Syrians wanted to be known for their contributions to civilization, as they were in ancient times. Syria is part of the Fertile Crescent where agriculture began, where the first cities were built, where the first states developed. The first alphabet, Ugaritic, originated in Syria. The country produced Roman emperors and, under the Umayyad dynasty, became the first center of a new "Islamic world." When Syrians achieved their independence from France in the mid-20th century, they hoped their modern accomplishments would echo the old. As a diverse, cultured, hardworking people who valued education, and who tended to excel in business when abroad, they had good reason to hope this would be the case.
But like so many post-colonial states lacking strong institutions, modern Syria soon fell into a cycle of military coups and counter-coups, ending with the Baathist dictatorship that has tortured and plundered the country and its people since 1963—and under the Assad family since 1970, first Hafez al-Assad and, starting in 2000, his son Bashar. In 2011, Syrians rose up in revolution against the Assad regime, and would have liked then to be recognized for their revolution's successes. For years, they resisted the regime's most extreme oppression and, even under the bombs, managed to build hundreds of democratic local councils. They also managed to avoid falling into sectarian civil war, despite the provocations. Sunni and Alawi villages didn't attack each other. The sectarian massacres had to be organized from on high, first by Assad, then by ISIS, the regime's dark protégé.
But the Assad regime was rescued by Russian and Iranian imperialists, and by the West's appeasement of these imperialists. The democratic Syrian revolution was defeated by force of arms. Worse, it was "orphaned," to use Ziad Majed's term. Beyond Syria, it was ignored or misrepresented, particularly in the West, by the Kremlin's leftist and rightist useful idiots and a wider public prepared to believe the worst of a mainly Arab and mainly Muslim people.
So now Syrians have become known internationally not for their history, nor their revolution, but for the extremity of their suffering. Their pains under dictatorship were bad enough—culminating initially in the 1982 Hama massacre when at least 20,000 were murdered under Hafez al-Assad, but then multiplied after 2011 when the full force of local, regional and international counterrevolution was deployed against them.
Syrians are dying not only because of a natural disaster but also because of the unnatural indifference of an ill-named "international community."
- Robin Yassin-Kassab
From the start, pro-regime thugs smashed limbs and crushed skulls. Their mantra was: "Assad, or we burn the country." Tens of thousands of unarmed young protesters were rounded up and then slowly tortured to death in the regime's gulag. When this didn't suppress people's urge for freedom, the regime launched military assaults on civilian neighborhoods, and organized a campaign of mass rape against communities deemed disloyal. Throughout the summer of 2012, the regime organized a series of sectarian massacres, in Houla, al-Qubeir, Tremseh and elsewhere, in which the throats of Sunni women and children were slit. This accompanied a steady military escalation, as the regime gradually worked out that the so-called international community would let it get away with any type of murder, from mortars and barrel bombs to grad and scud missiles. Then chlorine gas, then sarin gas, up to and beyond the atrocity of August 2013 when 1,500 people were choked and convulsed to death in just a few hours in the Damascus suburbs. Next came the starvation sieges, often perpetrated by Iran-backed militias. By now, the regime and its allies had understood that they couldn't make the people kneel, so they decided to remove them instead. The scorched-earth strategy meant the bombing of bakeries, schools and hospitals, the burning of crops and the shooting of livestock. Millions were driven from their homes.
"It can't get any worse," Syrians used to say. And then it got worse, again and again, until the phrase became a sad joke. ISIS imposed its reign of terror over a third of the country. The international war against ISIS, led by the United States, destroyed the jihadist state as well as the cities it had occupied, but left Assad—the root cause of ISIS in Syria—alone. Russia's direct military intervention added cluster bombs, thermite and "bunker busters" to the list of weaponry used against Syrian civilians. Russian aerial bombardment and Iranian-backed infantry recaptured liberated cities for Assad, most notably Aleppo, or what was left of it.
