By Alejandra Mena
World Fellow and Syrian Peace Activist, Rami Nakhla has advocated for political reform in Syria for a decade. His work took on a new urgency after the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011, when he was forced to flee the country out of fear of government persecution. Alejandra Mena ‘17 sat down with Nakhla to discuss the roots of the Syrian conflict, the role of technology and social media, and the steps that can be taken to bring about lasting change.
TYG: After nearly four years of fighting, what do supporters of the opposition now want?
RN: The pro-opposition and the pro-regime camps both want to put an end to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS is bad for everyone. The Syrian opposition has been fighting ISIS since before the U.S. got involved— they have won so many battles and lost so many battles. The Syrian regime and ISIS, on the other hand, have never clashed, except in two small battles. There is almost a silent agreement between them. ISIS basically benefits the regime, because it gives them more credibility in comparison. The regime is seen as willing to fight terrorists; this is why the regime has let them grow.
TYG: What is the ideal outcome for the pro-opposition forces?
RN: Those in favor of the opposition want the U.S. to conduct airstrikes against the regime. They argue that this is necessary for peace because the ongoing conflict between the regime and the rebels supports the formation of more groups like ISIS. Without addressing this, they say, we can get rid of ISIS, but another group will replace them. I can see their point of view, but I disagree in that I don’t think the Assad regime should be bombed. In the past, the regime has coordinated its own airstrikes with U.S. airstrikes to increase collateral damage. If the U.S. targets one area, the Syrian regime will send an airstrike into the surrounding civilian neighborhood to increase collateral damage, which people will attribute to the U.S.-led bombing campaign. People start to flip against the United States. Even though they want to get rid of ISIS, they see that the collateral damage is too huge. Also, people will start becoming skeptical of the real intentions of the United States during these strikes. Syrians were calling for intervention for four years, but the United States didn’t do anything. But now because there is a threat to the U.S. from ISIS, the U.S. decides to intervene. The Syrian people understand that the United States is looking out for its own interests.
TYG: In a talk at Yale’s Asian American Cultural Center you mentioned the importance of technology in jumpstarting your career in political activism. What role has technology and social media played in the conflict?
RN: Revolutions will happen with social media or without, but in Syria it might happen twenty years from now. It will take more time for the dissent to develop and raise social awareness enough to revolt against the regime. Social media has helped us expedite this process and has helped us to overcome one of the major challenges, which is communication. For example, when police started shooting civilians in Daraa and killing people, within five minutes, it was online. Within ten minutes, it was all over the mainstream media. Syrian people, in Hama, in Daraa, in Damascus, all other Syrian cities, saw these horrific scenes on TV and knew what was going on immediately. But social media also plays in your enemies’ favor. ISIS uses this tool to reach out to more people and recruit members. They use social media to make themselves popular, widespread. By being so horrific, showing the beheadings of American journalists, they knew they would make headlines. They were smart in using social media. Evil, but smart. In the long run, social media has more advantages, but in the short run it can be a huge price.
TYG: What immediate steps need to happen in Syria to allow for change?
RN: We should push for a ceasefire; not request it—but demand it. You cannot gently ask any party to do this; each side strongly believes they can win it, and they will push. Our only way out of this conflict for certain is to find a way to live together. We can keep warring for ten years, twenty years, until we reach that threshold where we are tired enough that we agree to find a way to live together. For many Syrians, every fighter is fighting because that guy killed his sister, that guy killed his cousin. This is why we must demand a ceasefire.
Alejandra Mena ‘17 is in Silliman College. She can be reached at email@example.com.