By: Karen Shen, intern at Niagara and student at Northwestern University
It is our goal at the Niagara Foundation to bring prominent local voices together to discuss current local, national, and global issues. In light of this goal, the Niagara Foundation was eager to invite two local leading experts on Syria to speak about their very different perspectives on the humanitarian crisis currently ensuing in Syria. Laith Saud and Dr. Zaher Sahloul joined us on Thursday, November 14th for a light Turkish lunch followed by some interesting and meaningful conversation about the events of the last two and a half years in Syria.
Saud started off the forum by stating that he is not of Syrian descent; in fact, he was born in Baghdad, Iraq and raised in the United States. However, his interest in Syria as an analyst, scholar, Arab-American, and Muslim-American is considerably deep. To Saud, very few things in the last ten years (an intentionally selected time frame, he emphasized) have “both disappointed and enlightened [him] as much as the way the international community has responded to the Syrian crisis.” Saud particularly wanted to talk about the international dynamic and the players involved in the Syrian crisis and why the situation is in its current state. He indicated that for many parties involved in the events of Syria, “the facts on the ground reveal more than the rhetoric in the air.”
So, what’s really going on in Syria? According to Saud, the major players right now are the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian opposition, Iran, Russia, and the United States. Though it is not necessarily a major player in the Syrian crisis, Turkey also maintains a deeply vested interest, politically and economically, in what’s happening in Syria. Saud explained that there is currently a power dynamic between Russia and the US. Russia is interested in having al-Assad remain in power and the US seemingly wants to see him go. However, despite the United States’ claims that they want al-Assad to relinquish his presidency, Saud determinedly suggests that US foreign policy analysts are quite content with letting the situation “continue to simmer at a manageable level for as long as possible,” since that would mean the weakening of one of the last gray secular areas in the Arab region. Russia, on the other hand, desires to keep al-Assad in power in order to maintain their high volume of weapons trade to Syria and also to preserve their military stature in the eyes of the global community since they have a military presence in Syria. Saud further asserts that although the United States and Russia have established public positions on the Syrian crisis, there is also a conflicting war on rhetoric occurring behind the scenes where, in reality, both countries are content with seeing Syria continue on its course or revert back to its previous set up.
What is so distressing for al-Saud is that many people today believe that the Middle East is an incredibly sectarian region. He argues that the history of the region is very much one of pluralism and “not only tolerance, but all out embrace, acceptance, mutual love, and respect.” The phenomenon of sectarianism is new to the last few years. Many Middle Eastern families have members from both Sunni and Shia practices, including Saud’s own family. “Each side appreciated one another’s various traditions and views and intermarried often.” In Syria, the relationship between Muslims and Christians is much the same in that both hold great respect for each other, even to the point of celebrating the other’s religious holidays.
Another direction that the conflict could take is the partitioning of Syria. According to al-Saud preparations will be made to discuss the partitioning of Syria, “if not on formal and official lines, then informal and unofficial ones.” The dividing of Syria would only reinforce the notion that the Middle East should look like ethno-sectarian states, with nation and sect as one and the same thing. The Arab World is not that way. In truth, it is the most diverse part of the Muslim majority world “and that goes back to Arab tradition and culture.”
Next up, Dr. Sahloul spoke about the humanitarian and medical side of the Syrian situation. Dr. Sahloul is a practicing critical care physician in Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn as well as the president of the Syrian American Medical Association, which works to send medical relief, supplies, and equipment from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon to treat victims of the Syrian crisis. SAMS also trains Syrian doctors and provides them with salaries so that they can stay in Syria to treat patients while still being able to sustain themselves. It is unsafe to practice medicine in Syria since the whole healthcare system in Syria is being systematically targeted by the government.
Dr. Sahloul actually recently returned from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey about four weeks ago where he was helping out with hospitals in the region. He noted that the events in Syria were not just affecting Syria itself, but the entire region as a whole. Many Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq with about 20 refugee camps in Turkey holding 600,000 Syrian refugees alone and about a million refugees in each of the aforementioned countries. About an entire third of the Syrian population has been displaced either internally or externally due to the conditions of the country, which (in perspective) is the equivalent of about 120 million Americans being displaced. According the Dr. Sahloul, a crisis of this scale has not been paralleled by any other recent conflict in the Middle East or even the world.
Dr. Sahloul then went on to tell a story about his time in Aleppo. On his first night there, Dr. Sahloul could not fall asleep in the hospital he was staying in because of the huge explosions that were only a couple of kilometers away. Every hour or so, ambulance alarms bringing civilians injured by shellings and bullets would also wake him up. Dr. Sahloul saw a three year old child who had tried to cross from East Aleppo, which was controlled by the opposition, to West Aleppo, which was controlled by the Syrian government, with his family. During the crossing, a shell fell on his family and his mother and sister instantly died. The boy was pronounced dead about an hour after his arrival because none of the hospitals in the city had a CAT scan that could tell what sort of damage had been done to him internally. “This happens every day.”
In Syria, the issue of the use of chemical weapons is actually very minor, despite popular belief created by international media. Dr. Sahloul told us that 99% of Syrian civilians are actually killed with conventional weapons like barrel bombs, ballistic missiles, napalm balms, and sniper bullets. However, conditions of medical care are so tragic in Syria that many civilians die from their injuries soon after they receive them. Dr. Sahloul said that Aleppo alone asked SAMS to send IV fliuds, IV antibiotics, and painkillers to their hospitals because they didn’t have any. They also asked for coffins, too.
“The UN and international media are turning a blind eye to these areas of millions of Syrians cut off from outside world with a government that is trying to kill them and not enough physicians and hospitals to treat [their victims].”
During his last trip to Syria, Dr. Sahloul noticed extremist groups growing in influence in Syria. The population is turning to these extremist groups for protection and the extremist groups are gaining more and more power because of that, especially with the lack of attention and interest from the international community. Dr. Sahloul argues that it was a failure on the part of US policy not to support the moderate opposition groups at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, because now the extremist groups have much more free range to gain more support. Dr. Sahloul calls the conditions of Syria, Somalization, which is when the country becomes (like Somalia) more fragmented with many areas being controlled by ethnic military groups and extremism seeing accelerated growth.
One of the other biggest problems in Syria today is the crisis of education, where more than 50% of Syrian children are unable to get secular, consistent education. This is the generation that is supposed to lead the nation after the crisis is over, but with the lack of education and the psychiatric trauma of the generation, there seems to be a huge problem for the future.
The most hopeful scenario for Syria right now is one that includes the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition sitting down and agreeing upon a political transition. If this were to occur, there would be more hope for this humanitarian crisis to finally end. The systematic attack on healthcare and the blatant killing of innocent civilians might end.
Dr. Sahloul ended his talk by urging each member of the audience to “be the conveyor of what is happening in Syria to their network.” He also expressed his hope in audience members to donate to humanitarian and medical relief organizations who are doing the best they can in Syria. “ Write to [your] policymaker and tell them that it is not acceptable to be on sidelines anymore and not intervene in Syria. What is happening in Syria is genocide and is morally repulsive and we have to intervene to protect the [Syrian] population.”