As published by War Is Boring on Oct. 23, 2014
At a hospital in Reyhanli, Turkey, I tried not to focus on a boy lying injured on a hospital bed with a paralyzed leg and a catheter. Instead, I asked his family, residents of Ar Raqqa in Syria, about life under the Islamic State militant group. The militants have claimed Ar Raqqa as their capital in Syria.
The conversation became a reminder for me what the Syrian civil war is still really all about, more than three years into the bloody conflict.
“Syrians want ISIS and the regime gone,” the young man’s father said. He and his wife had come from Ar Raqqa just a few days prior to see their son, a Free Syrian Army rebel who’d been shot in battle with the Syrian regime.
The soldier’s father told me they don’t want Islamic State in Ar Raqqa. Still, “we manage to live,” he said.
And that’s the problem at the heart of the outside world’s conception of Syria. We don’t like Islamic State and neither do most Syrians. But to everyday people in Syria, there is something worse than the Islamist group. And that’s what the rest of the world has forgotten.
Sitting at their injured son’s side, the young man’s parents told me they fear the U.S. will accidentally bomb civilians as it presses its attacks on Islamic State. They said they fear everyday people will get hurt, rather than the extremists.
“ISIS is hiding in civilian areas,” the father said, adding that the extremists will just lie low for awhile and then resurface after the Americans have left.
They asked me why I was so interested in Islamic State, anyhow—and not in crimes of the regime. To them, I was missing the story. The real focus should be on taking down Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, they said. That’s the whole reason many Syrians put up with Islamic State in the first place.
I didn’t have the energy to tell them that no one in Washington cares about Al Assad, his war crimes or their wounded son. The truth is America doesn’t care about Syrians. Just “terrorists.”
I’ve been reporting on Syria since the summer of 2013, when I spent about a month in Turkey along the Syrian border and made a brief trip into rebel-held territory. I’ve also covered the conflict from Jordan.
I’ve mostly focused on the human cost of the war?—?and not on the fighting. I’ll let other reporters run around on the front lines. Millions of Syrian refugees have poured into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, and I’ve tried to share their stories.
Among others, I’ve featured a Syrian who had suffered excruciating torture, a young girl shot in the back by a regime sniper and an activist who survived a chemical weapons attack.
I’ve spent countless hours talking with Syrians about their country and its future. By the end of my trip last year, I was overwhelmed with emotion—sadness for the loss of life and limbs and anger at lack of American involvement.
I, too, want Al Assad to fall. And I want Syrians to have the chance to make that happen. To most Syrians, the Islamic State serves the means to a much greater end. Given an alternative way of defeating Al Assad, Syrians will take it.
But foreign audiences can’t seem to appreciate that. Not when there’s an easier story. One with scary terrorists.
On my latest trip along the Syrian border, the plight of everyday Syrians all felt like old news. To be sure, the actual stories were fresh. The killing continues. Torture takes place daily. The victims keep flowing across the border.
But I didn’t have the heart to get invested. I knew my editors back home wouldn’t be all that interested in stories about the same kinds of suffering that have been going on for more than three years.
After all, what difference has all our reporting made? What more does the world still really need to know? We can’t claim ignorance. We know exactly what the regime is doing. We’ve watched as no fewer than 190,000 Syrians have died since 2011.
Now the hot story is Islamic State. And suddenly people are paying attention.
The White House says Islamic State poses a deadly threat to America … and that we can just bomb them into submission. So the U.S. military obligingly conducts air strikes on militants in Iraq and Syria. In recent weeks, the U.S. has dropped around 600 bombs.
Six hundred bombs. Against a militant group numbering thousands of fighters and spread across two countries. Let’s all pause for a slow clap.
Syrians aren’t stupid. They see the game we’re playing. They know this is all about Pres. Barack Obama’s domestic politics, keeping America as far from the Middle East as possible while pretending to do something?—?anything?—?to stop those scary terrorists over there.
Air strikes, while effective and necessary in some places, aren’t the solution in Syria and Iraq. In fact, the bombings are feeding directly into the militants’ narrative that the West wants to destroy Islam.
The effort to drive out Islamic State has to be a grassroots one. After all, Islamic State is waging its own grassroots war on the local population, usurping traditional power structures and taking advantage of economic woe.
But Syrians want to fight Al Assad. And they’re desperate for the tools to do it. The question is, who gives them those tools? The Islamic State is taking advantage of that void.
Whoever backs Syrians gets to shape the revolution. If we don’t help Syrians, the extremists will. And instead of driving out the Islamists, Syrians have been flocking to them.
I asked the young injured soldier in Reyhanli about rebel troops switching sides and joining ranks with Islamic State. It’s true, he said.
“Why are they switching?” I asked. “For ideology or money?”
“Money,” he told me.
It’s obvious, really. Thanks to generous donors in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Islamic State has the cash and the weaponry to allow these young men to fight for their country and defend and feed their families.
Syrians aren’t a radical people. They aren’t interested in Islamic State’s backward ideas. They don’t want to live under foreign terrorists. But they do want to get rid of Al Assad at any cost—and some Syrians will join Islamic State in order to do so.
Plus, Syrians know that, given the international response over the past three years, the world will continue to ignore the real story—bringing down Al Assad.