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Syria: is debate still possible?

The violence and polarisation of Syria's long war can induce paralysis of the mind. Only a polity based on law and justice can break the cycle.

Eastern Aleppo, Syria. Dec. 4, 2016. Hassan Ammar AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

The images emerging from the divided city of Aleppo in the last days of December 2016 showed a total contrast. In the western zone, as the Syrian army and its allies rapidly advanced on rebel-held neighbourhoods, the streets were filled with civilians and military together carrying Syrian flags and celebrating victory with jubilant cries of “Syria of Assad”. For them, as many Aleppo residents announced to news cameras, their city had finally been “liberated”.

To the east and south, where the remaining fighters and civilians were surrounded in a tiny area of a few square kilometres, the video footage was dramatically different: of families trying to escape neighbourhoods completely devastated after months of intensive bombing, of social-media activists circulating news about young men being arrested and voicing fears of execution, and of buses waiting to transport people – if they were "lucky" – to regions under rebel control.

The two scenes, of people celebrating the end of the war and of desolation, destruction and even apocalypse, were hard to reconcile. Yet each came from the same city at the same moment. Could both be true?

Yet it would be reductionist to dismiss either one as propaganda, and therefore exclude it. Both are necessary to understand the Syria conflict. Many inhabitants of western Aleppo are genuinely happy with the regime victory, which eliminated the threat of rebels taking over their areas of the city. The government-controlled west had come under siege for short periods, revealing how delicate the situation of the population there was. They too could have been deported and their houses looted, if chance had given victory to the other side.

But if the feeling of liberation in parts of Aleppo can be understood, so can the horrible sufferings of the city's eastern residents. Their experiences – the massive, systematic bombing of residential areas, hospitals and medical centres, the denial of entry to humanitarian convoys, and much more – cannot be disregarded. Their agony is more than a detail, and in no conceivable sense a necessary sacrifice for a higher good. For what could be the higher good that this carnage is supposed to serve?

Two discourses

The polarised narratives that have gripped Syria since 2011 make debate over Syria difficult. For the Syrian regime, the conflict was orchestrated by a powerful alliance involving Islamist radicals supported by the United States-Israel-Turkey and the Gulf monarchies. This notion of an external plot omits many important elements: that Syria's state is an anachronism, a republic run by a dynasty since 1970; that the conflict initially started with popular demands for political change, and in its initial few months was largely secular and non-violent; and that the regime's massive violence against the uprising's supporters helped to escalate the situation into war.

The official propaganda emanating from Damascus has not changed throughout these six years. Yet many critics have underestimated the force of the official storyline, which lies in the very simplicity of its message. It gained power through an act of plagiarism, by inserting itself into the global “war on terror" which started to dominate international discourse after 9/11. Today, everyone is fighting at least one, and often several, wars against terror: the US against jihadis, Europe against al-Qaida and ISIS, Russia against Chechen rebels, Turkey against Kurdish guerrillas – and many more.

But from those that revolted against the Syrian authorities, the message has been contradictory, confused, and confusing. Instead of a unified idea to face the one broadcast from Damascus, there has been only division among people who have never been able to constitute a group in any meaningful sense. The peaceful, anti-government demonstrations of 2011 called for freedom and regime change, but this largely urban and secular movement did not receive the international support it hoped for. 

The bearers of secular-liberal discourse in Syria were destroyed as much by regime repression as Islamist violence. The kidnapping in December 2013 of the famous lawyer and human-rights activist Razan Zaitouneh, and three of her friends, from their refuge in rebel-controlled eastern Ghouta was a turning-point. Today, the vast majority of Syrian secular and even Islamist activists live in exile outside Syria, fearing the violence both of the regime and of the various armed groups.

The large body of those supporting the Syrian opposition was largely ambiguous about the growth of the jihadi element within its midst: either minimising the jihadis' size or importance, or repeating the claim that ISIS was the creation of the Syrian regime and its allies. The ambiguity of the opposition towards al-Qaida’s branch in Syria endures, despite the fact that al-Nusra has by now eliminated thirteen former Free Syrian Army (FSA) formations, and continues in targeting them until now. Similarly, many who backed the revolt were apologetic when it came to the crimes committed by the armed groups: targeting civilians, kidnappings, and gruesome beheadings.

Between those polarised views and general fatigue and indifference, is it still possible to debate a Syria now in its sixth year of war?

The extreme contrast of attitudes in Syria can be partially explained by the gravity of the conflict taking place there. It is the most important struggle of our times, which willshape not only the future of the Middle East but also the balance of global forces. In this struggle the defence of basic human rights is of extreme urgency. That is not an idealist position but ones that arises from the mechanisms of the conflict. The United Nations now estimates the deaths as over 400,000, with 4.8 million refugees and 7 million internally displaced. This massive violence is the result of the decision to preserve the regime of Bashar al-Assad even when large segments of Syrian society rose against that regime. This mass slaughter of civilians is not accidental; it has happened by design.

The way ahead

Three points in conclusion:

* A new trend that is emerging is forced displacement of populations, mainly by the regime (such as in Darayya, and now in east Aleppo) but also by rebel groups (for example, in Fou’a and Kafrayya)

* The violence perpetrated against civilians, the mobilisation of foreign fighters, and the deportations have exacerbated sectarian tensions, which is likely further to prolong the cycle of violent conflict

* The presumption that conflicts in the Middle East could be contained has failed, and the idea of “fortress Europe” is also a failure. The violence tolerated in the region will continue to spill over, and poison societies and the political culture internationally.

All solutions that are imaginatively founded on further sectarian segregations, the creation of new ghettos, population displacements, redrawing maps, and on ethnic, religious, or confessional differences cannot succeed. An end to this cycle will not be found through the creation of new ghettos. It will come only when a new polity based on the rule of law and justice is tenable.

About the author

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst. He teaches at Webster Geneva's faculty of media communications, and lectures in international relations at the University of Geneva. His latest book is Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide (C Hurst, 2015). His other books include From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Communism (C Hurst, 2013) and War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)

Read On

Vicken Cheterian, Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide (C Hurst, 2015)

Vicken Cheterian, The Arab Revolt: Roots and Perspectives (GCSP, Policy Paper 11, February 2011)

Charles P Lister, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution (C Hurst, 2015)

John McHugo, Syria: A Recent History (Saqi, 2015)

Sami Zubaida, Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East (IB Tauris, 2011)

Christian C Sahner, Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present (C Hurst, 2014)

Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (1991; Harvard University Press, 2010)


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