To Americans following the news on Syria:
This is not how we Syrians wanted to introduce ourselves to you. We did not want you to meet us via a television screen split between Secretary of State John Kerry speaking about America’s newfound duty to stop Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons on his own people and the piles of dead children who were gassed on Aug. 21, 2013. We did not want you to feel the need possibly to embrace a proposal from Russian President Vladimir Putin — a dubious plan to recover Syria’s chemical weapons from an active war zone without a strong enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance— to find a political settlement that would avoid an unpopular military strike.
We would have rather you met us 30 months ago, when this turmoil began, on March 15, 2011. That day Syrians decided that they would no longer accept oppression in silence and that they were willing to die to live with freedom and dignity. And die they have — more than 100,000 and counting. To their chants for reform and cries against tyranny, the Syrian regime responded with bullets and cluster bombs. And for more than two years the world watched and said nothing.
As an American, I want to remind you that we have been here before, at this very crossroads in the struggle for freedom and justice. Though we did not live that history ourselves, still we feel its ripple effects on our lives every single day. Although our democracy is flawed, would you dare ask if the freedom won from the American Revolution, the Civil War or the civil rights movement was worth it? Such a question would offend the memory of the countless Americans who gave their lives for those causes.
As a Syrian I want to tell you that we have been here before. Syria has thousands of years of history, with its share of violent wars as well as the flowering of religions, cultures and ethnicities. In recent years, we suffered the consequences of the Iraq War seeping through our borders. We are entangled in the unending regional conflict between Palestine and Israel. But in the last two years, we have also witnessed the citizens of neighboring Arab countries rise up against their tyrannical governments.
As a citizen of the world, I want to tell you that we have been here before. We have witnessed chemical weapons attacks, ethnic cleansing, torture and genocide. We also have watched peoples overcome unimaginable losses and survive mass violence and destruction.
What is happening in Syria is not new. It is one of humanity’s oldest stories: a people fighting to free itself from a brutal regime that is willing to massacre foes and innocents alike to stay in power. For the past two and a half years, Syrians have asked the international community for support. No answers have come save excuses: The opposition is too fragmented; extremists have made the conflict too messy; there is no good to be gained from intervening in a protracted sectarian war; there are too many other more important problems at home to get involved in yet another Middle Eastern conflict. These excuses have prolonged Syria’s agony and bought Assad and his allies many months to kill tens of thousands of innocent people.
In the spring of 2011, Syria’s revolutionaries believed that it was time to join the millions of people across the region chanting, “Freedom!” for the first time, without fear. Aren’t all revolutionaries naive optimists? How could it not be silly to think that thousands of people could dismantle a brutal regime with hopeful chants? To take up small arms against tanks and warships? To try to remake society while Scud missiles and mortars rain down? To face the horror of toxic gas attacks like the one that killed more than 1,400 people last month? They are paying a heavy price for their ideals.
The Obama administration sold military intervention in Syria as a moral and humanitarian choice. We were told that the strikes would be “limited” and will “degrade” Assad’s ability to launch another chemical weapons attack. And now that plan appears to be stalled. But Syrians are not naive. Like you, we have grown jaded since 2011. The staggering numbers — including 2 million refugees, 6 million internally displaced and the loss of a third of all Syrian homes by last spring — will harden any idealist. Syrians know that intervention, if it ever comes, is not about a moral choice. It is about America’s credibility, a president’s legacy and maintaining authority in the global power struggle.
It would be very easy for America to avoid being involved in Syria. It is easy to ask, “Remember Iraq? Remember Afghanistan?” It is easy to say, “It’s too messy, too far away, too complicated.” But you will never be able to say that you did not know what was going on, that you did not see the devastation with your own eyes. This revolution has been thoroughly documented. The videos of the suffering will never be erased, the images of corpses will never disappear, and the bloodstains will never wash away from the clothes of those who looked the other way, toward the wrong side of history. You may be able to live with your inaction, but will you be able to forget what you have seen?
You have been here before, faced with difficult choices. But you should not forget that at one time, other nations made these same choices for you — back when you were a colony of naive, idealistic revolutionaries who believed you could build a new world with sheer determination and calls for freedom.
Now Syrians stand at a similar crossroads. What does Syria mean to you? Whether you have watched Syrians die for the past two and a half years or have just been introduced to the horrors of parents wrapping their children in white shrouds, you must ask yourself where you stand. Would you deny to Syrians the same freedoms you have claimed for yourselves? Or do you see Syrians participating in the same struggle — one that we all share together?