One small nation tops the global census in number of refugees: of the world’s 68 million displaced people, at least 13.5 million come from Syria. When asked by her students why Syrians represent such a disproportionate percentage of that population, Elizabeth Dunn has this explanation: “The nature of war has changed, and Syria is a case study.”
The associate professor in Indiana University’s Departments of Geography and International Studies examined the case of Syria at a roundtable Friday, January 19 with colleagues from the School of Global and International Studies. The discussion at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, programmed in conjunction with an exhibition of Syrian jewelry and textiles, also featured Iman Alramadan and Asaad Alsaleh, faculty members in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.
The unprecedented displacement and devastation Syria has experienced since 2011 might be attributed to the scale of the conflict. The term “civil war” is a gross misnomer in this situation, Dunn suggests. “What was at first a civil war and then a regional conflict,” she asserts, “has now become a global geopolitical conflict that is taking place on the terrain of Syria.” The conflict ceased to be a civil war soon after the Free Syrian Army rose up against the Assad regime during the Arab Spring, Dunn explained. Confronted with this show of democracy, Assad sought help from Iran, mounting a highly military response. “Once Iran got involved, other outside powers joined in the Syrian civil war,” Dunn explained, including the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, the US, Russia, the Kurds, and non-state actors such as ISIS and al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
“This is what accounts for the enormous destruction and longevity of this war,” Dunn said, “because it’s a proxy war.”
Dunn and fellow panelist Alsaleh partnered to present a timeline of the allegiances and divisions that have contributed to Syria’s current state of affairs. The assistant professor of Arabic literature, comparative and cultural studies reprised the century since Syria wrested independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Tracing Syrian political history from the French occupation in the 1920s and the subsequent partitioning of the country into six states along ethnic lines, Alsaleh noted Syria’s renewed independence in 1947, its fleeting union with Egypt in the United Arab Republic, repeated Ba’athist coups in the 1960s, and hostilities with Israel in 1967 and 1973. Identifying the Assad family as the “major mover of recent Syrian history,” Alsaleh also charted the emergence of one of the greatest challenges to it – the Muslim Brotherhood, which since the late 1970s has persisted in trying to topple the Assad regime.
The devastation that seven years of war have wreaked on Syria became abundantly evident in a pair of slides Dunn shared with the audience. The contrast between two satellite views of Syria taken three years apart as part of a NASA’s project designed to measure urban density was startling. In the photo from 2012, the aerial view of Syria at night was sprayed with brightness. In the 2015 shot, the country was 83% darker, a few forlorn spots of light marking Damascus, Aleppo, and the few extant cities.
“Imagine, your home having electricity for only an hour every eight hours,” Aleppo native and NELC lecturer Alramadan prompted the audience. “Imagine your home also doesn’t have gas, so you can’t cook. Imagine having to burn your only pair of shoes just to provide warmth for your children. Imagine your children suffocating from the toxic burning of plastic in the air. Imagine with me your little child has hearing deficiencies not because he was born this way, but because of hearing the sounds of bombs, constant shooting, and military planes.”
The grim imaginative journey was supplemented by a wrenching series of slides. Alramadan explained that she had received some of the photos from a resident of Aleppo only minutes before the presentation because Internet connectivity is so infrequent and unpredictable. The assault the war has delivered to the country’s infrastructure was borne out by such images as that of a tangled web of hoses piping water from a well into holes drilled into the wall of an apartment building, or teachers in a roofless school burning desks to bake bread. On top of the material devastation, Alramadan explained, the instability and violence of daily life in Syria compels chronic displacement. “My own family has moved six times,” she explained.
The displacement of people inside and outside the country is not temporary, Dunn explained, because of the extent of the damage and the tenuousness of the political situation. “Even if the war ends tomorrow, it doesn’t mean that refugees will be able to go home. The peace is volatile and unstable. It’s very difficult for people to return if they don’t have assurance that there’s going to be a positive security situation; that they and their family won’t attacked if they return. Even if the war ended tomorrow, I would estimate that it will be over a decade before they can rebuild enough to have all the population return. The economy is in a shambles, so people will not return until they can be assured of making a living, and that’s going to be very difficult to restart given that most businesses and manufacturing facilities have been utterly destroyed.”
The unlikelihood of Syria’s viability in the near future compels a reexamination of migration policies, in Dunn’s view. Current US policy not only shirks responsibility in the face of the humanitarian crisis, she asserts, but compromises global security. “Keeping people in limbo permanently is what leads them to radicalize.” There’s an element of magical thinking that guides policy on the refugee situation, Dunn suggests: “It’s like turning off your porch lights and pretending that makes your neighbors disappear.”
Alramadan has been doing some magical thinking of her own. “My dream,” she concluded, “is for the people of Syria to wake up to the sound of birds and not bombs.”