grassroots reality – they, too, vigorously
tried to demonstrate their perfect grasp of right and wrong; good and
bad; justice and evil in the given context. The general approach –
mainstream media reports and public opinion – is simplified into
concepts of good and bad. It’s almost intuitive to assume that the
reality is more complex than that. The opinions of the Syrian people
I interviewed deconstructed those oversimplifications.
The population selected for my interviews were random people from the
minority groups in Syria, mainly Christians, Armenians, and Kurds,
who comprise more than 10% of the 21 million Syrians. Apart from a
brief letter published in the Peace and Conflict Monitor, I haven’t
written more on the topic. The interviews were left as dry ink on
papers piled high, one on top of the other. For a couple of months,
I could see from a distance on my desk the random notes in Armenian,
Arabic and English. The disorganized and chaotic notes on those papers
very much resembled the Syrian situation or that of the Middle East
There was just too much to be said, and it was a bundle of
inter-tangled information, reactions, and statements. In a modest
attempt to reflect the situation in Syria and the Middle East, the
following paragraphs echo the unheard and marginalized voices in Syria.
The unheard voices
>From the very first moment I arrived at the border, the experience
promised to be different than my previous trips to Syria. My old
Lebanese ID in hand, depicting a photo image of a 13-year old me,
I approached customs. The long beard and the 20-something-year-old
person standing before the officer did not perfectly resemble the
picture on the ID. I was asked to step aside and open my luggage.
After all, who and why would someone dare to enter Syria during these
times? The inspector extended his arm to reach inside my bag. He felt
something solid and asked me what it was; I told him it was a bottle
of scotch. I was ordered to empty my entire suitcase. This was not
the first time I was going to Syria with bottles of booze with me. It
had never been an issue before; it wasn’t an issue this time either.
After going through my stuff, everything was fine until he saw the
five books that I had brought with me. He asked me what they were,
and without even waiting for an answer, started inspecting them one
by one. The first book was in English and had a black hard cover with
nothing written on it. Without understanding a word, he put it aside.
It was the same with the second book–English, and a black hard
cover with no words on it. As he skimmed the cover of the third
book, I could see his eyes widen. The picture of Kofi Annan, the UN
symbol representing the notion that it’s the only hope for peace,
and the picture of George W. Bush were just too much for him to
handle. He took my stuff and went away. He came back asking me to
escort him to one of the customs offices. At this point, I couldn’t
help but remember how prisoners in Syria would never see daylight
once they got locked in. I had nothing to be afraid of. But I could
feel my heartbeat getting faster and my breath becoming heavier. I was
interviewed for about ten minutes by someone who was surprisingly very
civil with me. After taking down all possible information about me,
they allowed me to cross the border.
Considering the Syrian context, it was a symbolic moment for me to
realize that a bottle of scotch has never been a problem, but that
books could create so much difficulty: the impact of scotch on the
people is desired by the state, but the impact of books is problematic
and even threatening.
On my way to Aleppo, tanks and soldiers were stationed left and right
every few hundred meters on the road near Hama and Homs. In Aleppo,
the second largest province of Syria after Damascus, however, people
were living the same way as always. But that’s only on the surface.
A young Armenian, aged 21, was telling me about how, regardless of the
outcome, it is clear for him that he cannot build a future in Syria:
“I live in Aleppo, things are very stable here. But still, you never
know what the future brings. I feel like I’m sitting on a barrel of
gunpowder.” This same man travelled with me on the bus returning to
Lebanon, hoping for a chance in one of the country’s graduate schools.
Another interviewee, a Kurdish father of three, was complaining about
the economic ramifications of the events in Syria: “We didn’t choose
this; we didn’t do anything. Why can’t all of them just let us live
so that we can feed our family?” Obviously, the economy was a bit
stagnated. I had the impression that those people were blaming the
uprisings for the reality they dislike. When I asked them why they
were defending the system, they refused my terminology. “We’re against
the system, but we’re against chaos as well.” It seemed that through
the eyes of those people, the options in Syria are either to stick
with the current system or take a chance with chaos.
The most interesting opinion, though, came from an Arab Christian
woman from the region of Jala’: “Overall, I’m really happy with
this whole thing. We used to wait in line forever if we wanted to
have a government official sign a document for us. Today, they are
different; finally, we feel like the government is realizing that
the state should be in service of its people and not the other way
around.” When I asked her whether she wanted to see the situation go
on this way, she affirmed that prolonging the crisis will take the
country into the abyss of civil war. She decided to end the interview
with a rhetorical question addressed to me: “Do you think the ones
who will replace him will make this a better place for us?” She
walked away with a grin on her face. This was an opinion that was,
for the most part, reiterated by the majority of interviewees.
