The world sat silent as Syria disintegrated. We were silent when the Assad regime began shooting protesters en masse. We were silent when the regime began to bomb its people with chemical weapons.
We were silent when Isis left Iraq and took over a large portion of Syria.
And we even remained silent as refugees began to show up on the shores of Europe.
The silence was only broken when it appeared the terrors of Isis would find their way back to Europe. And when we finally spoke out, we were so lost that the things we said meant next to nothing.
But the silence I came to know best was that of a particular community one would have expected to speak out—and loudly.
The movement to end the occupation of Palestine watched in silence as not only Syria but also the Palestinian neighborhood of Yarmouk on the outskirts of Damascus were obliterated and emptied of inhabitants. We remained for the most part silent as 18,000 Palestinians were starved by the Assad regime, for two years, in the once-thriving refugee camp of 150,000.
As Palestinians living there were reduced to eating rats and grass, most of us said nothing.
It was a curious oversight, given the fervent solidarity with besieged and embattled Gazans. Here was the same thing happening in another country, but worse, and Israel had only a distant role in the tragedy. Whereas many Gazans were hungry, the residents of Yarmouk were starving. Whereas the culture of Gaza was being systemically destroyed, it was the people of Yarmouk who were being slowly killed off.
It was not as if Yarmouk was unique. The U.N. Recently estimated 212,000 Syrians were being besieged, and then quickly doubled that number. But the Syrian American Medical Association has placed the number three times as high at 650,000. It is just these sorts of sieges that are responsible for a tremendous portion of the four million Syrian refugees. The Assad regime starves whole cities and neighborhoods so the civilians will leave and they can kill off the rebels, thereby holding power through its crimes against humanity.
When a treasure trove of photos of the torture, starvation and murder of 11,000 victims of the Assad regime, many with their eyes gouged out, was leaked in January 2013, our silence was deafening.
We did not stop to think that these were simply the victims of one prison in Damascus and that there were still other prisons, and the numbers were likely rising fast. We did not try to estimate how many protesters were tortured to death and whether the systematic murders were still happening.
The movement seemed paralyzed, much as the rest of the world—that is if we noticed anything at all.
The paralysis sprang from several sources. Prior to the Syrian Civil War, the Assad regime had been perceived by many as relatively good to Palestinians. The regime never made a serious effort to criticize Israel, and was even allied with Israel for a time in the Lebanese Civil War. But its leaders talked up their animosity to Israel and activists took them at their word. Hence, when some activists started to criticize Assad they were often met with the fierce resistance of a small minority of fellow activists. This made it difficult to develop a serious critique of the regime. Many western activists who joined the movement to end the occupation during the attack on Gaza the summer before last also seemed to lack the moral will to challenge fellow activists. There was a sense that we needed to maintain a sort of united front, but as in the case of most paralysis in the face of genocide, the imperatives all seemed fuzzy.
And many of us were path dependent. We had spent years studying Israeli abuses in the occupied territories, building for ourselves a base of knowledge, networks and organizations. We were simply unprepared to nimbly switch gears and turn the Titanic of the movement around to focus on the confusing woes of Yarmouk, a mere suburb of Damascus, which was itself part of a country few of us knew well. And then there was the fear of Isis taking over should the Assad regime go. We seemed to think it was either one or the other, when in fact the two had hardly touched one another.
There was little talk about using diplomatic pressure to break the siege, or to just let in aid. Since aid was often getting through to Yarmouk, more pressure could have proven highly effective. Nor did we tend to consider the possibility of a no-fly zone as an alternative to Western invasion. After all, the weapon of choice for the Assad regime is the barrel bomb, a rusty old oil drum filled with chlorine, shrapnel and nails. Barrel bombs are commonly dropped on heavily populated civilian areas. Hence, a no-fly zone could have saved tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives. And it was what most in the Syrian opposition were requesting. But few of us engaged the issue deeply enough to see the potential. And we could not take Syria on its own terms, instead continually confusing it with Iraq. Somehow we thought that doing anything meant advocating a U.S. invasion.
Meanwhile, unsubstantiated rumors that Israel created Isis roiled, like some psychological defense mechanism against moral ambiguity.
Somehow the activists who tried to speak out were shut down by this strange conspiracy, which actually had its start with Assad, who suggested the connection between Israel and the rebels when he finally spoke on the protests a month after they started. As a matter of fact, Israel played a substantial role in keeping Assad in power. For their American lobby, along with Turkey, successfully pressed the Obama administration to keep anti-aircraft weaponry out of the hands of rebels, and this kept them from protecting their cities and probably from taking Damascus.
But anti-occupation activists were too disengaged to see how their arch-enemy was actually causing harm, opting instead to concoct bizarre and unverifiable conspiracies.
To this American of half-Jewish descent, the misinformation, obfuscation, dissociation and paralysis all felt eerily familiar. American liberals are all-too-often cowed into believing we do not know enough, or else that what we know might not be accurate, to speak out against Israel. And besides, we have other important issues, like climate change, to focus upon. Thus, the Palestinians are triaged out of sight and out of mind.
This silence in the face of what many would now call genocide in Syria was similar and pervasive throughout the movement to end the occupation. However extraordinary the people who comprise the movement may have been, however deep their compassion and courageous their hearts, all too many were missing something profoundly important.
When reports began to appear of Isis attacking the Yarmouk camp, something seemed to snap. The residents of Yarmouk were now trapped between two genocidal armies, one of which controlled a state, the other an area the size of a state. Reports spoke of the minuscule Palestinian forces facing these two rival armies. If Gaza the summer before last often looked a lot like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, facing down a vastly stronger power with little weaponry of which to speak, Yarmouk appeared a more perfect metaphor.
Since that time, Isis has been pushed out and most of the residents of Yarmouk have emigrated, joining a flood of Syrians that rivals the great waves of Palestinians pushed from the new state of Israel in 1948. Like the Palestinians and the Ancient Jews long before them, we can expect the Syrians to become a major new diaspora, pushed from the Levant and scattered across the world. As for the Palestinians of Yarmouk, a once distinctive community has melted away into a wider movement of Syrians struggling to make for themselves new lives in new worlds.
Yarmouk is but one tragic tale of a community destroyed by the Assad regime, which has done the vast bulk of the killing in Syria.
And the movement to end the occupation is but one community that looked askance as a people whom it should have protected perished.
We have all turned away from Syria in our own ways, and I am no exception. It is time we look more closely.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Toby Israel
Image: Bengin Ahmad/Flickr