The barrel bombs are still falling and people still live in fear, but Syria’s shaky “cessation of hostilities” has instilled some hope, a hope that Syria doesn’t have to be like this, racked by conflict and suffering for interminable years to come. With the breathing space afforded by the truce, some Syrians have come out on to the streets with banners saying “Our peaceful revolution is still in progress” and “A revolution is an idea, and ideas cannot be killed”. What fortitude. It won’t restore to life the hundreds of thousands of dead or rebuild the millions of shattered homes, but principled defiance like this is still a breath of fresh air.
Five years ago today, Syrians massed for the first significant “day of rage” protests on 15 March 2011, and the country has suffered terribly ever since. It’s thought that nearly half a million people have died – many perishing needlessly because Syria’s healthcare system has all but disintegrated. Around two million people have been injured, and in excess of one million people are enduring life under some kind of military siege, in most cases surrounded by pro-government forces. Tens of thousands of people have been abducted and “disappeared”, most at the hands of the government, and many of these have been tortured to death in horrific circumstances in prisons. And of course an even greater number – a staggering five million people – have fled the country, with most of these now residing (often in great difficulty) in Turkey, Lebanon and other nearby countries.
By any measure, what has happened in Syria is a human catastrophe. If the fighting ended tomorrow, it would still take generations to restore Syria to where it was five years ago (not that a restoration of a police state under Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless intelligence agencies and police forces would be much of a restoration). I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers as to how Syria can be nursed back to some kind of health.
Clearly, though, it must mean the EU and other countries being far more strategic in dealing with the refugee crisis. Which means putting common humanity before borders, and sharing funding and responsibility in ways that have hitherto been mostly absent. It ought to be recognised that most of these refugees will, if conditions allow, eventually return to Syria. Europe should be helping to shelter, feed, educate and re-skill this future Syrian population.
And assisting Syria requires that world powers invest some serious diplomatic capital in renewed peace talks. Key human rights benchmarks must be central to talks or the bloody conflict will continue to spiral well beyond Syria’s borders. This time a resolution to the crisis mustn’t be allowed to slip away. But I would also stress that a route toward a just and free Syria will only come through honouring the principles of the original protesters of Deraa and those who turned out to keep the spirit of revolution alive.
In other words, if, as is likely, there are grand peace deals over Syria, with Russia and the United States occupying key seats at the negotiating table, these nations – themselves implicated in human rights abuses in Syria – must not be allowed to dictate the terms of the peace. There must not, for example, be immunity deals for those who have ordered the barrel bombings, the airstrikes on hospitals, the round-ups and the rape, torture and murder of detainees.
Hundreds of brave Syrians have sought to document the many crimes committed during these past five years, some dying in the process. There needs to be justice for them and for millions of other people in Syria. When the Red Cross eventually gains access to Syria’s jails, they are going to confront some terrible scenes. And when the world sees the files from the various branches of Syria’s vast security apparatus, this too will lay bare the depravity of the Syrian government’s crackdown on its own people.
Documenting human rights violations and insisting on justice is a way to honour the terrible sacrifices of countless Syrians during this most terrible time. Like a revolution, justice is an idea and ideas cannot be killed.