Syria: ‘the Local and the Global’

Provoking questions about the conflict in Syria and stories of human suffering prompt us to ‘have a soft heart, but a tough mind.’

The latest discussion in the Behind the Headlines series organised by the Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity’s Arts and Humanities Research Institute,  brought together Trinity scholars and Syrian-born journalist Razan Ibraheem to explore some of the complexities behind the Syrian conflict. It  examined its consequences on a human and political level, while also questioning the role of western leaders in what has now become one of the bloodiest wars in the 21st century within a matter of five years.

(L-R: Razan Ibraheem, Dr Jude Lal Fernando, Dr Anna Babka, Dr Rachel Hoare, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer)

From the Local to the Global

Professor in Intercultural and Interreligious Studies, Dr Jude Lal Fernando, looked at the characterisation of the conflict in Syria by the west and how this ‘internal conflict’ has evolved into a conflict involving nearly 100 different militant opposition groups, and regional and global powers.

The discussion, which followed another Trinity Long Room Hub public talk on the issue of the conflict in Syria by renowned journalist Robert Fisk, highlighted the question on many people’s minds “What can we do?” Dr Lal Fernando touched on this sentiment when he said: “When we are being touched after hearing so many stories of the suffering of the people, we equally become utterly helpless, not knowing how to find out which course of action we should follow.”

In part, Dr Lal Fernando said that this is due to the picture of the Syrian conflict which is being presented to us in the west, and in Europe. The conflict “is depicted as an internal conflict which came into existence during the March 2011 pro-reform movement being crushed by the dictator Assad – that’s one version. The second version is that the country has gotten into a mode of high-intensity warfare, due to a Shi’ite/Sunni regional conflict.  Both of these depictions reflect, consciously or unconsciously, the location from which these depictions are constructed”, Dr Lal Fernando said, “but neglected to mention our own complicity.”

“In the face of the ongoing bloodbath and massive displacement in Syria and the rise of the far right in the West, it is time to acknowledge the complicity of our liberal democratic states who are involved in a geopolitical battle in the Middle East.” Quoting Martin Luther King, Dr Lal Fernando said that what is required is both a “soft heart and a tough mind”.

Human Lives

Storyful journalist and Syrian-born activist Razan Ibraheem provided the audience with a first-hand account of the diverse nature of Syrian society and political culture. A complex mosaic of more than 17 sects and multiple ethnicities, Razan argued that Syria has always been a typical Mediterranean country where historical roots dig deep, and the legacy of colonial demarcations remain unsolved.

“In the words of the late Patrick Seale, ‘the struggle for Syria is the struggle for the Middle East.’

And, as always, whether in the Syrian or Irish “troubles”, it is the innocent civilians who pay the hefty price.”

Razan spoke about the stories of human suffering and the stories of those she met on the island of Kos while helping refugees arriving there: “Samira crossed the Mediterranean sea with her two daughters, having already lost the three men in her life to the Syrian war. Her husband was killed by Islamic State; her son was killed because he was fighting with the Syrian regime; the other son was killed because he was fighting with the free Syrian army opposition. Samira’s story sums up the complexity of the Syrian war”, Razan concluded.

Professor in French linguistics and child and adolescent psychotherapist Dr Rachel Hoare discussed the psychologically traumatising events experienced by refugee children and the violence and terror often associated with displacement from their native country, followed by resettlement in a country which is not their own.

“Many Syrian children coming to Ireland will have witnessed and experienced extreme violence and terror.  As neurobiology shows us that trauma has profound effects on the part of the brain which controls language, these moments of terror are relived in their bodies and the unconscious parts of their minds.”

Asking the audience to close their eyes, Dr Hoare played a sound recording representing some of the traumatic experiences which children from Syria might have experienced on their journey fleeing from the war: “From the gunfire on the streets of the Aleppo, to the extremely hazardous boat crossing between Turkey and Greece, to the often paralyzing fear experienced in the unfamiliar environment and language of the classroom in a country which is not one’s own”, sensory experiences such as imagery, sound, touch and smell can often resurface when similar stimuli are introduced acting as constant traumatic reminders for these children in their new environment.

Working therapeutically with these children through play and other forms of creative expression in culturally sensitive ways, can help these children to ‘externalise’ their traumatic experience, Dr Hoare said.

Responsibilities in Times of War

Visiting Research Fellow from the University of Vienna at the Trinity Long Room Hub, Dr Anna Babka, discussed Europe’s hesitant response to the Syrian crisis, provoking discussion around Europe’s deeper responsibility for the country through its colonial heritage.

“Europe disclaims responsibility for developments in Syria or in the region more generally albeit the fact that what can be called an “imagined region” in the Middle East was created by Europe in the first place.”

Her talk also looked at what we can consider the inhuman categorisation of the value of lives – whether they are “grievable or un-grievable”, and how this impacts on how we are prompted to action in times of war.

“It is the civil society whose basic human rights are annihilated by torture, ethnic cleansing, and, not least, by destroying of the infrastructure or, the cities as a whole during wartime– all of which makes it impossible to live a liveable life.”

Dr Babka commented, referring to the philosopher Judith Butler, “an ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that means, it has never counted as a life at all. We can observe the division of the globe into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war in order to defend the lives of certain communities, and to defend them against the lives of others—even if it means taking those latter lives.”

Coming back to the question of what we can do as individuals, the speakers, in a follow-up discussion with the audience, said we need to hold our politicians to account both nationally and internationally urging political action around the role of western actors in deepening the crisis in Syria. From the very basic human treatment of refugees in Ireland and welcoming displaced persons to writing to our local politicians and European parliamentarians to stop military action in Syria, or participating in peaceful demonstrations, speakers highlighted many ways that civil society can empower themselves and prompt action among the political classes to address issues of global injustice.

The Trinity Long Room Hub is Trinity’s arts and humanities research institute. The ‘Behind the Headlines’ public discussion series offers background analyses of current issues by experts drawing on the long-term perspectives of arts and humanities research. It aims to provide a form that deepens understanding and stimulates informed public debate. Previous public talks in the series included: Destination Europe: Reflections on the Refugee Crisis, The Embrace of Love: Being Gay in Ireland Now, After Charlie Hebdo: A Public Forum of Religion, Freedom and Human Rights, Terrorism Today, and Brexit, Brussels and the Big Apple