Moving tales of war, refugees and political divisions shed light on Syrian conflict

Date 21.03.2017

An event at the University of Northampton designed to bring clarity to the complicated situation in war-torn Syria was a huge success.

Syria – Behind the News and Politics of 2017, was organised by Northampton resident Matthew Hunt and University lecturer Shawky Arif, and explored the conflict’s complex history, its impact on Syrian people and how the media shapes our understanding of the conflict and other global events.

A historical and political context for the conflict was provided by University duo Dr Arif, Lecturer in International Development, and Ron Mendel, Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Politics.

Dr Mendel stressed the implications of the internationalisation of the Syrian Civil War as both regional powers, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and international powers, such as Russia and the United States, have intervened. Each of these powers have pursued its own strategic objectives – Russia and Iran, for example, to support of Assad government; Saudi Arabia to curb the influence of Iran which is perceived as forming a ‘Shia axis’ the Middle East; the United States to turn back the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); and Turkey to combat the presence of the Kurdish forces who have gained ground  at the expense of  ISIS in northern Syria.

Dr Arif, meanwhile, outlined the historical events which boosted the popularity of Political Islam and how Islamic fundamentalism has been fuelled by the words and actions of United States presidents past and present, right-wing publications like BreitBart and European politicians, including the Netherland’s Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen of France.

Also in attendance was Telegraph photojournalist Will Wintercross, whose experiences in Syria led him to found the Syrian Refugee Relief Fund, a charity which provides humanitarian aid to people directly affected by war in the country.

He told the audience: “The last time I was in Syria, President Assad’s regime saw civilians as a legitimate military target. People were absolutely desperate.

“I cannot see any seeds of hope for Syria. The conflict will rumble on until the country is completely destroyed. Even if the war ended tomorrow, it would need trillions of dollars to rebuild it, but you wouldn’t be able to heal the divisions in society.”

Eric Nkundumubano from the British Red Cross explained how the organisation is helping destitute refugees in Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, and was joined by two refugees, who both gave moving accounts of their experiences.

Mustafa, who fled Aleppo with the help of the Red Cross, said: “I cannot believe we have a president who is killing his own people.

“Do not think those who have left their home in Syria are seeking money. We don’t want food, electricity or money – Syrian people just want safety.

“Syrian families are thinking of going back to Syria if there is peace, everyone feels nostalgic for their homeland.”

Amjad, who was a paediatric doctor, was forced to leave both Libya and Iraq, which borders Syria, after he and his family were threatened, and his uncle and cousin were both killed.

He told the audience: “I was resuscitating a soldier in a Benghazi hospital when people burst into the emergency room and pointed a gun at me, telling me to let the soldier die. They then shot the soldier in the head.

“Most of the refugees who have found refuge in the UK are destitute, and rely on the Red Cross for food handouts. I had a fairly high standard of living as a doctor, but found myself without a penny when I arrived here, and the Red Cross fed me. I decided to volunteer for the Red Cross in Leicester because I couldn’t just stay at home and do nothing, I wanted to help others.”

Co-organiser, Matthew Hunt, said: “Despite the outlook for peace in the region being a distant prospect and involving huge political complexity, there are practical things that the people of Northampton can do to help those who are fleeing the conflict, by supporting the work of the agencies like the British Red Cross and the Syrian Refugee Relief Fund.”

Photograph of Mustafa and Amjad by Teri Eger.