Some 85 non-violent groups, representing 17,000 Syrians, are calling for global support to stop the intensifying barrel bomb attacks striking civilian areas in their country. They are also promoting inclusive peace talks as a way to stop the ongoing expansion of the Islamic State.
The organizers have called the campaign “Planet Syria,” highlighting their perception of abandonment by the international community.
“We are deeply frustrated by the lack of support from our friends around the world. It’s not complicated – the vast majority of Syrians don’t want dictatorship or extremism. We want exactly the same as anyone, anywhere: freedom and dignity,” said Salma Kahale, an organizer of the campaign and founder of Dawlaty, a non-profit organization based in Lebanon.
Coordinators of the campaign have emphasized “the link between the ongoing barrel bombing in Syria and the rise of ISIS,” adding that senseless violence is fueling radicalization.
“Every barrel bomb dropped strengthens ISIS. Any support these extremists have in Syria is directly linked to the mass human rights violations of the Assad regime. The U.N. banned barrel bombs a year ago and since then nearly 2,000 children have been killed by them,” said Haid Haid, a campaign spokesperson from northern Syria.
While the international community has largely been focused on the battle against the Islamic State, the situation inside Syria continues to deteriorate. At least 220,000 Syrians have been killed over the course of four years. Roughly 10 million have been displaced within Syria, while millions more have fled the country. Hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared in detention, while 640,000 are living under brutal siege without access to food, water or medicine.
Salma spoke to Syria Deeply about the campaign and the ongoing push to end the violence that has consumed Syria.
Syria Deeply: How did the idea for the campaign come about?
Salma: When the coalition airstrikes began last fall, a group of Syrian and non-Syrian activists came together with a similar feeling of frustration about the ongoing violence in the country and the lack of attention from the international community, which is largely focused on battling the Islamic State.
The coalition strikes have been largely ineffective and have caused more extremism in our view, leading to more divisions among opposition groups. The international coalition strikes also don’t address the source of violence and extremism.
However, we wanted to capitalize on the focus on Syria and try to shift it toward having a conversation about stopping the violence in Syria.
Our main message is that you aren’t going to stop ISIS in Syria as long as the violence inside the country continues. We felt it was important that the message came from non-violent activists inside Syria. There are lots of different initiatives that have taken place that don’t take into account the voices of Syrians themselves.
We also felt it was important that Syrian activists and civil society members come together to provide concrete demands and recommendations.
We began by outreaching non-violent Syrian activists directly or through online questionnaires to ask for their views on how to end the violence.
We then drafted a statement based on the findings from that survey and went back to Syrian groups asking them whether they would be prepared to add their names to the call.
Over 85 organizations across Syria representing over 17,000 people signed up.
Syria Deeply: What are the specific demands of the campaign?
Salma: We focused on two things: the need to stop the barrel bombs, and inclusive peace talks that are backed by the international community. These two things need to happen in parallel. In order to have talks, there needs to be an end to the violence, and concrete steps that the international community follows in order to show they are serious about enforcing agreements and being constructive players within the process.
Syria Deeply: Why is the campaign called Planet Syria?
Salma: We called it Planet Syria because we felt like we were being treated as if we were on a different planet, as if our demands weren’t legitimate or the same as what others ask for.
We feel that we are asking for the same rights that everyone everywhere should have. We feel solidarity with those struggling for rights around the world, but our demands for freedom and democracy are treated by many as if they are completely alien and unrecognizable.
There should have been more solidarity shown toward Syrians, but instead, because of the geopolitics and the rise of extremism that has been fueled by the regime, the precedent set by Libya and Iraq, people haven’t even been willing to support causes that are based on values they share.
Syria Deeply: Why is it so important that there is universal support to achieve peace in Syria?
Salma: We need international pressure and solidarity in order to get our voices heard.
Unfortunately, the fate of Syrians is no longer in the hands of Syrians. What started out as a revolution four years ago has now turned into an international proxy war, with over 80 countries involved in the violence in different ways. We can’t do this alone. We need the support of people across the world and people who share our values and beliefs to stand up and help get our voices heard, and to pressurize the actors that can do something positive in Syria to actually take concrete steps to stop the violence.
The campaign is asking for people around the world to register for a day of action expressing solidarity with Syria on April 7.
Syria Deeply: Can you describe the climate inside Syria today, with civilians caught in between cycles of violence from all sides?
Salma: Barrel bombs are one of a range of sources of violence that have been affecting Syrians over the past four years. They are the leading cause of civilian death in Syria. It’s not an accurate weapon of war and it is one that has been used to target civilian areas like schools and hospitals.
Civilians inside Syria are forced to make impossible choices nowadays.
I have a friend who lives in rural Idlib. When the town close by came under chorine attack, she was wondering if she should go downstairs to the basement to protect herself from barrel bombs, or go upstairs to protect herself from a chlorine attack, because you have to stay in a higher area when you come under the threat of chemical attack. Syrians are dealing with that type of choice every day.
There are also very few sources of support and help, which can lead to radicalization. When your neighborhood and source of income has been destroyed, your family has been displaced, and there are very few actors providing support besides extremist groups that are often well funded, there is an increased likelihood that people will turn toward radical group in desperate situations.
Syria Deeply: What are some of the challenges of coming up with a unified message given the current environment inside Syria?
Salma: The conditions are very different in each community, but within each place people are trying to support each other, even under the most difficult circumstances.
It’s difficult to come up with common messages because the situation inside each community is different. Because of travel restrictions and lack of freedom of movement, it’s very hard to organize and people are beginning to think at a very local level. Some of the people we reached out to were part of very small groups, while others belonged to groups that had 8,000 members.
We tried to think of ways to link the local context with a broader, national agenda. We obviously don’t represent all of Syrian civil society, but there is a lot of support for a solution and an end to the violence. People want to mobilize and join others to put their demands forward and have their voices heard, which has made it easier for people to come together under this call.