The Syrian Trauma

Peter Harling

EVERY NOW AND THEN, the conflict in Syria produces an iconic image of horror and suffering, which many brandish as an undisputable truth that will finally shake the world into “doing something”. Others break down at the sight of such images, or instinctively avert their senses. Mass killings and disappearances, industrial-scale torture and sexual abuse, gruesome staged executions, starvation tactics, the continued use of chemical weapons, napalm, cluster and barrel bombs, not to forget the torments of desperate emigration – all have spawned morbid emblems of their own.  

For the public at large, as well as most officials tasked with the chore of “managing Syria”, such visions come and go, leaving at best a fleeting malaise – subliminal inserts disturbing, imperceptibly, an otherwise repetitious film. But for those who have experienced more intimately the monstrosity of this conflict, these impressions stick, accumulate and take over. Repressing them becomes a largely unconscious daily struggle, and a losing one at that: they lurk in the shadowy parts of the mind; they thicken and grow heavier with time; and they pounce in a moment of weakness. 

Millions of Syrians of all stripes have incurred massive psychological damage, and sport unmistakable telltale symptoms. On the frontlines, fighters have long been anesthetized to the point of becoming indifferent to their own fate and that of their comrades. Yet numbness also permeates society more broadly. Syrians in exile often feel too guilty vis-à-vis the dead and dying to get on with their own lives. Obsessional behaviors – notably following the news in ways that reinforce both one’s opinions and anxieties – are the norm, but often coexist with nagging self-doubt and depression. Many mechanically go on whitewashing a regime or a revolution that long ago betrayed everything they claimed to stand for, simply for fear of facing the void – the collapse of whatever is left to cling to.

As this trauma deepens and protracts, Syrians grow ever more isolated and alienated — from one another and from all those gravitating around them, often meaning to help but generally failing to listen. This failure has to date precluded a coherent policy toward Syria, and — if not addressed sooner, rather than later — will continue to shape the conflict in the months and years ahead.

Layers upon layer of pain

Arguably, all conflicts are traumatic. More than 25 years after their civil war, the lifestyle and worldview of Lebanese are still shaped by the experience, influencing how they position themselves politically, how they assess strangers and in which neighborhoods they choose to live, down to where they shop and on which roads they drive. They are also passing much of this down to their offspring, who more often than not draw the same mental map, blotting out whole swaths of their own society; even when they interact in neutral spaces, young Lebanese from different backgrounds tend to know precious little about each other. Iraqis, who arguably were subjected to greater violence still, are scarred in ways that could shape their destiny for generations to come.  A new generation that grew up in cantonized communities often has only the faintest, most stereotyped understanding of their brethren across the communal wall.  

Syria seems nonetheless to bring in something different, hard to pin down — an elusive truth that is precisely what we should not fail to understand. Indeed there are many layers to the Syrian trauma. First, Syrian culture, in normal times, is remarkably civil. The Syrian dialect of Arabic is ravishingly polite. Education is a source of national pride. Unlike many other parts of the Arab world, urbane mores permeated the countryside more than a rural ethos reshaped the city. Communal coexistence, edgy on occasions, was nevertheless a profession of faith.

Violence was there, no doubt, but only occasionally burst forth from beneath the surface: honor killings in the countryside, sporadic clashes between Kurds and Arabs, and failed uprisings led by the Druze or elements of the Muslim Brotherhood were among the rare exceptions. The most pervasive species of violence — the detentions, torture and executions perfected by the regime’s security apparatus — was all the more sinister for its absolute secrecy. Then, after 2011, violence became all-encompassing: swelling, escalating, engulfing and ravaging everything Syrians once believed in. All the horrible exceptions of the past were now the norm, shaking to its core the Syrian sense of self.

Second, Syrians are devastated by their own delusions. The sublime revolutionary illusion, which still drives many of them five years on, has degenerated beyond redemption. Meanwhile, on the other side, most presumed “loyalists” discern, deep down, that the regime has committed the irreparable and unforgivable, hurtling down a path from which there is no return. They know, although they can’t admit it, that what is left of a state is a fallacy and a fraud. And still, all continue to make immense sacrifices in the name of a cause however corrupted. There is, seemingly, no way back for anyone.

