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After Six Years Of War, Let's Try To Remember What Syrians Are Fighting For

Ordinary Syrians just wanted the freedoms we take for granted.
The before-and-after photos of Syria are devastating.
The before-and-after photos of Syria are devastating.

Have you ever thought about how urban environments play a part in war? Until a few days ago, I hadn't either.

A few days ago I heard Marwa Al Sabouni, a 34-year-old architect who had travelled from Homs, Syria, speak at the Perth Writers Festival.

Marwa remained in Homs during its destruction. And in her book, The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect, she explores how Syria's built environment played a contributory role in the war itself because too many people were living in what were effectively sectarian ghettoes.

While her talk was fascinating, what was more fascinating was the audience's reaction when they saw the devastating images of what has now become of Homs and Syria more broadly.

Loud gasps filled the audience. And all I could do was think "what kind of rock were you buried under to miss this?" If they reacted this way to the destruction of Homs, imagine what would have happened had they seen the onslaught of Aleppo?

One man actually said: "What are they fighting over?" In a way, he is right. The war has become so complex, so hopeless, the reasons for the war are hard to come by. But back in March 2011, Syrians were fighting for their voice. For a cessation of a police state.

The Syrian war, now in its sixth year, has become one of the most complex civil wars in history -- and also, according to the UN -- the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

So going back to to the man behind me: "What are they fighting about?"

Back in 2011 when the conflict started, all the Syrians wanted was to have their voice heard. Following the arrest and horrendous torture of 23 teenage boys from Daraa, people took to the streets to demand some basic freedoms. Freedoms they had been denied since Syrian independence. Institutionalised torture made up the fabric of Syrian society, and still does.

I personally never imagined in the midst of the Arab Spring that Syria would be next. There was no way people would take to the streets demanding reform. But I was wrong.

What took it to the next level? It was the Assad regime's response to these demonstrations. Shooting people indiscriminatingly, which then led to barrel bombings. Unlike the violent repression of Hama in 1982, the Syrian people didn't stop -- they fought back. And this is where things get horribly murky. Stay with me.

We basically had an evil villain (Assad) and civilian Syrians fighting each other. Easy right? Then came ISIS. And that's where everyone started thinking "better the devil we know" (that is Assad). And that's when Assad basically won the message. He was fighting the terrorists, after all.

But that's just it -- he wasn't fighting any terrorists. He was continuing to allow ISIS to exist. His regime did not target ISIS strongholds. In fact, they were both 'ignoring' each other on the battlefield because they needed each other to win a propaganda war.

Ordinary Syrians are no different to you and me. They were educated. Had homes with backyards. Kids who loved school. Fragrant gardens. A love of community.

As we saw the horrors of ISIS unleashed in Syria, Iraq and around the world, people forgot about the real cause of the Syrian conflict -- the irrepressible demand for basic freedoms.

And in October 2015, when we didn't think it could get worse, it did. Russia entered the fray in Syria. The US was outplayed and it has been a full proxy war since.

Hell, I can't even explain it. (Vox does an awesome job here.)

But as the anniversary of the Syrian civil war approaches, and as its end looks even more distant, please try to remember that ordinary Syrians had a vision for a better Syria.

Ordinary Syrians are no different from you and me. They were educated. Had homes with backyards. Kids who loved school. Fragrant gardens. A love of community. That vision has turned to a living hell. Don't forget them. Don't judge them. Just remember at the beginning they were fighting for what you and I have.


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