It was the very early hours of a hot August morning in Turkey when I said goodbye to Zeinah, Samir and their three children as they were getting ready for their final push for Europe, the crossing to the Greek island whose light five miles away could be seen from the Turkish coast.
As the tourist town’s night clubs were getting ready to close, the Syrian family whom I had met a few days ago were making their final preparations to board the boat that would take them to Europe. Zeinah’s last words to me were, “This journey breaks our hearts. We fear what might be ahead of us but the horrors we left behind gave us no choice. Pray for us. We will return some day”.
On the way to the harbour to catch my boat that would take me as a tourist to the very same island, I walked by luxury yachts berthed along the concrete water front. The minarets of the mosques started the morning call to prayer, and I did say a prayer for the family, something I remembered from an anti-war rally back in Dublin: “War and occupation will never bring liberation. That’s bullshit! Come off it. This war is for profit”. Not knowing any Muslim prayers, somehow it felt cheesy to whisper a slogan. I heard myself saying “Selamün aleyküm” in other words “Peace be upon you”.
But there was no peace to be upon us. As my ferry was getting ready to depart, a coast guard boat, towing a semi-deflated dinghy, brought in tens of refugees; all wet, many of them children. Among the passengers were five body bags, two of them no bigger than child size. It wasn’t the group Zeinah and her family were in.
Contrary to my plan I didn’t see them on the Greek island. Who knows? Selamün aleyküm…
Zeinah and her family were just a few of the millions who found themselves running away from war, bombs and ever harsher conditions in their homeland. In the beginning, like many refugees, they were hopeful that the uprising in Syria would bring a new, a better life; but it failed. Instead Syrian skies were filled with US, British, Russian, French war planes and the cities were bombed by Assad’s army, jihadist groups and sectarian forces supported by various regional powers. Collectively they killed tens of thousands of people and choked the revolution in Syria that Zeinah had so much hoped for.
ISIS had emerged from the destruction of Iraq by the US led war in 2003. The situation in Syria gave them an opportunity to establish themselves as a reactionary sectarian force. Today, ISIS has become a perfect excuse for the US, the Russians, other Western and regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi and Iran, to intervene in Syria and bomb it from the air and the ground. Assad and Russian bombing of Aleppo is just another example of this horror inflicted on the people of Syria, using “terrorism” as an excuse to drop bombs on an already devastated city.
There is a very messy situation in Syria with different groups fighting with each other but we should remember that these groups are also supported and armed by rival imperialist and regional powers for their own interest in the region. But these are not just simply puppets of imperialism. They have their own interests and agenda, sometimes coming in direct conflict with the interests of the imperialists. Imperialists, be it the US led powers or the Russians, have no total control of the situation. That is the reason why we have seen an ever-changing situation in Syria with various alliances formed and broken in the past five years as the war continued to escalate.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 destroyed the country and fuelled the sectarian divide. Iraqi governments supported by the US and the West have brutally repressed various rallies by fragilely united sections of the society against economic conditions and the ongoing presence of foreign forces. The crushing of these attempts has given rise to further desperation and deeper sectarian division. This very sectarian divide is then used as an excuse for further interventions.
Today, as we are told that “Mosul is being liberated”, the real danger is the total destruction of the city and the fighting between rival local forces. Already, thousands or people are trapped between ISIS and US-Iraqi led forces bombing Mosul. Another wave of displaced people has already begun.
Then there is the war in Yemen, waged by 10 countries led by the Saudis. Recently the US has also taken part in bombing Yemen. Disturbed by the Iranian supported Houthi control of the country, the Saudis are keen to bomb the country for as long as it takes to have their say in Yemen’s future. During the Arab Spring, the Saudi kingdom played a crucial role in quashing the peaceful Yemeni uprisings. Currently, as millions of people are being displaced, facing starvation and death, the country is sinking into further chaos.
The conditions for the people of Iraq, Syria and Yemen are desperate. Being attacked by all sides, ordinary people who rose up during Arab Spring have little opportunity immediately to change their conditions but every bombing campaign, every foreign intervention, further reduces their chances of freeing themselves from dictatorial regimes and sectarian forces.
But, as the Arab Spring showed, no country is isolated from the rest. Despite the defeat of the Arab Spring revolutions, people will rise up again. Even in Iraq, various groups still try to come together to protest against not just the war but also against austerity and lack of democracy. Arab revolutions re-emerging in Egypt and other places are the key for people’s freedom in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other countries.
But, will it happen? It took Western imperialism more than 13 years to destroy Iraq. Yes, given the chance, people will rise up against the dictators, the sectarian forces and the imperialist powers.
And Zeinah will return home