It was more of a childish prank than an act of sedition but the 15 young boys caught painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school in Deraa, southern Syria, in March 2011 were arrested and tortured all the same. Their detention set in motion the familiar pattern of escalating popular protests and increasingly violent police crackdowns. Three years later, as many as 140,000 Syrians are dead and the 15 schoolboys are long forgotten. First, the dead become martyrs: not just sons and daughters, but political symbols. Then they become statistics.
If there was a time when military action – the bombing of strategic targets and the imposition of a no-fly zone – could have protected civilian lives, it has long passed. Yet on the third anniversary of Syria’s civil war and after the failure of the peace talks in February, it is worth reflecting on the stories of human struggle and suffering.
“The politics of Syria are everywhere – but the people are not,” the UN humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, observed after visiting Damascus in 2013. This is so often the case. A few weeks have passed since the men and women in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv toppled their thuggish president and already they have lost control of their revolution.
I returned to Libya’s capital, Tripoli, a few months after it was liberated. I remember, even more clearly than the new Libyan flag fluttering from the rooftops, the posters of the martyrs hung on every street corner. Today, however, most Libyans are so wrapped up in the everyday terror of gun battles and kidnappings that they don’t want to recall those first deaths or how they ended up where they are now.
In Syria this collective amnesia is all the more tragic and harmful. This is a “war on Syrian civilians”, according to Human Rights Watch, but we don’t like to think of it that way. Hospitals and schools have been targeted by all groups; once-lively neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble; whole towns have found themselves under medieval-style sieges, their inhabitants forced to eat stray cats or dogs to survive. Yet the international charities are struggling to attract private donors. “There’s no clear sense of who the ‘good guys’ are,” Michael Klosson, a Save the Children executive, told the Washington Post last year.
The problem isn’t just financial. Even the UK government, which has pledged £500m in aid, can be accused of humanitarian neglect. Rather than making periodic demands for President Bashar al-Assad to step down and backing the “friendly” opposition, it should have kept its diplomatic focus on protecting the rights of civilians.
The international flow of arms and money to Syria’s armed groups hasn’t ended the impasse; it has made it bloodier. Assad can see no reason to back down; nor are various groups that want to kill each other likely to agree to a power-sharing deal. The one area where there have been breakthroughs in negotiations is in limited humanitarian deals: the temporary, imperfect ceasefire in Homs, which allowed aid to trickle in and civilians to be evacuated out of the besieged city in February, and the prisoner exchange achieved between the government in Damascus and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front on 10 March.
On 22 February, the UN Security Council passed a resolution requiring all sides in the conflict to permit the passage of humanitarian aid and warned of “further steps” if they did not comply. This was small but not insignificant progress: Russia might have baulked at an earlier version threatening sanctions but at least it signed, together with China. The greater challenge will be implementation and the focus should be on achieving the co-operation of key influencers, such as Russia (the Crimea crisis won’t help with that), Iran, China and the Gulf states. Even piecemeal local agreements alleviate some suffering and there is a chance that tiny victories could open the way for bigger ones: extended ceasefires that could be a possible precursor to peace talks.
I spoke recently to Rola Hallam, a British-Syrian doctor who volunteers for the charity Hand in Hand for Syria. She told me about Dr Amr, one of the last physician-anaesthetists left in Aleppo. He refuses to leave his besieged home town and has worked 18-hour days for many months on end. Amid the cruelty and chaos, there are Syrians such as Amr who refuse to give up and who are finding their own peaceful means of resistance. For every hate-filled fighter, there’s a volunteer offering to retrain as a medical worker, or a teacher who crosses battlefields daily to get to work, or a young man or woman prepared to smuggle food and medicine into cities under siege, knowing that every trip they make could be their last. Their stories are important, because it will be these Syrians, not the armed rebels, who will one day rebuild their society.
Occasionally when I watch footage of bombed-out Syrian cities on the news, I try to picture the country I visited in 2010. Syria today is an alien, distant landscape but I remember the solemn beauty of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the bustling Old City nearby, the courtyard restaurants that smelled of grilled meat and sickly shisha smoke and were popular with tourists, as well as the poky shopfronts crammed full of Iznik pottery, silver bangles and factory-made pashminas.
“You live in Libya? Muammar al-Gaddafi is crazy,” one shopkeeper said to me with a laugh as his friend did a cheerful impression of a madman. That Syria is hard to reconcile with what exists today.
Almost three years ago, 15 schoolboys were tortured for scrawling anti-government graffiti on walls and ordinary Syrians risked their lives to express their anger. That story still matters now.