I was having a hard time getting people talking. For some, I was
suspected to be working for the government. For others, I was a spy or
an undercover opposition member. Many of them told me that I should be
careful; sooner or later, I was going to attract undesired attention.
Despite all of this, I did try to go beyond the socio-economic issues
that people were mainly concerned about. There were many others who
weren’t afraid to voice their strong political opinions. One of the
supporters of the regime, who came from an Armenian background, was
describing how a bunch of civilians suppressed a July 1st opposition
demonstration. The attempted uprising against the system was dubbed
‘Volcano Aleppo’: “We kicked the hell out of them. This is the future
of my kids that we are talking about; I will not allow them to bring
chaos to my town.”
The term chaos has been reiterated very often in my interviews. Even
the national TV stations were warning people against a return to
‘chaos’. For the government, chaos means the change of the regime;
a prospect that the political leadership does not necessarily enjoy
contemplating. Nonetheless, the interviewees had a different definition
of the term. For most, chaos signifies the change of the prevailing
order in such a manner whereby security and protection would be
absent. On a micro-level, the people in Syria have different factual
understandings of this concept. For some, chaos will come about by the
change of the system. For others, if the system remains, chaos (the
absence of security and protection) will perpetuate. For instance,
an opponent of the regime was telling me that it is too late now:
“things can never go back to the way they were. It’s either us
or the regime. Either we leave and they stay, or we stay and they
leave.” With the contrast between the stability in Aleppo and the
bloody situation in Hama, those contradicting public perceptions on
chaos made perfect sense.
Baffled and confused, I constantly checked what the media had to say
about the situation. Despite accusations to the contrary, I was still
considering Al Jazeera to be one of my credible sources on Syria;
that is, until one day, when I joined the infamous funeral of Sheikh
Ibrahim Alsalkini on the 6th of September, 2011. Despite scattered
anti-regime chants, I was impressed by the peaceful atmosphere of the
gathering. However, as soon as I checked Al Jazeera’s reporting, it
stated that a number of participants were injured and some were dead.
Obviously, the report had exaggerated, or even fabricated the truth.
These exaggerations are characteristic of media coverage on the events
in Syria in general. Based on mutual mistrust, the government was
not allowing any media coverage of anti-government protests from Syria.
Hence, most of the reporters and journalists were covering the events
in Syria from Lebanon, removed from the reality on the ground.
Credibility was hard to establish.
Regardless of whether Al Jazeera’s coverage was based on reports
from Lebanon or adapted from social media, everything Al Jazeera
presented as news immensely affected people’s perceptions. Al Jazeera’s
questionable credibility in covering events in Syria is especially
worrisome given the popular perception worldwide that it is a credible,
unbiased news source on events in the Middle East, when the reality
in the Syrian case has now proven otherwise. In this respect, the gap
between reality and representation of reality has provoked reactions
from the Syrian street itself. While I was in Syria, most of the large
trash cans in the streets had the Al Jazeera logo drawn on them with
the word “Headquarters” written beneath it. The substance of the Al
Jazeera coverage and the content of the trash cans were perceived as
one and the same. The least that could be said is that the coverage
was misleadingly selective and exaggerated.
The rise of the people and the fall of the movement
On a wider scope, there are many common features between the general
situation in Syria and that of the Middle East. One of those features
is the rise and successive fall of popular movements. It seems that
the ‘Arab Spring’, which was a battle between rulers and the ruled, is
no longer; the people’s cause has been once again hijacked by states.
In Syria, for instance, the fate of the country is being decided
mainly by heads of state -sanctions by the EU, Iranian support,
Turkey’s role, US efforts in the UN Security Council, Russia and
China’s promises of veto, Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s involvement and
the Arab League’s ultimatums. It is within this context that moderate
voices in Syria have reiterated in despair: “I don’t care anymore;
whoever is going to rule this place let them be. I just want this
fiasco to end.” As states have become more involved, people in the
Middle East have ended up being detached from those movements.
Bahrain is another example illustrating the rise and successive fall
of popular movements. While still existing outside the media limelight,
the people’s cause in Bahrain has been hijacked by states.
Saudi and UAE armed forces and police, amounting to approximately 1000
personnel, entered Bahrain on the 14th of March and crushed thousands
of protestors demonstrating for democracy (BBC, 2011). One wonders
if the people still have any role in the ‘popular movements’ at all.
