We tend to think of them as separate and distinct wars: the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq. Yet it’s not hard to trace the ways in which America’s knee-jerk overreaction to the terrorist attack of 9/11 and the “preemptive” invasion of Iraq that followed in 2003 destabilized whole regions, spreading conflict like the plague. One war begot another, often right next door, just as the war in Iraq seemed to spill into neighboring Syria and set off its demolition, too. The infamous “surge” of more than 20,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq in 2007 only accelerated the flight of Iraqis from their homes: more than a million of them were displaced within that country, while close to a million more crossed the border into Syria.
Those Iraqi refugees generally had more money than their Syrian counterparts. With their arrival, schools and hospitals became overcrowded, food prices in Damascus rose 30% and rents 150%. Hard-pressed Syrians moved to run-down neighborhoods in Damascus, finding themselves second-class citizens in their own capital. As the number of refugees only increased, UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency, found itself desperately overstretched, with money enough to help only with housing or food, not both. Poor Iraqi widows and single mothers eventually slid into the sex trade. Women danced in nightclubs where impoverished mothers sold their little girls into one-night “marriages” to high-rolling tourists from the Gulf states. And things only got worse. Such misery is contagious.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, having opened borders to Iraqis, feared the subversion of his own regime. He had always run a tight ship, much like his fallen autocratic neighbor Saddam Hussein. With the surge of Iraqis into Damascus, he doubled down. When I worked in the city in 2008, you could smell surveillance in the air. The same guy lounging in different neighborhoods. The lock picked. Papers rifled. A camera gone. The rising sense of something worse about to happen. The shadow of the war in Iraq fell across Damascus like a prediction. Less than three years later, in March 2011, peaceful protests began after 15 young boys were arrested and tortured — a 13 year-old died — for having written graffiti in support of the Arab Spring. Assad responded with deadly force and, by July, civil war was underway. To date, at least 465,000 Syrians have been killed, one million injured, and 12 million — half the country’s population — displaced like the Iraqis before them.
As for the U.S.: in 2016, we dropped 12,192 bombs on Syria although we are not officially at war with that country. That’s more than the 12,095 bombs we dropped that same year on Iraq, with which we are no longer at war, and more than we have dropped on any country since the war in Vietnam. It’s all about the unlimited license the war on terror has given the U.S. military. We now bomb “terrorists” wherever we “see” them (often among civilians), and currently not just in Syria and Iraq but also in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, and Somalia. Donald Trump, during his first six months in office, set an all-time presidential record, dropping 20,650 bombs on seven Muslim countries for reasons he did not explain, even as he nearly doubled the number of civilians being killed. And he’s just getting started.
TomDispatch managing editor Nick Turse brings us back to ground level today, as he writes about the courageous unsung local people, the “fixers,” who make possible the faraway work of journalists like him and the prize-winning Canadian reporter Deborah Campbell whose extraordinary new book he discusses. Full disclosure: I’m a colleague and friend of both Nick and Campbell, whose riveting book takes you deep into the eerie police state that was Damascus before the bombs began to fall in Syria.