Op-ed: Don’t Forget Syrian Victims of the Islamic State

Beirut – The attack in France this week was absolutely horrendous. But while I am in Lebanon to interview victims of the Syrian war, including those who fled the terror of the Islamic State,  I am reminded that most of IS’ victims are here in the region. My op-ed in the Volkskrant today, highlights this issue.

The link is to the Dutch article, below is an English translation


Commentary on the French attacks from Beirut

Monday I took a taxi with Hassan. Hassan is a Syrian refugee from Deir ez-Zor, a region in the northeast of Syria occupied by the Islamic State. He tells me that it was impossible to continue working in Deir ez-Zor, unless he would be willing to support the Islamitsiche State. As a taxi driver he would have to register with the authorities of the Islamic State, and he would have to pay taxes. He refused: “I don’t support that organization. What they are doing has nothing to do with Islam. I am a Muslim myself, but they are not Muslim. They are not even human …. ” He talks about the many public beheadings he has seen, including in his own neighborhood.  “Afterwards you will just see those guys from IS play football with the heads that they have collected. Football!”

Hassan decided to go to Lebanon, where he had worked before. His family would remain in Syria until Hassan has earned the money to bring them to Lebanon. But as of January this year the Lebanese government has practically closed its borders for Syrian refugees. As a small middle-income country that is politically unstable itself, it simply cannot handle the continued influx of Syrians. Turkey and Jordan imposed similar restrictions, as Syria’s neighboring countries are now hosting more than four million Syrian refugees altogether. Western countries refuse to accept significant numbers of Syrian refugees.  The financial aid to refugees in the region is also insufficient. The World Food Programme has had to reduce the food rations provided to refugees as number of times due to a lack of funding. Last week, two Syrian children died of the cold in a Lebanese camps during a blizzard.

The attack in France last week was awful and the many expressions of support for the victims were heartwarming. But the media storm that followed the events also painfully shows that we use double standards in the West. As Tariq Ramadan said in a commentary on Al Jazeera, it is apparently considered normal that people in Syria and Iraq are suffering from Muslim extremism every day. But when there are French victims, the world reacts with shock.

This was also echoed in the story of a Syrian activist I spoke to this week. She spent the last few years risking her life as she traveled along the front lines of the civil war to collect images and videos of the human rights violations that took place in Syria. Since the beginning of the war, she recorded how especially Sunni Muslims in Syria were targeted. In addition to “regular” executions the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against them and bombed civilian targets, including schools. Later she recorded the suffering of terror spread by ISIS, which mainly manifested itself in areas that are predominantly Sunni. “And the West watched,” she says, “until a few Americans were beheaded. Then it was suddenly possible to circumvent the Security Council and intervene militarily … ”

By using double standards and only defending Western interest, we actually end up undermining the liberal values that we claim to be defending in the fight against extremism. While we light candles for the French victims, we let Syrian refugees drown in the Mediterranean and freeze to death in refugee camps. Let us therefor respond to the attack in Paris by reaching our hand to the many people like Hassan, who suffer from the same extremism as the French victims. Because as long as we give less importance to Muslim victims than to European victims of violence, the liberal values that we are so proud of in the West will have very little to offer to the rest of the world.

Saskia Baas teaches conflict studies at the University of Amsterdam and is researching the Syrian conflict. For her research, she currently resides in Beirut, Lebanon.

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