Furthermore, by disregarding the crisis in Yemen and Bahrain,
the international community’s approach is not a case where it is
being passive. On the contrary, based on selective reference to the
Responsibility to Protect, this is the same old active policy of
double standards to intervene or disregard based on interests.
Therefore, between the early stages of the Arab uprising (Tunisia
and Egypt), and the latest developments characterized by Kaddafi’s
execution and the current situation in Syria, a discontinuity exists.
What began as a popular movement transmuted into a race between
states. The fact of the matter is that along with disposing dictators,
the protestors were altering the political reality; not only becoming
a part of the game but also changing its very rules. After all, since
foreign policy was only envisioned to be designed in the offices
of politicians, stakeholder states had to come up with reactionary
policies to contain the situation and make sure that their own
interests, influence and the basics of the status quo were maintained.
One can easily imagine how those policies were being configured: ‘If
they don’t like Mubarak, if they insist on him leaving, fine. We’ll do
without him. And we’ll have a bunch of militants used to taking orders
fill the vacuum. Mubarak is gone, our interests are still preserved,
everybody is happy, people can go back home.’ As the demands of the
Egyptian people surpassed the mere ousting of Mubarak, the protestors
refused to settle for the status quo. The recent protests in Egypt
and the demands of handing over power to a democratically elected
civilian government are the manifestation of the Egyptian people’s
attempts to reenter the political scene.
The explanation of the rise of the people in the Middle East and the
understanding of its impacts on the future will be the effort of many
academic writers and political commentators for a long time.
Nonetheless, for the time being, based on the attraction and the
appeal that the populist discourse enjoys among the masses, it is clear
that expansionist states have incorporated this discourse into their
foreign policies. In other words, the same old political race in the
Middle East has now received a new outfit tailored in a fashion that
suits the populist narrative. The reactive approach of containment
was substituted by a proactive one. The race over the Middle East
between the US (along with its allies in Europe) and Iran (and its
axis of influence in the Middle East: Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon
and Hamas in Palestine) remains the same. US influence in Syria and
Iranian influence in Bahrain and Yemen are still the same as always,
but now in a populist format.
The Middle East and its prospects
Henry Kissinger once said: ‘You can’t make war in the Middle East
without Egypt, and you can’t make peace without Syria.’ If the equation
stands, and since peace is not where regional politics in the Middle
East is heading, the situation in Syria will keep lingering on the
same note, and Egypt will once again become a decisive player.
After Mubarak was ousted, the situation on the borders between Israel
and Egypt has witnessed its share of turbulence. In early August,
seven people were killed by gunmen in southern Israel, near Eilat.
“The attacks hit a bus carrying off-duty [Israeli] soldiers back from
their bases, a passenger car and a military patrol” (The Guardian,
2011). Haaretz also reported that “mortars were fired from the Egyptian
side of the border” (The Guardian, 2011). Shortly thereafter, five
Egyptian officers were reportedly shot by Israeli forces chasing
Palestinian militants after the Eilat attack. The event triggered a
huge wave of protests against the Israeli embassy in Egypt and the
withdrawal of the Egyptian ambassador from Israel (Haaretz, 2011).
Earlier, on the other side of the Israeli border, “Wave after wave
of protesters, mainly Palestinians from refugee camps in Syria,
approached the frontier with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
Israeli soldiers opened fire on those who crossed a new trench and
tried to attack the border fence near the towns of Majdal Shams in the
Golan Heights and Quneitra in Syria[…] It was the worst bloodshed in
the Golan Heights since Israel and Syria fought a war there in 1973”
(Kershner, 2011). Obviously, things are heating up in the Middle East.
Anti-Israel fervor among the Arab popular base is marking its return
to the political scene. For some, this is good news. In fact, after the
2006 war between Israel and Lebanon, Hezbollah proved to be a match for
Israeli forces and is still reinforcing its position (Mitchell, 2011).
Neither the race for military power nor hostile policies have changed.
It seems that power still never questions power. After the attack on
the Israeli-Egyptian border, Netanyahu announced his willingness
“to build a wall around the city extending from Taba, on the
Egyptian border” (Youm7, 2011). Furthermore, after UNESCO’s bid,
the Israeli position was loud and clear. “Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu defended his decision to expand construction in
east Jerusalem, saying it was Israel’s “right” and “duty” to build
in all parts of its capital” (The Associated Press, 2011b). After
US and Israeli efforts of blocking the Palestinian statehood bid,
Ban Ki Moon was not neutral either. He said that a Palestinian effort
to join United Nations agencies is “not beneficial for Palestine and
not beneficial for anybody” (The Associated Press, 2011a).
