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In the early days of the Syrian uprising-turned civil war three years ago, the writing on the wall of it becoming an intricate regional and international conflict was there for all to see. Palestinians in Syria were likely to find themselves a pawn in a dirty war, but few could have predicted the magnitude of the crisis, and perhaps, few cared.
Despite their many differences, there are two common denominators that unite all the parties involved in the Syrian conflict. One is that they are all contributing, directly or otherwise, to the killing of Syrians with unmitigated impunity, savageness even. And, two, in the same breath, they all pose as defenders of the Syrian people. It is not a puzzle, but the nature of dirty conflicts.
Yet all the ‘defenders’ of the Syrian people, with no exception, are now scarred. No media campaign, hearty speech or amount of money could alter this reality. The regime of Bashar al-Assad can make all sorts of claims, but there is no changing the fact that the Syrian army has killed thousands of innocent Syrian civilians. The same logic applies to the opposition and their allies, some hastily declaring ‘Islamic states’ and emirates on conquered territories.
The Syrian people can never peacefully co-exist with the current power structure in Damascus, nor with those offering themselves as the alternative.
Outside parties are equally culpable. Iran, Iraq, Turkey, various Lebanese forces, including Hezbollah, Russia, the EU, the US, and of course, Gulf countries, have done more than a fair share of damage. They often meet in whichever political forum they have concocted to save the Syrian people, yet somehow, their actions – selective and utterly self-involved – seem to achieve the opposite outcome.
Where are the ‘friends of Syria’ – of all the parties above – as Syrian children continue to die from the cold in refugee camps within or outside the borders of Syria? Why are the refugees being treated with absolute neglect, if not revulsion in some Arab countries bordering Syria to the extent that some elect to flee back to the war inferno at home?
Arab media oftentimes suppress reports of abuse of Syrian women in refugee camps based in countries to which the refugees fled for protection. Some are kidnapped and sold for prostitution; others are raped with no consequences. It is strange how sensitive some are regarding women’s honor, yet nothing is done to bring their dishonoring to an end.
As for the children, one can never overstate the horror of a child dying from cold, hunger or bullet wounds, without having a basic conception of who is inflicting such terror or why. The Syrian survivors among this generation will grow up very angry, and rightfully so. The consequences are likely to be as severe as the resultant from the anger that brewed following the US invasion of Iraq over a decade ago. Iraq is now caught in an endless fury.
For Palestinians, anger is compounded. There is the destruction of Syria, a country that despite its many deficiencies, once hosted the ‘axis of resistance’ – the last battle front for those standing up against Israeli militancy and US hegemony. Regardless of the justification behind their intervention, they have all been discredited. A young Syrian man told me about his cousin, who left Lebanon to fight in Syria and was killed by Hezbollah. “Yes, I cried,” he said. “My brother urged me to ‘have faith’, but I don’t see why crying is a sign of lacking faith.” One could have hardly imagined a scenario in which Hezbollah, once celebrated as the liberator of Arab land, be used in so miserable a context. The cards are getting more and more mixed up by the day, and, once more, all are tainted, and none are innocent. Israeli leaders must be pleased by the spectacle.
Then, there is the siege of Yarmouk, a large refugee camp for Palestinian refugees and working class Syrians located on the outskirts of Damascus. The hermetic siege will be remembered by historians along such infamous memories like that of Deir Yassin, Sabra and Shatilla, Jenin and Gaza. This time, Israel is hardly a direct factor in the starvation, killings and humiliation of tens of thousands of Palestinians undergoing one of the most suffocating sieges in the modern history of warfare. Yes, Yarmouk’s residents became refugees because of Israel’s ethnic cleaning of Palestinians in 1948, but there can be no justification to the current disgrace experienced at the hands of Arab armies and militias.
Whenever a rumor goes around that a few bags of food have somehow made their way to the camp, thousands of people run around in complete desperation, begging for crumbs. Most of them go back empty handed, often greeted with gunfire. Scores have starved to death since the siege was imposed on Yarmouk last year. The Syrian government blames the rebels, the latter blame the government. Evidence emerging from the camp suggests they are both liable.
“An old Palestinian woman arrived as we finished distributing whatever aid we managed to bring into the camp,” Laila, a Luxembourgian friend who bravely went to Syria along with some others told me. “We had none left, but the woman kept on begging and talking about her grandchildren dying from hunger,” she said as she fought her tears. “Suddenly, one government soldier attacked her with so much brutality, beating her up over every party of her body. We were so shocked and terrified by the scene, we could do nothing as the skinny old woman wailed in pain.”
Yet, not a single Arabic news channel or publication ever takes a break from championing the cause of Palestine, and, now Syria. Arab leaders oftentimes wear Palestinian traditional scarves (kuffiyas) as gestures of solidarity. They pay respect to the Palestinian flag at every opportunity, and once in a while, with much fanfare, announce a large financial contribution to build a mosque or a hospital that naturally carries their name. Official Syrian channels still speak of the looming battle to liberate Jerusalem. Yet, Arab fingerprints are all over much of the misery that has befallen Palestinians, whether in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria or elsewhere.
Syrians need to remember the Palestinian experience that has lasted 65 years and counting, and not only within the Israeli context, but in that of ethnic cleansing and military occupation. With all the self-proclaimed ‘liberators’ that have come and gone, all the slogans, conferences, press statements, poetry, mass prayers, generous announcements of aid and all the rest, most Palestinians in the Middle East continue to live in squalid refugee camps. They are the subject of numerous books, articles and documentaries, yet few come to their rescue as they are forced to eat the few homeless dogs and cats in their refugee camps to survive. Yarmouk is a testament to that despondent legacy, which many continue to ignore, while continuously speaking of ‘Arab brotherhood’ and ‘Arab solidarity’.
Syrians need only to reflect on the collective Palestinian history of destitute to predict their own future if they don’t take charge of their own destiny, independent from all the parties that declare undying love for Syria and its people.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London).