The crisis has taken a dramatic turn with imminent US strikes against Syria. Meanwhile Syrians in Oman can only wait but their pain is just as real, reports Kate Ginn
“My family left their house after their new car was hit by one of the rockets. It was parked in the street and it was in flames. After that my mum told my father that she couldn’t stay in the house any more, because she didn’t want to lose her life,” says Alaadin Al Dakkak.
Images of burnt out vehicles, buildings reduced to blackened rubble and bloodied corpses from the battlegrounds of the Syrian conflict have become a common sight, beamed into our homes and smartphones.
Try to imagine for a moment, though, if you had family living there.
Here in Oman, predominantly Muscat, there is a small community of Syrians facing this scenario on a daily basis. From over 5,000 kilometres away, they are watching events unfold in the knowledge their families could be involved.
Pictures of explosions and bombings are watched with an icy fear in their hearts, not knowing whether their relatives are safe, if they are near the scene of the latest attack, or if they are among the bodies or charred remains of the new victims being brought out into the streets.
Technology today means that wars are played out for the world’s cameras, instantaneous information relayed within seconds in a flood of sounds, words and images.
For the millions of Syrians who have left the country, before and after the conflict began, it’s a bittersweet gift.
“Whenever I read or hear about the latest explosion or bombing, I immediately phone my family,” says Alaadin. “I just need to know that they are safe. My mind can be at rest.
“I communicate with my family almost every day through video call. It makes me calm to hear and see them every day.”
As he talks, Alaadin scrolls through his smartphone checking for messages, any word or news from Damascus, where his parents, brother and two sisters still live.
It’s been nine years since he departed from his homeland to seek work abroad. Life in Oman, where Alaadin, 29, has been for five years, is good, with plenty of work and the home comforts that come from living in a country where peace and stability is taken for granted.
His thoughts are never far from his first family back home.
“It’s not easy for us to live away from our families, it’s very emotional,” he says. “You are scared for them because you know what the situation is like there.
“Every day, you are hearing things in the news and seeing it on TV. You can’t image how worried you are.
“I’m so fearful of what might happen. Especially these last two weeks, things are very insecure.”
Tension is growing in Syria with continuing reports of military action from America and its allies leading to more and more people attempting to flee the country. Those who have already left, before or during the conflict, may be distanced geographically but their emotional attachment has not diminished.
Alaadin, who works as a chef at the Grand Hyatt Muscat hotel, went back to Damascus in June for a month-long holiday. His family had already fled from their house in Al Midan, which has seen fierce fighting between rebel and government forces, to another part of the city.
“When I was in Syria you could hear it every day, the rockets exploding in the distance. You do feel scared; nobody knows when or where something will happen.
“One of the neighbour’s houses in Al Midan was damaged by a rocket, the building collapsed, and the family who lived there ran away with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.
“Some of my relatives, uncles, aunties and cousins have already left but my first family are insisting they will stay in Syria whatever will happen.
“I plead with them to leave. I have offered to bring them to Oman and my aunty has a house in Beirut, but my family says they don’t want to leave their land. My mum says ‘We live here (Syria) and we will die here’.”
His family is still paying installments for the destroyed car, which cost RO10,000. Material possessions can be replaced but not people. Over 100,000 are said to have lost their lives since the conflict began in March 2011.
“Six months ago, a rocket exploded at the company where my dad works (as a chief engineer) and people died in front of him,” says Alaadin.
“He was very lucky to be safe. He told me how he saw two young ladies die. It was a bad moment. He was really very sad for a long time. He cannot forget what happened.
“I can only pray to God that my family stays safe.”
There is no peace of mind for those with family living outside the Syrian capital either, as Ziad Ali knows only too well.
His parents and sister, all teachers, live in the coastal city of Tartous, around two hours by car from the Lebanese capital Beirut. It’s tantalisingly close to the sanctuary of another country and yet, in a sense, a world away.
“I see the news and speak to my family straight away. They say nothing is happening and they are all okay. What can I do?
“We all know people who have lost family or friends in this. It is a very big problem for us to explain to the world what is happening.
“We are fighting for our homeland, our first love, and for the future of our children and our country.”
Ziad, 26, who works in Muscat in financial management, is returning to his home city at the end of the month for a visit. When he speaks his passion and unembarrassed patriotism are apparent.
“I want to breathe Syrian air, eat Syrian food and swim in the Syrian water again,” he says.
When asked if he would be prepared to fight for his country and government, he nods without hesitation. As did Alaadin when answering the same question. Both did national service in the Syrian army when they were younger.