Third, the war has been bewildering in its sheer density and hybrid nature, borrowing from every conceivable genre of human cruelty. Organs were eaten, heads chopped off, children gassed, and whole neighborhoods starved to death. Untold numbers have disappeared in a gulag of prisons. Volunteers from around the world have joined both camps, contributing new varieties of horror (with the Islamic State keen not to be outdone). States have intervened and interfered, to make things unfailingly worse.   

Organs were eaten, head chopped off, children gassed

The Syrian war is, so to speak, the defining conflict of the era: a confusing mix of sub-dynamics that seem to have no overarching structure beyond a hodgepodge of failed agendas from the past – Western democratization, Russia reenacting the cold war, Turkey’s promotion of Islamists and containment of the Kurds, and so on. All parties seem to fight on like automatons, because they are incapable of formulating any attainable vision for the future, and hence take pride simply in exploiting their opponents’ own crimes.

Fourth, therefore, is the incredible sense of waste that comes from a conflict where no one appears to be even trying to achieve anything, other than stay the course – an unusual war where the endgame is left generally undefined. If defined at all it is through vague, aspirational goals – topple the regime, take back the country, stop the violence, defeat terror – divorced from any serious strategy. Syrians and foreigners alike are guilty of this, leaving everyone in a state of limbo that is awkward for outsiders but excruciating for the concerned. The former have other things going on in their lives. For the latter every day is a torment. And unlike the tantalizing punishments of Greek mythology, theirs is one for which there is no apparent reason.

Suppressing Syrians

In truth, Syrians are remarkably pragmatic and realistic already. They have been extraordinarily resilient and entrepreneurial in every aspect of this tragedy: in challenging the regime; putting down the uprising; adjusting to the economy of want and violence; crafting horrendous improvised weapons; innovating in the field of desperate emigration; and meticulously documenting all the above, arguably more extensively than in any conflict in history. Not to mention formidable communication strategies designed to grab the outside world’s imagination – from the English-language witticisms emanating from the rebellious village of Kafranbel to the regime’s proven magnetism with visiting journalists, officials and experts.

But their resourcefulness has been stretched to its limits, and denying their pain won’t help them go beyond. On the contrary, meeting Syrians’ anguish with indifference makes them still more obsessed with it. In response, they circulate more icons of horror, hoping someone will act, or at least understand. Such images may bounce off our comfort zones, but they endlessly reverberate within the boundaries of Syrians’ worlds, jumping at them from one or the other of the many screens that populate their lives. As such, in trying to be heard, Syrians confine themselves to a self-reinforcing cycle of trauma.

Meanwhile, statements and commentaries on the conflict all too often illustrate the dearth of sensible, poised thinking taking into account the anguished subjectivities of the victims. They run the gamut from detached pontificating, as if this war was merely an intellectual object of interest, to simplistic punditry, deliberately disregarding (if not provoking) the sensitivities of large constituencies that are needed to move toward a solution, through to high-pitched cries projecting all sorts of fears and fantasies irrelevant to the Syrian plight.

Reasonable officials who claim to be working to solve the conflict (and oftentimes truly believe it) generally assume that they are the only ones who make sense, and yet virtually all the “realpolitik” ideas bandied around are premised on some wild assumption. Just defeat the Islamic State and bring the opposition to heel, and a regime that has gone to every extremity not to reform, will somehow do so. Multiply local ceasefires – generally based on starving and bombing areas into capitulation – and true reconciliation will come. Or keep the regime’s structures, remove Bashar Assad, and things will fall into place. As if the tyrant hadn’t long proofed himself against any imaginable alternative—which is precisely why things escalated and degenerated to this point in the first place.

