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5 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

Lyse Doucet’s Diary: Syria’s war may be far from over, but it’s a moment to take stock

How did peaceful protests for political change turn so quickly into such unspeakable violence?

By Lyse Doucet

I’ve always liked to think of January as a quiet time that allows a new year to wake gently. It’s a moment to look ahead. But I spent much of the month looking back, revisiting journalism’s proverbial “first rough draft of history”. In Syria, where I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years, everyone’s first draft was very rough, very rushed. The conflict that spawned the “humanitarian test of our time” tumbled from one crisis to the next. As the war grinds towards its eighth year, it shifts into a new phase now that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces control the main cities.

The war is far from over but it’s a moment to take stock. How did peaceful protests for political change spiral so quickly into such unspeakable violence? It’s a question we’re asking in a BBC Two/BBC World News documentary, and we spent much of January in Syria and its environs looking for answers. A Syrian general accuses the UN angrily of lying about casualties. A respected Arab journalist tells me she now knows some opposition accounts of “massacres” were embellished. Wars have always been fought on two battlefields: the war on the ground, and the propaganda war. In our new world of fake news, any interrogation of history is ever harder, but ever so essential.

The hotel where history lives

Travelling between the ancient cities of Aleppo and Damascus, we stop in Homs, and stay at the Safir Hotel. I’ve sat in its lobby café, at a small wooden table by its front door, at key moments in the city once dubbed “the capital of the revolution”. The players came and went: blue-helmeted UN monitors in 2012 who didn’t stay long; black-coated Syrian spies in 2014, as rebel forces negotiated a way out of its besieged ancient quarter; and aid workers who have lived in this hotel, year in, year out. Now, the modest lobby sparkles with shops selling vials of traditional Syrian perfume, frilly lingerie, even pricey Montblanc pens. “Are they real?” my colleague asks. Like so much about Syria, it’s hard to know the truth.

A Nobel prize for surviving

One evening, as I sit savouring Syria’s delicious zouhorat, or flower tea, news comes from another hotel seared in my personal history: the Intercontinental in Kabul. It is under attack, again, by suicide bombers. I lived there for ten months in 1989 at the beginning of the end of the Cold War, as Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan after a decade-long disastrous conflict with Western-backed mujahedin fighters. Afghans would nervously ask me: “Will it get better now?” Decades on, they ask: “Can it possibly get worse?” There have been three devastating attacks in this past week.

I think of young Afghan friends who came of age after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. As the world returned with its armies and aid, they seized new chances with both hands: university scholarships, challenging jobs. Some are still in Kabul, working in senior government positions, defiantly searching for hope when it’s increasingly hard to find. Yet for how long? “Feeling broken” was the Facebook status of one friend after the latest atrocity. “Broken and helpless.”

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Afghans rarely make it into our headlines now. But they deserve, as a people, a Nobel prize for surviving every political system the world has tried. Cursed by every Great Game, they’ve lived through a monarchy, Soviet-backed communism, warlord rule, Taliban rule, Western-backed democracy, and now so-called Islamic State is gaining ground. In 2001, our leaders vowed to stay with Afghanistan “for the long run”. Turns out the long run is not that long.

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Fatima’s story

How do people carry on in such circumstances? Spare a thought for a Syrian mother I met in what had been rebel-held east Aleppo. Her favourite brother serving in the Syrian army was killed in battle. Her husband was arrested three times by a hard-line Islamist group. When he was finally released, he was killed three days later by a Syrian government air strike. She still smiles warmly as she welcomes us into her concrete block of a home. There’s no electricity or running water. Large parts of her neighbourhood lie in ghostly ruin. Fatima’s story is the story of many who wake every day and somehow manage to find a measure of hope, humour, even humanity.

Her side

History was on my mind before I went to Syria. Or perhaps I should say her story. Our Radio 4 series Her Story Made History marked a century since some British women won the right to vote. We spoke to five impressive women who made history everywhere from Riyadh to Reykjavik. Many listeners wrote in to say: “I never knew that.” Never knew that Monica McWilliams played a role in Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement and battled misogyny, too; men mooing at women as if they were cows. Never knew that Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female president, was a mother of four boys all under five by the time she was 22.

As the series ended, my old friend and esteemed colleague, Carrie Gracie, made her own history by resigning as the BBC’s China editor over the issue of equal pay. Her story has galvanised what we call the BBC sisterhood. It feels like history in the making.

Back to school in Senegal

By the time you read this, I’ll be in Dakar, Senegal, the charming city where my life as a foreign correspondent started many years ago. I’m attending a summit organised by the Global Partnership for Education. Sixty-one million children around the world who should be starting primary school are not. Donors’ bold promise in the 2015 London Syria Conference to get all Syrian children, including refugees, in a classroom by this school year wasn’t kept, despite efforts by some. As February begins, I’m focusing on the future. If more of the world’s children don’t get the education they deserve, our story will be one of even greater crises. 

Lyse Doucet is the BBC’s chief international correspondent

This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration