Robin Yassin-Kassab

‘It can’t get any worse.’ And then the earthquake…

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(A lightly edited version of this piece was published by Dawn Mena. At the bottom of this page there is information on who to donate to.)

Syrians wanted to be known for their contributions to civilization, as they were in ancient times. Syria is part of the Fertile Crescent where agriculture began, where the first cities were built, where the first states developed. The first alphabet (Ugaritic) was thought up in Syria. The country produced Roman emperors and, under the Umayyad dynasty, became the first centre of a new ‘Islamic world’. When Syrians achieved independence in the mid 20th Century, they hoped their modern accomplishments would echo the old. As a diverse, cultured, hardworking people who valued education, and who tended to excel in business when abroad, they had good reason to hope this would be the case.

But like so many post-colonial states lacking strong institutions, modern Syria soon fell into a cycle of military coup and counter-coup, ending with the Baathist dictatorship which has tortured and plundered the country and its people since 1963 – and under the Assad family since 1970. In 2011 Syrians rose in revolution against the Assad regime, and would have liked then to be recognized for their revolution’s successes. For years they resisted the most extreme oppression, and even under the bombs managed to build hundreds of democratic local councils. They also managed to avoid falling into sectarian civil war, despite the provocations. Sunni and Alawi villages didn’t attack each other. The sectarian massacres had to be organized from on high, first by the regime, then by ISIS, the regime’s dark protégé.

But the Assad regime was rescued by Russian and Iranian imperialists, and by the West’s appeasement of these imperialists. The democratic Syrian Revolution was defeated by force of arms. Worse, it was ‘orphaned’, to use Ziad Majed’s term. Beyond Syria it was ignored or misrepresented, particularly in the West, by the Kremlin’s leftist and rightist useful idiots and a wider public prepared to believe the worst of a mainly Arab and mainly Muslim people.

So now Syrians have become known internationally not for their history, nor their modern success, but for the extremity of their suffering. Their pains under dictatorship were bad enough, culminating in the 1982 Hama massacre when at least 20,000 were murdered, but multiplied after 2011 when the full force of local, regional and international counter-revolution was deployed against them.

From the start, pro-regime thugs smashed limbs and crushed skulls. ‘Assad or We Burn the Country’, they painted on the walls. Tens of thousands of unarmed young protestors were rounded up and then slowly tortured to death in the regime’s gulag. When this didn’t suppress people’s urge for freedom, the regime launched military assaults on civilian neighbourhoods, and organized a rape campaign against communities deemed disloyal. Throughout the summer of 2012, the regime organized a series of sectarian massacres, in Houla, Qubeir, Tremseh, and elsewhere, in which the throats of Sunni women and children were slit. This accompanied a steady military escalation, as the regime gradually worked out that the ‘international community’ would let it get away with any type of murder, from mortars and barrel bombs to grad and scud missiles. Then chlorine gas, then sarin gas, up to and beyond the atrocity of August 2013 when 1500 people were choked and convulsed to death in just a few hours in the Damascus suburbs. Next came the starvation sieges, often perpetrated by Iran-backed militias. By now the regime and its allies had understood that they couldn’t make the people kneel, so they decided to remove them instead. The scorched earth strategy meant the bombing of bakeries, schools and hospitals, the burning of crops and the shooting of livestock. Millions were driven from their homes.

‘It can’t get any worse’, Syrians used to say. And then it got worse, again and again, until the phrase became a sad joke. ISIS imposed its reign of terror over a third of the country. The international war against ISIS destroyed the jihadist state as well as the cities it had occupied, but left Assad – the first cause of ISIS in Syria – alone. Russia’s direct intervention added cluster bombs, thermite and bunker busters to the list of weaponry used against Syrian civilians. Russian aerial bombardment and Iranian-backed infantry recaptured liberated cities for Assad – most notably Aleppo.

Syria was divided into sections, each occupied by a different foreign power. The country became a battlefield for regional wars, between Turkey and the PKK, between Israel and Iran. By now more than half of the population was forcibly displaced. At home they lived in tented camps which flooded and froze in the winter. Abroad they drowned on boats crossing the Mediterranean, or suffocated in the backs of trucks, and became the target of racist rabble-rousers from Turkey to the United States.

The situation kept on getting worse. Even as the regime earned billions from the illegal production and export of Captagon and other narcotics, the economy in regime-held areas collapsed so dramatically that hospitals and schools were closed for lack of electricity. Over 90% of Syrians now hunger below the poverty line. Diseases such as covid and cholera ravage this weakened population.

