09/09/2013 10:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What I Learned On The Ground In Syria

I am anti-war. That's precisely why I support a US strike in Syria.


Atmeh Camp, Syria, 2013 (author's photo)

I took the above photo in Syria's Atmeh refugee camp, but my encounters with Syrians began before I crossed the border earlier this summer. After flying into Istanbul in late June, I asked an Egyptian girl I met to give my information to any Syrians at her youth hostel. An email arrived in my inbox the next day from a man I'll call Mohamed.  "I'm happy to chat," he wrote, "but I'm not sure whether it will be helpful because I am not an activist."

Something told me this young man had a lot to say, but wasn't going to say it in emails. We met at Starbucks in Taksim, and I was late. Mohamed stood there, a thin, gentle, quiet young man of 20 years. He was with his friend, a portly Syrian who wore spectacles too. I apologized for keeping them waiting, and we climbed to a quiet table away from other people on the third floor, where there was some semblance of silence. It was only after I expressed grave concern over the human rights violations in Syria, including the chemical weapons attack earlier in June, and deep sadness that America hadn't stepped in more forcefully, that Mohamed began to speak.

"If the world thought Syrians were humans," he said quietly, "something would have happened, someone would have helped. Yes, over a hundred people died from chemical weapons. But for months, in Syria, that many people have died every day. Someone needs to help the opposition, because Assad will kill us all before he stops."

"If someone does help, now," said Mohamed's friend, "it won't be because they think we are people, that we're humans who don't deserve to be murdered. We know better than that now."


The Syria side of the Syria-Turkey border, 2013 (author's photo)

I sat across from Mohamed and his friend, two kids in my age group who were studying computers and hoping they would move from the hostel into a dorm room soon, hoping they'd be allowed to study where shells weren't falling.  They symbolize why I support my president in his willingness take action in Syria without the sanction of a gridlocked UN Security Council.  It's my first time supporting a US strike, and I'm not a blind follower of everything Obama; the fact that the NSA got away with what it has under his leadership leaves me immensely ticked at him. It's a strange moment for me. I'm an obvious liberal: a bead-wearing development worker and card-carrying democrat with a marked interest in the concept and practice of sustainability who went to elementary school where we said the Earth Prayer in sign language to a flag with our planet on it as well as the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. I was against the invasion of Iraq. If I'd been alive during Vietnam, I would have protested that war also.

But I share with former President Clinton and current US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power the regret that more wasn't done during the Rwandan genocide and the certainty that our intervention in Bosnia saved more lives than if we hadn't done anything. If Obama had an attractive, unanimously supported option regarding Syria anywhere along up in there since spring 2011, he would have taken it. We all know that people will die in Syria if we don't intervene, and that they'll die if we do. But the worldwide media seems reluctant to examine the notion that this situation is more like Bosnia than Iraq, in spite of names we associate with the latter like "Al-Queda" emerging as fighters in the conflict. People did not begin dying heinous deaths in Syria for unjust reasons on August 21st, 2013. They were killed in cold blood and broad daylight for protesting for democracy beginning in 2011. When no one came to help the way these secular Syrians were initially sure they would, extremists rushed in to fill the power vacuum. And now, black-and-white thinkers like the trolls I've heard from on Twitter recently tell me I'm interested in supporting Al-Quaeda and human heart-eating because I support military intervention on behalf of the 100,000+ Syrians who have died in a war that began as a protest fueled by the same hope that ran in the veins of the men who founded America.

Those men believed in the birthright to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now, in 2013, a megalomaniac has been indiscriminately killing his own people for protesting for democracy, killing them in more and more heinous ways, for well over two years. He crossed the world's "no chemical weapons" line months ago, and for days he kept UN inspectors from the site of the worst chemical weapons attack of this century. A school was bombed in Syria around then with something like napalm. The conflict is already destabilizing Lebanon and Iraq, straining Jordan and Turkey, and provoking Israel (and don't let's get started on Egypt). That a regional war swallowing those countries would affect us is, I think, indisputable.  I'm not sure if what needs to happen is an attack on American soil for more Americans to believe that this involves us not only as citizens of a nation founded on the principal of the human right to life and liberty (and one that boasts the most powerful armed force in the world), but as mortal citizens of a planet that will never--can never--go back to isolationism. For better or for worse, The Simpsons and Starbucks unite me with Mohamed and a global group of young people in a system of interlocking societies and businesses that places urbanity and access to the internet as some of the top people-group-sorters and cultural literacy as a main currency used in that triage. By which I mean to say that if I get the chance to speak with Mohamed again, if he's still in Istanbul when I return in September, I will not tell him that his problem is not mine. I will tell him, as I did in June, that I am sorry reasons other than the right to human life were driving the forces that could have come to his aid.

