Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Demotix. All rights reserved.“Should I spread my family out through the house so if a barrel bomb hits we won’t all die together? Or should we all stay in the same room so we can die together? Should I sleep in the basement in case a barrel bomb hits, or on the top floor so I don’t suffocate if it turns out to contain poison gas?”
These are not rhetorical questions, nor an exaggeration designed to show you how difficult life is for us Syrians as a result of the bombardment we are subjected to on an almost daily basis. These are questions a Syrian mother asked my friend after a recent poison gas attack by the regime on the town of Sarmin.
My hometown of Atarab is only a few kilometers away from where the chemical attack took place. Days before my last visit home, a regime jet bombed our town centre, killing more than thirty people, all of them civilians. My sense of impending death grew after I arrived and heard the details of what had happened from my mother, who lives only one street away from the explosion site. This only increased my obsessive worrying over where the best place to take shelter might be in case of aerial bombardment—and what the probability of my dying was wherever I found myself.
The regime is well aware of the impact of fear of death due to random bombardment, on the lifestyle of Syrians in areas outside its control. Everyone is too preoccupied with minute-to-minute survival to think of the future. Regime jets can be heard a number of times in a single day, just to spread fear.
A few months ago, a few Syrian grassroots groups surveyed 277 prominent non-violent activists to find out what they thought needed to happen in order for the violence and extremism to end. There was overwhelming consensus on two issues: first, the urgent need to stop barrel bombs and other weapons of indiscriminate killing, and second, the importance of engaging in genuine peace talks to reach a just political agreement.
This consensus turned into a rallying cry. Eighty-five groups, representing 17,000 peaceful Syrians, are backing these demands under a new campaign named Planet Syria, and I am one of them. We want an end to the bombs and real peace talks.
These barrel bombs are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths right now. They’ve displaced vast numbers of Syrians from their homes and destroyed schools and infrastructure. The UN Security Council banned them last year with a unanimous resolution, which even the regime's allies Russia and China voted for. Yet still Bashar al-Assad denies the existence of barrel bombs, as recently as last month, in a brazen interview with the BBC.
Leaders around the world, from Cameron to Obama, need to uphold these UN resolutions and stop the barrel bombs for four reasons:
First, their silence on barrel bombs actually emboldens the regime to use them. Their silence is killing Syrian civilians.
Second, the lack of any attempt to implement the UN resolution stopping the barrel bombs empties all UN resolutions of their value, rendering them just ink on paper. One clear example of this was the chemical attack on Sarmin in northern Syria last week. Poison gas was used on civilians just days after another unanimous resolution that bans the use of chlorine and makes a promise for action should attacks continue.
Stopping the bombs does not necessarily involve the use of military force.
Third, allowing the barrel bombs to continue helps ISIS promote its propaganda. The group portrays itself as the only actor concerned with defending Islam and capable of bringing an end to the crimes of the Syrian regime.
Fourth, stopping barrel bombs will help strengthen non-violent activism. It will curb displacement and exile, help in the fight against extremism and speed up the process of finding a political solution.
Stopping the bombs does not necessarily involve the direct use of military force. The Syrian regime has shown on more than one occasion that it is prepared to abandon its strategies when it senses true pressure. A good example is Bashar al-Assad relinquishing of his chemical weapons stockpile in 2013, when the Americans threatened military action.
And it wasn’t the first time. In 1998, Hafez al-Assad exiled Abdullah Ocalan, head of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), when Turkey threatened the use of military force against Syria. In 2005, Bashar al-Assad withdrew the Syrian army from Lebanon when pressure mounted following the assassination of Rafik Hariri.
International pressure is what we need—it is what we non-violent activists are calling for. Our campaign is named Planet Syria because of the feelings of isolation and solitude the majority of us Syrians feel. Many treat our demands for peace and democracy as if they are alien.
Silent sympathy is not enough on its own. We all, inside and outside Syria, have a moral and ethical responsibility to put pressure on all parties to bring a halt to the use of barrel bombs and other indiscriminate weapons. We need to find a just political solution, and to ensure that those of us living on Planet Syria no longer feel alone.