Helberg reminds us again how far-reaching the hopes for democratic change were in different parts of the country. She recalls the civilian forces of the failed revolution, people who took to the streets without ideological blinkers because they wanted one thing above all else: change and an end to paternalism by the dictatorship.
Among them were many who had been involved in reform efforts or political protest long before 2011. People like Yassin al-Haj Salah, one of the most important secular, democratic visionaries of the revolution. Across the entire country, there were impressive experiments in local self-administration and direct democracy.
Failure across the board
But there was little support from abroad for this. The militarisation and radicalisation of the rebellion pushed other interests to the fore – and left behind a hopelessly divided opposition.
While Russia and Iran backed the Assad dictatorship, Helberg accuses the E.U. and the U.S. of indecisiveness: above all in their dealings with the genuine democratic Syrian opposition in the country, which they allowed to fall very early on. And in the protection of the civilian population they failed across the board. This means Europe itself played a part in the situation that is today so de-contextualised with the term "refugee crisis", as though this were a phenomenon of nature.
This situation has not come to an end, not by a long shot: while Russian-Syrian bombardments continue in Idlib, the UN says up to two million people may try to flee the province.
There have been frequent targeted attacks on humanitarian targets such as hospitals, the co-ordinates of which the United Nations had passed on to Russia for their protection. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people subjected to torture in Syrian prisons are still waiting for political initiatives to end their suffering and that of their loved ones. Meanwhile nations such as Turkey or Lebanon, hosting millions of refugees, are breaking international law by deporting Syrians back to their homeland.
No protection for persecuted persons
Things aren't nearly as bad in Germany yet. In a 2018 status report, the Foreign Ministry issued the following assessment: "In no part of Syria is there full, long-term and reliable protection for persecuted persons."
Nevertheless, German politicians are also increasingly adopting the "reconstruction" narrative. The views of the many Syrians now in Germany who are politically active here are rarely heard in this discussion. The reconstruction discourse, Helberg explains, is used by Assad specifically as an instrument of power. It is a way for him to exclude millions of refugees and expropriate their property by law.
His cronies are the intended beneficiaries. There is also a danger that international aid will flow indirectly into coffers propping up the regime via the United Nations, which is working together with the government. Helberg is certain that the nation's internal conflicts cannot be solved with Assad still in power. For this reason she is against a "normalisation" of policies towards Assad.
But several politicians are constantly working on exactly that. The right-wing AfD is not the only party to have already sent a parliamentary delegation to the Syrian capital. Back in 2018, Bavaria's Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann called for the deportation of "those who pose a threat" and criminals back to the war-torn nation.
Ahead of the most recent conference of interior ministers in June 2019, he is on record as saying that "there has been some stabilisation" of the situation in Syria. He is not the only one for whom Kristin Helberg's book should be compulsory reading.
© Qantara.de 2019
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Rene Wildangel is a historian and writes on a range of subjects but with a special focus on the Middle East.