Syria was divided into sections, each occupied by a different foreign power. The country became a battlefield for regional wars, between Turkey and the PKK, between Israel and Iran. By now, more than half of the population was forcibly displaced. Within Syria, they lived in tented camps that flooded and froze in the winter. Abroad, they drowned on boats crossing the Mediterranean, or suffocated in the backs of trucks entering Europe, and became the target of racist demagogues from Turkey to the United States.
The situation kept on getting worse. Even as the Assad regime earned billions from the illegal production and export of the amphetamine Captagon and other narcotics, the economy in regime-held areas collapsed so dramatically that hospitals and schools were closed for lack of electricity. Over 90 percent of Syrians now live below the poverty line, ravaged by diseases such as Covid-19 and cholera.
Could it get any worse? Yes, it could. This winter, a blizzard hit the north, where millions of Syrians had been displaced. The people in tents froze in the snow and mud. And then came the earthquake, which made those in tents seem like the lucky ones.
In Turkey, the destruction is much greater than it might have been as a result of corruption—for years construction companies have bribed their way out of obeying the building regulations necessary in an earthquake zone. In northern Syria, building regulations were an irrelevant luxury in the first place, when the priority was to house the huge numbers of displaced as quickly as possible. Years of Assad and Russian bombing—which continued even in the hours after Monday's colossal earthquake—had in any case weakened the foundations of thousands of buildings.
The earth shook at four in the morning when people were asleep in bed. Entire towns have been erased, entire families wiped out. As I write, thousands of Syrians are dying of their wounds, and of hypothermia, crushed in the rubble. They are dying not only because of a natural disaster but also because of the unnatural indifference of an ill-named "international community" that has appeased Assad, Russia and Iran for far too long. The whole world suffers from this appeasement. Had Russia and Iran not been appeased in Syria, they wouldn't have been in a position to rain death on Ukrainians today. But none suffer so much as Syrians.
Assad and Russia close crossings through which aid might be delivered to the liberated areas. For years, the regime has diverted international aid to its loyalists, and even to its military. Foreign states, even those that now send military aid to Ukraine, continue to bow to Russian dictates in Syria. So while Turkey is today welcoming rescue teams from dozens of countries, the liberated areas of Syria are not. Syrians, as usual, are on their own. Which means that almost all of those in the rubble will die.
Is this, at last, the lowest point? Can we now at last say that the situation can't get any worse? No Syrian would dare say so.
- Robin Yassin-Kassab
Is this, at last, the lowest point? Can we now at last say that the situation can't get any worse? No Syrian would dare say so. Still, we must try to find whatever hope we can.
I am reminded of the chapter of the Quran called "The Earthquake," part of which reads (in Tarif Khalidi's translation):
That Day, mankind will come out in scattered throngs,
To be shown their rights and wrongs.
Whoso has done an atom's worth of good shall see it;
Whoso has done an atom's worth of evil shall see it.
There is a sense that this string of catastrophes is a test of some sort. Religious people will readily believe that earthly torments are a test of faith, with reward or punishment stored up in the life to come. I'm not a religious person, but I do think the revolution and war have tested Syrians and non-Syrians alike. Some have been prompted by the events to ever higher standards of morality, while others have given way to their most sadistic impulses. Some have tended to cooperation with their neighbors, while others have worshipped authoritarian leaders and ideologies. Syrians like Razan Zeitouneh, Omar Aziz and Raed Fares (all of them murdered since 2011) provide the world with models, if the world wants to look. And there are very many Syrian survivors spread around the globe for whom freedom, dignity and social justice have become as necessary as bread and water. Other groups that have suffered disproportionately, such as African Americans or European Jews, have had a disproportionate creative cultural impact on the world. Free Syrians will too. In this respect, their suffering is their strength.
But none of that justifies their suffering, or excuses the crimes committed against them. No rationalization justifies the horror experienced by a single torture victim or a single child crushed in the ruins of his makeshift home. God help the suffering Syrian people.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Syria's "orphaned" revolution as a term from Yassin al-Haj Saleh, rather than Ziad Majed.