My reaction when reading the story from the Southeastern Anatolian province of Hatay about weapons and teachers fleeing an impending conflict with Syria is of shock. What has occurred here — school teachers getting arms to fight Assad — will in all likelihood happen all over the world. This is not the first time weapons have been distributed to the Syrian population. Everyone is now against this unacceptable humanitarian disaster, but Syrians are at a severe disadvantage. When people and schools run out of gas or food, they use it against each other, but no one helps them.
Rebel forces gain control of area near Salqin, near Homs, Syria. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
In Aleppo, we had conversations with a number of former teachers who had spent years away from their children, in Jordan, Turkey, France, Germany, Qatar, the United States and so on. “Why did you leave Syria?” I asked. Most said they left because of the war, but most shared the same problem. They could not, in good conscience, go back. They said they would go back with every resource they had (a small suitcase filled with warm clothes). If the national government did not accept their return, then they would go to some country in Europe where they would live safely without the fear of arrest, detention, torture or killing. They said their only option was Europe. One teacher said he knew of the international community doing good works but only if the government allowed the groups they supported to do so. I realized this was not a rational position. The west has said the problem was ours (but will do nothing) and now there is a domestic problem with armed groups trying to control areas west of Aleppo (which are now controlled by the Free Syrian Army). So, now, when the government sends arms, they will fight them back. The government will use force and threats, and it is very likely some children will be killed. What if the children themselves carry arms? Even on the optimistic side, a government occupation may make it impossible for Syria to return to a democratic and free country.
Syria needs an international refugee fund. The countries directly impacted can send only a fraction of the refugee total and continue to receive aid from Germany, United States and so on, which are investing the most (in terms of cost and people on the ground). Then there is the “taboo” to talk about and no one wants to, but the rest of the world needs to respond. We do not need to supply arms or even send air strikes. It is very likely that if we do this, we will create a more robust anti-government group and in the meantime supply them with weapons. Indeed, every foreign government that deals with the Syrian government is violating the UN charter: war is prohibited, if there is not an absolute or direct threat to their lives. Moreover, they may be attempting to create a new government in Syria, which is very dangerous.
Rojava. Many Syrians have moved to this area, where women have the power and men are asked to do “women’s work”. Some Kurds are closing in on Syria. Syrians are asked to move here. Photograph: Nati Harnik/AP
One young, intelligent and insightful man, with a doctorate, asked me why no one was talking about Syria. I told him the obvious answer, which is that so many governments around the world are unhappy with the outcome of the Arab spring, but they seem to ignore the other problem. The same in Syria, where so many very talented and educated Syrians are desperate to go back. But it may not be possible, and the stakes are extremely high. Unless, the international community can really make a serious effort now, Syria will not return to a democratic society, and many will suffer immeasurably.