On the fourth anniversary of the Syrian Uprising, I am reminded of a story I once heard from my late Damascene Sufi teacher, Shaikh Bashir al-Bani. The story is about a man who was trying to concentrate on his tawaf, or circumambulating the Ka'ba during Hajj (pilgrimage).

Conforming to the ritual, he wore only two white towels: one around his waist, the other around his shoulders. He also wore a special leather belt with an attached pouch that held his valuables. As he walked around this ancient monument of Islam, from his right side, a child suddenly shoved him. Mindful that he must control his anger during his holy duty, the man continued his tawaf in silence.

Yet, each time he circulated, the rude and abrupt act was repeated, filling him with anger, totally distracting him from his spiritual experience. 

Syria enters fifth year of conflict

He kept his eyes fixed on his right side hoping that he could somehow avoid the child when he made his sudden move. After a while, the man exhausted from the whole process decided to take a rest.

Reaching for his belt he realises that the pouch sat on the left of his waist was cleverly cut off by an accomplice while the child on his right shoved him.

Bani would end the story saying: "When you are shoved from the right, look to the left … the real story isn't where the noise is, and dramatic events are rarely what they initially seem to be."

Effective distractions 

Today, the Syrian Uprising is far more about the fight against ISIL than about the suffering of Syrians on either side of the conflict. This has successfully distracted all the major players, and observers from the daily killing, imprisonment, torture, homelessness and psychological trauma of the new generation of Syrians in refugee camps.

The distraction is not only very effective, but it has a way of demanding attention when our focus begins to shift elsewhere. When we appear to be on the verge of becoming numb to an individual beheading, we are confronted with scenes of collective beheadings, and when those lose their effect, cages are produced and people are burned alive. Museums are stormed and ancient artifacts destroyed. 

As though the message being constantly conveyed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his representatives is, "Don't you dare concentrate on anything else". Concurrently, we are far too distracted to see that the Syria we once knew and cherished is being dismembered, stolen. 

Everything about the Syrian Uprising now seems to be not what it was first expected to be. This begins from the very name I still find myself using, perhaps out of some stubborn expression of faith: "Uprising". The fact is, "civil war" - if not "wars" - seems far more accurate today, and yet difficult for many, including myself, to utter.

This isn't about how far the regime can go anymore, but about how radical the opposition fighters can become, or how much, and how long, the world can ignore a tragedy of this magnitude. "Indefinitely" seems to be the key word here.


Almost every major event from March 2011 until today was initially regarded as pointing in one direction, only for an overwhelmingly different redefinition to take place.

Scenes of peaceful protests sharing flowers and cold water with army soldiers around Damascus are replaced with scenes of armed rebels, now replaced by scenes of radical fighters.

Rage over the use of chemical weapons against civilians is replaced with satisfaction over an agreement with the very regime we were told used these weapons against civilians in the first place, and this, in turn, is followed by a UN Security Council resolution against the use of chlorine by …? 

Scenes of officials trying to speak to peaceful protestors are replaced with scenes of triumphant soldiers from the Syrian army, which are systematically replaced by scenes of members of Shia militias proudly proclaiming victories over the "enemies of the Prophet's family".

Again indefinitely seems to be the key word insofar as how many times events in Syria can mutate into something else, something not initially expected, something invariably worse.

My mother, who still lives in Damascus, writes a daily journal, which she sends to close friends and family members. She mostly shares trivial events like how they spend their day, and whom they happened to see. But every now and then she allows herself to let go and say a few things about the sounds, the airplanes, the checkpoints, and the suffocating state of depression, which hovers over Damascus. If there is one thing that comes out clearly from her journal, it is how utterly undistracted she is.

Nothing ISIL can do, not even its crucifixions, not even pushing older men from rooftops, has distracted her from the very simple fact that Syrians are suffering, and four years later, there has not been one adamant attempt to stop it.

Omar Imady is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrews. He is the author of various studies and UN reports on Syria and the Middle East. Imady is also a published poet and novelist and his novel, The Gospel of Damascus, has been translated into several languages.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera