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How people outside Syria can think about helping Syrians

Syrian residents, fleeing violence in the restive Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, arrive in Aleppo's Fardos neighbourhood on December 13, 2016.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

No lack of urgent wordsmithing has emerged in recent weeks to describe the human tragedy befalling Aleppo. Waves of compassion, empathy, anger, and despair now wash up against the name of the Syrian city. The cost of human life and political loss is hard to comprehend.

Last week’s outpouring of “goodbye” posts from activists and residents of East Aleppo pushed the frustration of bystanders and witnesses outside the stronghold of the Syrian Revolution to a collective breaking point. With renewed urgency, we asked, we cried out, and were asked again: What can be done watching this misery? What concrete political actions can respond to the emergency of human suffering in Aleppo?

As a way to answer that question, I want to consider it carefully. (Because I am not under Assad’s bombs in Aleppo. Because I have the time and space for deliberation. Because my privilege — some call it luck — affords me something that is being robbed from others elsewhere.) I want to try to consider the question of what can be done? as an act of sustenance instead of a cry of despair. I want to try to imagine it as a deep breath in the breathless race against time and death in Aleppo and elsewhere. If you have space to breathe, breathe with me.

I am part of a generation that came alive politically leading up to, and through, the protest and revolt and counterrevolution of the past decade. I spent most of the weeks of Egypt’s January 25 revolution glued to a screen, in tears: for the walls that were crumbling down, for the recognition of what had been my own Arab-American apathy and cynicism, for the new world of possibilities that was surely opening. And in that bright year that was 2011, I saw change spread. Student movements across the US lit up. I saw and met and changed with others in a wave of new interaction and negotiation with administrations, with fellow students, and with police.

In the years that followed, however, it became all but naïve to hold on to even shreds of the enthusiasm of 2011. The walls we thought were crumbling in that year came back as knives. And as the strikes of repression and oppression came, the strategies to rally each other also lost elasticity. Wounded, we responded when others were also, already wounded. It took more and more to rouse our attention from the fatigue and exhaustion each navigated alone.

The current question of what to do to alleviate suffering in Aleppo is one point on the long end of this exhaustion (much longer than I’ve pointed to here in fact, sustained by much more effort and energy than I can do justice to here). The calls for urgent action reverberate in large part around the emergency of this moment, sounding against what we understand as cold indifference. We must act now, because of the level of crisis, because of the lack of time. And because urgent responses are needed so urgently, if we don’t act or aren’t acting, it must be that we don’t care.

These assumptions of indifference are perhaps misleading. More importantly, they depoliticize a range of possible political actions that could be taken as a response to watching emergency unfold in Aleppo. My concern in this moment of the history of counterrevolution is that despite the need for urgent aid, the processes of political mobilization that are also needed are not being attended to, overshadowed or even disabled by urgent calls for immediate action.

In a short essay, the Italian philosopher and political theorist Giorgio Agamben writes:

Plans exist today for all kinds of emergencies (ecological, medical, military), but there is no politics to prevent them. On the contrary, we can say that politics secretly works towards the production of emergencies. It is the task of democratic politics to prevent the development of conditions which led to hatred, terror, and destruction and not to limit itself to attempts to control them once they occur.

It is too cynical to suggest that the urgent calls for help for and from the residents of Eastern Aleppo in recent days and weeks perpetuate politics as the “production of emergency.” I have no intention of belittling either the desperate conditions in any city under siege, or the efforts of those committed to curb them. This pain, loss, and despair are not to be nodded to and then brushed aside as convenient foreplay for political theorizing. But in this breath I am able to take, I want to ask: Do our answers to the question of what can be done also include the long view of democratic politics that Agamben points to?

It is in this spirit that I offer the following as unconventional, perhaps, but possibilities nonetheless for concrete political action that, in responding to the immediate crisis, work in the long term. It is moving toward thinking differently about the question what is to be done?

1) There is no easy fix to feel useful

This is the first thing. Perhaps you’re not useful. Perhaps you’re just human watching other humans kill each other. Perhaps this is a moment to think about the world we could create and to acknowledge that it will take time.

2) Of course, that is not a reason to stop paying attention

Find alternative media. Seek out different narratives. If they’re not on the news where you get your news, change your news. (One can do this constantly, times infinity. To start, apply in the directions of places/people with which you are concerned to express specific political solidarity).

Platforms like Jadaliyya have been publishing in-depth commentary, analysis, and interviews on Syria and beyond for years. Platforms like Global Voices and Syria Deeply curate citizen reporting and interviews from Syria in English, in Arabic, and in other languages. Syria Untold has curated profiles of alternative media within Syria.

At the same time, it is worth recognizing that the human costs of the Syrian war have been well-documented, especially compared to other conflicts in the region and outside of it. The BBC, Al Jazeera English, Democracy Now, and every major US and European news platform across the political spectrum has been covering the transformation from uprising to civil war for some time.

