Syria – Our short term memories are costing lives

11 September 2015 | Marijn van de Geer

A commute home after work. Open one of the free newspapers, a giant double page spread of the latest smart phone now available in store. A few pages on, how we can keep the migrants out and let the ‘real refugees’ in. And, oh, this:

Give cash to aid refugees; Justine Greening; Syria; business; corporate

The Evening Standard, 10 September 2015

Justine Greening, the UK Aid Minister, called on companies to “play their role” in Britain’s response to the humanitarian crisis, referring to Syria and the ‘refugee crisis’ making headlines every day.

“All these lifelines simply wouldn’t be there without the British people, without our NGOs, our humanitarian workers, our government, our companies. It’s an amazing team effort that’s having a huge impact and it shows what an incredible country we’re living in”, says Greening.

We are all patting ourselves on the back for pledging to take in 500,000 refugees per year and promising that Syrian refugees will get a “warm welcome” in our countries. All over Europe NGOs are fundraising and campaigning and individuals are collecting food, clothing, and promoting welcoming refugees in their countries (have a look at ‘Refugee Crisis: What can you do?’ in The Guardian a few weeks ago).

I don’t mean to be cynical about this rise of solidarity and unity; clearly people feel moved and they really want to do something good. But let’s look at the ‘role’ we have already played in this humanitarian crisis.

The role we play

Opening the newspaper with first the giant mobile phone  jumping out at me and then the pat-on-our-own-back-speech by Justine Greening was such a perfect illustration of the underlying issues in the refugee crisis, I couldn’t have thought of a better example. The mobile phone has been one of ResPoss’ prime examples of how we as individuals, consumers, people, perpetuate conflict – metals needed to build mobile phones come from a poorly run country, the money from the metals doesn’t go to the people, instead there is a constant power struggle over who controls the minerals (incidentally we made a video about this. Have a look!). Now Syria may not have minerals that go in our mobile phones, but there is very much interest there that has ensured that throughout the years ‘western’ countries (such as the USA, UK, France, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands etc.) have had reason to interfere in the country.

If it wasn’t for us, would the situation be as bad?

If we really think the only role we are playing in Syria is helping out poor and innocent refugees, it is time for a little bit of a history recap…

Where were we 15 years ago?

The violence in Syria did not start over night. When I was a teenager waitressing in my home town, one of my colleagues in the kitchen was from Syria and he would tell us about how he was living in Syria in constant fear of the Assad regime and had to flee the country. This is a good 15 years ago. Of course at that time the Syrian refugees were only arriving in dribs and drabs and pretty much went unnoticed by the media and the general public.

Now, of course, there is no avoiding the constant flow of people coming out of Syria. We have started to pay attention.  We kind of had to.

We need to help fix it, but didn’t we help start it in the first place?

A few years prior to my waitressing days, an alliance consisting of countries such as the USA, UK, France, Canada and Australia asked Syria to join their alliance during the Gulf War in 1990/91.

The president at the time, Hafez al-Assad, had been an ally of the Soviet Union, automatically making him an enemy of the West thanks to Cold War logic. After the break-up of the USSR, Assad lost Soviet backing in terms of credit, aid and military hardware, so Syria sided with the alliance against Iraq in 1990. Syria and Iraq were already divided by “conflicting interests in the region, including control over the Euphrates’ waters, control over oil pipelines and other economic issues”, and after the loss of its Soviet ally, Syria had good reason to side with the alliance.

“In return for Syria’s role in the Gulf War, the West turned a blind eye to Assad’s despatch of troops further into Lebanon and the installation of a pro-Syrian government in Beirut in 1991, effectively making the country a satellite of Damascus” (Jean Shaoul and Chris Marsden).

Going back in time a little further. Much like the Hutu/Tutsi divide you may have heard us talk about before in relation to Rwanda or Burundi, colonial powers in Syria helped create a divide between different ethnic groups in the country. Bear in mind Hafez al-Assad was born in 1930, when Syria was still a French protectorate. He was a member of the small Alawite Shi’ite community in a country of predominantly Sunni Muslims. “The Alawite clans were viewed by France as potential tools in the old divide-and-rule strategy of colonial government, and were given privileged treatment” (Jean Shaoul and Chris Marsden).

Colonialisation, constructed ethnic divides, competing for economic interests, war debt, and political instability are some of the contributions we made to set the scene for a country in crisis. Combine this with a rapidly growing population as well as a declining income per head, plus a regime that ruled through oppression because it was essentially weak, the people in Syria were unhappy. Any opposition was suppressed by Assad’s government and security services.


We love treating symptoms, springing to action for visible issues. But we don’t think about the impact we ourselves are having on these issues. Could it be that if we change our ways there won’t be any need to collect clothing to send to refugees in tented camps? It is only a matter of time before the next conflict will force people to flee to safety.

By understanding the role we play in conflicts such as the one in Syria, we can do something much more useful: prevent these conflicts from ever happening in the first place.

What do you think?

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