Karen Orton profiles the activists fighting to end the slaughter in Iraq and Syria
This week marks two deadly anniversaries. It’s been ten years since the beginning of the Iraq war, justified at the time by Saddam’s supposed stash of weapons of mass destruction; and two years since the incidents which sparked the ongoing Syrian civil war, when government forces arrested and tortured young students for putting up anti-government graffiti and met protesters with live gunfire. Death tolls stand at upwards from 110,000 and 70,000 in Iraq and Syria respectively.
While there are similarities – Middle Eastern wars to topple regimes headed by Ba'athist dictators whose secular, pseudo-socialist ideology has terrorized their civilians – the global responses have varied. In the case of Iraq, the foreign intervention had heavy opposition – an estimated 10 million of the world’s citizens came out for the largest ever global protest on February 15th, 2003. It might not have prevented the US and UK from invading Iraq, but according to speakers at the recent conference in London hosted by Stop the War Coalition, it did birth a global peace movement. The peace group led the UK’s anti-Iraq war initiatives, and has continued to oppose Western interventions in conflicts from Afghanistan to Libya. “That day began with demonstrations on the other side of the globe which followed the sun as it rose around the world,” said British anti-war activist John Rees, who remembered it as, “the greatest demonstration in global political history.” American peace campaigner Phyllis Bennis adds that it was, “ the first truly global protest, and the largest rising up of humanity, ever,”
In the case of Syria, the response has been markedly different. Although there’s been a noticeable decrease in activist participation in the wider global peace movement, Syrian activists have been speaking out against the repression, risking prison sentences, torture and death. The lucky ones, like young Syrian activist and blogger Razan Ghazzawi get smuggled out: she now lives in Sweden. Ghazzawi was arrested twice in Syria, charged with “sectarian strife, spreading false information and weakening national sentiment” after she spoke out about the Syrian regime’s human rights abuses on her blog and through Twitter. She writes in English and has an international following (she’s just finished a North American speaking tour), she also uses her real name, a rarity in a climate of fear and reprisal. “It started with people going to the streets despite live ammunition and they would still go on the next day, despite knowing they are going to be hit at, shot at, and they might die,” she said during a recent interview with the CBC, remembering back to the early days of the revolution. “They used to say good-bye to their parents before leaving their homes to the streets…” When Ghazzawi was arrested for the second time, she was working at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. Some of her colleagues were also arrested in the raid, several are still in prison, one later died under torture. When asked if she thought she would see the end of the revolution Ghazzawi replied, “I don’t think so, no. We in Syria don’t think we’re going to live very long lives. I’ve lost two friends, my uncle was killed two months ago, I have another uncle and his wife who have been missing for five months. We’re just thinking we’re going to live through 2013, I don’t know…” she pauses to consider, “Every day you have a story of death,” she adds, “so it’s just normal to think this way.”
It started with people going to the streets despite live ammunition and they would still go on the next day, despite knowing they are going to be hit at, shot at, and they might die
It’s not just local activists and citizen journalists who fear for their lives. Today, Syria is the most dangerous country to be a foreign reporter on earth. Photojournalist Paul Conroy has seen the violence enacted by Assad’s military first hand, he was wounded in Homs last year in an attack which killed his fellow Sunday Time colleague, journalist Marie Colvin, along with French photojournalist Remi Ochlik. Hours after Conroy and Colvin did live reports on the violence they were witnessing for CNN and the BBC, they were targeted by the government. “A Russian-made Katyusha rocket hit the doorway of our building, causing complete devastation… Homs is still being attacked with the same weapons.” Conroy told me in a recent interview. “That supply should have been exhausted long ago. And the only people with those weapons and ammunitions are Russia.” The heavy artillery used against Syrians are mainly battlefield weapons, designed for tanks and open terrain, Conroy explained. “There’s a huge difference between armies fighting it out in the desert, and men, women and children sheltering in concrete two-storey buildings. These weapons just decimate them.” He was smuggled out of Syria last year after the attack and is still receiving treatment for his injuries. Conroy’s been busy giving talks and writing a forthcoming book while imploring the world to take action on Syria. “There should have been a humanitarian intervention a long time ago. Two years is too long to just sit by and watch people die.” Conroy said firmly, his voice rising. “Not one single finger has been raised to prevent a death in Syria at the hands of a mass murderer. The only real aid that’s getting in there is smaller private charities. We haven’t seen that huge international reaction like we have with other catastrophes and disasters.
We haven't seen that huge international reaction like we have with other catastrophes and disasters
Conroy has been working with Amnesty International to promote a global Arms Trade Treaty that is currently being negotiated by the UN in New York. It’s a pivotal moment for the treaty, which has been in the works for years and it could prevent regimes like Assad’s from buying arms and ammunition from Russia and other countries for use against civilians. “The Arms Trade Treaty puts the emphasis on the manufacturers and suppliers who issue the final-destination certificates,” Conroy says. “They would be responsible for ensuring the weapons go to a government that won’t use them for repression or spread them on to the black market. At the moment, there’s more legislation on the traffic of bananas than for arms.”
Arms control was also raised at the Stop the War conference by Canadian social justice activist and Rabble.ca editor, Derrick O'Keefe. “The biggest arms dealers of the world are the US, the UK and Israel, we must call to an end of arms sales,” O'Keefe called out to the crowded hall. “Every time a situation comes up, like Libya and Mali, the advocates of liberal imperialism say ‘But we must do something’, we can’t let them frame the argument as if something is only one thing, and the one thing is war. There are other tools of foreign policy, it turns out, you can stop selling weapons to dictatorships throughout the Middle East, you can stop rendering Muslim people in Western countries to corrupt and brutal regimes.”
“We take the view that it is for Syrians to decide what happens in Syria,” Stop the War’s Lindsey German said in The Guardian, pointing out that “the west and its supporters – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – are already directly intervening, providing arms and other military support. Their interests are hardly humanitarian, given Saudi Arabia's terrible human rights record and Turkey's longstanding oppression of the Kurds... Stop the War campaigns to prevent the people of Syria suffering the same fate (as those in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya),” says German, reinforcing the Coalition’s anti-interventionist stance. But while Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s track record of repression isn’t negotiable, when Russia is supplying Assad with the means to kill his people, it’s not quite “Syrians deciding what happens in Syria”.
Recently the UK and the US have pledged non-lethal aid for Syrian opposition forces, and France and the UK are also pushing to lift the EU arms embargo to supply Syrian oppositions forces with arms. But the new stance on Syria hasn’t been received enthusiastically by everyone. Some Syrian rebels have said it’s too little, too late, and that in the past, promised donations from the West have not arrived – there are also worries about arming an increasingly divided opposition force, and how Western shipments of arms would impact Syrian civilians. The arrival of Islamic Jihadi groups, who have joined the opposition forces from neighbouring countries, further complicates the situation, with the US even considering whether to deploy drones against Jihadist enclaves. And then there are reports of increasing sectarianism and criminal activity among the opposition. “Some rebel groups are no more than organized crime syndicates, opportunistically engaging in kidnapping, extortion and large-scale looting of factories and warehouses,” said Aleppo-based activist Edward Dark, in a recent interview with the Globe and Mail. His city has been divided in half between the regime and the rebels. “The fact that the ‘good guys’ in the rebels haven't been able to stop them casts a very dark shadow on all the rebels here.”
Ghazzawi believes that divisions within the opposition shouldn’t detract from the goal. “People always ask me about, aren’t you afraid of Islamists?” Ghazzawi says, “Right now, we have Assad, why not just talk about Assad? Assad’s guns are killing people….” Whatever difficulties Syrians face now, Ghazzawi says she would never return to life pre-revolution, where Syrians had no public or private space to voice criticisms. “Not necessarily everyone who fights Assad is my comrade,” Ghazzawi points out. “Once we get rid of Assad, we’re going to get rid of all those (members of the opposition against a free society) as well. I don’t see how we’re going to be okay with one and not okay with another. We don’t want to call ourselves Arabs or Kurds, or Muslims or Christians, we’re equals. We’re Syrians.”
We don’t want to call ourselves Arabs or Kurds, or Muslims or Christians, we’re equals. We’re Syrians
Some question whether it’s wise to fuel the violence with arms for the opposition, when the fighting is causing so many civilian deaths. “Have you ever thought of the losses when you insist that the ‘revolution’ will continue ‘even if half of the Syrians die? When you say the president must go ‘regardless of the price’? Do I need to say that the price paid by all Syrians is already high and painful?” Jasmine Roman asked in “An open letter to Syrian opposition” in The National.
Korean-Brazilian activist and filmmaker Iara Lee is behind last year’s documentary on Syrian crisis, The Suffering Grasses, and she’s also wary about the effect of increased arms in Syria. “In war you have extreme brutality, but also extreme solidarity,” Lee told me last year. Her film celebrates Syrian activists’ bravery, from the doctors risking their lives to care for the injured (any doctors found helping those injured by government forces are arrested and often tortured and killed), to women smuggling medicine through the borders under their hijab’s and citizen journalists capturing the revolution and posting it online. Through her activist network, Cultures of Resistance, Lee has fundraised to provide activists with mobile phone cameras and bulletproof vests to keep reporting, and raised money to send medicine into Syria. “Personally I’m always for non-violence, but when you’re on the ground it’s very difficult,” says Lee, a staunch pacifist. “Syrians are paying with their own blood for something that’s a basic human right. The people in Syria wanted to stick to non-violence but they’ve been suffering so much brutality that they want to protect themselves. But,” she adds, “there is nothing more polarising than giving weapons to people who are victims of repression, so it’s a very difficult balance. The international community needs to stop the flow of weapons into Syria. At the end of the day, the simplest truth is the truth: people are getting massacred and we need to help. Creative resistance, civil disobedience, putting pressure on governments not to be so lethargic. Twenty-four hours in a day is not even enough for all we can do.”
Creative resistance, civil disobedience, putting pressure on governments not to be so lethargic. Twenty-four hours in a day is not even enough for all we can do
While activists don’t always agree on the form that action in Syria should take, from armed revolution to pacifism, Western intervention to global arms control - activists like Ghazzawi, Conroy, Lee and many others have risked their lives to help the Syrian people and to tell the world about the acts of bravery and violence taking place there. Thinking back to the beginning of the revolution, when Syrians took to the streets, even though the regime was using live ammunition on them, Ghazzawi says, “These people should remind all of us, even though it might get messier, it’s a just cause, and there are a lot of ways to support it, and the minute that you don’t, it’s going to get uglier...” Now it’s up to the wider global community to take up the Syrian cause and mobilise, building on the large-scale peace movement that rose up against the Iraq war. “If we want to gain our freedom and to live the way that we deserve to live, it’s going to come with a heavy price,” Ghazzawi says, “It’s not that we imagine the romantic Hollywood end to this revolution. It’s going to be painful, it’s going to be long. But what’s beautiful about it, is that people are still going on.”