When Syrians were chanting “revolution, revolution, Syria! Revolution of dignity and freedom” in the streets of Damascus in 2011, they undoubtedly expected suppression from the regime of Bashar al-Assad. What they probably did not foresee, however, is complacency from the international community, including from Palestinians.
But, that is what they received. The Syrian conflict has uncovered disturbing shortcomings and contradictions among those who fight in the name of Palestine.
When Palestinians are being assaulted by Israeli forces, we often cry out “Where are the Arabs! Where are you, oh Arabs?” Yet, now that it is our turn to extend solidarity, we have become as faceless as our revered Handala.
Renowned Palestinian writer and thinker Ghassan Kanafani once wrote, “[i]f we were failing in defending the cause; then we ought to change the fighters and not the cause.” By failing to stand with our Arab brethren fighting in Syria, we have betrayed Palestine and tainted the principles that gave birth to the Palestinian cause, namely dignity and justice.
As we enter the Syrian civil war’s fifth year, I say to my fellow Palestinians: it is time – albeit very late – to stand in solidarity with the Syrian people.
The Palestinian Position on Syria
Palestinians are no strangers to exile, the pain of oppression, or the grave consequences of resistance. For these reasons, I find the mainstream, Palestinian position on Syria so perplexing. There is an inherent denial of the Syrian right to self-determination, based on a so-called “political pragmatism,” which maintains that the Assad regime is key to stability in the Middle East.
Over the course of the Syrian civil war, our actions – or lack thereof – have transitioned from mute silence to impotent discourse on the merits of noninvolvement in the conflict. Though we call it neutrality, we are, in fact, expressing the most spurious form of support for a regime that has hailed down barrel bombs on the civilians of Homs, Aleppo, and the suburbs of Damascus.
It is as though we are borrowing the narratives of our oppressors and sprawling them across the mountains of Syria. In muddled arguments, we strip agency from the Syrian people to choose their own fate, by not only abandoning them, but dictating what is best for them – telling them they must forfeit their uprising and accept the regime as the “lesser of two evils.”
This is the very approach we have rejected in our own struggle. Most politically active Palestinians would refuse to even entertain the thought of someone who is not Palestinian dictating how we ought to fight or resist settler-colonialism. Yet, we find no problem in recycling the very notions we rebuff and using them to repudiate Syrian efforts to topple tyranny.
In taking these positions, we justify ourselves by complaining about the “complexity” of the situation. Even worse, we often remain silent because the dictator in question claims to be anti-imperialist and supportive of Palestine.
But, Assad is anti-Israel – not pro-Palestine. There is a great difference between the two. To be pro-Palestine means to support the rights of Palestinians as an oppressed group. To be anti-Israel is to merely seek to weaken an enemy state. While the Assad regime is obviously opposed to Israel, it has little interest in the justice-seeking qualities of the Palestinian cause.
For those of us who are, in fact, pro-Palestine and truly guided by this cause, we cannot be disconnected from the global pursuit for justice, whether in Syria or elsewhere. To quote Kanafani once more, “everything in this world can be robbed and stolen, except one thing; this one thing is the love that emanates from a human being towards a solid commitment to a conviction or cause.”
To be true to the cause of justice, we cannot allow ourselves to be deluded by the conspiracy theories echoed at the expense of the Syrian people. We cannot be caught in the apparatus of the Assad regime’s oppression, which feigns support for certain struggles, like anti-imperialism and Palestine, in order to beguile the masses into accepting its injustices and crimes.
In his poem Candles of Damascus, Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein penned an ode to the hospitality he received from the people of Damascus:
Damascus, I know I am unarmed save for my pen.
If the ink forgets Palestine, summon Damascus.
Damascus, I witness you traveling in my bloodstream,
in vessels of a million loves and a million flames.
Men, Women… the most beautiful baby and the most beautiful
child, they all wash my blood, I, the Arab fatigued
by humiliation, they all wash my blood.
Yarmouk refugee camp, located on the outskirts of Damascus, has been emblematic of Syrian cordiality toward Palestinians, ever since the founding of the Zionist state of Israel in 1948.
On December 26, 2012, the Syrian regime, with help from the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command (PFLP-GC), began a brutal siege against the camp. As a result, a place once hailed as the capital of the Palestinian diaspora is now home to only a few thousand people struggling to survive.
While the regime continued to asphyxiate the camp with its siege – leading to over 200 deaths from starvation alone – in April 2015, ISIS invaded the camp with the help of Jabhat al-Nusra, further exasperating the crisis. In the process, ISIS reportedly beheaded and executed some of the camp’s residents.
Despite these hardships, the Palestinians of Yarmouk managed to send out messages of solidarity to their brothers and sisters in historic Palestine who rose up, yet again, against Israeli aggression in early October 2015.
But, similar solidarity from Palestine has been tempered. While it is true that Palestinians have spoken out against ISIS’s invasion of the camp, this discourse has been devoid of accountability. There has been little mention of the Assad regime’s role as the main engine behind ISIS’s growth and success.
Without Assad’s barrel bombs and Russia’s missiles, there would be no ISIS in Syria. Indeed, the Assad regime has celebrated and embraced the group’s rise, and for good reason. The more monstrous ISIS is, the better the regime looks.
Though limited, Palestinian outrage toward events in Yarmouk also highlights another problem, namely, a fixation on our own community. While ISIS has attacked many Syrian towns, we have been vocal only when Palestinian lives have been involved. Though we may share a similar struggle as Palestinians, this tendency to ignore the suffering of others exposes our selectivity in supporting oppressed groups, including the residents of the Syrian town of Madaya, who are starving to death thanks to the regime and its allies, Hezbollah and Russia.
Moving Forward, Syria Is Still Here
Moving forward, we, as Palestinians, must first and foremost acknowledge our flawed approach toward Syria. Instead of cradling our heads in our palms, we must extend our solidarity and stand up for the civilians of Syria and their right to live in security and dignity.
I say this because this is what the Palestinian struggle has taught me: to love and fight for dignity, whenever necessary. To never oppress, because we have experienced the monstrosity of oppression first hand, and to know that, when a people stand together, they are a force to be reckoned with.
As non-Syrians, it is not our right to utter the proverbial lamentation “Syria is ruined. Look what’s happened. There’s nothing left in Syria.” Those words only serve as a rationalization for inaction and façade for our complacency. As long as a single resisting Syrian soul remains, there is everything left to support and protect. The Syrian refugees undertaking arduous voyages near and far are a testament to this enduring Syrian will to pursue life and dignity.
We, as Palestinians, have erred, as any movement will. But, we can still fix our mistakes and begin taking the steps necessary to embody the essence of our cause: justice for all.