University community hopes for peace, progress in Syria

Syria’s leader, Bashar Al-Assad, made remarks Monday about deserving this year’s Nobel Peace Prize instead of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — a group working to destroy his chemical weapons arsenal — even as life in Syria continues to be ravaged by violence and destruction. More than 2 million people currently live in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey, while approximately 4 million are displaced within Syria itself. And, this past week, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation called for a cease-fire between the Syrian regime and the opposition, or Syrian rebels. On Sunday, a rare cease-fire let hundreds of people evacuate a suburb of Damascus, according to reports.

Despite the cease-fire, questions continue to arise about how long-term peace will be restored within the war-torn land.

In mid-September, President Barack Obama decided to allow Congress to vote on whether the U.S. would intervene in the Syrian conflict, but he then opted to put the vote on hold. Instead, the U.N. made a resolution that Syria would turn over its chemical weapons to international chemical weapons inspectors with the OPCW so the U.S. could avoid a military strike.

Many from the University, including students, alumni and faculty with Syrian ties offer different takes on Assad’s rule and the future for the country.

Ryan Hendrickson, visiting political science professor of international relations at the University, said that if the U.S. did intervene in Syria, it would have a short, limited strike in Syria. Whether that would do anything to resolve the issues in Syria, Hendrickson said, “no one really knows.”

“The conditions are just absolutely awful in Syria, so it’s hard to see how it can get much worse,” Hendrickson said. “When a leader of a country is killing children, mothers and (the) elderly, it’s hard to see how it can get much worse.”

Adham Sahloul, junior in LAS, had a similar sentiment and said that the regime “blatantly needs to be punished.” Sahloul was a research intern during the summer of 2012 with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an advocacy group that supports the Syrian opposition.

Sahloul said he questioned what the role or power the international community has “if they’re not going to punish” the Syrian regime. On Friday, the OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in ridding Syria of chemical weapons. But the extent of the impact of this continues to have its critics.

“Why does it matter?” Sahloul asked. “Assad has used chemical weapons already multiple times … he can continue to kill people with conventional weapons.”

Hendrickson pointed out that aside from the issue of chemical weapons, there are three very strong factions in Syria that will play a role in keeping it fragmented with or without the country’s chemical weapons present.

“Even after global intervention, there will be continuing civil war; the government, the rebel groups and al-Qaida elements will still be there,” Hendrickson said.

Sahloul, a Syrian-American student who’s family comes from Homs, Syria  — a place he said today is like “hell on earth” — believes that progress in Syria will be years down the road.

Sahloul recalls how the current conflict started on the coattails of the Arab Spring and gradually escalated to the problems we see today.

Some kids in the town of Daraa, south of the Syrian capital city Damascus, wrote on a wall “Your time is next, Doctor,” addressing Assad, who had previously worked as an army doctor. Soldiers from the Syrian Army’s Fourth Armored Division, which is headed by Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad, then detained these kids, tortured them and dropped them back at their parent’s homes.

This mistreatment led to outrage, and protests erupted throughout Syria. The Syrian regime responded by shooting, detaining and torturing people and using their army to keep people in line.

Because of the government’s tactics, many soldiers defected and joined the opposition. This was two-and-a-half years ago. Today, the conflict, violence and number of casualties have grown. Sahloul said that an intervention should have been done years ago, but a lack of involvement and attention from the global community has allowed Syria to escalate to the tragic situation we have today.

“You have all these young people, with nothing to live for and everything to die for,” Sahloul said. “These are people willing to do whatever it takes to protect themselves and their families.”

Sahloul’s times with SETF allowed him to spend time with activists who frequently visit Syria and who analyze the country’s situation first hand.

Sahloul said that SETF is in Syria at least every two months and because of this, he believes that the longer this issue drags on, the window of peaceful nuance will go away as sectarian hatred grows and atrocities continue.

Sahloul’s father is heavily involved with the country’s issues, and works for the Syria American Medical Society. He visits Syria every two months to set up medical camps and provide aid.

“The medical situation there is dismal,” Sahloul said. “People say you’re better off being dead than injured in Assad’s Syria.”

Deena Darwan, senior in Media, is a Syrian native whose family lived in Damascus.

“In 2006, we moved from America to Syria and we’ve lived there ever since, but now the last person in my family to leave Syria was my dad in December,” she said.

She said she was visiting her family in Syria in March 2011 when the uprisings began.

“I was in Lebanon at school when it all started and would visit my family in Damascus. But once the uprising started, check points increased and soldiers would search our stuff and look through our laptops,” Darwan said. “And soldiers would do whatever they wanted to us when we crossed the checkpoint.”

Darwan said that she could feel the tension in the atmosphere during the early days of the uprisings and said it is drastically different than the atmosphere in the United States.

“We were scared that if one of us said something against the government, another one of us would get kidnapped,” she said. “Honestly right now I can’t even imagine how people are still living there.”

But through the tragic times, rays of good grace are still evident, Darwan said. She explained that people who have left the country are not selling their homes, but are rather letting families from the affected areas sleep in their houses and take shelter there if their homes are in safer areas.

“Their cities are completely demolished, and they have nowhere to go, so people want to help in anyway they can,” Darwan said.

In Sahloul’s opinion, true progress for Syria will not occur until Assad no longer has power.

“We have to move Syria to its next chapter in history. What is going on is bad for the global economy and a terrible example for international law,” he said. “In Syria, no one sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but you will not SEE the light at the end of the tunnel, you have to imagine it. The Syrian people want what I have: the ability to think freely,” Sahloul said.

Yassar Bittar, University alumna, is a community outreach coordinator for the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, which she describes as an official political opposition body. She is a Syrian American whose family comes from Homs as well, a city she said she believes is mostly demolished. Bittar explained that despite the atrocities occurring in Syria, a better future is possible through international negotiations.

Bittar is also a member of The Syrian American Council, an organization that provides humanitarian aid to Syria and information to the United States about what is happening abroad. Through this council, she said she visited liberated areas in Syria twice in the past year, and, while on her trips, witnessed the horrors of Syrian life.

Although they were in liberated territories, these areas were still prone to air strikes and bombardment, Bittar said.

“I witnessed a fighter jet drop a bomb on a building 300 meters away from me. The windows of the building I was in shattered. This killed 18 people, 10 of whom were actually children,” Bittar said.

Bittar also imagines the light at the end of the tunnel for Syria and believes that the humanitarian work she saw while in Syria greatly helps the country’s grim situation.

“I saw grassroots organizations that had come together to run the daily needs of the people and the town, whether it be humanitarian work or security work,” she said.

She said that other groups within the liberated areas were also forming to organize cities and towns and bring people simple resources like electricity.

“Amazing things were going on, there were Syrians, for the first time, able to democratically elect their leaders, and they lived life. It was unreal for me to see,” Bittar said.“Yes, the longer this conflict drags on the more difficult it will be for reconciliation efforts to take place. You will see sectarian tensions rising, you will see the extremists that are unwanted by the Syrian people rising, but the goal is political settlement. We want a transitioning body that will keep the institutions that I saw slowly rise, as well, stay in place.”

Saher can be reached at [email protected]