Could it get any worse? Yes, it could. This winter a blizzard hit the north where millions of Syrians had been displaced. The people in tents froze in the snow and mud. And then came the earthquake, which made those in tents seem like the lucky ones.

In Turkey the destruction is much greater than it might have been as a result of corruption – for years construction companies have bribed their way out of obeying the building regulations necessary in an earthquake zone. In northern Syria, building regulations were an irrelevant luxury in the first place, when the priority was to house the huge numbers of displaced as quickly as possible. Years of Assad and Russian bombing – which continued even in the hours after the earthquake – had in any case weakened the foundations of thousands of buildings.

The earth shook at four in the morning when people were asleep in bed. Entire towns have been erased. Entire families have been wiped out. As I write, tens of thousands of people are dying of their wounds, and of hypothermia, crushed in the rubble. These people are dying not only because of a natural disaster but also because of the unnatural indifference of an ill-named ‘international community’ that has appeased Assad, Russia and Iran for far too long. The whole world suffers from this appeasement. Had Russia and Iran not been appeased in Syria, they wouldn’t have been in a position to rain death on Ukrainians today. But none suffer so much as Syrians.

Assad and Russia close crossings through which aid might be delivered to the liberated areas. For years the regime has diverted international aid to its loyalists, and even to its military. Foreign states, even those that now send military aid to Ukraine, continue to bow to Russian dictates in Syria. So while Turkey is today welcoming rescue teams from dozens of countries, the liberated areas of Syria are not. Syrians, as usual, are on their own. Which means that almost all of those in the rubble will die.

Is this, at last, the lowest point? Can we now at last say that the situation can’t get any worse? No Syrian would dare say so. Still, we must try to find whatever hope we can.

I am reminded of the chapter of the Quran called The Earthquake, part of which reads (in Tarif Khalidi’s translation):

That Day, mankind will come out in scattered throngs,

To be shown their rights and wrongs.

Whoso has done an atom’s worth of good shall see it;

Whoso has done an atom’s worth of evil shall see it.

There is a sense that this string of catastrophes is a test of some sort. Religious people will readily believe that earthly torments are a test of faith, with reward or punishment stored up in the life to come. I’m not a religious person, but I do think the revolution and war have tested Syrians and non-Syrians alike. Some have been prompted by the events to ever higher standards of morality, while others have given way to their most sadistic impulses. Some have tended to cooperation with their neighbours, while others have worshiped authoritarian leaders and ideologies. Syrians like Razan Zeitouneh, Omar Aziz and Ra’ed Fares (all of them murdered) provide the world with models, if the world wants to look. And there are very many Syrian survivors spread around the globe for whom freedom, dignity and social justice have become as necessary as bread and water. Other groups that have suffered disproportionately – such as African Americans, or European Jews – have had a disproportionate creative cultural impact on the world. Free Syrians will too. In this respect their suffering is their strength.

But none of that justifies their suffering, or excuses the crimes committed against them. No rationalization justifies the horror experienced by a single torture victim or a single child crushed in the ruins of his makeshift home. God help the suffering Syrian people.


Please donate to the White Helmets, SAMS, Syria Relief, Karam Foundation, and other reputable Syrian organisations. The need is enormous. (Don’t give a penny to anything connected to the UN, or the Red Crescent, or any organisation which works with the Assad regime. Any money you give to them is likely to be stolen.)

Five days after the earthquake, people in the liberated areas of Syria are saying that zero aid has arrived. No UN agency has contacted the White Helmets. No UN material has been brought in. The UN and other states claim the roads are damaged, but the roads are fine. The Turks – who have their own disaster – have sent some stuff. Otherwise nothing. Tens of thousands are being left to die. Once again the ‘international community’ demonstrates what value it puts on Syrian life.

In the first five days, only the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq sent aid to the liberated areas. One Egyptian search and rescue team got in. That’s it. So thousands or tens of thousands died because the ‘international community’ was, once again, unable to care about Syrians.

The Kremlin propaganda machine and its leftist and rightist tools in the west are hard at work slandering the White Helmets, who are the best of humanity. These ghouls are continuing their lies as Syrians – many displaced multiple times by Assad/Russia/Iran – are dying of suffocation and hypothermia under the rubble. Fight the propaganda. Donate to the White Helmets. https://whitehelmets.org/en/?fbclid=IwAR3HnITvSs72xK6kC55re6wF7Oal70ZFncCxNf0AD-YxpjfenJHKMdPCVO8

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 7, 2023 at 8:40 pm

Posted in Syria

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