If I were to ask two Americans what they thought of President Donald Trump, I might get two completely contradicting views on his administration. In a similar, but much more extreme comparison, no one can claim to be speaking on behalf of the Syrian people. However, in a country torn by civil war for more than seven years, the only thing Syrians are unified on is that they want the war to be over.
In 2011, after listening to revolutionary slogans on the news from neighboring countries, a group of friends — 14 years old at the time — decided to spray paint “It’s your turn now, Doctor” on their school wall; a reference to Syria’s president, and ophthalmologist, Bashar al-Assad. Those kids were later rounded up by the government’s security forces, jailed and brutally tortured. A prominent figure in that city tried to plead for their release, but was thrown out and told, “Your kids are not coming back. If you want new kids, send us your wives.”
This incident was the spark that lit what is now an extremely complex multinational war. It hasn’t always been like this, though.
For the first six months of the revolution, the movement was mostly peaceful, calling for a more open and free political environment. The Assad government responded by mobilizing security forces to shoot, detain and torture every possible protester they encountered in the areas that haven’t completely gone up in flames. In cities like Homs and Daraa, already up in flames, they brought the military, enforced a complete siege, and started an indiscriminate bombing campaign using tanks, planes and missiles.
I remember the first time I heard a helicopter dropping a barrel bomb in a nearby neighborhood and being in complete shock about what kind of monster could do that.
The one thing that has remained the same is the government’s narrative of what is happening. Once the Assad government kicked journalists and western media out of the country, their story was simple. According to them, there was never protest or dissent, just groups of terrorists killing civilians and a government protecting their people. This narrative was well-calculated as Assad wanted to present himself to the international community as the only possible option.
In an ironic incident that Syrians often joke about, the government went as far as saying a crowd of people were not protesting, but were just out enjoying the day and thanking God for bringing rain.
At one point in the conflict, the Russian and Syrian governments convinced the United Nations to send in “observers” to report what was going on inside the country. On the day the observers were going through Damascus, we organized a protest against the government in front of them, thinking we would be safe from bullets with the observers around.
I remember the helpless looks on those observers’ faces as security forces opened fire and shot live bullets at us. It was at that point I completely lost hope in the international community, and knew the Syrian conflict would take much longer and grow much bloodier.
Ironically, the observers were needed because no reporters were there. Assad kicked them out and was deliberately targeting them in areas out of his control, Marie Colvin, an American journalist who worked for a British newspaper, and Remi Ochlik, a French photojournalist known for documenting conflicts and war, were two of the many heroes killed by the Assad government for their attempt to bring truth to the world.
Seven years after teenagers painted a message on a school wall, the situation in Syria is different. After killing more than half a million, and displacing more than half of the country’s population, Assad, with the help of Iran and Russia, is on course to win the war and take back control of the nation. In an ideal world, Assad would be prosecuted for the crimes he committed and a free election would take place in Syria. In the unfortunate reality we have to live in, however, allowing Assad to return to power seems to be the only option capable of ending the war, bringing stability back to the country, and governing Syria’s different warring factions.
Syrians, along with most western governments, have accepted this ugly truth and have slowly abandoned the idea of forcing Assad out of power. That is why recent airstrikes, along with those of last year, were singular events, limited in their effect.
The disinformation campaign led by the Syrian government continues to this day and was highly visible on social media during recent chemical weapons attacks. However, Assad has killed far more people using conventional weapons — through his deliberate targeting of hospitals and medical facilities, and by starving civilians that dared to stand against to his might.
Accepting geopolitical realities doesn’t have to mean allowing Assad to go further in his crimes through the use chemical weapons. Any attempt to stop him from this quest should be praised.
The people in Syria are exhausted and understand Assad will remain for the time being. But, if there is a way bring the war to an end in a less bloody way, we should pursue it.
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• Monzer Shakally came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2012 and his asylum status remains in limbo. He is now in his senior year at the University of Iowa, and has been accepted to the College of Dentistry.