On the evening of June 16, 2016, journalists Khaled al-Issa and Hadi Abdullah returned to their place of residence in the Syrian city of Aleppo. The day was hard – earlier that day, they covered the continuous airstrikes over residential areas in the city. Just as they enter the building of their offices, a bomb exploded. The blast throws Hadi and Khaled back. They both faints, Hadi is seriously injured in the leg, his cheekbones are sunk inwards by the explosion. Khaled is in serious condition – blood is flowing from his head, which was hit by shrapnel. The person who planted the bomb wanted the journalists killed immediately. Still, the explosion did not fulfill its purpose, and their friends managed to take Khaled and Hadi to hospital. Later they moved to the Turkish city of Antakya. Khaled al-Issa, 24, of Kafr Nabul, died a few days later after shrapnel hit his brain. Two days before his death, a proposal was to be transported to a German hospital. Still, Germany refused to issue the necessary documents.
For most people outside Syria, the work of these two journalists is distant and unknown. Al Issa is more or less part of the statistics, another victim of the remaining more than 500,000 Syrians killed in recent years in the country’s civil war. Except for a few, there were close to zero articles on Hadi Abdullah or Khaled al-Issa in major international publications. A cynical can say that it is impossible to trace the fate of every journalist killed in this war. This standpoint is no excuse. Khaled al-Issa was one of the best cameramen and photojournalists in Syria. His work was essential to news agencies around the world since the field journalists are few. The Syrian regime tracked one of the few international journalist teams. Pre-planned operations by the Syrian army murdered some of them like Marie Colvin. There may not have been worldwide recognition of Khaled al Issa’s work, but those who face the war and its aftermath daily know what the shots he took mean.
After his death, hundreds took to the streets in several Syrian cities, carrying photos of the journalist in honor of his work. Khaled al-Issa also worked with Raed Fares, an activist and protest organizer in Kafr Nabul, assassinated in 2018. From street art to weekly demonstrations, radio, cinema, and public services, activists from this small Syrian town showed the world the heart of the rebellion in Syria. Raed and his friends did their best to tell people outside the country that they were alive and well, as they had been in the first months of the revolution when there were still only protests. No one had thought of radical groups. Later, in 2012, the radicals were the first after Bashar al- Assad’s regime to attack activist networks, publicly executing protest leaders in northern Syria. People like Khaled al-Issa and Raed Fares believe in non-violent resistance and civic participation. They are still there, despite attempts to forget about them. These people are not naive. They knew the outside world ignored them but continued their work professionally with a feeling of importance.
Why do I recall these events from a few years ago? Because it is as if they have become a dream we once had, but we try not to remember because we are worried about the conclusions we can draw. Khaled knew what it’s like to meet the world’s silence. I know this feeling of loneliness. The Syrian conflict has shown the ugliest, most unjust, and hypocritical aspects of humanity today. The war shows that the international community is not ready to take human rights seriously. However, it is always prepared to talk about them. The conflict in Syria has exposed the UN Security Council, which acts solely on selected world powers’ political interests. The international community initially pretended to be a friend of the activists in Syria. Still, it then turned its back on them when they needed it most. This year, one of the UN’s agencies, the WFP, even received a Nobel Peace Prize for its work. Simultaneously, their staff is guilty of delaying the much-needed convoys to the Madaya and other cities in Syria where people starved to death. The war also showed corruption among the rebel groups themselves, who were willing to hand over journalists and activists to the regime forces for personal benefits.
Suppose you have recently witnessed talks between members of the political opposition. In that case, you will know that many of them have always thought that we all should surrender to the Syrian regime and shake hands in the name of a promising future. Politicians who rely on oblivion and ignorance see only opportunities for themselves. The world could not know the great persons of Syria. If the war or the unwillingness to look at this area beyond the prejudices, names that influenced society and gave new organization models remained unknown. This is the tragedy of the Syrian intellectuals like Sadiq al-Azm, Omar Aziz, who build self-governing communes in Syria long before the Rojava project, and many others.
For the last three years, Syria’s situation has been presented only in terms of the battles with the Islamic State, the invasions of other countries, and the influence zones. I want to say one secret – this kind of conversation about Syria is the narrative the Damascus regime was waiting for. In 2013, I was summoned to the Syrian embassy in Sofia by the ambassador for a talk I shared in my book, The Murder of a Revolution. Even then, the ambassador spoke about geopolitics, about influences, that Syrian refugees are not refugees, but people who wanted to leave Syria anyway. For several years, the ambassador’s then absurd statements became part of Syria’s narrative and the internal wars as part of this conflict. The treacherous rebel commanders helped to distort the story. All of us who follow the war’s events know this well – the relations between some of the commanders in the opposition forces and the regime are well known and well documented. Money doesn’t smell. If we left aside the internal betrayals, we could not ignore the change in the organizations’ narrative that has borne the brunt of Syria’s crimes. For three years now, with few exceptions, mostly from local groups, visible international think tanks have talked about Syria as if the conflict is over. Some analysts say that Assad may not be such a terrible option in the name of ending the bloodshed and repression.
The idea that Arab dictators can help security in the long run because of the “failure” of the Arab Spring is a dangerous misconception. States ruled by dictators are, by definition, unstable. Their leaders are unpredictable actors; they are not accountable to any state institutions. Their whims, paranoia, and madness cause damage to millions. To secure their power, dictators in the Middle East always court foreign donors and carefully balance the role of “firefighter and arsonist.” Like mafia bosses, their policy is to create demand for their protection services. The claim that the game rules have changed and that Arab autocrats have now suddenly become the best choice means ignoring history lessons.
Of course, foreign interventions such as Turkey’s, Russia’s, or the US’s involvement have influenced Syria’s events. All the consequences of these geopolitical upheavals, which already go far beyond Syria, are monitored daily. Today, the talk is about continuing the conflict in Syria to Libya, and even in the Caucasus because the same countries participated in different territories. But it all started in Syria. International observers are pathetically talking today about Syrian mercenaries fighting from Libya to Nagorno-Karabakh. Still, few draw attention to the fact that Syrians live in such poverty today. Their homeland became the perfect testing polygon for weapons and recruiting mercenaries. Vladimir Putin has even proudly admitted that his country has tested more than 200 weapons since Moscow officially intervened in Syria in 2015.
Even less attention is being paid to refugee camps both outside and inside Syria, while millions of people still living in tents and dirt. What did you hear about the Rukban camp, where thousands of people live without access to essential services? How many of you have read that Jordan is even returning Syrians to Rukban, despite all the dangers? Driven by the Russian narrative, meanwhile, experts are increasingly talking about the possibility of Syrians returning to their country, ignoring all signals of disappearances, arrests, and forced conscription. Driven by their economic interests, some Arab countries began to re-open their embassies. Some European countries have never stopped relations with the regime in Syria – we can mention Greece, the Czech Republic, Romania, Italy, Bulgaria. Many have turned a blind eye to these oligarchic and other ties, and the fruits have already ripened. There are bombs in Syria waiting to explode. The war in Syria is not over; it has just disappeared from our TV screens.