Understanding the Syrian Civil War requires one to look back to the 1920s (and even further, to be honest), when its borders with Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel were constructed by European powers with no regard for existing ethnic and religious groups.
Glossing over all the issues associated with colonialism and post-colonialism, fast forward through the 1970s, when the Assad family came into power, and into the 2000s:
Bashar al-Assad stepped into leadership in 2000 and Syria remained relatively peaceful until the Arab Spring protests of 2011. “Peaceful,” of course, still includes corruption, brutality, and inequality. Human Rights Watch called his first 10 years as president “the wasted decade.” Media was controlled by the state, internet was monitored and censored, and political dissidents filled the prisons.
Despite atrocities having occurred for many years, Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2011 brought his dictatorship and the plight of thousands of Syrians into international headlines.
When the Arab Spring hit the Middle East, protests spread throughout Syria. Many people, seeing changes in Egypt and Libya, wanted to end Assad’s dictatorship and assault on human rights. The protests were peaceful but often the army put them down with violence, creating more violent protests.
The Free Syrian Army, FSA, was created by defected Syrian soldiers in protest to the army’s backlash. It didn’t take long for locals to join the “freedom fighters.” Unfortunately, they were soon followed by jihadists who were not always from Syria.
FSA formed a loose coalition with these groups because of their own lack in supplies and weapons. ABC News reports that the Assad regime is backed by Hezbollah, Iran, and the Alawite minority. The opposition is a loose coalition of the FSA, Sunni citizens, Jabhat al Nusra, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
ISIS has mounted a massive initiative to solidify and expand their caliphate in Syria as well. Kurdish militias have also formed in opposition to jihadist movements. The civil war has since turned into a mess. According the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 310,000 civilians have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War.
These numbers don’t necessarily take into account the refugees that have died trying to escape or while in camps. According to the UN, 12.2 million Syrians are in need of immediate life-saving aid and nearly 8 million people have had to leave their homes, either relocating in Syria or escaping to Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, or Jordan.
Pictures of children dying in attempts to flee has brought the distant war to our attention, but it isn’t actually that far away…
Yessra Sankari has thick dark hair and deep chocolate eyes: forever a testament to her Lebanese and Syrian heritage. Yessra was born in Lebanon to Hasna Raslan and Tarek Sankari. Her mother and father met in Lebanon, were married, and had Yessra and her brother Farouk.
Every summer the family spent time in Syria at her grandma’s house, where the rooms were always full of cousins, aunts and uncles, and laugher.
After my interview with Yessra, I am convinced you could still hear the footsteps and giggles today if you stood where the house once stood.
Yessra’s father, Tarek, had lived and studied in Oshkosh throughout his life. So, when he was diagnosed with cancer, Tarek moved to seek treatment in the United States. The family soon followed when he was given nine months to live. When her father died, Yessra was only eight years old. Hasna, her mother, then decided it was best for the family to move to Syria, where they would be surrounded by family, friends, and support.
In 2006, the family came back to Oshkosh “to start from the beginning”– Hasna knew the kids would eventually come to study here anyway. For Yessra, the move was bitter sweet. For her, being in Syria with her family was the “best of times, because of the family and the place itself.”
Before the unrest began, there were few signs that there was a dictator in power.
Yessra remembers spending time there, “It was so safe to walk in the streets, people lived fine.”
When I asked in what ways she saw the oppression of the people by the government, she replied that there weren’t any but “If you spoke against the government, they would come and take you to jail, beat you up, and then drop you off. That’s all I have seen in my life. People lived a simple, humble life.”
In the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, the Raslan family was spread throughout the cities of Ariha, Idlib and Aleppo, with an uncle living in Latakia.
Most of the fighting between the government forces, ISIS, and FSA is occurring in northern parts of the country such as Aleppo, where Sankari’s extended family lived. In fact, the family moved from this area because the government believed freedom fighters to be hiding in the mountains and they were continuously dropping bombs, with no regard for civilian lives.
The last time Sankari visited Syria was in May of 2011, when uprisings had already begun. At this time there were no obvious signs of a civil war but there were army tanks on the way into Damascus and checkpoints between cities. Sankari and her friend were stopped and questioned by the army because they were not Syrian citizens and there was growing suspicion about spies and infiltration.
After Sankari and her family returned home from their visit, the violence escalated quickly and they lost contact with their extended family for about a year. When they were finally able to hear from them, they learned that things had changed dramatically: their entire family had moved from their homes.
The last update Sankari has is that her two uncles, aunt, grandma, and 12 cousins moved again when ISIS took Aleppo. They are now living in Hama.
Today, according to Sankari, the family is “…so desperate for anything. They often have no food and people are not working because they just fled everything and are living day by day.”
Her uncle described the freedom fighters as shooting indiscriminately, “They were just shooting everybody like “wild chickens” except they’re people, like Sankari’s family.
One young cousin, Mohamad Raslan, was taken by the army when he was walking down the street in 2012. A year later he was seen on TV, confessing to being a terrorist against the state and they have not seen him since.
To Sankari and her family that only means one thing, “He’s dead now, that’s how it works, they’ll accuse you of anything and you’re dead. I’ll never see him again.”
Other members of the family have been luckier: two other cousins escaped to Turkey and their mother is now trying to join them but the Turkey border is closed and there are reports of snipers at the border who “will shoot anyone down,” according to Sankari.
Another uncle is not fighting the fate he faces in Syria and is accepting that he may soon die at the hands of this civil war.
I asked Sankari if she sees a solution to the war and she isn’t hopeful, “It’s so complicated that there is no direct solution. You could never bring peace to all the groups and subgroups that have formed. Everyone has gotten used to living freely.”
An example of this is her uncle’s property; after her uncle fled his home, he received a letter from freedom fighters saying that they were harvesting the crops that grew on his land, and he had to compensate them.
Sankari said it best, “They are using the power of the gun, killing without consequences.”
There is growing fear amongst Americans that the war will affect their lives, be it ISIS or Syrian refugees. For Sankari, the war is already here. She struggles knowing that she made it out, “I shouldn’t be here. It doesn’t make sense to me. We lived there, we were going to stay there but now we’re here and they’re there and they’re suffering.”