The US missile attack on the airbase in Syria made memories of my 2010 trip to that beautiful country rush back to my mind. The Syria that I saw, the beautiful winding lanes of the old city of Damascus, all the ancient sites around the city, are no longer the way I saw them. Having been there, and having befriended several Syrians during our trip, their pain and suffering feels very personal to me.
I still keep in contact with a friend who, with his wife and three small girls, is barely surviving in some relatively safe corner of the country. The last time I asked him exactly where he was he did not answer – I assume for fear of giving away his location to anyone else who may be reading our messages. His father, retired curator of the Syrian National Museum, chooses to live in Damascus, where he wants to die.
It is hard to understand how a country that was at peace just six years ago has descended into such chaos so quickly. By all accounts half a million have died, and over five million have been forced to flee the country. We all remember the heartbreaking photos of toddlers’ bodies washing ashore in Turkey. This is a tragedy of epic proportions, playing out right in front of our eyes, almost in slow motion, in the most painful possible way.
There have been many attempts to pin blame on someone, among them the ruthless Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. But I believe there’s a lot more to it than that. All the countries that rushed into Syria to influence the outcome of the initial uprising in 2011, all the forces that had an ax to grind, among them Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and perhaps many others.
Then there are the superpowers of the world: Russia with its own agenda, and the U.S., which is still struggling to figure out which of many bad options are the least bad.
In the midst of all this chaos, death and destruction, I keep thinking of the wonderful people we met and the amazing archaeological sites we were able to visit. Beyond Damascus and the Syrian National Museum, which held irreplaceable historical treasures, there were Bosra and Ma’lula, Homs and Krak des Chevaliers. My friend tells me none of these places are the way we saw them. “Gangs of criminals are occupying all the historical places you visited with me,” he wrote in a recent message.
One of the most pleasant memories of our visit to Damascus is of when we had dinner at a beautiful restaurant called Naranj, an old Damascene home converted into a restaurant, with a retractable roof over the courtyard. It was such a wonderful experience that we went back there a second time during our short stay in Damascus. I recently met someone who still has family in Damascus. He told me Naranj is still in business. This must have been the best news, in fact the only good news, that I’ve heard from Syria since the civil war began six years ago. And then there was the Gharaoui, a chocolatier of world class quality. I have heard that family has closed shop and moved to some location in Europe.
Now that the Trump administration has decided to “deliver a message” to the Syrian government, where do we go from here? The Obama administration was tied in knots, not knowing what to do about Syria. It is hard to stand totally aside, both because of the mounting atrocities by all sides and because of the advent of the so-called Islamic State or ISIS.
We are now hoping there will be a more comprehensive strategy to bring an end to this brutal civil war. No one seems to have any solutions, but we cling to hope.
S. Qaisar Shareef concluded a career of nearly 30 years with Procter & Gamble Company in 2011. He is the author of When Tribesmen Came Calling: Building an Enduring American Business in Pakistan, to be published in July 2017 by Blue Ear Books. He lives outside Washington, DC.