A few days ago, a Belgian mother called me to ask if I could contact the Syrian Jihadists of Jabhat Al Nusra. Her son left his family to join them a month and a half ago and since then she hasn’t heard anything of him anymore. I had to disappoint her, as I have no contact with the Jihadists. In fact, when in Syria, I always try to avoid them.
She was of course very worried, but also embarrassed. Her son is fighting in a battle she does not at all support and even not understand. I kind of recognize this embarrassment as it made me recall the story of a relative whom my family barely ever talks about. He was killed in the Second World War when he decided to fight with the Nazis against the Communists. He believed he had to choose between Rome and Moscow; between God and the Devil and that this choice needed sacrifice even if it meant his own life.
Each time I travelled to Syria during the last months, I saw Jihadists taking the same plane and the same bus as I did and following the same illegal way to enter northern Syria. What drew my attention and worried me each time is the self-confidence in their eyes, the acceptance that they will die in Syria. Above all, they are proud of it. They know they are going to be at the front line of the battle and that some people will admire them for that. And for them, this is exactly what they missed in their lives; admiration, guidance and heroic acts.
What disturbed me most however, wasn’t seeing these Jihadists entering Syria. I can’t stop them anyway. No, what is worse is that I didn’t see any others entering Syria. No relief teams, no doctors and no trucks loaded with aid for the other Syrians, for the vast majority of the rebels who have nothing to do with the Jihadists’ ideologies. While Al Qaida’s friends possess weapons and money to distribute to their fighters, people are dying of hunger in refugee camps supervised by the FSA.
We in the West are so mesmerized by a small group of radicals that we lost the ability to see the reality. By fearing the ghost of Afghanistan, we decided to do nothing. Because if we do nothing, we can’t do anything wrong. And this is precisely the huge mistake we are committing today. Because by doing nothing we only make Assad and the Jihadists stronger. While we are leaving those who share our values on their own.
The main excuse I hear for not intervening is: we don’t know what the Free Syrian Army is and we don’t know what they want. It’s a silly excuse. Because if you don’t know, it’s simply because you haven’t done the effort. It’s not that difficult. Two weeks ago, I had a dinner in Turkey with the Chief of Staff of the FSA, Salim Idriss and four of the five Front Commanders. Anyone who does the effort to go to Antakya will be able to meet any officer of the FSA. You will hear that they want freedom and democracy, that they try everything in order to respect human rights, protect the minorities and help the refugees. But you will also hear that they don’t have the means to achieve these goals properly.
Anyone who makes an effort can reach the refugee camps in Syria very easily and will be able to see how disastrous and inhuman the situation is there, how children spend sometimes days without food or even weeks without milk, how they die because of injuries, caused by a shrapnel, due to lack of medical care. You will see how our aid to Syria is mainly distributed through Assad, which is the reason why almost no aid is reaching the liberated areas. Whoever makes an effort will see that it are the soldiers of Assad and no one else that are attacking and bombarding civilians.
But, apparently all this requires too much effort. We prefer to do nothing “as we don’t know what will happen after Assad falls”. Just imagine that the Americans and the British wouldn’t have entered in WWII because of fear of communists, and because, they too, didn’t know “what would happen after Hitler falls.
Should we be surprised then that those who fight for a better Syria are getting more and more angry and frustrated with the West? They have to witness how the only thing that comes from the West are Jihadist fighters – whatever small and insignificant their number is – while the secular forces and the Syrian people are being left on their own.
It is of course justified to feel uncomfortable and even fearful for “our boys” who go to this far away and unknown Syria to fight for the sake of forming an Islamic State. However, we will not solve this problem by trying to stop them. We will only solve them if we start to engage in Syria itself. It’s less difficult than we might think. We just need to do an effort.
(with thanks to Maha Alasil for helping with the translation from the Arabic version)