As others have noted, the bigger problem that has emerged around Syria is the proliferation of partisan representation that directs discourse in specific ways, not the lack of coverage. This points us to the fact, then, that more coverage is also not a fix. The complexity of the Syrian civil war and its media landscapes underscores the necessity of being able to navigate coverage, narratives, and representations. This brings us to the next point.

3) Educate yourself about the history of power and foreign intervention in the region

For some, the introduction to the violence of the Syrian civil war is rather new, perhaps even as recently as Gary Johnson’s “what’s Aleppo?” gaffe; for others perhaps since the use of chemical weapons on Syrians in Eastern Ghouta; or the refugee crisis; or since the rise of ISIS.

For others it is older, perhaps since the opening of the Syrian Revolution; or maybe since Hafez al Assad massacred political opponents in Homs in 1982. Others know all too intimately what Baʿathist state power has felt like and done. All of these horizons of “knowing” Syria intersect in the struggle to know what to do and how to act in the face of new tragedy and new destruction in Aleppo and elsewhere.

Note that we have terrible wars in the Middle East caused in large part by overt, foreign (Western) eagerness to intervene (Iraq, Palestine, Libya). But note also that we also have terrible wars in the Middle East perpetuated by muted or indirect (Western) intervention (Syria, Yemen).

Without making pretenses about the leftist credentials of any party, in Syria or outside of it, left-leaning solidarity must reinvent what it means to act “in solidarity,” where campaigning for non-intervention is one strategy and not the only mode of engagement or debate. We have to know what people are and have been fighting against and how. We have to be able to listen and to act when a group of people says, “a-sha’b yureed isqat a-nizam [the people want the fall of the regime],” and not only when they say, “this is my last post, goodbye.” We must be aware how governments use and manipulate popular opinion for political ends. We must produce and sustain nuance. We cannot do this without knowledge. In this context, reading is also political action.

(For example, one could read political analyses of the contemporary Middle East like this, this, this. The list is endless, really. Reading fiction and poetry written in and about contemporary Arab life can also be a political and politicizing act. See here for recommendations of must read literature by some of the region and its diaspora’s most successful authors. Neither of these lists are focused exclusively on Syria.)

4) Ask about money and religion

How do they get used? Who benefits? This includes humanitarianism. This includes religious fundamentalism. This includes military assistance. The answers are not easy. It’s not about finding “bad guys.” It’s about starting to curb the influence of words and institutions like “terrorism,” “human rights,” and “democracy.” If you do not understand what I mean, this is what I mean. Start here.

5) Dig into the roots of the Syrian revolution

This is not being an apologist for “the rebels” or a blind supporter of one or other of sectarian groups that have splintered from and out of the protests of 2011 to 2013. There are deep internet archives for the political expression that Assad and his allies are trying to eradicate and for the debate and disagreement that has led to the crises we see today. When a peace deal is reached, its primary goal may be to stop violence, and not a complete resolution of political demands. Acting in solidarity might then mean sustaining a memory of the efforts and the people that have been killed and the ideas over which they were willing to risk and give their lives. Solidarity can be this too: keeping memory, debate, and discussion alive in abeyance.

6) Donating is generous. But recognize that you are building a Band-Aid, not fixing a problem.

Of course, we are in a situation where thousands of lives now depend on this aid. Several lists of places to donate now circulate. Like this one, this one, and this one.

7) There are refugees where you live. Solidarity can be local.

Plug into the networks that support immigrants and refugees. These also accept donations. These accept your time.

They do not have to be Syrian. The world is full of violence pushing and pulling people away from their homes. Do not make hierarchies of suffering. Do not romanticize your contributions. There are people in your city who are working for the same things you are. Go find them.

8) Vote against borders. Vote for social security and public education. Mobilize for open societies. Organize against walls.

Can your body go down to your streets? Engaging in the political struggles in your city is also solidarity. The internationalist framework that will block the Assads and the imperialism of tomorrow is being built now: in the struggles for open borders and immigration; in the fight for living wages and affordable housing; in the demands for accessible education and clean water and air; and in resistance against debt, police brutality, and surveillance.

The fact that the product of this intersection of political struggles will come too late to protect those under Syrian and Russian bombs today does not mean it is not worth pursuing. If you care about what is happening in Syria, care about what is happening in the place(s) you call home.

9) Bring the world into your life

Bring the wide, ugly, brutal world into your conceptualization of nation, of unity, of love, of friendship, of home, of sisterhood. How can you do this? (This is an open question.)

10) But really don’t do any of it if it’s about you feeling better

People are dying. Mourn them.

Rayya El Zein is a Visiting Scholar at the Tsereteli Oriental Institute at Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a PhD in Theatre from the Graduate Center, CUNY, where her research focused on the development of politics and notions of resistance in contemporary Arab music and performance.


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