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“Aleppo in Our Hearts”

On the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising, Syrian-Canadians call for intervention in a nation on the brink of collapse.

Two years later, it’s easy to forget that what’s happening in Syria started with a series of street protests. It’s typical in 2013 to define the nightmare in Aleppo and elsewhere as war—naked, and devastating—but there’s little discussion of the human context that triggered it.

On Saturday, on the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising, several hundred Torontonians rallied outside Old City Hall, mostly to restore that part of the conversation.

Decidedly harder to forget is that 2011 was a year marked by furious dissent, then open revolution, in northern Africa and the Middle East. When Mohamed Bouazizi, a 27-year-old fruit vendor from Tunisia, set himself on fire in an act of final defiance against his country’s police state, his death set off a chain of events that would trigger the Tunisian Revolution. By the time the year was out not only was Tunisian President Ben Ali toppled by the waves of demonstration that resulted, so was Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Protests and uprisings began in several other countries, too—but in some of those cases demonstration was only part of that equation in the end. Two years ago exactly, in the interest of backing up Libya’s citizens with more firepower than was available to that country’s rebels, 14 NATO countries, including Canada, launched a military intervention to put an end to Gaddafi’s oppressive regime.

Though all these nations’ futures are uncertain, and in many cases turmoil continues, the dictators who used to rule have at least been dispatched. On Saturday, Syrian-Canadians and supporters rallied outside of Old City Hall, marking the second anniversary of their own uprising with a rather vocal reminder: the fight against the original dictatorships is still happening in some places, and it’s not going especially well.

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On the streets of Aleppo, Damascus, Idlib, and Homs, events have progressed little beyond the deployment of Bashar al-Assad’s army two years ago to quell the rising protests, with soldiers ordered to fire on the even unarmed demonstrators. Months—now years—of popular rallies have been met with military siege, triggering the civil war that threatens to end the Syrian state altogether.

At Saturday’s rally, activists painted a picture of a country on the verge of destruction. 70,000 people have been killed overall, they said, citing United Nations statistics. More than 5,000 of those are children. A further 200,000 have been detained or tortured. 75,000 are still missing. And with 1,000,000 refugees and 4,000,000 internally displaced persons, the situation, they say, is nothing short of a horror. Doctors involved in relief efforts—”effort,” sadly, being the operative word—gave the stark impression that the on-the-ground reality shames any attempt to describe it.

“Media coverage and the general public now largely view the crisis as a civil war,” organizers said, “obfuscating the simple truth: it is a call for freedom from decades of dictatorship. And in times of conflict it is often the people caught in the crossfire that are first to be forgotten. The children, the mothers, the injured, the orphans, the sick, the poor.”

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As the rally spilled towards Queen Street, up University Avenue, and across Dundas back towards Old City Hall, a chorus called for Western aid, and the crowd implored the United Nations, Harper, Obama, and all NATO powers to step up once again. Recalling the streaking volleys of missile attacks that hastened Gaddafi’s end, some in attendance called for the same, a dramatic show of Western power to bring Assad to justice. Others questioned NATO’s hesitation to get involved, knowing that a liberated Syria would strategically isolate Iran—its closest regional ally and the subject of heated, hawkish Western rhetoric for years. Others still suggested that it’s the tangled web of international interests at play in the Black Sea region (notably Russia’s, Syria’s only real international supporter and a nuclear giant already peeved with NATO over its anti-ballistic missile program in Europe) that are cooling the West’s heels.

And many activists were simply trying to put the issue before Western eyes once again, calling on individual Canadians for aid and support. UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and advocacy groups like Canadian Relief for Syria were cited as good channels for assistance.

“Many fail to realize that a humanitarian crisis has developed,” organizers said, “and that it has reached catastrophic proportions.”

Photos by Todd Aalgaard except where noted.

CORRECTION: March 18, 11:05AM This post previously referred to the Black Sea region as the Baltic region. The correction has been made above.

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