BY LYNN EDMONDS
A panel nominally about the refugee crisis in Europe quickly revealed that the thousands of people entering Europe each day was just one spoke of a wheel that had the Syrian conflict at its center, rather than the main concern – at least for Syrian panelists Yasser Munif and Mowaffaq Safadi.
Conflict erupted in Syria in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, when protesters voiced their opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad and were met with violence. Instead of squashing the protesters, the government crackdown drove them to take up arms, and there are currently multiple opposition forces, including ISIS, fighting the Syrian government as well as each other.
The United States has intervened to support opposition forces, along with Saudi Arabia, while Russia and Iran have supported Assad, making the conflict a proxy war in part. The UN estimates that over 250,000 people have lost their lives in the fighting, and the BBC wrote in March that 11 million people have been displaced.
While European and American – centric news outlets have focused on the refugees who have arrived, desperate, on the shores of Lesbos, and the way their presence has caused internal strife and political troubles in Europe, Safadi, a journalist, said that for him the refugee crisis was important but it was a “symptom.” He felt that as long as Europe was concerned about what to do with the refugees, or how to stem their flow into Europe, rather than how to stem the conflict itself, they were missing the point.
“What they describe as solutions, I don’t think even qualifies as solutions. They’re trying to present new ways to stop the wave of refugees arriving at Europe, when in fact this is not possible, because when one route is closed another one will be open,” Safadi said. He added that one of the most important things countries could do for refugees was allow them to apply for asylum without having to risk their lives crossing borders first.
Munif, a professor of sociology at Emerson College, said he didn’t want the larger context to get lost if people focused solely on the displaced peoples’ need for aid, shelter and food.
“It’s not simply a humanitarian crisis. It’s a political question,” Munif said. “I think it is a great error to disconnect or de-link the refugee question – I don’t think it’s a crisis – from the Syrian revolution.”
Held last Thursday evening at the Greek Cultural Center in Astoria, the panel “The Refugee Crisis Unfolding: Reports and Analysis from Syria, Turkey and Greece” attracted about a dozen audience members. It was sponsored by AKNY-Greece Solidarity Movement, a leftist organization that advocates for Greece, and the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, a non-profit that strives to promote a “non-militaristic U.S. foreign policy.”
Despina Lalaki, an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology at the College of Technology and a co-founder of AKNY, moderated the panel. She said one point was to stop separating out the issue of refugees in Europe and the Syrian conflict, and to bring together the perspectives of people in different countries.
“We tend to talk about the refugee context just in the context of Greece. There is this fragmentation,” she said. “Our objective here today is to put this in the broader geopolitical context and try to connect different stories.”
For the third panelist, CUNY sociology professor Costas Panayotakis, capitalism provided much of that context.
“I see the refugee crisis as typical example of the capitalist world system’s longstanding tendency to produce humanitarian catastrophes and then leave the victims of these catastrophes to fend for themselves,” he said.
The speakers stressed that while ISIS beheadings dominate the U.S. media and radical Islam looms large in our discussions of the region, for many Syrians, ISIS was not their main worry or threat to their livelihood. A survey of Syrian refugees in Germany found that 80 percent of them fled Assad, Munif said.
He also said that most Syrians did not think about the conflict in religious terms.
“The Syrians for the most part are not religious or pious. Political Islam is really marginal,” Munif stressed. “People who are fighting with ISIS, are fighting with ISIS because they get salaries from ISIS. That’s the only reason they’re fighting with ISIS. It’s not about ideology.”
Safadi echoed the sentiment.
“Conflict in Syria is largely unrelated to religion,” he said. “It’s about resources, it’s about historical conflicts, it’s about the imperial and colonial legacies of European countries in the region. All the problems that are erupting in this matter today are immediate results of the colonial history of Europe.”
The legacy of colonialism, which threw together different ethnic groups into an arbitrarily defined nation-state, and modern-day imperialism, was something that Panayotakis touched on as well.
“Many of these countries have become chaotic as a result of military interventions and other kinds of meddling from western powers and the U.S., so the chaos cannot be attributed to non-western so called “barbarians” such as ISIS, or to dictators such as Assad, who go against the West’s supposedly democratic norms. Although actors such as ISIS and Assad are certainly dangerous, they are not antithetical to the global capitalist system but simply its product,” he said.
But despite the large geopolitical forces that were converging on Syria and wreaking havoc, Munif said that Syrians would not stop fighting for their dignity.
“The Syrian revolution sometimes might shrink, and might be marginal, and might be in the cracks. But it’s still there, and it’s not going anywhere as long as there is a Syrian regime, and there is dictatorships, despotic powers in the Arab region.”
On a personal level, Safadi said that since fleeing persecution by the Syrian government in 2011, he’d lived in Finland, The United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey, England, and now Ecuador, and he was still “trying to find a place to be.”
But that did not stop him from continuing his journalism and advocacy.
“I go on [doing] what I do from wherever I am as long as I have internet connection,” he said.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana