On a recent visit to a friend who was with me in Syria, I heard stories that don’t make the media, the kind of stories that clench my stomach with fear of civil war: trash left on the doorstep of members of the Alawite minority to which Pres. Assad belongs; notes tacked to Alawite doors threatening death if the families living there don’t abandon their homes within the week. Stories that sound like Iraq.
I have, of course, heard the stories of others in Syria. Stories of teenagers arrested and tortured by police, of children shot, of homes shelled by military agents, of university students failing their graduation exams because they were in jail until the day before their tests. I’ve heard rumors of military shooting deserters and even using rape as a weapon against civilians. I’ve heard and read the pleas of members of the Christian minority for the West to support Assad, regardless of his methods, because they fear the alternative is Islamic rule, chaos, bloodshed, and the end of the religious minorities of the region.
And because I was there, because I lived in Syria among Alawites and Sunnis and Christians and even Kurds, I know that none of them are blood-crazed fanatics longing secretly to ethnically cleanse their neighbors. While all of the assertions of Syrian tolerance and loving-kindness toward others may not be true, a great many of them are. The main interests of the Syrians I know are as follows: high heels with rhinestones, getting a degree so they can afford to open a small business and raise a family, persuading their girlfriend’s father to like them, going out to dinner, going camping, buying new pants, supporting their family, and drinking coffee and tea. It seems unnecessary, but I’ll state it clearly: Syrians are humans, made of and desiring and fearing much the same things as Americans or anyone else.
That’s why the situations there is so complex, and so hard.
It would be so simple if all of the opposition members were peaceful philosophers devoted to ideals of equality and democracy—as some of them are. Instead, some of them engage in violence, and some of them threaten their neighbors.
It would be so simple if all of the Alawites were power-hungry sycophants of the government—as some of them are. Instead, some of them are families who never considered politics at all, thinking instead about art or engineering or fashion until the current crisis arose.
It would be so simple if all of the non-Alawites were oppressed and yearned for freedom. Instead, some of them are terrified at the thought of losing what protection they have under the current government. It is one thing to trust the opposition from here to live up to the ideals its members have espoused; it is another to bet your own life and, even more, those of your children, on their trustworthiness.
No matter what happens in the months and even years to come, people will be hurt. Trust will be damaged, livelihoods will be lost, families will be torn, lives will be stolen. The situation in Syria, the cycles of outcry and repression and blood and outcry again, have gone on too long to be tidily ended either by an opposition victory or by an erasure of the movement by the government. There is no longer any good option, if there ever was one. It’s not fair, but then again maybe it never was.
All I can ask of you now is that you remember the messy humanness of the world. Nations and parties and armies are only individuals and families who are given or who adopt labels. Simplifying this fact makes things easier for those far away, but can kill those people on the ground.