He told me that he had fled Syria and had gone abroad to study – I no longer remember where. “I don’t understand why the West is not intervening in Syria”, he said. Those were slightly different days. The ‘enemy’ back then was the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. My fellow-traveller spoke about women and children being brutally killed by the President’s people and that it was about time the West did something. It was the language of a person who meant what he said, but used the oft-repeated words of others to say it. “At the very least, they should help the rebels who are fighting al-Assad.” He was immensely frustrated that there was no outside help.
I was not from the West, but I did have a good knowledge and recollection of recent history. A disastrous ‘intervention’ had ridden Iraq of a feared dictator; it had also left the country politically and economically ruined and made it a frequent target for the bombs of terrorists who also began to recruit from Iraq. This ‘intervention’ had ended just two years prior, in 2011. Multiple ‘interventions’ in Afghanistan had proven futile or blown up in the faces of the intervening saviors.
“How is the West to know that the rebels are not worse than al-Assad? What guarantee is there that they will form a democratic government?”, I queried the man. He could not find words. “They can’t just sit back and let our people die!” At least he was not going to die. He had told me that he lived outside of Syria and had not been there in two years.
“The West should let Syria sort out its own problems. It should not wade into an internal conflict and make it their mess.” The poor man may have expected some sympathy from a person whom he may have identified with. Instead he got an argument that put his stance starkly as the wrong one – an argument that stated that it would be wrong for outsiders to make the effort to protect his family from his fellow countrymen.
Two years have passed since the conversation. Syria’s rebellion has fragmented heavily and predictably. Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate as well as “ISIL” or “ISIS” or “Islamic State” or whatever it is called are now the bigger players among the groups fighting the government. Bashar al-Assad is no longer newsworthy. Whatever be his qualities, he does not have a flair for mass public beheadings or wanton destruction of cultural treasures. Islamic State, on the other hand, continues to make the news regularly with new brutalities and unfathomable destruction of human cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq.
If I were to meet the Syrian again, I would ask him what he would want for his country today. Whatever that would be, I hope that he is safe.