GWARBQ, Syria and the Commonwealth between them

by | Aug 22, 2016 | POLITICS

As I prepared for the seminal RVA weekend of the year – GWARBBQ – I once again found myself in that strange place between being “here” and being “over there.” And how could you not, after seeing the pictures from Syria this past week?

As I prepared for the seminal RVA weekend of the year – GWARBBQ – I once again found myself in that strange place between being “here” and being “over there.” And how could you not, after seeing the pictures from Syria this past week?

Foreign policy professionals typically live in two-worlds, never quite belonging to either. The world “over there” filled with the complex challenges of war, cultural nuance, and geopolitical strategy and the world “here,” filled with family, friends, and the responsibilities of everyday life.

I put these things in quotations because at some point they both blend together and take on a meaning that is beyond what their definition might originally imply.

This was never more true than when I saw the images of Omran Daqneesh – the young boy who was pulled from a smoldering pile of rubble after a Russian airstrike in the city of Aleppo. If you have not seen them, I encourage you to do so. The image is not only haunting in every way imaginable, but a stark reminder of what war actually looks like.

The war in Syria is unquestionably the great tragedy of our generation, and one we should all be uniquely aware of and deeply saddened by. While the nations of the world including our own play politics, almost 250,000 people have been killed, 6.6 million internally displaced, with another 5 million living as refugees and scattered between Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq (things are bad when Iraq is your best option).

While we can think about refugees in the abstract in the faraway places mentioned above, some are already here in Virginia.

Our governor, Terry McAuliffe, publicly announced in November 2015 that he would not block the entry of Syrian refugees into the Commonwealth. He was one of the few governors to actually come out in support of relocation. A bold move given the Islamic State attacks across Europe over the last few months. And according to the Department of Social Services, 83 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Virginia in 2016, 67 of which arrived in June alone – almost quintupling the number from 2015.

The majority of these refugees are now being resettled in Roanoke – even though the Mayor of Roanoke – in what might be one of the absolute worst bouts of political misspeak – suggested that Syrian refugees be put into internment camps much like the Japanese in WW2 – so their relocation is a superb cosmic irony to say the least.

This is only a paltry fraction of the 10,000 refugees President Obama is hoping to resettle in the US, but it is something we should continue to be supportive of as Virginians. If the picture of Omran Daqneesh and the plight of the 300,000 people caught in the cross-fire in Aleppo does nothing to pull your heartstrings then you are probably a robot, zombie, or just a cold-blooded human being.

If you are none of those things, then you should be proud to have a sitting governor in Richmond that is willing to stake his political reputation on actually doing the decent thing as opposed to the politically expedient thing – a very rare luxury in today’s America.

More so because the situation in Syria is only getting worse.

For the most part, Syria has broken up into a series of cantons or “statelets,” each being controlled by a militia, rebel group, or jihadist faction and is little more than turf warfare at its most brutal. The border between Iraq and Syria is almost nonexistent, which is why groups like the Islamic State have been able to take control of wide swaths of territory between both countries.

Put in simpler, but highly involved geopolitical speak: The artificial borders which governed the colonial Middle East after WW1 are failing. Into this maelstrom of complexity and chaos, countries like the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are manipulating, cajoling, and maneuvering for position – all of which is prolonging the conditions of the conflict – and the human suffering accompanying it.

The government of Syria, led by beleaguered president Bashar al Assad, only controls territory in the western part of the country, which is also home to a Russian naval base (wink, wink). Should the Syrian regime manage to retake Aleppo with the help of Russian airpower then the rebellion against Assad would have a very hard time recovering. This puts the countries who support Assad in direction opposition with those who want to see him removed, like the US.

One might be inclined to take an aspirin after trying to figure out the labyrinth of point-counter-point currently going on in Syria.

But what is lost in all of this high minded strategy talk is the human suffering that the picture of Omar Daqneesh reminds us of. As we were coming together and celebrating our own culture and community at GWARBBQ – his older brother Ali – died from the injuries he sustained in the same airstrike – a potent reminder that the cycle of violence continues to grind on in Syria.

300,000 people still remain trapped in the besieged city of Aleppo, caught between opposing forces with little option for rescue and nowhere to go. That is the plight of refugees in today’s world.

What does any of this have to do with Richmond or even Virginia? Well, that is for you to decide.

by Landon Shroder is an intelligence analyst and threat management specialist that spent 12 years in the field between the Middle East & Africa. He also runs the AP Math Labs Foundation RVA, which specializes in countering online extremist media. Email him at [email protected]

RVA Magazine has always been an open platform for ideas and this week we are inviting local people to present them. If you are interested in writing something send us an email at [email protected] The opinions expressed are solely the authors and not necessarily the opinions of RVA Magazine or our staff.

Landon Shroder

Landon Shroder

Landon is a foreign policy and communications professional from Richmond specializing in high risk and complex environments, spending almost fifteen years abroad in the Middle East and Africa. He hold’s a Master’s Degree from American University in Conflict Resolution and was a former journalist and producer for VICE Media. His writing on foreign affairs has been published in World Policy Journal, Chatham House, Small Wars Journal, War on the Rocks, and the Fair Observer, along with being a commentator in the New York Times on the Middle East.

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