Kareem Shaheen is a journalist who reported in Syria for five years. He was one of the few Western journalists to go inside Idlib, the last rebel-held province that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has failed to capture. It’s become a refuge of last resort for people who’ve had to flee their homes again and again. In December, Assad launched what was meant to be a final campaign against the city, leading to a brutal humanitarian crisis. Yet throughout all this, Shaheen saw that the international response remained troublingly indifferent. There is a cease-fire in Idlib for now, but the people who live there are still looking to flee. The question isn’t just where they will go—it’s whether the rest of the world will care.
On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Shaheen about the ongoing Syrian conflict, the people within Idlib, and the world’s reaction to the country’s suffering. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: As you see it, the human lives in and around Idlib have been forgotten, both by the international community and the Syrian government.
Kareem Shaheen: Idlib’s just a piece of territory, right? Assad wants to end the war decisively. He’s militarily been able to reclaim all these parts of the country with Russian and Iranian help. But Idlib is the largest piece of territory that they want to reclaim: They don’t want to leave an area that could potentially be a refuge for rebels to rebuild and relaunch their insurgency against the regime. The government wants to end the war decisively because part of ending the war could mean that the international community will begin to accept Assad as the legitimate head of the Syrian state. That could eventually lead to reconstruction funds coming in, or the lifting of sanctions. Once all these Western countries realize that the war is decisively over, then he can begin to reclaim that status as a member of the international community and try to seek funds and support to rebuild the country and enrich his government.
So this is about closing the book.
The reality of the situation right now is that the Syrian regime is really vulnerable because various parts of the country that are under Assad’s control are impoverished. People don’t have enough to buy food. The currency has collapsed because of the economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon. The country is still under sanctions. Officials are unable to provide basic staples like fuel and food to ordinary people. And there are some rumblings of discontent in parts of the country that have been pacified by Assad’s forces. There’s all this unhappiness and destitution and poverty that the government has to contend with. And it’s going to be unable to contend with it in the long term if there is no reconstruction aid, if there isn’t a lifting of sanctions and a return to a normal state of affairs with the international community.
It sounds kind of desperate. On March 6, a cease-fire was announced in Idlib. How long do you think it will last?
No cease-fires in Idlib have held for very long because they preserve a status quo that is untenable. The regime wants to reclaim the entire country, and made very clear that it wants to do so. The Syrian government and Russia—which is supposed to be a guarantor of the ceasefires—jointly violate these cease-fires and bomb civilian areas and try to reclaim them militarily from the rebels whenever the situation suits them. So I don’t think a cease-fire is something that will hold in the long term, because it’s in nobody’s interest to maintain the status quo. Civilians don’t feel safe in Idlib because the regime keeps violating the cease-fire, but they don’t want to return back to their homes. So they’re stuck in this area near the Turkish border, and their situation becomes more desperate by the day.
We’ve spent so many years in the international community talking about our responsibility to protect civilians, our responsibility to ensure that mass atrocities, like those in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda or even during the Holocaust, would not go unpunished. What I realized was that all this talk of “never again” and international law and the international order were meaningless. They were not worth the paper on which they were written.
You’ve expressed this frustration as a journalist that you spent years telling these heartbreaking stories, and nothing seemed to matter when you came back to Canada. It was like a different world where people didn’t seem to even know what you were talking about in the years since you’d been away. I wonder if you think about what would matter, what would cause some kind of action, and what you’ve thought about that.
I don’t know if anything will cause any kind of action. The sad truth is that I don’t think there is a limit to what we will tolerate. We were so inwardly focused on concepts like human rights and fundamental rights and the freedoms of ordinary human beings and the right to even just live somewhere where people are not being bombed to death all the time. These now seem like outmoded, outdated concepts. After nine years of war in Syria, it’s become normal to bomb hospitals, it’s become normal to besiege civilians. These are not even chemical weapons attacks. The regime got away with this without any real punishment. This slow erosion of the international order and international law that’s been happening for nine years is something that should really give us all pause as we contemplate the far-reaching implications of the conflict and our decision not to act to stop it from continuing to unfold.
You’ve seen a lot over the course of your reporting. Do you feel OK? Do you feel safe?
I don’t know if there is a right answer to that question. It’s really hard for a lot of journalists to treat their mental health seriously because they think of the actual people they’re covering and what they went through and what they continue to go through. And it somehow feels a bit frivolous to think about our own mental health and taking care of ourselves, because the people we’re writing about are going through so much more.