Virtually all realpolitik ideas are premised on some wild assumption

More importantly, the conventional wisdom of solution-finders ignores the psychological realities among Syrians. Alawites, who by no means represent the bulk of the regime, but have served as a hard core defending it, are so transfixed by their fears of eradication that they will resist any attempt to transform it. Their sacrifices, meanwhile, have been colossal: they expect to be repaid for them—certainly not to pay an additional price for any crime.

There is no reason to assume greater stoicism at the receiving end of the regime’s violence. At a time when no official in the international arena even raises the issue of transitional justice, or believes in any chance of holding Damascus accountable, the notion that Syrians subjected to its mind-boggling brutality would collectively suck it up is absurd. There are many forms of trauma and all will have to be accounted for, one way or another.  

A lady whose heart lies with an opposition she nonetheless loathes, whose husband works for a regime he hates equally, and who is therefore somewhat illustrative of the ambivalence and confusion ordinary among Syrians, aptly summed up how impractical the pragmatists can be: “I can’t stand how all these politicians and commentators talk about us. They talk and talk, but all we know is more suffering, more layers of complications. Any prospect of real closure is receding. To move on we will need some minimal sense of justice. Without that we can’t have reconciliation with each other, nor even within ourselves. So far we’re all stuck. And the way things are going there will be no moving on with our lives.”

From this sentiment we can begin to imagine the worldview of someone whose family was decimated by one faction or another, and remind ourselves that—unless their emotional trauma is addressed—a critical mass of Syrians will reject solutions or fail to adjust to them, regardless of how “sensible” or “inevitable” they may seem to others.

Yet the space Syrians need to voice their trauma has been shrinking relentlessly. Their perspectives are suppressed not just by the regime. Within the opposition, despotic armed groups, taboos related to self-criticism and a general sense of despair have combined to silence much of the boisterous freedom of speech that existed in the early stages of the uprising. 

On social media, many Syrians, who once traded news and opinions daily within like-minded groups that offered at least some comfort and sense of belonging, have tended to lose interest in such echo chambers and grow more secluded and depressed. Conventional media, which they turn to compulsively, have long developed stereotyped narratives based on agendas removed from local sensitivities and concerns. 

The aid effort has also been moving away, over time, from a burgeoning Syrian civil society, seeking expedient refuge with UN agencies, large NGOs and, increasingly, institutions affiliated with the regime itself. Donors default to supporting what they would like to see happen—funding “stabilization” even as the war continues to escalate and “dialogue” in the absence of any basis for reconciliation. Generally speaking, for lack of a capacity to articulate and advocate their own priorities, Syrian recipients have largely locked themselves into donor-driven programming they simultaneously resent.

Everywhere, it appears genuine victims are too shrill to be heard

On the political level, what exists of a “peace process” centered in Geneva seeks to bridge the conflicting visions of great powers while paying lip service to Syrian representation. Syrians most listened to are those who understand what is expected of them: to speak the language of “realpolitik,” even when that means that their views are meaningless and repugnant to people on the ground. Everywhere, it appears genuine victims are too shrill to be heard.

As the conflict endures, “solution-seekers” increasingly find things complicated enough as they are, without having to take into account the traumatic ground truths Syrians clamor about. The longer the list of monstrosities committed, the more its items are treated anecdotally, as regrettable complications that should not distract from more serious business. 

In other words, “solutions” increasingly appear to lie in euphemizing the violence and suffering (whenever it is not at the hands of the Islamic State). In a sense, the fate of the victims is handled by people who would like them to work harder to keep their problems to themselves. The non-traumatized would be grateful if the traumatized could make their lives easier.

Listening to the suffering, saving ourselves

Syrians don’t need more people lecturing them on what their future should be. There are plenty of them, none with any claim to knowing what is best until they do some demonstrable good on the ground. A mere ceasefire may be a start in principle. But it also has been, repeatedly, an alibi, for the US and the UN to pretend to have achieved something, and for others—such as Russia and the regime—to regroup and push their advantage militarily. Whenever gaining time is the only outcome, Syrians lose collectively. 

