Accurate reporting about what is really happening in Syria is hard to come by — the “fake news” phenomenon could almost have been invented for the way much of the Western media reports conflict in the Middle East.
At an event in the British parliament last November, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Damascus told assembled parliamentarians they should not believe most media reports about the war in his country. He documented how in the previous week the media had not even mentioned the death of several children in Western Aleppo, as that news did not fit the narrative of the “rebels” as freedom fighters — not child killers.
A London-based expert on Middle Eastern politics was told by a war correspondent — someone who worked for an international news agency and who had just returned from Syria — that all talk of “moderate” rebels was nonsense. There were only “Islamist extremists” now, he said. However, he had never said that in any of his reports, as he couldn’t. Once again, it did not fit the narrative.
On one of my visits to Iraq to assist the persecuted Christians driven from their homes by ISIS, my translator was a young Syrian who had ended up — as many Syrians did — in the refugee camps of Erbil. He was an Assyrian Christian, one of the oldest Christian groups in the Middle East, and actually came from the city of Raqqa, the headquarters of the so-called Caliphate of the Islamic State. Rabby spoke perfect English, albeit with a strong American accent; he also spoke Arabic and Aramaic, the ancient language spoken by Christ.
I asked him how a 21-year-old from Raqqa spoke such good English — “watching six seasons of Game of Thrones,” was his answer. He told me that when the uprising against the Assad regime had begun in Syria he, along with many of his friends, had been in the streets protesting with the others. Now, he said, he supported Assad without question.
What had changed? I asked him. The answer was simple: He had seen what the alternative was — and it was far worse.
That little story illustrates how the easy and facile narrative — the painting of a “good and evil” scenario, where sides can be picked from the comfort of media control rooms or academic lunches — is just that. It’s easy and facile. The truth is far more complicated. The reality is that there are no good guys and plenty of very bad guys, as an Iraqi priest said to me once, speaking of living under Saddam and then the turmoil of present-day Iraq. “There is bad and there is worse. Which would you prefer to live under?”
Realpolitik is usually uncomfortable. It is the situation as it is and not as we might like it to be. In Syria, after hundreds of thousands of deaths, massive destruction, and the displacement of nearly half the Syrian population, President Assad and his military apparatus have “won,” according to Robert Ford, the former US Ambassador to Syria.
Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy to Syria, declared recently that rebel forces must accept that “If they were planning to win the war, facts are proving this is not the case.” Both the U.S. and Great Britain have withdrawn financial aid and support from “rebel” groups, while Jordan is considering reopening the border with Syria. Even Saudi Arabia, the most virulent enemy of the Syrian regime, is reported to have accepted that Assad will not be removed.
Given these facts, popular or not, is it not time to ease the suffering of the ordinary Syrian people? Is it not time to heed the call made in August 2016 of the Christian leaders of Syria for sanctions against the people to be lifted? The three Patriarchs of Damascus — Syrian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, and Greek Orthodox — appealed to the international community to lift the sanctions, which they said had “deepened the suffering of the Syrian people.”
Just this January, speaking on Vatican radio, the Syrian Catholic Patriarch, Ignatius Younan, said “those sanctions surely hurt the population, not those who are in the government,” and he urged Western governments to “stop financing and arming the rebels.”
For that to happen, the world must listen to what the Syrian Christian leaders are saying: Sanctions against the Syrian people must end now.
Most political experts agree one of the purposes of sanctions against a government is to encourage people to rise up and overthrow that government. Clearly in Syria that has failed. Now it is only the ordinary Syrians who are suffering because of those sanctions.
This is unlike Iraq, where reports of Christians by the thousands returning to destroyed towns liberated from ISIS (but completely unprotected) are being greatly exaggerated. In Syria, the reality on the ground is that, where the government has recovered territory, the Christians are indeed returning, rebuilding, and trying to begin again.
This is the solution to the refugee crisis — it’s what most governments say they want. But this rebuilding cannot succeed without international support, job creation and investment. For that to happen, the world must listen to what the Syrian Christian leaders are saying: Sanctions against the Syrian people must end now.
Fr. Benedict Kiely is a Catholic priest and founder of Nasarean.org, which is helping the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.