Two years ago, peaceful protests broke out in Syria, riding on the sudden enthusiasm for dictator-toppling widely known as the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, incumbent President Bashar al-Assad wasn't too keen on the idea of relinquishing power, preferring instead to have his army start shooting the protesters dead. Since that first bout of protest and the unrestrained brutality that followed it, the situation has decended into a civil war that has thus far claimed the lives of around 70,000 Syrians. As well as that, about a million people have been displaced by the fighting, so the situation's messy both in a geopolitical sense and in terms of scud missiles, RPGs and cluster bombs making bits of human fly around everywhere.
Last Friday was the second birthday of the conflict, but weirdly no one was blowing out candles or singing happy songs. However, there was a protest in central London the day after, so I went along to be met by a sea of people waving the flag of the revolution, as well as those of other Arab Spring countries. And someone waving the Scottish flag.
At first I thought it was someone conflating the struggle for Scottish independence from Westminster with the suffering of the Syrian people, which would have been pretty crass. But I caught up with them and luckily it turned out they were Syrians all the way down from Scotland.
Despite the alphabet soup that makes up the various anti-government forces, everyone was determined to present a united front. So the two key messages of the day – solidarity with the Syrian people and hatred of President Assad – were hard to miss.
Also consistent was anger at the international community, either for intervening too little or too much and on the wrong side. The chant "Free, free Syria, no Iran, no Hezbollah" summed up the protester's attitude towards those guys' support of the Syrian government. They could have included Russia, but sometimes the complexities of a geopolitical proxy war are too complicated to fit into a chant.
Also pissing a lot of people off was the failure of the West to intervene and help the rebels out. Britain and France spent the anniversary of the uprising trying to convince an EU summit that the arms embargo should be lifted, but they were met with a stern "nein" from Germany's Angela Merkel. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are trying to push things in a pro-Sunni direction. I decided to ask some of the protesters about their hopes and fears for Syria.
Hamid, PhD engineering student.
VICE: Hi Hamid, what made you want to brave the rain to show your solidarity with the Syrian people?
Hamid: My family is suffering from bombardment every day. Most of them have separated and gone to different villages because there are a lot of stories where an entire family gets killed. So now Syrians are separating so that if one of the houses is bombed, the whole family won’t be killed. That’s not just a story, this is the reality in Syria.
Bleak. How do you hope the situation will improve?
We want the British people to put pressure on the government to do something to save lives.
Apparently some of the minorities in Syria – Alawaites, Christians and Kurds – are concerned about a post-Assad Syria. What do you say to that?
Those minorities have been in Syria for thousands of years. Syrians are one people, one culture. There are good relations with them. Assad wants to show that he’s protecting them, but in reality he’s just putting them in the fire.
And what about the claims that the rebels are Islamic fundamentalists?
There’s some extreme thinking in every society and it comes out when there’s blood being spilled, but the mainstream of the Syrian revolution are people who want justice. The extremists are used by some media to show that we shouldn’t take action.
Aqil from Palestine (who didn't want to be photographed).
Hi Aqil, I see you’re flying a Palestinian flag.
Aqil: Every human being deserves real freedom and real justice. We feel that all the Arabs are one nation and we should all support each other.
Hezbollah is supporting Assad, so there's some division among Arabs.
He has allies everywhere for many reasons.
Are you hoping for a Western intervention?
From our experience, they will only intervene when they have interests for themselves to pursue. Personally, I don’t hope for that. I hope that, first of all, the Arab world will help the Syrian people.
What’s your message to Assad?
I don’t have a message. I would like to see him brought to justice one day, though.
What do you think of the fears that the rebels are made up of Islamic fundamentalists?
I don’t think practising your religion is extreme. That’s a Western idea – they see people keeping their faith, and if that challenges their Western interests, they're labelled “extreme” straight away. They’re hypocrites.
Is it a positive development that there's a Sharia court in Aleppo now?
Sharia is part of this big thing called religion. They’re Muslims so they will approve of Sharia ruling the country.
Marcel (left) and Dimah.
Hey, how has the conflict in Syria affected both of you?
Dimah: My family had to flee. They’re now in Jordan and I can’t go back there, not even for a visit.
Marcel: I’ve lived in Syria all my life. I came to the UK in October and I’ve been back to Syria four times since. My sister is there. The situation is dangerous in Aleppo right now.
What did you see in Aleppo?
The government is bombing the city from far, far away because people don't want to die for Assad so he can’t enter it from the ground. The army is greater in numbers and has more support from the people, but Assad has the sky – scuds, planes and that kind of thing.
What do you think will happen?
We’ll kill Assad, but I don’t believe that will happen any time soon. I want a political solution, but nobody’s pushing for that.
Do you think Syria will turn into Jihad land?
Dimah: We’re worried about that. Syrian society is complex. But the extremists are powerful now because the West didn’t intervene – they enforced their agenda because nobody else did anything.
Do you think the minorities in Syria are right to be afraid of a post-Assad Syria?
I have friends here today from different religions and minorities. People from all religions are against Assad. I think it’s Western propaganda to portray the war as sectarian – it’s not.
Marcel: I think they're afraid because there aren't many examples of minorities in the Middle East that live well. It’s not really divided that way, though – it’s more to do with class. The middle class and mainly the upper class support him. Even upper class Sunnis have made fortunes from him. They love the corrupt country and they don’t want it to change.
Anas, medical student.
What are you here for, Anas?
Anas: I have relatives In Syria and many of them are fearing for their lives and trying to leave the country, but they can’t. Those in the areas that are liberated from the regime are supporting the revolution’s core message as much as they're afraid of the armed groups that have been around since the regime was toppled.
How would you like the situation in Syria to be resolved?
Assad has to leave power. Any attempts at peaceful resolution have been met with more brutality, so there’s no other option but for them to leave if they want to spare more lives.
How will that come about?
There’s no easy answer. We wanted a peaceful revolution, but the regime militarised it and pushed people into self defence.
The other side of Anas' banner.
Your banner is highlighting foreign involvement. What do you make of that?
Every nation that has tried to intervene has done so for its own agenda. Iran, Russia, Hezbollah are supporting the government. Even Turkey, which is supporting the revolution, is doing it in a way that suits them best rather than what’s best for Syria.
What should the West do?
The best thing we could do is to support the members of the army who have defected. These are professional soldiers who have a mandate to protect their people, not armed fundamentalists, like the rebels countries like Saudi Arabia are supporting in order to back their own agenda. Opportunistic and extremist groups have been filling the power vacuum for the past two years, but we need a true friend who supports the people, like the defected army members.
Can the UK, US and France be trusted to be true friends?
I wouldn’t trust them to have boots on the ground. We need humanitarian aid – that would go a long way. But they should support the good guys with weapons if necessary.
I watched something where a Syrian activist claimed that flooding Syria with arms would make things worse. What do you say to that?
That would be a valid point if the arms embargo applied to both sides. Russia and Iran support the regime with all the weapons it needs. If anything, non-intervention means that the regime is getting more reassurance, saying, “No one’s stopping me, so I’m going to keep on killing people until the revolution ends.” There's no good scenario at this point; it’s like there’s a bad choice and a less bad choice. The only way to end it is to tip the balance towards the Syrian people and the revolution.
What do you think might end up happening in the future?
There’s no happy ending in the short term, sadly. We’re witnessing another Bosnia, if not worse. We all know the West will intervene eventually, so the sooner they do it the more victims they can save from brutal massacres and destruction.
So it looks like thinks are going to continue to get worse before they get better. Thanks Anas.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonChilds13
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