Ukraine News

We Need Syrian Voices in Debates on the Ukraine War

Some Germans are calling for a compromise peace in Ukraine. They should listen to the voices of Syrian refugees in their own country. The world must not abandon another vulnerable country to Russia.
By
SYRIA

Syrians know what it is like to be a people under fire. © Christiaan Triebert / shutterstock.com

September 07, 2023 22:21 EDT
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More than a year after Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany’s political climate has become increasingly fraught. Debates rage about the role Germany should assume in the war in Ukraine and whether there is sufficient emphasis on a diplomatic resolution. 

A comprehensive poll on Germany’s involvement in the Ukraine War from the end of June this year showed that solidarity for Ukraine among Germans is steadfast. 42% supported maintaining the West’s military support for Ukraine. 30% called for increased military aid, while 23% preferred to see support scaled back.

Nonetheless, Germany’s political fringes on both the left and right are attempting to disrupt this consensus by stirring fears of nuclear escalation and economic downturn. They latched onto the German government’s decision to deliver heavy weaponry, most notably Leopard 2 battle tanks. Moreover, they have managed to polarize public discourse with calls for peace talks that dictate terms to Ukraine and downplay Russian aggression.

The so-called “Manifesto for Peace” by far-left politician Sahra Wagenknecht and feminist publicist Alice Schwarzer garnered the most attention. It demanded that the government “halt the escalation of arms deliveries and lead a strong alliance for a ceasefire and peace negotiations.” In February, Wagenknecht and Schwarzer spearheaded the “Uprising for Peace” protests in Berlin. Organizers claimed that 50,000 people rallied. Attendees included members of the far-right. The protests were unsettlingly void of symbols of solidarity for Ukraine and made only lackluster attempts to distinguish themselves from right-wing and anti-Ukrainian messaging.

In January this year, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) submitted a motion titled “Peace Initiative” to Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. The AfD’s honorary chairman, Alexander Gauland, called for peace talks and created doubts about his solidarity with Ukraine. “No one can win this war, and only if we finally accept that and work for a peaceful solution will peace have a chance,” he said.

These calls particularly resonate with voters in East Germany, where historically pro-Russian sentiment persists.

The fringes also attempted to build upon some polls showing that more than half of the population favored more substantial diplomatic efforts to resolve the war.

At first glance, the debates fueled by these initiatives are ubiquitous, drawing in opinions from across the population. Yet there is a major group missing. People with actual experience of war and migration hardly featured in public discourse, especially Syrians exiled from their country to Germany by a civil war that Russia exacerbated.

At the end of 2021, roughly 932,000 people from Syria resided in Germany, an enormous leap from 33,000 Syrians ten years earlier. In spite of this, the influence of Syrians in the debate has been imperceptible, save for at the very beginning. Then, Syrian voices were present in debates about whether Ukrainian refugees were receiving preferential treatment compared to Middle Eastern and North African refugees. German media thus only reduced them to their status as refugees, meaningful only in terms of what they had experienced in Europe — and not what they had experienced in the country of their birth, in terms of war, freedom and peace.

Two young Syrian voices

So, what do Syrians in Germany think of their new home country’s struggle to find its role in the Ukraine war? What do they have to say about the Russian invasion, Germany’s support for Ukraine and the calls of some Germans for peace talks?

I spoke to Montaser Alrasheed, age 29, and Taoufek Morad, age 25. Like many Syrians, they left war-torn Syria for Germany in 2015. Approaching a decade of life in Germany, they no longer see their future in Assad’s Syria and intend to build new lives in their new home country.

