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Q+A: On Civilian Life in Syria

Human Rights Watch’s Lebanon researcher Lama Fakih has been monitoring the humanitarian situation in Syria since the start of the conflict. She recently returned from a trip to government-held areas of the country, where she asked civilians about their lives before and after the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. .

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

She spoke with Syria Deeply’s Karen Leigh about how civilian life has changed and whether the average resident is in favor of U.S. intervention.

Syria Deeply: How is the civilian situation right now, the month after the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta?

Lama Fakih: I was in [government-controlled areas of] Homs, Latkiaa and Damascus. The civilian population is very much anticipating a potential response from the U.S. and other states to the chemical weapons attacks. There is concern articulated by people in Latakia and Homs about what it might mean for their security in their towns and villages. Primarily, people were not concerned about being directly affected by a strike as much as whether the opposition might then launch more attacks and commit abuses, which would mean more civilian casualties in their communities.

In opposition-held areas in the north, we continue to see limited relief assistance coming in. Residents in Ghouta and other parts of the Damascus countryside are also talking about how they are not receiving adequate assistance.

The areas I was in were not under siege. But people are complaining about electricity cuts and about not having enough food and medical supplies. For a place like eastern Ghouta, which is still reeling from the attack, supplies are short.

SD: Are people trying to restore a sense of normalcy?

LF: People in Homs are very much trying to continue with some level of normalcy. You see people in the market, but there are roads barricaded and there are areas of the city people do not go into. They are being subjected to intermittent fire from opposition-held areas and to some car bombings. The areas that I was in are under government control, but people there are quite like those who are under opposition control. While being affected by violence, residents are trying the best they can to maintain a semblance of normal life. But they have to do so with a recognition of heightened security risks.

SD: Did the civilians you spoke to think a U.S. strike would help their day-to-day situation?

LF: No. Again, I was in government-held areas and there’s apprehension about the strikes from residents there. But I’ve also spoken to residents who favor the opposition, and they feel this may weaken the government and give the opposition an advantage on the battlefield. Among the civilian population in government-held areas, there’s skepticism and distrust of the evidence that’s come out as accusing the government of the attack, different from what you hear from pro-opposition-leaning residents. The latter also fear what might happen if there is no response. Those who believe the government is responsible do want a direct message to be sent [to Assad] to not use these weapons again.

SD: What is life like now in Ghouta?

LF: I didn’t visit Ghouta, but from what I have seen and heard, life has not gone back to normal. These are relatively small areas with significant casualties, and they’ve continued to suffer from a lack of basic necessities.

SD: What was the biggest difference you saw on this trip?

LF: The level of sectarian discourse increases each time I go in. In many respects, the threat of U.S. intervention has made it even worse. Among Alawites I spoke to, there’s a sense of “they’re attacking us,” and not that this is just an attack against the government. They see this as helping opposition fighters who have perpetrated human-rights abuses against them.

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