A panel of journalists and human rights activists who have reported from the frontlines of Syria’s ongoing civil war detailed how the country arrived at its current state, the day-to-day lives of Syrians who have remained in the country, and what it would take to end the bloodshed, during a May 18 event hosted by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security.
CNN senior international reporter Clarissa Ward, Amnesty International senior crisis advisor Rawya Rageh, and longtime television and radio foreign affairs analyst Courtney Kealy participated in the discussion.
An estimated 11 million Syrians, or half the country’s pre-war population, has been displaced since the country’s civil war started in March 2011. The surge of Syrian refugees, believed to be between 4 and 5 million, is largely responsible for the worst refugee crisis to hit Europe since World War II.
Kealy, who served as moderator, shared at the event’s outset her memories from her first trip to Syria in 1999, documenting the local culture, commerce, and architecture for The New York Times’ Sunday Travel section.
“This is not a culture that was looking for violence,” Kealy reflected.
Nor was there an expectation of the horrors to come when Bashar al-Assad rose to power in July 2000. Conversations among political observers at the time tended to center on how long it would take before he was removed as president. Instead, Assad revealed himself to be anything but meek.
When protestors took to the streets to voice objection to the detainment and torture of 15 boys who wrote graffiti in support of the Arab Spring, the Syrian government responded by killing and imprisoning hundreds of protestors. This act prompted some Syrian military members to defect and start a rebel group known as the Free Syrian Army.
Assad’s policy in response to this rebellion started as surrender or starve, recalled Rageh, who worked as a journalist for the Associated Press and Al Jazeera prior to joining Amnesty International. Syrian forces would first lay siege to an area, then cut off supplies and prevent people from leaving their homes, in an attempt to force them to surrender.
When Russia entered the picture in 2015, “a complete transformation” in the civil war occurred with air bombardments and ground assaults becoming the new norm, Rageh observed. The extreme violence besieged 40 cities and upwards of 1 million people, making it near impossible to find bread, baby formula, or diapers, and leaving survivors at a loss for words.
“Along the years, the regime has figured out ways to elevate the barbaric nature of targeting civilians,” Rageh said. “At every single point, where you thought this could not get any worse, they come up with something else.”
For instance, Amnesty International published a report this February that detailed the existence of a secret Syrian prison where thousands of hangings occurred.
“This is a war against normal life,” Ward commented, noting that Syrians face death via bombing wherever they go—at the market, at the courthouse, at the local hospital. “The message is to kneel to Bashar al-Assad or die.”
ISIS and groups like ISIS are a symptom of the atrocities unleashed by Assad, Ward said, rather than the cause of the profound suffering of the Syrian people. She related one story in which a well-educated Syrian man, whom she had become friends with during her time reporting there, left his rural town for Raqqa. His last correspondence to her implied that he was no longer the amiable person that she had befriended.
“It’s very easy for us to sit there and judge people for falling into extremism,” Ward said. People who’ve had their homes bombed or family killed are extremely vulnerable to joining terrorist organizations, she noted.
These days, most Syrians would like to see Syria remain as one Syria, not split up in the mold of Yugoslavia, Ward shared. Such an outcome depends on whether the many sides involved in the fighting and peace talks—Russia, Turkey, United States, among others—can make progress to determine the country’s post-civil war, post-Assad trajectory. Both Ward and Rageh warned against the creation of safe zones as a means to convince Syrians to return home. According to Rageh, safe zones, historically, rarely remain safe. By placing people into one area, there’s the potential of making them a target in an area where they are concentrated. There are also deep questions about how to implement and police such an area.
“What [Syrians] want is just some peace and quiet,” Ward said. “They want to send their children to school one day without worrying about whether they’re going to come back home alive or not.”