One of the greatest aspects of traveling is the way it informs our worldview. That idea may just be suggested by our blog’s title. After living in the UAE for the better part of a year, I’ve made many acquaintances and built some relationships. These allow me to see things from a different perspective. One of these relationships is with a fellow from Syria. He’s friendly and easy going. He’s Christian, and he’s invited us to join him at church, and though we haven’t been able to make it happen thus far, we really want to. How cool would it be to be at a church service conducted in Arabic? I’ll answer my own question: pretty dang cool. Anyway, on to the point: I’ve gained a new vantage point on a country and the conflict within it–namely, Syria.
Honestly, I generally don’t give a whole lot of attention to far-away conflicts. It seems like there’s always something going on in Africa (which isn’t all that surprising, since it’s a gigantic place) or the Middle East. Of course, now that I live in the Middle East, I pay closer attention. One conflict that gets a lot of media coverage is the now two-year long civil war raging within Syria. There’s news about it all over the place. I see it on the websites of CNN and Fox News. Al Jazeera offers coverage of it regularly on TV here. These news outlets all usually mention that there are rebels fighting for freedom from President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
About a month ago, the networks were abuzz because the Russians were pulling a number of their people out of the country. The Russians being staunch allies of Syria, that was taken as a sign that Russia divined the imminent end of Syrian president Assad’s regime. I mentioned this to my buddy, and this was the start of a conversation that would significantly impact my understanding of what is happening in his home country.
From The Atlantic, the caption for this image reads: People walk on a street lined with buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Deir Al-Zor, on March 12, 2013. (Reuters/Muhammad Younis/Shaam News Network)
“The rebels,” he said, “They say they want freedom. But what they want is Islamic law. Right now,” then he stops and corrects himself, “Before, when I lived there, there was freedom. You can practice whatever religion you choose. If you are in a church and you say bad things about a mosque or Islam, the government will come and put chains around the door.” He gestures, encircling imaginary door handles with chains and making a closing motion, like clasping a lock. “Yeah, and they will do the same thing for a mosque. You can’t talk badly about anyone else’s religion. Our government is harsh, but they know how to deal with our people. Because for us, religion is the main cause of wars, and our government knows it. So you have freedom, you can be Christian or Muslim or anything.”
“This freedom,” he continues, “This freedom that they say they want, it’s not freedom. We were free before. Our women could go outdoors safely, they could go alone. They didn’t need men with them.”
He gives me an example of how the rebels are freeing Syria. His little village, which is to say his family’s ancestral home, is a peaceful place with only a small number of houses. In the summer time the family would go there and enjoy serenity in the pastoral, olive-producing area. The place is so small that it doesn’t even warrant a police station. Watching the news one night, his aunt found out that the village was “liberated” by the rebels (many of whom come from out of the country, according to my friend). “What were they freed from?” He asks. “There was nobody keeping them…” he searches for words and gives up, instead explaining how the news aired footage filmed by the rebels and posted on YouTube. This footage purported to show how the village was freed. My friend shows me the video. It opens with a tour of a badly damaged home, a hole blasted through the roof, rebar and concrete hanging. “That’s my aunt’s house,” he says. The village seems entirely deserted. Windows are broken out of all the homes, which appear to have been ransacked and pillaged. “That’s my grandfather’s house.” There are bullet holes riddling walls here and there, and there are craters where explosives seem to have been detonated. The cameraman walks inside a storefront or perhaps small warehouse of some kind, all the windows smashed, glass strewn about the floor. There’s an empty office. “This is where they pack olives,” he explains. I shake my head. “Yeah, it makes no sense,” he says.
The next YouTube video is of the only two military troops present in the town, a couple of men who were posted there to protect the church. Both of them are bloodied and lay dead on the ground. It’s plain that the cameraman enjoys showing these poor devils. I get the feeling they’re gloating and proud of killing the soldiers. “They’re saying,” my friend interprets, “That they will not touch the church or anyone.” We must assume that they mean they won’t hurt any civilians, since they’ve slain the guys guarding the building.
“Who needs their freedom?” He says again.
I tell him about the news coverage that I see from America. How they paint the rebels in a positive light. “Don’t believe it,” he says. “They tell you what they want you to think.” He shakes his head and frowns. “These rebels, a lot of them aren’t even from Syria. You know, they come from somewhere else. I don’t know where they get their weapons. Somebody must be helping them.” In fact, I’ve read that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing arms to the rebels. But I didn’t know this when I was talking to him, and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t have interjected it.
“Let me tell you about their freedom,” he says. “Last week there was a woman killed by them. She was Christian. They shot her in the chest and laid her on the bed like this,” he spreads his arms out in the shape of a cross. “They do this.” He nods his head to emphasize his point, and says, “All the Christians are leaving Syria. It used to be safe to live there. Not any more.”
“On the news they will say the government forces do all these bad things, that they are the ones doing all the damage. But they’re the ones that do it.” He sighs and tells me more. A friend whose brother, from Homs, hasn’t been heard from in months. A coworker who doesn’t know where is father is.
His family has, like many people, fled their country, seeking asylum in neighboring Lebanon.
After this conversation, I notice as I read about the war that news sources like The Atlantic are guilty of feeding us biased information. They use phrases like, “According to the rebels, this section of town was destroyed by government forces,” which subtly gives the rebels the voice of authority, and “The government claims that…” which, conversely, calls the trustworthiness of the government’s voice into question. Here’s one example and the link to The Atlantic where it appears: A resident inspects the damages at an ancient Souk caused by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Deir al-Zor, on March 9, 2013. (Reuters/Khalil Ashawi) Pay attention next time you see a report on Syria and watch for any bias.
I’m not claiming, by any means, that Syria’s President Assad is a kind and loving man. I don’t claim that his government always acts justly. My understanding is that if you were to run afoul of Assad’s government, that could be a very bad thing. However the same could be said of many Middle Eastern governments. I now understand that under Assad, however, the Syrian people generally did enjoy something much more like the Western definition of freedom than I might have once thought. I don’t pretend to know the machinations or motivations of those involved in the fighting in Syria. I’m not saying that the government hasn’t done terrible things in the war, or trying to diminish whatever blame it may deservedly share.
What I’ve discovered, however, is that conversations with my Syrian friend have helped me to look at things in a new light, and to pay careful attention to what I accept as fact. Seeing the war from his vantage point, it looks entirely different.
If you’re interested in reading a bit more about the war in Syria, there’s a ton of information out there. You can find lots of videos on YouTube from various points of view. Do be aware of who’s playing for who, though, as most news networks receive funding from some entity or other. Often, finding out who funds what can help you figure out what that source’s bias may be.