Fearing compulsory military service, Morad fled Syria’s so-called capital of the revolution, Homs, which was ravaged and reclaimed by Assad’s Syrian Arab Army in 2014. He has been making the most of his new-found opportunities in Germany. Along with his full-time job as a social worker, he volunteers on an international advisory board in his new hometown of Pforzheim in Germany’s southwest, an organization that gives immigrants without German citizenship a political voice at the municipal level.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022 left Morad speechless. Soon enough, the images of war and destruction — resembling those of his hometown — made him realize that Putin would “do the same thing in Ukraine that he has done and is doing in Syria.” Morad refers to Russia’s military intervention in Syria that started in September 2015 and killed at least 6,928 civilians.

Alrasheed fled to Germany from Ar-Raqqa. This enabled him to continue his studies, which he had to interrupt because of the war. He is now studying civil and environmental engineering in Hanover. The first impressions of the war in Ukraine saddened and surprised him, as he, like so many, did not expect Putin to take such a political risk.

Lessons to learn from Syria’s civil war

Morad and Alrasheed understand why some Germans are speaking out for increased diplomatic efforts. They feel the same horror over recurring gruesome images and the number of victims caused by Russia’s aggression.

Yet Alrasheed opposes peace talks that include territorial concessions from Ukraine. “Occupation should not be a basis for a solution,” he told me. According to Morad, a diplomatic solution entailing a loss of Ukrainian territory should only be considered “if the people of Ukraine think it is right.” Likewise, he sees German arms deliveries as appropriate “as long as the Ukrainians want them.”

The arms deliveries to Ukraine remind Alrasheed of the complicated web of foreign interventions in the Syrian Civil War. He describes Ukraine as “a chessboard” of a proxy war against Russia that serves the various actors’ interests.

Alrasheed complements this sober view on foreign involvement in the Ukrainian war with a stark warning, also drawn from the Syrian Civil War: “If military support to Ukraine wanes, there is a risk of exposing Ukrainian civilians to revenge and despotism similar to Assad’s ruthlessness against his people.” According to Human Rights Watch, the Syrian regime has been found responsible for 85 chemical weapon attacks during the Syrian Civil War. To this day, Assad arbitrarily detains and tortures Syrian citizens.

Both Morad and Alrasheed see Putin’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War, similar to Putin’s wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea, as a blueprint for the invasion of mainland Ukraine. “Syria served as a testing ground for Putin on warfare and how the international community responds to military intervention. The international community, by its silence or lack of consequences, sowed the seeds for the Ukrainian war”, Morad said.

Despite the West’s more unanimous and robust reaction to Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, Alrasheed fears that, like in Syria, “the population of Ukraine could be forgotten as soon as the nations involved no longer see their interests represented” and the political and economic costs for the support turn out to be too high.

Lack of representation and participation

The discourse surrounding the war in Ukraine lacks the valuable opinions and experiences like Alrasheed’s and Morad’s. Since 1950, 2.3 million people have sought refuge in Germany due to flight and displacement, including 1.2 million between 2014 and 2021. In addition, 1.1 million Ukrainians immigrated between March 2022 and May 2023. Germany, as an (albeit reluctant) immigration society with a large share of people who fled their homelands, should do better to represent refugees in political discourses, regardless of their state of citizenship. 

The inadequate representation is merely a symptom of an underlying participation deficit. It shows migrants and refugees are reduced to passive spectators, even when the political debates touch upon their lives. They often find themselves in a political and participatory limbo due to insecure residence statuses or missing citizenship.

Voters increasingly see refugees as a burden on Germany’s social fabric, which is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy when they consign refugees to political invisibility and deny them political participation. The preconceived notion of a belittled refugee who is to be grateful for the shelter received does not allow for dialogue and shared experiences.

Refugees’ opinions could be valuable and authentic additions to virulent polarized discourses. Yet, without German or EU member state citizenship, opportunities for formal political participation are sparse. Municipal advisory boards and similar voluntary and informal participation structures cannot fully compensate for exclusion from political elections. Germany must face the reality of being an immigration society. Progressive steps, such as a municipal voting right for non-EU foreigners, are overdue to make migrants and refugees politically more visible.

[Lane Gibson edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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