The anniversary of the start of the Western war against Afghanistan is fast approaching and I remember it as though it was yesterday. The opening salvo from the US and Britain included nearly two dozen cruise missiles, indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction designed to strike terror into the hearts of those within a 20 mile radius of the target zone.
My vivid recollection of this stems from the fact that I was held in an Afghan jail at the time as a prisoner of the ruling Taliban. That night 17 years ago, on 7 October to be precise, I experienced the sheer terror of having nowhere to run and nowhere to hide as these massive bombs hurtled towards the capital. I had a grandstand view from an upstairs window in the prison as the West’s deadly weapons dropped on buildings in Kabul. After the first few exploded and rocked the jail where I was being held, I suddenly realised the futility of war and how bombs do not discriminate; man, woman, child, Afghan civilian, imprisoned Brit or Taliban fighter, the net effect was the same. I vowed there and then that, should I survive the blitz, I would join the anti-war movement.
Despite holding on to other hostages, the Taliban released me the next day and as soon as I returned to London I joined Stop the War Coalition; I was able to share my experience with around 60,000 people in London’s Trafalgar Square at an anti-war demonstration a few weeks later. I’m a big admirer of the work of Stop the War Coalition, although we parted company over Libya. Having travelled from the Egyptian border extensively through the country talking to many people, predominantly women, in Misrata, Benghazi, and Tripoli, I realised that without NATO intervention — or someone else’s help — those who rose up against dictator Muammar Gaddafi would be slaughtered.
Gaddafi promised to crush the dissenters “zenga zenga” (street by street). I realised then that being anti-war — and I still am — does not make me a pacifist and there are times when robust self-defense is called for. Nobody knows this better than the Palestinians who, 70 years on, are still resisting the Israeli military occupation of their land which has brutalised generations of civilians.
The reason for this introspection on my part was the desperate plea for help that I have received from friends trapped in Syria’s beleaguered city of Idlib. Over the weekend, Russian air strikes on Idlib intensified; it is around 60 kilometres south-west of the city of rubble once known as the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.
This is being called the rebels’ last stand as the Syrian regime tries to regain control. Of course, the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad will try to spin this murderous assault as a liberation, overlooking the fact that the courageous men, women, and children of Idlib and surrounding districts took to the streets with the single chant of “resistance is our choice”. It is also worth remembering that the so-called rebels started off as ordinary citizens calling on the Assad government for social and civil rights; it was the regime which responded with military power and began what has since become a brutal civil war.
The latest popular demonstration across 120 cities, towns and villages in Syria were most definitely anti-war. These people were making one last desperate plea for the world to intervene and rescue them from the anticipated bombardment by Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces, as well as assorted militias.
Of Idlib’s three million people, one third are under 18; that’s one million vulnerable children. They too have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, and more than half have already been displaced. Basically, there are no safe havens left. This is, indeed, a dramatic last stand.
During the demonstrations, many held handwritten placards rejecting recent calls by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to evacuate civilians to regime-controlled areas. Having spoken to victims of Assad’s torture prisons, I’m not sure what planet de Mistura lives on but the folks in Idlib know that if they do what he suggests, all too many will simply disappear.
“Reconciliation means a return to subjugation, humiliation, and tyranny,” said one. Precisely. These people are emotionally shattered, but not unbowed, as their enduring chant “As-shaab yurid isqat al-nizam” rang out, calling for the downfall of the brutal regime.
It was clear that their protests were not only for Assad’s ears, but also for Russia’s and Iran’s, and there is a possibility that their cries have been heard. Yesterday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the city of Sochi. The two had a closed-door meeting which lasted just under two hours. Erdogan said that the talks would bring “hope” to the region; this may be the positive sign that those trapped in besieged Idlib have been praying for.
In the meantime, have we seen demonstrations in the West to show solidarity with these ordinary Syrians? Sadly not. It seems that the left-leaning anti-war movements around the world are content to go along with the narrative from Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus, which claims that the final assault will clear out the violent Islamist extremists and jihadists. Of course, there are undoubtedly some people of violence holed up in Idlib, but that does not justify the anti-war movements’ decision to look the other way while the city is flattened by barrel bombs, missiles and worse; civilian casualties are inevitable.
So here’s my message to the anti-war activists: please don’t look away. Instead, look closer and see Idlib for what it is; the home of brave citizens who want freedom from Assad and Al-Qaida. They want an alternative, not just a choice between a fascist regime and religious fanatics. There are some amazing, courageous women in the city who will not stand with Assad and his privileged, upper-class supporters in upmarket Damascus, nor will they align with the religious fanatics in extreme jihadi groups on the ground. Surely there should be a third option for them; are they not worth supporting in their quest to take it?
Sadly, the secular left around the world holds such a hatred for religion of any kind that it looks as if it would rather tie itself to the coat tails of a regime which is committing rape and torture on an industrial scale. If anyone doubts this, read here what I revealed after speaking to some very brave Syrian women who shared harrowing personal accounts of their experiences in Assad’s dungeons.
I know for certain that my pleas will fall on deaf ears among the Stalinists and those socialists who will support Russia at any price. Assad’s stooges, meanwhile, will hide behind their anti-imperialist masks to justify their lack of solidarity with the working classes trapped in Idlib right now.
Once again, I find myself at odds with elements of the anti-war movement. Without international intervention of some kind, there is going to be a massacre of the people of Idlib and other Syrians who have taken refuge there. For the love of humanity, come to their rescue. These honourable people want nothing more than a better life; they should not have to choose between death, dictatorship and religious fanatics.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.