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The Ultimate Dilemma In Syria's Status Quo

  • David Patrikarakos

A Syrian woman flashes the victory sign as she celebrates the news of the breaking of the siege of rebel-held areas of Aleppo on August 6.

A Syrian woman flashes the victory sign as she celebrates the news of the breaking of the siege of rebel-held areas of Aleppo on August 6.

Good news should be easy to discern in wartime. War, we assume, makes it easy to separate the good guys from the bad; to separate the oppressor from the oppressed; to separate right from wrong.

Sometimes, though, these questions become muddled, and no more so than in the surreally unstable and violent world of the Middle East. Recently, the rebel forces opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made great gains in breaking the regime's siege of the strategically vital city of Aleppo.

The problem remains, however, that the unquestionable success that the rebels have made in Aleppo is, to a large extent, partly down to the efforts of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front -- essentially Al-Qaeda in Syria). The ostensible good guys, the Syrian rebels, who are battling an enemy that has barrel-bombed and butchered them ever since they started out as a peaceful movement merely asking for greater civil rights during the Arab Spring five years ago, are now in debt to jihadists.

The debt is a significant one -- and one that is not lost on Syria's population. As Thomas Pierret, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and an expert on Syria observes over e-mail: "If they [the rebels] manage to keep open the southern access to Aleppo, which was made possible (among other factors) by Fatah al-Sham's [vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices] VBIEDs. If the regime retakes the southern access to Aleppo, things might be different, but Fatah al-Sham would still remain one of the regime's most efficient opponents, which will inevitably reflect positively on its popularity."

Ruthless Bombing

Despite this risk, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo was supposed to bring relief to the citizens who were trapped in the city. That has yet to happen. International aid groups say that it is too dangerous to enter the city without a real cease-fire. While Russia and Assad have nominally accepted those conditions, the Syrian and Russian air forces are ruthlessly bombing the civilian populace in the city, and across much of Syria. The death toll continues to skyrocket.

On August 18, the image of a 5-year-old boy, Omran Daqneesh, became front-page news. Omran had just been saved by a group called the White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense Forces, a collection of local Syrians who have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to help save civilians from the growing pile of rubble and corpses that their country is increasingly becoming. Pictures and video of his tiny face, matted with dried blood and dust, as he and his siblings were loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the hospital, went global. The world was horrified.

Omar Daqneesh sits bloodied in an ambulance after an air strike in Aleppo.

Omar Daqneesh sits bloodied in an ambulance after an air strike in Aleppo.

But Omran was lucky: he and his family survived, and he has since been released from the hospital. Meanwhile, more than 80 people were killed across the country that night, nearly two dozen of whom were children.

There have even been reports that the United States may join with Russia -- which unequivocally backs Assad -- in a joint military effort to stop the rebels' progress in Aleppo. Such a scenario remains unlikely, but it is a testament to how precarious the situation is in Syria -- and how utterly confused it is.

So why has a major responsibility in the war against butchery been handed to butchers?

The answer is depressingly simple: No one country is willing to risk getting involved in a major war in the Middle East to stand up to the Syrian and Russian governments. For five years, Assad has been allowed to kill with impunity -- literally in the vicinity of U.S. jets that looked on helpless to act. Washington is in an admittedly tricky situation. A war-weary American public elected Barack Obama in 2008 partly on his promise to end the U.S. military's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The people were sick of dead Americans, Afghans, and Iraqis. The last thing Obama wanted to do was to get sucked into another Middle East nightmare. And there is a valid logic to that line of thought.

Root Cause Of Insurgency

Obama's decision not to intervene in Syria -- to avoid having to once more expend American life and resources at a time when the country is still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis -- is considered by many to be the right move. But not all agree with that assessment. As Pierret once again observes, "critics of Obama generally reproach him for backtracking on his 'red line' with regard to the use of chemical weapons in 2013, but perhaps an even bigger mistake was the decision to intervene alongside the Syrian Air Force in September 2014 while not moving a finger to curtail daily attacks against civilians." Syrians saw more bombs drop from the air, this time from the United States as well as Assad; and yet more civilians, not merely members of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, were killed in this process.

"At the time there was no Russian air force around, and it would have been very easy for the overwhelmingly superior USAF [United States Air Force] to make it clear to the decaying Syrian Air Force that it wasn't allowed to bomb the USAF's zone of operations, i.e. the northern half of Syria. This has of course contributed to the perception by many Syrians that the United States is in fact complicit with Assad…hence to anti-Western radicalization," he says.

But this fact does not in any way detract from the root cause of the rebel insurgency, which is Assad's barbarity, which began during the first days of the uprising when the regime arrested, killed, and tortured the then-peaceful protesters. And the more it increased its barbarity, the more radicalized the insurgents became. The more the world ignored their plight, the more they were forced to turn to anyone who would help them.

This month, while Russia bombed Aleppo's hospitals -- and then boasted about it on state media -- the victorious rebel groups, let by jihadists, brought fruit to its starving population. Brutal they may be; jihadist they most certainly are; but they know how to do public relations -- especially in a field where due to the timorousness of the onlooking world they have little competition.

Nonetheless, the jihadists don't have it all their own way. Again Pierret is on point: "The level of distrust towards jihadists among the rest of the opposition (including non-jihadi Islamist insurgents) is frequently understated (if known about at all) in the West," he writes. And he is right. Assad and his acolytes deny that such a thing as a "moderate" opposition exists but the rebels continue to form a kaleidoscopic mix of elements -- from the secular to the extreme. This past week, as U.S.-backed rebels liberated Manbij from IS, videos showed residents celebrating: men cut their beards, while women burned their niqabs and smoked cigarettes, as they celebrated their freedom from their oppressive theological overlords.

"It has long been assumed by many Western observers and decision-makers," Pierret concludes, "that there are no good guys in Syria, or at least that the good guys are irrelevant. Yet, this assumption is proven wrong by the fact that we still see them dying every day after five years of conflict. The problem is, good guys are dying fast, and in such apocalyptic circumstances, [and] are increasingly replaced by radicalized people."

And herein lies the ultimate dilemma of the status quo in Syria. The more the rebels succeed, the more the democrats among them face ultimate defeat. Those fighting Assad are fighting to defeat visceral barbarism; to defeat a tyrant with absolutely no regard for the democratic process; to defeat a man who is responsible for slaughter on a massive scale. And in that endeavor our natural reactions should be to wish them every success.

The inescapable problem is who and what exactly are the Western countries supporting? If Assad goes -- and we must hope that he does -- what comes next? The answer to that question will define the Middle East for generations to come.

David Patrikarakos is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth Of An Atomic State. He is working on a book on social media and war. The views expressed in this piece are the author's own

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena


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