“The Syrian army is for the Syrian people,” says Ziad.
His family has no intention of leaving now or at any time.
“My family will stay there. Life carries on; work and schools do not stop. I want the war to stop but it is more than just Syria’s problem now.
“Will I go back one day? Yes, I will die in Syria.
“The bond we have with our country is so strong, that’s what makes it so special.”
The situation in Syria is complicated. Nothing is clear-cut in a conflict being fought out through the media.
For now, all any of them can do is sit and watch – with a mixture of hope and dread – that the fate of their country will be resolved soon.
“There is pressure from the media. When you see what is happening in Syria you want to go there and see your family,” says Alaadin.
“Even if you call and the family say ‘we are safe, you don’t need to worry about us’, you cannot put it our of
“For the last two years, this has been hanging over us. We are all suffering.”
ON THE FRONTLINE: Dispatch from Syria
Yazan Taher, 22, is a student at Damascus University. His father lives in Muscat, while his mother and younger brother remain in Syria. He returned to Damascus six months ago after a visit to Oman. Here, exclusively for Y, he reports what it’s like living in a city at war
Ihad to come back to Syria to go to college. I’m studying information technology at Damascus University. I live in Old Damascus (largely unscathed by the war so far, its population has been swollen by residents seeking refuge from fighting in the suburbs).
Life in Damascus is pretty normal, people have got used to the situation. A little bit of fear is always there but not as much as you’d expect. Weddings, parties, outings, its all as normal. Day-to-day life in Damascus is kind of boring now. Dangerous, yes, but like I said, people have got used to it. I mostly hang out with friends, walk around at night, nothing special. Everywhere you go, you see people and traffic, and that same nice, chaotic lifestyle that Damascus has. The idea of death has lost its effect in a way. Que sera sera (‘Whatever will be, will be’).
There have been only two kinds of troubles, suicidal car bombings or mortar shells. I was once very close to the Kazzaz bombings (two explosions in the Al-Kazzaz part of the city). I was 150 metres away from it. And a mortar shell once fell 10 metres away from my friend. Troubles such as shooting, building being seized and recaptured are happening in the countryside.
The people here on the ground don’t believe the chemical weapon attack was the regime. If it were, then a lot of populated areas inside Damascus would’ve been affected. A lot of people think it was the ‘Free’ Syrian Army that used them – as a publicity stunt maybe? Looking for attention? It did cause the USA to start talking so loud. It’s nothing more than a desperate cry for help and a reason to cause mayhem.
I think social media does as much damage as it does good. People believe anything they read on the Internet without asking who or how or why. Certain opposition pages usually issue warnings to stay out of this street or that building, and the next day a bombing takes place there.
There are also rumours, which spread like wildfire sometimes, like ‘Damascus has fallen’. I’ve heard that one many times. Or the ‘USA is attacking tonight at 1.15am’. Social media causes panic. It can also help to spread ‘some’ truth about what’s going on but we rely on what we see ourselves in front of us. That’s the only way to find out what’s really happening.
We’ve been under siege for two years now: expensive prices, mortar shells, suicide bombings, power outages because the electricity stations are attacked.
There is nothing that the USA can say or do now that might cause fear. We’ve seen the worst possible; we’ve heard the worst possible. Certain acts of ‘monstrosity’ – those acts set the threshold for fear
I’m staying. My friends are staying. My dad is worried about me, my mum is worried about me. I’m worried about my little brother, about my friends, but I’ve got used to it. I stay careful, don’t make any stupid decisions. I know what to do and where to go, and it’s another day closer to seeing my family.
Leave? I thought about it but I found it unnecessary. This is our home. Some people don’t’ believe in that, a lot of my friends abroad tell me to forget such things. They don’t believe in having a home country, to be proud of your origin or to be willing to defend it.
I think it’s very wrong to run away from something like this. I believe in unity. No countries, no religions, nothing to divide us like John Lennon said. But, just like a movie I once watched, ‘We were here long before you came, long after they’re gone’ (from the film Blood Diamond).
So for now I am staying here.
I want Syria to be like it was, one of the top five safest countries on the planet. Everything was cheap. Peace, safety, a good economy and the ‘freedom’ that we had but have now lost. It was near perfect but ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.’
I believe that no matter how good Syria becomes, it will never be worth what we went through. People who died, people who became homeless, people who lost loved ones, family, friends. Nothing on earth is worth people dying for.
