How can we describe what is going in Syria: is it a revolution or a civil war? This is not a question about appropriate terminology, this is a moral question with consequences. If it is a revolution, we have to support it. If it is a civil war, we have to try to stop it proceeding any further.
For the last few months, we have been listening to politicians and journalists warning us of civil war in Syria. Their argument is that there is a war between two sides. This war, like every civil war, is pointless and destructive. But is this really what is going on in Syria? Let us have a closer look.
First, the Syrian revolution is part of the Arab Spring. The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have the same aims, to end dictatorship and build a democratic state that will respect human rights. Although we have to pay attention to the differences between these revolutions, also we have to keep in mind the principal motivation that unifies them. Longing for freedom, equality, and dream to build a just state for everyone is the reason why the Arabs rebel. If you support these aims, you support the Arab spring. If you don’t, then you must be backing the dictators. There is no middle ground.
In Syria, the rebellion is against dictatorship, and part of a great movement in the Arab World. No civil war, on the contrary, this is an example of what a revolution is. And it is immoral to support all the revolutions in the Arab World, and to exclude Syria from the same support.
Second, when we describe what is going on as a civil war, we say that this is an equal battle. We say that the peaceful protesters are similar to those who shoot them. We say that the thousands who were tortured are equal to those who torture them. We say that the one million displaced people are equal to those who force them to leave their homes. We say that the regime who refused elections for forty years is equal to those who ask for free elections. We say that the oppressors are equal to the oppressed. This is a moral principle: it is our duty as moral agents to point at the criminals, and to sympathize with the victims. It is immoral to ignore the suffering of the Syrian people, and to ask them to forget all this. It is immoral to describe what is going on as a civil war, because this description betrays our mutual moral understanding of the world.
Third, somebody might ask, what if the revolutionaries are committing the same crimes as the regime? We don’t want to ignore this possibility. But we want to clarify the following. It is the regime that prevents the media from covering what is going on, and it is the revolutionaries who ask, and try to help, the media to cover what is going on. This is a crucial point. We have to ask why. It is clear enough that the regime wants to hide its crimes, and that the revolutionaries want to show the truth. It is immoral to describe what is going in Syria as a civil war, while one side is hiding the facts, and the other side is trying to spread it. It is a moral duty to support those who want the facts to be discussed and exposed.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that this is a revolution, as long as it represents the moral values of the oppressed. As long as the revolution is a picture of the motivation of the Arab Spring. As long as it is not committed to sectarianism, to oppression and to despotism. As long as it is the opposite of what the regime is. And it is. It is the movement of millions of Syrians who have been under fire for a year and a half. Those Syrians are longing for freedom, and it is immoral to describe their revolution as a civil war. However, we can’t guarantee the future, we can’t guarantee that things might not turn out to be a bloody civil war. No one can do that. But we can guarantee this: as long as we keep our moral principles alive and discuss what is going on in Syria in the light of these principles, we can affect, and contribute to what is going in Syria.
Thus the whole point is simple: there is a cynical attitude in describing what is going in Syria, and in the Arab world. This kind of cynicism must be stopped. Confusing a revolution with a civil war is based on this attitude. It is the attitude of those who don’t believe that there could be a Spring that would bring freedom, true freedom. We have to approach what is going on in Syria from our moral principles. No one says it is easy, no one says it is guaranteed. But we must try.
We don’t want military intervention. We don’t want another Iraq. But this must not stop us from trying to understand each other, and supporting each other. What we need is moral support. We need to see that people are still committed to their moral principles. We need to see that politicians and journalists don’t look at our suffering and our great revolution as a bloody civil war between two equal sides. We need to re-think the whole relation between the west and the Arabs on moral grounds. The choice cannot be between either a military intervention on the Iraqi model, or a cynical neutral attitude. There must be something something in between. We have to create this solidaristic middle ground, and work together to re-assure both the Arabs and the westerners, that we do share these basic moral principles.