March 15th marked 11 years since the Syrian crisis began. Since then the country has endured civil war, western intervention, defeating the evil that was ISIS and finally Covid-19. Despite this though the Syrian people remain upbeat and the nation stands as a beacon of personal freedom within the region.
To read about travel to Syria click here.
The Syrian crisis and the Arab Spring
The Syrian crisis began on March 15th 2011 as part of wider protests within the region which led to the overthrowing of the regimes of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, as well as sowing the seeds for the humanitarian catastrophe that is the current war in Yemen.
There were also protests in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, both brutally repressed and as is always the case with our western allies in the Middle-East these were simply ignored.
It is though Syria that has been most affected by both western propaganda and meddling meaning that despite debating ISIS the country still finds itself not only divided and embroiled in a civil war, but treated as a pariah state.
What caused the Syrian Crisis?
After suffering from droughts many Syrians migrated to cities, following the drought they did not go back, unemployment levels went up and people grew frustrated. Stagnation and stability lead to contempt and soon protests began around the country.
The Syrian government is far from perfect, yet while it is a one party state the personal freedoms enjoyed by people of all sexes and religions are unparalleled within the region. In essence the Syrian people did not realise just how free they were in comparison to the rest of the Middle-East, until it was almost too late.
Opportunism and the Syrian crisis
Many Syrians will tell you that the initial protests were about liberalising the country, or having a more western style democracy, but this was shattered almost immediately when western countries started to support and fund the “Free Syrian Army”.
This almost mythical “Free Syrian Army”, or “Democratic Forces” were not only soon infiltrated and controlled by extremist forces, but much like extremists in Afghanistan and even the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were being directly funded and armed by western governments.
To read about if America supported the Khmer Rouge click here.
From the peace process to ISIS
While Islamist groups and foreign backed players began to dominate the “Free Syrian Army” peace talks were pushed in which western leaders pushed the narrative of the “butcher Assad” and Assad must go” – while conveniently ignoring the various crimes of our allies in Saudi Arabai. Obviously these peace talks went nowhere, with the Syrian government refusing to deal in the absolute of Assad needing to step down and go into exile, while the rebel forces were fraught with so much fighting no-united front could be resented.
As the war progressed the myth of the Free Syrian Army and secular rebel forces were starting to fall apart as the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front and more alarmingly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began to take over huge swaths of the country.
What followed cannot be summarised in a few sentences, nor paragraphs, but once again western intervention had led to the rise of Islamo-Fascism that not only killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, but also left immense destruction throughout the country, wounds which the Syrian landscape and people still bear to this day.
Rightly, or wrongly and regardless of motives Russia began to assist the Baathist regime of President Assad and Islamic State were defeated. And while still a divided and sanctioned country 70 percent of Syria is now not only under government control, but these citizens enjoy the freedoms of being the only truly secular country in the Arab world.
To read about Baathisn in Stria click here.
The Syrian Crisis – 11 years on – Where can you travel to?
Tourism has hardly recovered to the pre-war levels of 8 million plus a year, nor is it likely to any time soon, but numbers are at least starting to rise, despite
many governments are still making false and politicised statements about how safe it is to travel to the government held areas, but in actuality things are quite stable.
To read the UK Foreign Office advisory on travel to Syria click here.
Of course this is not to say that the whole country is safe, with Idlib Governate being under the control of Islamists, areas bordering Turkey being under the de-facto control of Erdogan’s Turkey. Conversely the most peaceful and indeed safe area not under government hands is the Kurdish lands known as Rojava, currently being ran as a multi-ethnic experiment in an anarchist form of government.
Interestingly Rojava are not calling for independence, nor the overthrow of Assad. What they want is a federalised system, perhaps based on that of Iraq, although this has perversely meant a situation where the once almost self-sufficient country of Syria is not only suffering from blackouts, but is required to buy back its own oil.
To read about Rojava click here.
What is it like to travel to Syria in 2022?
If you are prepared to ignore the scaremongering of of western governments and fallow the tens of thousands of tourists that do brave visiting the country you will be treated to a barrage of history, beauty, positiveness and friendliness from the local people. Perhaps more importantly though you will get the chance to bear witness to the contemporary situation within the country, both from the sides of how people are living through sanctions, but quite how much everyday Syrians genuinely support the Assad regime.