A clock appears to be ticking on a major US-led attack on Syria, following a much disputed chemical weapons attack. A new deadly phase of the conflict may be about to begin, reports Joe Gill
“The cities dissolve, and the earth is a cart loaded with dust,” wrote the Syrian poet Adonis. His poem, ‘Desert’, was written about the war in Lebanon, but it could easily have been about his homeland’s own bloody troubles.
The chemical weapons incident of August 21 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta left hundreds of civilians dead, including many children, adding a gruesome new twist to the two-and-a-half-year conflict.
It led swiftly to warnings of retaliation against the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad from US President Barack Obama and allies Britain and France.
Obama’s famous ‘red line’ over the use of chemical weapons in Syria was muddied with uncertainty over the intelligence around the attacks, with Russia and the Syrian government claiming the rebels were responsible.
The UK Parliament delivered a surprise defeat to Prime Minister David Cameron’s motion in support of military intervention last Thursday.
At the time of going to press, President Obama was hardening his position in favour of military attacks ahead of the G20 summit in Russia this week. US Congressional leaders promised support for a major assault on the country.
While the world is waiting for UN weapons inspectors to report back on their mission to the site of the chemical attacks, the US appears intent on military action regardless of their findings.
As Syria’s unfolding tragedy continues, it’s hard to imagine that until the unrest that began in March 2011, Syria was considered one of the most stable countries in the region.
The Ba’ath Party under the Al Assad dynasty – Bashar and before him his father Hafez – have ruled the country with a firm hand since 1963, maintaining peace among the country’s religious minorities.
A violent uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 became one of the bloodiest incidents in the post-war Middle East, when thousands were killed as the government crushed the rebellion.
The name of Hama was on the lips of many of those who first joined protests in early 2011 in Homs and elsewhere.
Syria was the last of the longstanding Arab regimes to suffer unrest, following the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. Early on, the US and allies called for President Bashar al Assad to step down, to no effect.
Originally peaceful, protests were met with suppression, leading to the formation of the Free Syrian Army by defecting soldiers, while foreign jihadists began entering the country.
A cycle of violence and sectarian massacres began that has led to the division and destruction of large parts of the country.
The Syrian government is supported by Iran and longtime ally Russia, which supplies it with advanced weaponry including tanks and aircraft. Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon are also fighting on the government side.
Meanwhile the US, UK, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided funding, political support and arms to rebel fighters, who the government says are terrorists.
In recent months, the government appeared to have gained the upper hand in the conflict, as many Syrians appear to be losing faith in the uprising, fearing the growing influence of foreign extremist groups.
The conflict has fractured, with Kurdish areas no longer under government or rebel control. Recent clashes between Kurdish fighters and jihadists have led to thousands of Kurds fleeing into Iraq.
Israel has already carried out several airstrikes against Syria, the latest on July 5, allegedly aimed at preventing advanced Iranian and Russian weapons falling into the hands of Hizbollah. It has strongly backed US strikes.
With more than 100,000 people dead and over two million refugees from the war, the conflict appears to be moving into a new deadly phase.
REGION IN FLAMES
The overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in February 2011 led to hopes of a new dawn of democratic freedom in the Arab world. However, following the army’s overthrow of Mohammed Morsi, the first elected president of Egypt, on July 3, more than 1000 protestors have been killed and fears have grown that the country could slide into more violence. Millions of anti-Morsi protesters demanded Morsi’s overthrow after he adopted a controversial Islamic constitution in December 2012. Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been arrested and now face trial.
The Arab uprisings began in Tunisia in January 2011, when protests brought the unexpected downfall of corrupt President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country. His fall sparked protests across the region. An Islamic party, Ennahdha, won the first free elections in Tunisia, but the assassination of two left-wing politicians this year has sparked massive protests and fears that Tunisia’s democratic experiment might go the way of Egypt’s.
Protests broke out in Yemen in early 2011 against the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Months of mass protest and violence followed until in November the President agreed to a plan initiated by Saudi Arabia to transfer power to his Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi. Saleh stepped down in February 2012 but this did not bring an end to the crisis of poverty and violence in the country. The US has been waging a drone war for several years against Islamist fighters, while a Shi’ite rebellion and southern separatist movement are undiminished. New elections are scheduled for 2014.
The 41-year rule of Muammar Qadafi came to brutal end in October 2011 when he was captured, shot and bayoneted to death by rebels after fleeing his hometown of Sirte. His overthrow began with unrest in Benghazi and Misrata in February 2011. The UN Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya and NATO airstrikes followed swiftly. Tripoli fell to rebels in August 2011. Since then, the country has suffered instability and violence, with huge quantities of arms falling into the hands of militias and a central government unable to bring peace. The US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens was killed in a terrorist attack on a compound in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.