Are we listening?

Local Syrians are providing the insights that can shape international policy.
Art by Surian Soosay titled "Syrian No Mouth No Words" / Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) / resized / Flickr

In the past several weeks, a suburb of Damascus has become the newest epicenter of the Syrian Conflict. The opposition-held Eastern Ghouta, which is about to enter its fifth year under siege, has been bombarded by hundreds of airstrikes, surface-to-surface missile attacks, artillery bombs, as well as reports of chlorine gas, napalm, phosphor, and cluster bombs. As the civilian population in Ghouta attempts to survive this nightmare, the international community continues to turn a blind eye to the demands of the Syrian community. As the international community grapples with how to de-escalate the crisis in Ghouta, Syrian voices must be a leading force in formulating foreign policy and international interventions.

Despite constant duress in Ghouta, violence in the suburb has surged in recent weeks. According to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, between 18 February 2018 and 18 March 2018, 1,294 civilian adults and 304 children have been killed.  In an OCHA Flash Update dated 21 March 2018, the organization reports that the number of internally displaced people seeking shelters surpassed 50,000 people, leaving shelters overcrowded and needing to turn people away.

Syrians use Social Media to speak out

Alongside this escalation of violence, there has also been an increase in civic outreach from Syrians inside Ghouta as the try to share details of the besiegement and the recent aerial attacks. A group of young activists, many of whom are living in besieged Ghouta, created a Facebook page and website to share the horrors of their reality as they try to survive. The Facebook page shares statements, news, and art from those besieged inside Ghouta. In just a few short weeks, it has become a crucial hub for updates on the situation on the ground in Ghouta and an outlet for those who could at any minute fall prey to this ongoing conflict. The Facebook page and website have also become useful platforms for Syrian to share policy and points for advocacy to the international community.

The cover photo for the public Ghouta Facebook page / Public Content

Failed UN Ceasefire

One of the central causes for concern in the past few weeks is the United Nations’ inability to implement a successful ceasefire agreement. The 30-day ceasefire attempted by the United Nations Security Council was agreed upon after intense negotiation to allow humanitarian aid into Eastern Ghouta. This first aid delivery was supposed to carry medicine, food, and other necessary humanitarian relief. While the delivery was made successfully, Syrian regime officials had removed all trauma kits, surgical and dialysis tools, and insulin, leaving medical professionals in Ghouta vastly under-resourced. Additionally, according to the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, UN convoys have in fact become a target for violence. An aid worker accompanying the convoy reported the following:

“Bullets were hitting close to our location in the centre of the city. After international officials inside the convoy contacted the Russian army, we realized that we had only one hour to unload the full load and return to Damascus. At 19:40, we got a call. We were told that it was the Russian army and that we were asked to leave immediately…”

In light of these events, as well as many other failures of the international community, Syrians are skeptical of the influence the UN has, and whether they are willing to acknowledge the true nature of the conflict. “What we’re seeing in Ghouta, Afrin, Idlib, and other areas of Syria is an indication that the United Nations doesn’t have the will to enforce the very resolutions it passes to de-escalate violence across the country,” says Syrian-American activist Shiyam Galyon. “Syria and Russia are bombing civilians in Ghouta despite UN Res 2401, which calls for a ceasefire across the country and a lifting of the sieges. Turkey continued to bomb civilians in Afrin after this resolution was passed and recently declared victory over the city. The UN needs to outline specific measures to enforce its own resolutions.”

Illustration publicly shared on the Ghouta Facebook page in the weeks after the failure of UN Resolution 2401 / Public Content

The failure of UN initiatives in Syria is not uncommon. The UN-led peace talks in Geneva in 2017 had little influence over the conflict, and all attempts at ceasefires have failed, leading Syrians to question why the most recent ceasefire resolution would be any different.

I hoped that in passing the UN Security Council Resolution 2401, which asked for a 30-day cessation of hostilities, the world’s most powerful countries would finally manage to protect civilians in Syria. But yet again the resolution proved to be nothing more than a waste of ink,” states White Helmet member Raed al-Saleh in an open letter to the UN Security Council published by alJazeera.

In pleas for help through the Ghouta Facebook page, Syrians are begging their allies abroad to question the UN:

“Why there is no medicine and medical equipment? And what are they going to do about it?” “When is their next convoy will be? Before or after someone dies from hunger or lack of medication?”

Syrians want a seat at the table

In an article published by the Guardian in 2016, Carne Ross, founder and executive director of Independent Diplomat, argues that one of the most simple reforms to be taken by the UN is to listen to those who will be most affected by the decisions the institution makes. He states, “When the council discusses Syria… you can safely assume Syrians… will not be present,” leaving Syrians disenfranchised as the world discusses how to end the conflict.

Further emphasizing the need for Syrian representation in international conversation, the civilian block in eastern Ghouta released a statement with guidelines for the international community. Among other demands, the statement begs that the UN, UNSC state members, and the international community allow “civilians in Eastern Ghouta – represented by the Provincial Council, Local Councils and civil society organizations – should become a negotiating partner in all negotiations and settlements related to East Ghouta discussed by national, international or local actors, and that they decide their own fate and that they are provided with all the support to do that.” This statement further reflects the many initiatives taken throughout the conflict to draw attention to the voices of local actors. Syrian civil society has consistently been organizing under bombs and inside besieged areas and including translations of their work. So there is really no excuse when people [and institutions] say they’re not sure what’s going on,” says Shiyam Galyon, a Syrian-American activist, in a recent public Facebook post.

As the crisis continues unabated, the failures of the international community to take action on the conflict in collaboration with local actors must not be overlooked. “UN officials as well as western politicians often site the complexity of the Syrian crisis to justify the lack of action on their end, but things in Syria are quite straight forward if you ask a Syrian sheltered in a basement in Eastern Ghouta, or fleeing for their lives in Idlib or elsewhere around Syria,” says Majed Abdulsamad, a Syrian architect and urban designer. “The international community must step in immediately to stop the carnage, to pressure foreign regimes into stopping the flow of weapons into Syria, and to take action to end the war.”

As the international community, and particularly the UN Security Council states consider what went wrong with their latest ceasefire, as well as options for moving forward, they must return to the voices of Syrians who have been so intimately affected by this conflict. By neglecting to include the very people involved, the United Nations Security Council in particular and the international community as a whole leave out key players for conflict resolution in the region. Syrians are speaking, but it seems the world is too busy trying to solve the crisis to pay attention.

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Francesca Freeman

Francesca Freeman is a program assistant for the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa Program at the Social Science Research Council. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a double major in anthropology and comparative race and ethnic studies and a minor in human rights. At the University of Chicago, she focused her research, writing, and advocacy work on conflict studies and early warning signs of genocide. She has previously worked on international grassroots mobilization against genocide and mass atrocities as the Student Director of STAND: The Student-Led Movement to End Mass Atrocities and as an intern for The Aegis Trust in Rwanda.
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