It couldn't be clearer to Mohamed that the people in Assad's country are not people to Assad. The world's biggest democracies have given Mohamed the same message: he's not a person. Assad shows no signs of stopping, and indeed there are now nutty extremists fighting in Syria thanks to over two years of international inaction in response to Assad's murder of peaceful protesters and Syria's ensuing civil war. But there are also vetted and fiercely secular FSA brigades like the ones who ensured my safety when I crossed into Syria's Atmeh refugee camp. They're twentysomethings like Mohamed and me, carrying big guns and wearing secondhand pink sorority t-shirts. They carry big guns because for two years Obama didn't carry a big stick the way they hoped he would. They carry guns because they're terrified, and their families are dead. They carry guns because they don't want the little orphans clustering outside the trailer door in the refugee camp to die too, and no one was helping them.  


A member of a secular FSA brigade, Atmeh camp, Syria (author's photo)

People who risked everything because they wanted democracy are unlikely to allow religious extremists to run their country if they can help it. It's pretty clear who the extremists are and aren't. The ones decapitating people are extremists. The ones whose families died for democracy are the ones who need our help, but if we're not there to offer it, they'll keep accepting help from the only people who will give it to them: religious extremist donors from the gulf countries. Inaction is action in this case, perhaps not for everyone, but for Obama: I believe our country's founding declaration, whatever its faults, is at heart a humanistic one. Not an American-istic one or a Western-istic one. I believe the right side of history is the one that actively acknowledges that Mohamed is a human. So are the babies who seized up, turned gray, and foamed at the mouth as they suffocated to death on cement floors in Damascus last month. So will the babies in Los Angeles, or New York, or Chicago, or Paris, or London be, if chemical weapons use is left unaddressed and our promises to people who wanted democracy and died for it go unfulfilled in the face of sociopathy and slow-motion genocide. We will further lose our purpose as a world leader and the right to see ourselves as a beacon of freedom.

The people I met in Syria's Atmeh camp, quiet and reserved and kind and intelligent, are who I hold in my mind when I read tweets about letting two enemies kill each other and not getting in the way of that. Lethally gassed toddlers are no one's enemy.  The man in the below photo, who opened his family's tarp-tent the way he would have opened his nice door in Aleppo, who offered me tea and asked with concern whether I was comfortable when he saw me sweating, is not my enemy.  If anyone is my enemy, the dictator who used the worldwide media to successfully dehumanize him is.

Atmeh camp, Syria, 2013 (author's photo)

There are unjust things happening all over the world that America turned a blind eye to, and proxy wars we have fought for hypocritical reasons, and democratically elected leaders our CIA helped to depose and assassinate. We've used chemical weapons before, and our government bears the marks of corruption and the abuse of executive power. We are far from perfect.

But it was America the Syrians kept looking to as more and more of their number died gruesome deaths for democracy, and I don't think erring in the past justifies failing to treat Syrians like they have a right to a dignified life and a death other than the one so horrid that 98% of the world's nations came together less than a century ago to create a treaty in an effort to prevent it. I will not let a video of some crackpot eating a human heart or decapitating a priest cloud what I have to say to the gentle young man in a coffee shop about what he is worth. To the extent that I can prevent such a cloud from convincing me he doesn't deserve what my forefathers--and his father--died for, or that it isn't my responsibility as a world citizen to treat Mohamed like he and his family are humans, I can call myself American and be proud of it.

I'd like the "anti-war" rhetors to tell me how things would unfold out there on the ground if we continued not to take action in Syria, where a man backed by Hezbollah, Russia, Iran, and China is shredding the Geneva Convention's stipulation against the use of chemical warfare to slaughter his own people. I'd like to understand how failing to apply Clinton's regret when it comes to genocide is opting for peace. But none of the poetic "anti-war" folks seem willing to tell me that part.