And it is Damascus that perhaps epitomises just how contemporary life in Syria really is. Walking along the streets you see people of all different creeds, colours and religions not only going about their lives, but genuinely doing so with a positive, of not carefree attitude. Churches and mosques exist side by side, degrees of religious observance vary greatly and amazingly amazingly Old Damascus has what can only be described as a truly eclectic and vibrant nightlife. And this where the successes of the Assad regime are so very much ignored and overlooked. Damascus is perhaps the only Arab capital that allows its people to choose acutely how much religion they wish to observe.
A point very much put to us when we met a prominent professor based in Old Damascus who told us “Technically I am a Sunni Muslim, but I like to interpret it my way, for example alcohol is frowned upon rather than forbidden like say murder, so I drink. I am also not a member of the government, but we all respect Assad for protecting our secular rights. After all what is the alternative? Libya? Afghanistan? The Islamic State”?
To read about the best bar in Syria click here.
And this was a sentiment echoed across the country, even in more conservative areas, such as the barely standing city of Aleppo, where while looking at the destruction around the old area of the Souk our guide looked at me and said “So, this is the price of democracy”.
Do people really love Assad and what do they think of Russia and Hezbollah?
While most of Syria appears quite normal, there are indeed some elements that could appear and to an extent do make it seem dictatorial. There are constant checkpoints, which to be fair can be considered one of the vestiges if war, but more importantly the omnipresent site of posters of Assad everywhere.
And while these posters do point towards at least form of a personality cult, they are in fact not uncommon for the region, with the various religious fundamentalist countries of the UAE and Kuwait to name, but two being littered with pictures of their unelected royal leaders. The one difference in Syria at least is that President Assad to many is seen as a saviour of their secular rights.
And as for Russia and Hezbollah? I at least was surprised by the answers I was told. With regards to the Russian presence within the nation my Syrian partner stated to me “Look we don’t really want any foreign troops within our country, but at the end of the day Russia stepped in and saved us from Islamic State. We’d like to friendlier with the west, particularly after the invasion of Ukraine, but unless sanctions are lifted, or we are given the chance, how can we do this”?.
Hezbollah and Syria
The relationship between the Syrian regime and that of Lebanese backed Hezbollah was also one that turned out to be much more nuanced that is made out in the western press, with both sides giving extremely different answers to what I at least expected.
For secular Syrians and Hezbollah alike the relationship seemed to be more one of “my enemies enemy is my friend” rather than brothers-in arms. According to my Syrian friends they were “grateful” to Hezbollah, but were also not keen on having them stay in the country long-term.
More interestingly perhaps was when I asked the question about Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian crisis to a member of the organisation at what is known as Mleeta, or Hezbollah’s Disneyland.
You can read about Mleeta here.
Replying to my question he stated “You think we went into the country to prop-up the regime? No, we went their fight ISIS and Al Qaeda. Think about the Christian community in Maaloula, the last people to speak Aramaic (the language of Jesus). We liberated them, where were the Christian countries”?
Syria an the abstract concept of democracy
Of course Syria is bot a utopia, nor is it a democratic state in the way we view democracy in the west, but this does not mean it does not deliver rights to its citizens. Much like the west argued from the 1950’s to the late 80’s that certain military regimes protected their people from the imminent threat of communism, one can argue that the Assad regime protects his people from foreign intervention and Islamists, while securing the secular nature of Syria as a country.
What many on the west not realise is that in certain parts of the world democracy to an extent is seen as a much more abstract concept, with things such as health, wealth, personal safety and equal rights for the sexes being much more important to people.
Syria is not perfect, nor does it claim to be, but is proud to have not fallen into the same traps as places such as Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Sadly with the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine sanctions relief us unlikely to happen in Syria any time soon. This is a true shame as time and time again sanctions have proved to hurt ordinary people rather then regimes. Yet despite this the Syrians people are likely to keep on smiling and continuing to fight for a better future for their people.
Thus March 15th is simply glossed over with it being far from a day of celebration, but more one of reflection and regret. Sometimes you truly can have things so good you really do not realise it.