Every now and then, the conflict in Syria produces an iconic image of horror and suffering, which many brandish as an undisputable truth that will finally shake the world into “doing something”. Others break down at the sight of such images, or instinctively avert their senses. Mass killings and disappearances, industrial-scale torture and sexual abuse, gruesome staged executions, starvation tactics, the continued use of chemical weapons, napalm, cluster and barrel bombs, not to forget the torments of desperate emigration – all have spawned morbid emblems of their own.
Peter Harling, one of the foremost analysts of Syrian politics and the founder of Synaps, is a member of the advisory panel of the Shattuck Center on Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery.
For the public at large, as well as most officials tasked with the chore of “managing Syria”, such visions come and go, leaving at best a fleeting malaise – subliminal inserts disturbing, imperceptibly, an otherwise repetitious film. But for those who have experienced more intimately the monstrosity of this conflict, these impressions stick, accumulate and take over. Repressing them becomes a largely unconscious daily struggle, and a losing one at that: they lurk in the shadowy parts of the mind; they thicken and grow heavier with time; and they pounce in a moment of weakness.
Millions of Syrians of all stripes have incurred massive psychological damage, and sport unmistakable telltale symptoms. On the frontlines, fighters have long been anesthetized to the point of becoming indifferent to their own fate and that of their comrades. Yet numbness also permeates society more broadly. Syrians in exile often feel too guilty vis-à-vis the dead and dying to get on with their own lives. Obsessional behaviors – notably following the news in ways that reinforce both one’s opinions and anxieties – are the norm, but often coexist with nagging self-doubt and depression. Many mechanically go on whitewashing a regime or a revolution that long ago betrayed everything they claimed to stand for, simply for fear of facing the void – the collapse of whatever is left to cling to.
As this trauma deepens and protracts, Syrians grow ever more isolated and alienated — from one another and from all those gravitating around them, often meaning to help but generally failing to listen. This failure has to date precluded a coherent policy toward Syria, and — if not addressed sooner, rather than later — will continue to shape the conflict in the months and years ahead.
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Artwork credit: Hamza Bakkour by Khalil Younes