Ward Al-Keswani / AFP - Getty Images
An opposition fighter runs in Damascus' northern neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh during clashes with government forces on Sunday.
DAMASCUS, Syria – In 2011, Syrian activists were inspired and believed they were capable of ousting President Bashar Assad. Now, after living through two and half years of violent war, many are exhausted and discouraged.
“Stop the war. Stop the blood. The Syrian people are tired now,” said Khaled Khalifa, author of the acclaimed Syrian novel “In Praise of Hatred.” He is now fed up with the revolution he once longed for.
“You can play revolution for some time,” Khalifa said recently. “But not for a long time.”
If the revolutionaries are exhausted, so is the government.
Khalifa pointed to Assad’s struggle to regain control of the eastern suburbs of Damascus known as the Ghoutha. “In Ghoutha, nine months of bombing and he [Assad] cannot go one centimeter. The regime is very tired.”
More tired are the country’s 22 million civilians, who have borne the brunt of the suffering.
Khalifa’s colleagues in the non-violent opposition suffer similar war weariness. One downtown coffee shop where we met recently was packed with young activists in 2011 and 2012 planning the peaceful marches they modeled on Tunisia’s revolution. Now, the café is nearly empty.
Many of the activists have been arrested. They include Professor Zeidoun Zoabi of the Arab European University and film festival director Orwa Nyarabia.
Zoabi and Nyarabia were not tortured, although Zoabi says he heard the screams of torture victims in nearby cells. Interrogators may have spared them such abuse because they belonged to what Graham Greene in “Our Man in Havana” called the “non-torturable classes.” From prominent families, they were released and went into exile. Others were not so fortunate. Other young activists languish in prison or escaped the country.
“All of the intelligentsia has left Syria,” Khalifa said. “We need Geneva.”
Khalifa and other former activists are hopeful that the U.S. and Russia, on the heels of their negotiations to deprive the regime of its chemical weapons arsenal, will take representatives of the government and the rebels to Geneva to negotiate a ceasefire and a transition to democracy. Many are skeptical that either superpower is serious about ending the war, but Geneva II is all they have to cling to.
“The demonstrations are finished,” said a young woman whose activism has given way to resignation. “That was the good time.” The good time ended almost as soon as it began.
Khalifa himself had his left hand broken by what he called “regime thugs” during a march through Damascus. A popular television and screenwriter, as well as novelist, he joked that he writes with his right hand.
His novel “In Praise of Hatred,” was published in Arabic five years before the rebellion began and was banned in Syria. It is set during the 1982 insurgency in his home city, Aleppo under the regime of Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez. The book presages many of the atrocities committed by both sides in the current struggle. Khalifa wrote it as a warning, but it now seems like a prediction.
The U.N. says the death toll is above 100,000, but observers believe the real figure is much higher.
“The number killed here in two years is already the same as Bosnia in five [years],” said one United Nations official who has worked in both countries.
Health care workers estimate that for every Syrian killed, at least three more are seriously wounded. This does not include the psychological traumas of people who have lost loved ones and witnessed atrocities.
The U.N. estimates that the war has made at least 7 million people homeless: 3 million of them outside the country and another 4 million inside Syria. With government and rebels fighting in the most populous regions, the number of displaced men, women and children rises daily.
Then there are those detained by the government and kidnapped by the rebels, many of whom are never seen again. Human rights lawyer Anwar Bounni believes that state security forces have detained 200,000 people.
“They are everywhere,” Bounni said of the political prisoners. “Security branches. Military places. At the airport. In hospitals, hotels and schools. Until they send them to the court, nothing is known about them.”
Many detainees do not make it to court. Allegations of torture are many, as are accusations of extra-judicial executions. There is no figure for those kidnapped by the armed opposition, who have beheaded captives, and armed gangs, who bargain for ransom. Many families pay criminal groups to win the freedom of their sons or fathers. In some cases, the hostages were killed.
At a time when medical care is needed more than ever, the war is tearing Syria’s respected health care system to shreds. The U.N. Human Rights Council’s latest report, “Assault on medical care in Syria,” states that “both government forces and anti-government armed groups have employed siege warfare, preventing the passage of humanitarian aid and basic necessities, including medicine and medical supplies.”
The report added that “32 of the country’s 88 public hospitals have closed… The government reported that 10-15 percent of doctors have left the country. In contested areas, the healthcare system has largely fallen apart.”
And as winter approaches, conditions are not expected to improve. UNICEF is making a worldwide appeal for blankets, tents, warm clothing, heating oil and food for the homeless and for those living in their own houses deprived of electricity and running water. Syrian society can no longer sustain itself. Local charities are running out of money, and the international community may not be able to stave off famine, child malnutrition and diseases like cholera much longer.
In July, the U.N.’s Syrian Humanitarian Assistance Plan appealed for $1.5 billion, and failed to raise it. “The level of funding is not sustainable,” said one U.N. official.
“People are now regretting it, but it’s too late. They opened Pandora’s Box,” said a U.N. official who has worked here for the past two years
Charles Glass is the author of “Tribes with Flags: Adventure and Kidnap in Greater Syria” and an NBC News Middle East analyst.
First published September 24 2013, 3:26 AM