By Yassin Al-Haj Saleh
February 2, 2017
Some American friends wanted me to visit in the summer to speak about a book of my essays on Syria and the Syrian revolution that is about to be published. The prospect of travelling to the United States made me uneasy. I had heard stories of Syrians being singled out for interrogation at American airports. And I wasn’t certain I would be able to get travel documents and an American visa anyway: Because of my political activities, I am a man without a passport. But then, after President Trump signed an executive order barring even Syrians with valid passports and visas from the United States, I knew I wouldn’t be able to visit my American friends any time soon.
Mr. Trump’s decision pronouncing Syrians dangerous and undesirable seemed quite similar to the way our own dictator, President Bashar al-Assad, has treated me and my countrymen. I have never had a passport. I was explicitly denied one by Mr. Assad’s regime because I am a writer who opposed his father and opposes him. In 1980, I was a 19-year-old student of medicine at the University of Aleppo when I joined the protests against the Hafez al-Assad regime. I was jailed along with hundreds of fellow left-wing students and activists. I spent 16 years in prison.
After my release in 1996, I returned to Aleppo and my medical studies. After graduating in 2000, I decided not to practice medicine, moved to Damascus and worked as a writer. In March 2011, Syrians rose up against the Bashar al-Assad regime. I decided to write without any self-censorship in support of the revolution. The cost of writing with freedom was that I had to leave my home in Damascus, hide in myriad places across the country, and eventually seek refuge in Turkey. To live in exile without a passport or travel documents is to live with the knowledge of limited mobility in a world of militarized bureaucracy.
The international disdain for Syrian refugees comes close to Mr. Assad’s approach to his ill-fated subjects. Most Syrians were never issued passports. For the Assad regime, passports are political and disciplinary tools.
For Syrians, Mr. Trump is merely pushing to extremes a process that has been going on for years. The situation of the refugees, and the underprivileged in general, has been worsening everywhere for a generation. Syria exemplifies a greater global failure.
The executive order barring Syrians and the citizens of six other countries was among Mr. Trump’s very first actions in the White House. Many of the objectives of the first week of his reign — setting the stage to build a wall on the Mexico border, and cutting federal funds to environmental research and programs involving abortion — are aimed at the vulnerable and the poor. It reveals a lot about the social and political outlook of his administration.
Mr. Trump’s reactionary decree banning Syrian refugees and visitors from other Muslim-majority countries has dangerous side effects: It normalizes war criminals like Mr. Assad, dictators like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and helps the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the war on terrorism and the threat of Islamist militants became central to the way the United States saw and dealt with the world. Despotic regimes exploit this American fear of Islamist militancy and get away with brutal violence against dissenting populations of varying political and religious persuasions by projecting them as jihadists.
Terrorist networks like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State use discriminatory acts such as Mr. Trump’s ban to depict the West as fundamentally anti-Muslim and position themselves as defenders of the Islamic realm. They thrive in a world of hatred, fear and retreat.
Among many Muslims, Mr. Trump’s executive order is rightly perceived as Islamophobic and as encouraging sectarian divisions in both Syria and the region. But these are hardly new traits of American and Western policies in the Middle East.
As a Syrian, I can recall a shameful precedent for Mr. Trump’s indifference toward the suffering of refugees. On Aug. 21, 2013, in its biggest chemical weapons attack, the Assad regime used sarin gas against the besieged East Ghouta area outside Damascus and killed more than 1,400 people, including 426 children. In mid-September 2013, the United States and Russia made a deal concerning Syria’s chemical weapons. Under the deal Mr. Assad acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention and submitted his chemical weapons (except chlorine, which doesn’t fall under it), and in exchange he was exempted from punishment from their use and was practically guaranteed his survival.
Mr. Assad concluded rightly that he could continue killing rebels with any weapons except the chemical weapons. President Barack Obama chose not to enforce a no-fly zone, so Mr. Assad continued dropping barrel bombs on homes, schools and hospitals in rebel-held areas. Mr. Obama essentially did nothing to match the deal with any protections for the rebelling Syrians.
The chemical weapons deal was an enormous gift to extremist groups like the Nusra Front and the Islamic State, lending credibility to their nihilist discourse that the world is against us and those who seek justice for Muslims in the Western world order are misguided, even agents of crusaders.
The flight of millions of Syrians to neighbouring countries and Europe only intensified after the chemical weapons agreement, which dealt a brutal blow to our hopes for political change. In 2014, the Assad regime started aggressive military offensives on multiple cities. Ethnic cleansing forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. Barrel bomb attacks on residential areas were intensified. Thus the Syrian refugee crisis in 2014 and 2015 was born of the chemical weapons agreement in 2013.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump may be very different personalities, but so far, Mr. Trump’s administration seems like just a continuation of Mr. Obama’s in terms of its attitude toward Syria and the Middle East.
For about half a century, the people of the Middle East have been denied political freedoms, economic security and oppressed by violent juntas like the Assad regime. If a class of Americans felt let down by their political establishment, felt their economic security slipping away and elected Mr. Trump, why is it surprising that the Middle East has given rise to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda?
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than four million Syrians are refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Around 6.3 million are internally displaced within Syria. Of these approximately 11 million Syrians who have lost their homes, the United States has accepted around 10,000.
His ban will strengthen the Islamic State and Al Qaeda as it creates a world in which people are left with little hope, and Muslims, in particular, are discriminated against.
Mr. Trump is considering “safe zones” in Syria for Syrian refugees. But given his worldview and his relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, an Assad ally, nothing encourages us to think of it as an effort to protect an exposed and dehumanized people from the Assad regime or from the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. I am afraid Mr. Trump’s “safe zones” will simply confine and isolate us. Mr. Trump should realize that we already have such an arrangement in place to quarantine Syrians: Mr. Assad’s Syria.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh, the author of the forthcoming “Impossible Revolution,” is a Syrian writer and dissident in exile in Turkey.