The Syrian trauma

Peter Harling writes: Arguably, all conflicts are traumatic. More than 25 years after their civil war, the lifestyle and worldview of Lebanese are still shaped by the experience, influencing how they position themselves politically, how they assess strangers and in which neighborhoods they choose to live, down to where they shop and on which roads they drive. They are also passing much of this down to their offspring, who more often than not draw the same mental map, blotting out whole swaths of their own society; even when they interact in neutral spaces, young Lebanese from different backgrounds tend to know precious little about each other. Iraqis, who arguably were subjected to greater violence still, are scarred in ways that could shape their destiny for generations to come. A new generation that grew up in cantonized communities often has only the faintest, most stereotyped understanding of their brethren across the communal wall.

Syria seems nonetheless to bring in something different, hard to pin down — an elusive truth that is precisely what we should not fail to understand. Indeed there are many layers to the Syrian trauma. First, Syrian culture, in normal times, is remarkably civil. The Syrian dialect of Arabic is ravishingly polite. Education is a source of national pride. Unlike many other parts of the Arab world, urbane mores permeated the countryside more than a rural ethos reshaped the city. Communal coexistence, edgy on occasions, was nevertheless a profession of faith.

Violence was there, no doubt, but only occasionally burst forth from beneath the surface: honor killings in the countryside, sporadic clashes between Kurds and Arabs, and failed uprisings led by the Druze or elements of the Muslim Brotherhood were among the rare exceptions. The most pervasive species of violence — the detentions, torture and executions perfected by the regime’s security apparatus — was all the more sinister for its absolute secrecy. Then, after 2011, violence became all-encompassing: swelling, escalating, engulfing and ravaging everything Syrians once believed in. All the horrible exceptions of the past were now the norm, shaking to its core the Syrian sense of self.

Second, Syrians are devastated by their own delusions. The sublime revolutionary illusion, which still drives many of them five years on, has degenerated beyond redemption. Meanwhile, on the other side, most presumed “loyalists” discern, deep down, that the regime has committed the irreparable and unforgivable, hurtling down a path from which there is no return. They know, although they can’t admit it, that what is left of a state is a fallacy and a fraud. And still, all continue to make immense sacrifices in the name of a cause however corrupted. There is, seemingly, no way back for anyone.

Third, the war has been bewildering in its sheer density and hybrid nature, borrowing from every conceivable genre of human cruelty. Organs were eaten, heads chopped off, children gassed, and whole neighborhoods starved to death. Untold numbers have disappeared in a gulag of prisons. Volunteers from around the world have joined both camps, contributing new varieties of horror (with the Islamic State keen not to be outdone). States have intervened and interfered, to make things unfailingly worse.
The Syrian war is, so to speak, the defining conflict of the era: a confusing mix of sub-dynamics that seem to have no overarching structure beyond a hodgepodge of failed agendas from the past – Western democratization, Russia reenacting the cold war, Turkey’s promotion of Islamists and containment of the Kurds, and so on. All parties seem to fight on like automatons, because they are incapable of formulating any attainable vision for the future, and hence take pride simply in exploiting their opponents’ own crimes.

Fourth, therefore, is the incredible sense of waste that comes from a conflict where no one appears to be even trying to achieve anything, other than stay the course – an unusual war where the endgame is left generally undefined. If defined at all it is through vague, aspirational goals – topple the regime, take back the country, stop the violence, defeat terror – divorced from any serious strategy. Syrians and foreigners alike are guilty of this, leaving everyone in a state of limbo that is awkward for outsiders but excruciating for the concerned. The former have other things going on in their lives. For the latter every day is a torment. And unlike the tantalizing punishments of Greek mythology, theirs is one for which there is no apparent reason.

A fifth and related source of trauma for Syrians is the horrifying spectacle of an outside world watching on as their country is pointlessly and endlessly tortured. They have learned the hard way how shallow and callous our media and politics can be. People who remember every sorrow in every detail must contend at best with generalized amnesia, at worst with conventional wisdom dismissing their life experience. Their misery is met with fatigue; their flight to safety with hysteria. They are asked a thousand times the same questions by a carrousel of journalists and officials always reinventing the wheel. And they are told to be “pragmatic” and “realistic” by outsiders who have themselves unfailingly ignored the practical realities on the ground. [Continue reading…]

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