The Syrian uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad – despite its undying resolve – has turned into a humanitarian tragedy of epic proportions, a panel of activists told local Syrian and Arab Americans at the SALAM Islamic Center in East Sacramento on Sunday night.
“We have close to 2.5 million refugees in about six countries, more than a million of them children … 10 million Syrians, half the country, are in need of humanitarian assistance,” said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, director of government relations for the Washington, D.C.-based Syrian American Council. International aid groups are calling it “worse than Darfur and Haiti combined,” Ghanem said, as people freeze and starve to death.
More than 120,000 people have died since nationwide protests against Assad ripped through the country in April 2011, and Ghanem said that number could rise to half a million in the coming years years if the United States doesn’t intervene on the side of the opposition and “allows the conflict to ripen until both sides are exhausted.”
“In five years, there will be no opposition to negotiate with,” he said.
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Ghanem, who has briefed Congress on the crisis, spoke at “Syria What’s Next?” which included several Grass Valley activists who have taught Syrian children in Turkish refugee camps. Other speakers included Syrian American human-rights blogger Razan Ghazzawi and Raed Fares, a Syrian democracy activist known for inspiring nonviolent protests in the face of military crackdowns. The event was moderated by UC Davis graduate Anas Jebrini.
Air-quality engineer Isam Boulad – one of the Syrian Americans in the audience – said there are about 500 Syrian families in the Sacramento region. “For years they were afraid to speak up,” Boulad said, because the regime would punish their relatives. “Half the Syrian population has already left because if you are a free thinker and do anything considered an insult to the government, they will not only prosecute you but your family.”
Because the United States has chosen not to intervene while international officials investigate the poison gas attacks that killed 1,400 people in July, “the fortunes of the Assad regime have changed for the better with the insertion of Hezbollah,” the Iranian-backed militia, Ghanem said. “Iran has supported Assad heart and soul with weapons, advisers … The scales on the ground have tipped toward Assad for seven consecutive months, beating the opposition into the ground.” The U.S.-backed opposition is now also fighting against al-Qaida, Ghanem said.
Although peace talks are scheduled in Geneva on Jan. 22, “If and when this process fails, the Syrian American community will need to play a role to ensure that the U.S. is on the right side of history and that civilians are protected,” Ghanem said.
A ray of hope was offered by Fares, an activist from Kafranbel, a town in Idlib province, who has inspired months of nonviolent Friday protests with posters, banners and cartoons. A former member of the Baath Party, in 2011 Fares launched his campaign and took it to YouTube.
“In April 2011, we launched a revolution in Syria,” Fares said through an interpreter. “Don’t call it a civil war; it’s a revolution.”
After 1,700 soldiers occupied the town and shut down dissent, Fares said he and 50 other activists fled the city, stayed in tents and held protests in orange groves before returning to the main square, where they unfurled a banner 6 meters long.
Although the Assad regime prohibited people from gathering in groups of more than five for any reason, “I set up my equipment to film the demonstrations at the local downtown mosque on Fridays.” he said. “About 5,000 people would come to the square, all chanting ‘Unify!’ I teared up when I heard that. The protests continued through August 2012, when the town was liberated.”