Our massive moral failure has been a source of public embarrassment and personal unease for many officials involved in the conflict’s management. Gradually they have been gravitating toward a solution to their own psychological tension: “stopping the violence” to appease themselves, even at the expense of diminishing any prospect of closure for Syrians. Such self-centeredness has become, in itself, an obstacle to any progress: all the policy talk about “what can we do” will remain empty until its meaning becomes “what can we do for millions of Syrians” and not “what can we do to rid ourselves of the problem.” 

Our moral stupor is not inconsequential, although many people would be tempted to say so, on the basis of some cynical view about archaic struggles between sects and tribes, the intrinsic ugliness of war, a lack of “national interests” in Syria, or foreign policy understood as the natural realm of unprincipled goals. A parallel with a molested child bluntly illustrates the callous logic that seems to apply to Syria: should a victim, raped by its relatives, stay silent? Is it more convenient than shame? Is it more cost-effective than years of an arduous process toward uncertain recovery? Why even take the trouble? How can such questions have obvious answers when applied to one person, yet meet only confusion when they concern millions?

There are serious, practical consequences to our bewilderment, some of which affect us directly. Indeed the Syrian conflict, as currently managed, is fast eroding the international system of governance constructed since the Second World War, largely in America’s image. That US hegemony would today be beaten back is an inevitable and—for many—welcome development, as the set of values underpinning international affairs was always contrived and prone to double standards. But the wholesale undoing of what structured the interplay of nations is a frightening prospect nonetheless.

Syria is essentially putting paid to human rights. Such principles as protection or asylum are becoming a bad joke, along with any notion of international justice. Sacrosanct norms like the prohibition of chemical weapons are being spectacularly reversed. It is mystifying that people who like to see the Syrian regime as a “lesser evil”, preferable to chaos, evidently favor anarchy over the existing system of international governance, with all its warts. 

The wholesale undoing of what structured the interplay of nations is a frightening prospect

As these old organizing pillars are being demolished, the only conceptual and operational framework to truly shape foreign policy is counterterrorism in its various forms. But “terrorism” is a conveniently protean concept: unlike chemical weapons, it has no clear-cut definition, and can be reshaped and reframed to fit anyone’s needs. Terrorism, all told, serves only to legitimate another variety of typically unrestrained violence. In other words, it furthers the dismantling of any agreed-upon norms. It is ironic that Obama — still seen by his supporters as epitomizing the best of Western liberal values—would in fact have presided over their destruction as the organizing factor, for better or worse, of world affairs.    

It is not just the US hurting itself. Allowing a crisis of this nature to fester on the doorstep of Europe has predictably played a decisive role in tearing the continent apart. Even Washington’s enemies should think twice before rejoicing. The kind of meltdown Syria has witnessed sets a precedent for equally nightmarish scenarios elsewhere—Russia and China’s decaying backyard in Central Asia springs to mind.

It is counterintuitive that such a diminutive country, with few natural resources, a small population, and military-assets and institutions worthy of a banana republic, would become the crux of our global order. This bizarre contrast is no excuse for having no semblance of a policy – aside from punting and prevaricating – five years in. Wishing for this anomaly to go away guarantees it will haunt us for many years to come.

Syrians from all camps will have to be listened to, if we are to build any realism into our purported solutions. Any way forward that would avoid cyclical violence and instability will flow from the victims. Crimes will ultimately be avenged, forgotten or redeemed on their terms, not on the whims of officials sitting in Washington, Moscow or Tehran. Certainly, there is much we cannot do to advance the cause of peace, to prevent horrors on the ground, to distribute food and medicine to those who need them, and to host Syrians in our societies. We surely could (and should) do much more, but certain limitations are real. There is, however, not the smallest obstacle to improving our listening, empathy and understanding.  

This is more important to Syrians than we tend to assume, and so much more useful than crowding them out with our empty words. And if we can’t muster the humanity to do it for them, perhaps we can do so to save ourselves from the self-destructive consequences of our own moral foundering.

28 September 2016

Peter Harling is the founder and director of Synaps

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