Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad

William R. Polk – The Atlantic – December 10, 2013

If I’m truthful, I didn’t pay attention to Syria until I met a young Syrian doctor fleeing the civil war in his country. With the help of his family, he made it to Cairo where we literally bumped into each other at the Pension Roma in December 2012.

He had signed up for German language classes so that he could qualify for a Visa to travel to Germany where his Uncle was waiting for him and would help him start his career free from the violence engulfing his homeland. He was very diplomatic, never taking sides in the conflict, and taught me a lot about the complexities in Syria. The take-away message for me was that when we talk about Syria – nothing is easy, simple or black & white.

About the same time, I met another young man from Syria in Cairo. A member of the Free Syrian Army. Although he couldn’t speak English, we clicked right away. I loved his smile. My doctor-friend served as interpreter, and we had several discussions over the span of a few days in Cairo.

My FSA fighter-friend was helping a young Syrian woman flee Syria. She had been released from prison, where she had endured brutal torture, in a prisoner exchange with the Assad regime. Lest you’re thinking “Lora – you’re so naive. An FSA fighter? You’ll believe anything anyone tells you,”  let me assure you that I was skeptical until he pulled a photograph out of his pocket.  A photograph that he obviously cherished.  My FSA fighter-friend was standing side-by-side with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, both smiling and shaking hands.

A Syrian Freedom Fighter window-shopping in Cairo

A Syrian Freedom Fighter window-shopping in Cairo

He told me that the FSA had approached both the United Nations and the United States early in the civil war asking for assistance, munitions and weapons I think, but both the UN and US declined and so they accepted Al-Qaeda’s offer to help supply the fighters with weapons to fight the Assad regime.  “What else could we do?” he asked me as he shrugged his shoulders. He was planning to return to Syria to help one more person escape and then he hoped to leave Syria himself and find refuge somewhere in Europe.

I often wonder about both of these young men from Syria – educated, thoughtful, and full of potential. Both had families they love, dreams they cherish, and goals for a better life free from conflict, violence and turmoil.

Although my country was responsible, in part, for the chaos enveloping the Middle East, neither of them said an unkind word to me. With patience and a measure of humor, they answered all of my many questions, and probably thought I was a little naive.

I hope my doctor-friend is settled in Germany and working.

I hope my FSA fighter-friend is alive and safe somewhere in Europe. Before the civil war, he owned a picture-framing business in his hometown in Syria. I hope he’s found some stability in a new home.

The best writing I’ve seen so far about the history and events leading up to the civil war in Syria is an article in The Atlantic by author William R. Polk.

William Roe Polk (born 1929 in Fort Worth, Texas) is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author, and relation of president James K. Polk and of the prominent lawyer and diplomat Frank Polk. He is a former professor of history at Harvard University and the University of Chicago, and was President of the latter’s Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs.

Polk’s article is available online here and worth the time and effort to digest it carefully. I learned a lot and was also pleased that much of my new found knowledge from my two Syrian friends was corroborated in this article. Understanding Syria: From Pre-Civil War to Post-Assad deserves our attention if for no other reason than we must be prepared to understand the fruits we and our colonial partners (Great Britain and France) have sown in the Middle East.