Unfortunately, even regional powers such as Turkey, who previously
remained remote from the race in the Middle East, have now proven to
be very much involved. Turkey’s foreign policy of ‘Zero Problems’
with neighbors proved to be more of a proactive strategy than
a passive one. While strengthening its economic position, Turkey
created a situation where it has zero problems with its neighbors,
even if its neighbors have problems with Turkey’s interferences. Given
such economic influence in the region, Turkey enjoys the privilege of
being able to be hostile, even to Syria or Israel, without worrying
much about damaging its own interests. Furthermore, given the choice
between the current leadership in Syria and the one with which Turkey
expects to replace it, the Turkish leadership has chosen to not have
problems with the future Syrian leadership rather than engage with this
one. However, given the possibility of heightened regional turmoil,
not even Turkey will remain remote from regional instability in the
Middle East (The Associated Press, 2011 c).
The spiraling escalation in the region proves that something or someone
has got to give. Taking into account the rigidity of the situation,
no leadership will raise a white flag. If Iran is going down, it’s
not going down on its own; and if Israel is going down, it’s not
going down on its own either. The entangled interests and the shaky
regional balance of power promise to drag the entire region along.
People here, just like in any other place facing turmoil, are once
again at a crossroads between the bad and the worst. The majority of
the population is passive, and a tiny minority is engaging in fights
and battles that will shape the future for everyone in the country.
[…] I can’t see valiant freedom fighters; I see more people executing
their orders and serving the functions that their circumstances have
subscribed upon them.
I wrote these words as my original impression after conducting
all the interviews. The misconception and misrepresentation of
Syria lies in building up expectations of a solution that would
protect humanity from conflicts and suffering. Those expectations
represent wishful thinking rather than any rational perception of
socio-political reality. Similarly, I didn’t find people reiterating
Benjamin Franklin’s words, “those who desire to give up freedom in
order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
Ordinary people have not been living their lives with such pompous
and naïvely simplified notions.
After crossing the Syrian border and heading back to Lebanon,
it seemed that I was leaving these experiences behind. As I was
wrapping my head around this thought, the bus approached a Lebanese
army checkpoint. After ordering the driver to pull over, of all
the 30 passengers on board they asked me to step down and show my
identification cards. “It’s just because of your beard. They thought
you were either Syrian or a Muslim fundamentalist”, a woman in her
sixties was trying to calm my worry. Although unfortunately she was
right -it was because of the beard–, whatever the future of the Middle
East may be, it worries me now more than ever. The options that the
people in Syria and the Middle East are dealing with do not extend
on a spectrum between good and bad as much as between bad and worse.
Between moral comfort for those who truly believe in interventions
and opportunists’ hypocrisy, people are left to suffer.
Works Cited Akdedian, H. (2011, August 4). News from Syria. Retrieved
October 31, 2011, from The Peace and Conflict Monitor:
(2011, March 14). Gulf states send forces to Bahrain following
protests. Retrieved November 29, 2011, from BBC – News on Middle East
(2011, August 20). Egypt withdraws ambassador to Israel over
policemen deaths. Retrieved November 4, 2011, from Haaretz web site:
Kershner, I. (2011, June 5). Israeli Soldiers Shoot
at Protesters on Syrian Bo. Retrieved Novemeber
4, 2011, from The New York Times Web site:
Mitchell, C. (2011, Aptil 5). Amid New Threats, Israel Preps for
Multi-Front War. Retrieved November 4, 2011, from CBN News Website:
Rose, C. (2011, September 22). Interview with Ron Prosor & Mort
Zuckerman. Retrieved November 4, 2011, from Charlie Rose web site:
The Associated Press. a (2011, November 3). Ban
Ki-moon: Palestinian membership of UN agencies is ‘not
beneficial’. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from The Guardian Web site:
The Associated Press. b (2011, November 2). Israeli
PM Defends East Jerusalem Construction. Retrieved
November 4, 2011, from The New York Times Web site:
The Associated Press. c (2011, November
27). Iran threatens to hit Turkey if US, Israel
attack. Retrieved November 28, 2011, from Today’s Zaman:
The Guardian. (2011, August 18). Israelis killed in attacks near
Egypt border. Retrieved November 4, 2011, from The Guardian web site:
(2011, November 3). Israel to construct new
wall. Retrieved November 4, 2011, from Egypt.com:
Younes, A. (2011, August 1). Obama should exercise courage
against Assad. The US is fast losing credibility among
Arabs. Retrieved October 31, 2011, from Al Arabiya Web site:
Harout Akdedian has an MA in International Law and a BA in Political
Science. He is currently a doctoral student in International Law at
the University for Peace.
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress