On December 2016, as the Syrian Army and its allies rapidly advanced on rebel-held east Aleppo neighbourhoods, two images emerged from the divided city: on the streets of western Aleppo one could see civilians and military together carrying Syrian flags and celebrating victory, and shouting slogans for “Syria of Assad”. For them, their city was finally “liberated” as many inhabitants repeated in front of cameras.
Footage emerging from eastern Aleppo looked dramatically different: there were social media activist crying for help, expressing their fear about their fate, and that of their families. They circulated news about young men being arrested and disappeared, and feared of field execution of scores of them. Video footages showed families trying to escape neighbourhoods completely devastated after months of intensive bombing, and street fights. For months, one could follow, or choose to look the other way, of civil defence volunteers know as “White Helmets” rescuing infants from what was once their homes, transformed into rubble by aerial bombing. For the remaining fighters and civilians surrounded in few kilometres in southern Aleppo, “green buses” came to transport them to regions under rebel control. For them, it was no less than a disaster: it was defeat of their side, followed by deportation. Many were asking: will we ever return to out city, again?
On the one hand, there were images of people celebrating the end of the war. On the other the image was one of desolation, destruction and apocalypse. Both were emerging from the same city. Could both be true?
It would be reductionist to exclude either of them as only propaganda; both are necessary to understand the Syria conflict: the inhabitants of east Aleppo are genuinely happy for the regime victory, which eliminated the threat of rebels taking over their part of the city. Government controlled west Aleppo had come under siege for short periods, revealed how delicate the situation of the population of western Aleppo was. They could have been deported, their houses looted, in case chance had given the victory to the other side.
If it is possible to understand this feeling of liberation of west Aleppo inhabitants, how is it possible to disregard the horrible sufferings of the inhabitants of the eastern side of the city? Is it possible to disregard the massive bombing of residential areas, systematic destruction of hospitals and medical centres, and forbidding the entry of any humanitarian convoy to the besieged residents? Is the human suffering just a detail, necessary sacrifice for a higher good? In this case, what is exactly this higher good that this carnage is supposed to serve?
It is difficult to debate on Syria; since 2011, two exclusive narratives have emerged that excites passions. On the one hand, there is the official discourse of the Syrian regime: the events in Syria are the result of external plot by a large alliance, supported by the US-Israel-Turkey and Gulf monarchies with Islamist radicals. The Syrian official narrative excludes many important elements: that Syria is an anachronistic regime, a republic run by a dynasty since 1970, that the conflict initially started with a popular demand for political change, and in its initial few months the movement was largely secular and non-violent. This narrative also excludes the massive violence exerted by the Syrian state against the segments of the Syrian population that supported the uprising. In this narrative there are two sides, the Syrian regime and terrorists.
Surely, one can address more criticism to the anti-terror and external plot narrative broadcasted from Damascus. And since 2011, the official propaganda emerging from Damascus did not change. Yet, the simplicity of this message is its strength, and many of its critics under estimated the force of the Syrian official story-line. Its strength is in the act of plagiarism, inserting itself in the global “anti-terror wars”, starting to dominate the international discourse since 9/11, 2001. Today, everyone is fighting one, or several, wars against terror: the US against jihadis, Europe against al-Qaeda and ISIS, Russia against Chechen rebels, Turkey against Kurdish guerrillas, etc.
The message emerging from those that revolted against the Syrian authorities is contradictory, confused, and confusing. There is no unified discourse to face that broadcasted from Damascus, for those who oppose the Baathist are divided and do not constitute a group in any sense. The message from There is the initial discourse that emerged with the peaceful, anti-governmental demonstrations, calling for freedom, regime change. In front of regime repression, this largely urban and secular movement hoped for international support that did not materialize.
The secular-liberal discourse bearers were as much destroyed 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 is a turning point. Today, the vast majority of Syrian secular and even Islamist activists live outside Syria, in exile, fearing not only the violence of the regime, but also that of the various armed groups.
The large body of those supporting the Syrian opposition were largely ambiguous about the growth of this jihadi element within their midst: they either minimized its size or importance, or continue to repeat that ISIS is the creation of the Syrian regime and its ally. The ambiguity of opposition groups towards al-Qaeda’s branch in Syrian continues up to today, in spite the fact that al-Nusra has by now eliminated thirteen former Free Syrian Army (FSA) formations, and continues in targeting them until now. Similarly, the supporters of the revolt were apologetic when it came to the crimes committed by the armed groups, from targeting civilians, to kidnappings and gruesome beheadings.
Between those polarized views and general fatigue and indifference, is it still possible to debate Syria, now in its sixth year of war?
The polarization of attitudes in Syria can be partially explained by the importance of the conflict taking place there; it is the most important struggle in our times, shaping not only the future of the Middle East but also the balance of global forces. And in this struggle the defence of basic human rights is of extreme importance, it is not an idealist position that impedes us from grasping the mechanisms of the conflict. According to the UN, the number of casualties is now over 400’000 deaths, 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 the Syrian society rose against that regime.
This mass slaughter of civilians is not accidental; it is by design. Three rapid points to conclude:
First, 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 (Fou’a and Kafrayya).
Second, the violence exercised against civilians, mobilization of foreign fighters, and the deportations has exasperated sectarian tensions, which is a bad omen for long cycle of violent conflict to come.
And finally, the presumption that conflicts in the Middle East could be contained has failed; the idea of “fortress Europe” is a failure. The violence that we tolerate in the Middle East is spilling over and will continue to do so, poisoning international political culture.
All solutions imagined on further sectarian segregations, population displacements, and drawing new maps would be a failure. The solution of this cycle of violence will be when a new polity based on rule of law and justice is tenable, not the creation of new ghettos and further segregations based on ethnic, religious, or confessional differences.