Syria: Why The West Lets Assad Massacre His Own People

Syria: Why The West Lets Assad Massacre His Own People
Henryk M. Broder

BERLIN - In late 2011, a former German television correspondent in Tel Aviv, Sebastian Engelbrecht, reported some sensational news:

Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal had “renounced armed combat against Israel,” conflicts among Palestinians were in the process of being resolved and "by early May in Gaza and the West Bank a new president and parliament will be elected."

According to Engelbrecht, the whole Arab world was moving, except for one player: Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had made no gesture towards Arab Spring countries, no reaching out, no attempt at bridge-building. Instead he was busy building high-security facilities along the Egyptian border to keep out refugees from Africa, anchored in the mindset – according to Engelbrecht's report -- that “it was always bad with the Arabs and it can only get worse.”

Wherever this TV clairvoyant got his information – maybe from studying the innards of a dead hen, or the grounds at the bottom of his coffee cup – his cluelessness was and remains symptomatic of reporting that bases itself not on the facts but on wishful thinking. If the news audience only knew how such “on-site” reporting from crisis areas comes together – usually in air-conditioned offices where multilingual staffers translate local media stories.

Syrian status quo, at any cost

For two years now, we have been experiencing a double catastrophe: the “civil war” in Syria, and the reporting on it. While the march of the Americans and their allies into Afghanistan and Iraq was carried live, and while we can follow the fighting along the Gaza/Israel border in real-time, with few exceptions we depend on amateur video posted on the Internet for reporting on Syria.

No matter what news show you watch, the anchors regularly point out that they can’t verify the information these videos provide. But the wobbly images speak a language of their own: in early 2013, the Syrian city of Aleppo looks like Dresden in February 1945. It’s a landscape of ruin. The United Nations reports that between 60,000 and 70,000 have died in Syria, and that there are around 800,000 refugees, of which tiny Jordan has accepted over 350,000 and Turkey over 100,000.

So the so-called “civil war” in Syria has taken on the proportions of a genocide, although few are those who dare pronounce that hideous word, because doing so would mean that we are guilty of remaining mere observers -- instead of coming to the help of people facing such a massacre. So in Germany, for example, we are left to join the chorus led by our own Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, enjoining all conflicting parties to be reasonable and refusing to assign blame because we can't really tell the good guys from the bad guys.

In 2000, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “inherited” the country from his father Hafiz al-Assad who in 1971 took over leadership of the Ba'ath Party and of the country. What that means is that for more than 40 years Syria has been ruled by the same clique whose only interest is keeping power. Opponents forfeit their lives. However, President Assad had a pretty good reputation in the international community because he was considered – like his father – to be "reliable."

The Russians protect him, he gets financial and military aid from Iran, supports Hezbollah in turn, interferes in Lebanese affairs, votes every six months for extending the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights. His threats against Israel are rhetorical in nature. If Israel blows a Syrian military installation up, the Syrian president learns about it on CNN. So it’s not really surprising that the Israelis wish him many more years in the presidential palace in Damascus.

History's lessons

Just what is it that leads the West to take an accommodating view of this dictator and mass murderer? The wish for continuity and stability. The wish for everything to stay as is. We tolerated the Communists in Eastern Europe until they imploded. Standing off to the side, letting things run their course: that’s not something Guido Westerwelle invented, it’s a long-entrenched characteristic of European politics.

We watched while Hitler re-militarized the Rhineland, emasculated Czechoslovakia, re-baptized Austria Ostmark and annexed it to Germany. We watched while the wall went up in Berlin in 1961.

The Tutsi genocide in Rwanda in 1994 took place under the eyes of the "United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda," whose main priority was seeing that their own members, mostly French and Belgian, stayed safe. When, the following year, 8,000 Muslims were murdered in Srebrenica, Dutch UN troops failed to intervene.

With a track record like that, it really wouldn’t be a good idea to send European troops, with or without UN mandate, to Syria. But there are other options to make it at least harder for Assad to murder his countrymen, such as no-fly zones as there were in Iraq in Saddam Hussein’s day, and breaking off diplomatic and trade relations with the regime and its henchmen.

And why couldn’t NATO station one or two of its elegant warships off the Syrian coast? Just to scare them a little. But military strategists aren’t willing to do that because they don’t want to provoke Russia.

Not even the German peace movement has budged – no boat with medication to Latakia -- they need to save their energies for the next cruise to Gaza. Instead, a little over a year ago, six Left Party MPs signed a petition supporting lifting all sanctions against Syria.

The most infamous of all arguments against intervention is this: we don’t know what we’re going to get after Assad, it could be radical Islamists or members of al-Qaeda. The uprising against Assad could very well end the way the Arabellion has in Egypt. But if that’s the price to pay for the murdering to stop, then we’re going to have to pay it. Unless, of course, Sebastian Engelbrecht and his ilk have a better idea.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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