In a week when Syria’s war was raging on the ground and negotiators were striving to make peace in Geneva, there was a different kind of Syria debate at the Annual Meeting in Davos. For the first time in almost three years of conflict, there was a consensus on Syria that cut across political, economic and humanitarian leaders – a consensus that the conflict has gone too far, and that the world is responsible for finding a solution.
Global leaders shuttled over to Davos from Montreux, shifting from one Swiss city to another to discuss some of the critical issues fuelling the conflict. In the eyebrow-raising Al Arabiya debate, The End Game for the Middle East, Iran’s foreign minister called for all foreign fighters to leave Syria as a key step towards a ceasefire. Militants have crossed Syria’s border to do battle on both sides – Shiite troops from Iraq and Lebanon fighting to defend President Bashar al Assad, Sunni jihadists from the Muslim world and beyond fighting to topple him.
That’s one of the major ways the conflict in Syria has become a regional war of global consequence, and it’s why opportunities to engage in dialogue are so critical. From the debates on the plenary floor to private meetings in the wings and casual chats on the sidelines, Davos served as a convening platform for key players who have been entangled in Syria’s conflict and have the power to detangle it. What happened here will ripple through the diplomatic efforts underway and the dynamics of what’s happening on the ground.
Three young Syrian leaders participated in the Annual Meeting as guests of the Global Shapers. One of them, Bassam al Ahmed of the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), was representing his mentor, Razan Zeitouneh. An iconic human rights lawyer and civil society activist, Zeitouneh and three of her colleagues were kidnapped in Syria on 9 December. As he engaged the crowds at Davos, Bassam al Ahmed shared the work of the VDC, documenting abuses and civilian deaths in Syria, reminding us that the mounting death toll is not just a number – it’s a collection of individual human lives.
His message moved the power players in the upper echelons of business. George Soros decided to dedicate his annual Davos dinner to the crisis in Syria, bringing together pre‑eminent members of the press and prodding them to pay more attention to the issue. Other executives lined up to experience “Project Syria”, a virtual reality simulation of Syria’s conflict that takes the user through war-torn streets and a destitute refugee camp. Media and technology specialists from the University of Southern California crafted the immersive experience from documentary footage on the ground, captured in the Bustan al‑Qasr neighbourhood of Aleppo in November 2012.
But the most moving moment came from the Refugee Run, a Davos fixture produced by Crossroads International. In a carefully coordinated role play, Davos delegates got a glimpse into what it’s like to be a Syrian refugee. As a group of us embarked on the experience, we were given Syrian identity cards, shuffled through a loud and chaotic swarm of camp guards, pressed for bribes in exchange for safe passage, and made to huddle together in crowded tents. Even in simulation, we all faced a dehumanizing helplessness, in which even finding your daily bread was a challenging saga.
After the Refugee Run we heard from a representative of Mercy Corps, a humanitarian group that delivers critical aid to Syrians in desperate need. They told us the story of Kareem, a 13-year-old boy in Lebanon, who works as a day labourer in a car mechanic’s workshop. His wage of $7 per day supports a family of six – not rare for the roughly 4 million Syrian children living in desperate conditions. For many of them, the typical school registration fees of $33 are way out of reach, and barred by the need for even the youngest able-bodied kids to find work.
Alexandra spoke with compassion and affection as she described Kareem’s plight. She described him as a sweet kid, earnestly hoping for a better life. When she told him she was going to Davos, he knew all about the World Economic Forum – the powerful people meeting there to discuss and improve the state of the world.
“Don’t let them forget us,” he told her.
I can assure you, Kareem, there’s no way we possibly could.
Author: Lara Setrakian is founder and executive editor at News Deeply and participated in the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2014.
Image: Syrian refugee children play outside a refugee camp in Sofia REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov