In The Syrian Civil War, Who Is Fighting The “Good Fight”?

Posted by Arjun Krishna Lal in GlobeScope, Politics, Staff Picks
December 19, 2016

There’s been a lot of Syria on my newsfeed of late. Without a doubt, the Syrian Civil War is one of the greatest human calamities in recent history. At the end of the day, there is no way to reduce the dead and their shattered hopes to words. This is a conflict that needs to be talked about. The Syrian people need to be heard. But also, we have a responsibility to collectively understand why. Conflict is inevitable, but if we can extract some measure of reason from the suffering, from the 450,000 lives lost, then perhaps, we can work towards a world where countries aren’t torn apart to benefit vested interests.

There’s a dangerous tendency in current political discourse to oversimplify conflict, to render it in shades of black and white. This is how a lot of people—going by their social media reactions—appear to see Syria. This is worrisome not just because it’s inaccurate, but because public opinion is an extremely powerful latent force. The truth is that there are no binaries in Syria. This isn’t a cut and dry rebels versus government, right and wrong situation. This is a far more nuanced conflict. Many people are engaging with the conflict discourse, completely unaware of who’s doing what. This is incredibly dangerous. Please, before you #StandWithAleppo or write to your local politician, open your eyes. Understand.

Let’s start with the conflict actors. Who’s at war with who in Syria?

Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, August 27, 2015. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

First, there’s the legitimate Syrian government, led by Bashar Al-Assad. Assad is no saint, and the 2011 protests against him were centred on the need for democratic reforms. The conflict arose after a police crackdown on protestors resulted in civilian casualties. Is it wrong for security and police forces to open fire on people? Yes, it unequivocally is. Is this something that many countries, including liberal democracies, indulge in? Perhaps we should look to Srinagar for that answer.

The Assad regime allowed for a moderate degree of socioeconomic development. Syria in 2010 was a middle-income country with decent healthcare and education systems. Is liberal democracy too great a price to pay for socioeconomic development? If the answer is yes, then we should be boycotting Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party, and everyone complicit in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. When thousands of Chinese students rose up to demand political freedom, the government didn’t lob teargas shells or fire pellet guns. It ran them over with tanks. But Deng Xiaoping was never tried for war crimes, and the media goes ecstatic over photo-ops with the current Chinese president.

In as much as the background of the Syrian civil war is concerned, the Assad regime was no worse than many governments around the world. Just a few days ago, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ democratically elected leader, bragged in public about committing murder. Duterte has abetted over 5,000 extrajudicial killings since coming to power. This is what he had to say about the rape of a foreign national in a Davao, where he used to be the Mayor: “When the bodies were brought out, they were wrapped. I looked at her face, son of a bitch, she looks like a beautiful American actress… But she was so beautiful, I think the mayor should have been first. What a waste.”

What makes Assad particularly “evil” is a matter of optics. As far as the legitimacy of his government is concerned, remember that in 2014, multi-party elections were held in Syria for the first time in 50 years. I’m not going to comment on the validity of an election where one candidate got 88.7% of the vote. But independent observers from 30 countries, including India, declared that the elections were held in a fair and transparent manner. Whatever else it may be, the Assad government is the legitimate Syrian government, and of all parties to the conflict, it alone has the sovereign right to request for foreign intervention. The Russians are the only foreign party with a legitimate reason to be in Syria. They’re there because the legitimate government of Syria asked them to be there.

Now, what of the rebels? After the 2011 crackdown, defectors from the army and anti-regime protesters banded together to form the Free Syrian Army. But very soon, they allied themselves with groups including the Al-Nusra Front, which was formerly a part of Al-Qaeda. The challenge faced by any armed rebellion is to replenish its ranks, even as they die by the thousands. Disaffection with the army or with the Assad regime was apparently not a very strong motivator.

Radicalism, on the other hand, was very convincing. Over the past few years, the “rebels” have been almost entirely subsumed by radical Islamists. There weren’t any brave rebels fighting desperately for democracy and freedom holed up in Aleppo. There was Al-Qaeda. Making use of the same facilities as civilians, living where they live, and setting up encampments where they are to ensure that civilians bear the brunt of the bombing. The continued description of Al-Nusra and their allies as “rebels” in the media is misleading. It’s fantastic PR coverage for them, though, because “Government forces, backed by Russian air power, advance into Aleppo and target radical terrorists who’re using civilians as shields,” isn’t really an acceptable narrative for the Western media.

Do Syria’s “rebels” fight for a free Syria, for a liberal democracy? Remember the Taliban in Afghanistan? That’s the future that rebel factions like Ahrar al-Sham and Al-Nusra want to bring to Syria. If the West is to “do something”, to intervene, will it be to uproot Assad’s illiberal but secular government and replace it with a medieval horror?

In the fight between the Assad regime and the “rebels,” there are no good guys, only victims. Those who suffer are the civilians that get caught in crossfire. Human shields are an ugly reality of asymmetric warfare, a tactic meant to stain the hands of the “good guys,” and blur the lines between perpetrator and victim. Somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 people perished in the Sri Lankan civil war. A large number of these deaths took place in the final years of the war. The Tigers insinuated themselves among the civilian population and forcibly recruited young people. They surrounded themselves with non-combatants, to ensure that civilians would perish with every air strike. Towards the very end of the war, close to 100,000 civilians were crammed into the village of Mulivaikal and forced to be a part of the Tiger’s last stand. The Tigers were bombed into submission, but not without taking thousands of civilians with them. Reports from Aleppo indicate that, prior to the current ceasefire, civilians caught trying to flee across rebel lines were executed.

It is never acceptable when a government turns the machinery of war upon civilians. But with rebels holed up in civilian schools, shelters, and hospitals, collateral damage becomes unavoidable. The Russians and Assad don’t have a monopoly over civilian casualties. US drone strikes in Pakistan have killed in excess of 3,000 people, 90% of whom, according to a report by The Intercept, were “not the intended targets.” And even as the siege of Aleppo draws to a conclusion, the Saudis continue to use American planes and American munitions to hit civilian targets in Yemen. President Obama authorized the drone strikes, and he was the one signing off on military supplies being sent to the Saudis. Is he a war criminal?

While the Assad/rebel equation continues to play out in the media, people seem to have completely forgotten about a third faction: the Kurds in Rojava. Assad represents an illiberal and repressive status quo. The “rebels” and ISIS want to bring the Middle Ages back. But in the northern reaches of Syria, the Federation of Northern Syria—Rojava (NSR) have established a libertarian oasis of secularism, socialism, feminism, and representative democracy. While it started off as part of the greater project of establishing Kurdistan, the leadership in Rojava recognised the multi-ethnic nature of the population. Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, and Syriac Christians have somehow joined hands to create this liberal polity in the very heart of the conflict zone. With feminism operating as a central tenant of the Rojava Revolution, women are empowered to a degree unheard of in the Middle East, or indeed, anywhere else in the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that 40 percent of the YPG, the Rojavan’s military wing, comprises women. These are women who, when confronted by the apotheosis of patriarchy, by men who quite literally want to enslave them, stand tall and fight. The rebels or ISIS establishing a reign of terror is a horrific outcome. Assad taking back the reins of power is, at best, a return to an unsatisfactory status quo. But a brave force of libertarian feminists establishing a secular, multicultural democracy in the heart of the Middle East: if there is anything in this war worth fighting for, that is it.

November 9, 2015 in Hassica, Rojava, Syria. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

While the media might exhort you to “do something” by donating to charity, there is no guarantee that funds funnelled into rebel-held areas actually end up in the right hands. If Rajiv Gandhi, as the leader of a stable democracy, could lament that a mere 17 paise reached the needy for every rupee sent from Delhi, how much aid money would you expect to reach the dispossessed in Aleppo? How much of it is funnelled towards the radical Islamist war effort? How much of it is prolonging the war and killing the very people it is meant to save? If any Syrian faction deserves your support, it’s the Rojava.

If you’re inclined to get involved, consider donating here to support Rojava women empowerment organizations in their fight to secure equality, inclusion, and freedom from violence. The Rojavans are fighting a two-front war, against both the “rebels” and ISIS. While the Assad government doesn’t formally recognize them, the government and Rojava are at peace with each other for the time being, recognizing the need to fight mutual enemies and not each other. With government forces making significant inroads against the rebels, the future dynamics of the Rojava-government equation are far from clear.

Once the dust settles on Assad’s campaign in the south, there’s no telling relationship will go. One possibility is that Rojava and the Assad regime will adopt the Iraqi model. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurdish forces filled the power vacuum in northern Iraq and established Iraqi Kurdistan as a fully autonomous territory, only a part of Iraq. In the post-civil war scenario, Rojava may well exist as a functionally independent region that is nominally part of Assad’s Syria. This could prevent a bitter clash between Rojava and the government, while giving space for the radical ideals of the Rojava Revolution to thrive.

ISIS is the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room. Whatever may be said about the way other factions in the war are depicted in the media, everyone’s in agreement when it comes to ISIS. Unsurprisingly, everyone in Syria is also in agreement: Assad, Al-Nusra, and Rojava are all in conflict with ISIS. Ideologically, ISIS represents the very antithesis of what the Rojava are fighting for: a brutal, medieval entity embodying the worst elements of patriarchy. The fight between ISIS and Rojava is more than a power struggle: it’s a clash of ideologies that are incompatible at a basic level.

Unsurprisingly, the all-female YPJ force has been particularly successful against ISIS fighters. Independent, liberated women strike fear into their hearts by dismantling the appalling excesses of male privilege at a literal level. Rojava’s not the only faction giving ISIS a hard time, though. While the government is currently focusing its resources on rooting out the “rebels,” ISIS remains a grave existential threat. Government forces, back by Russian air power, regularly clash with ISIS fighters. The group controls key transport corridors across the country and the city of Raqqa remains firmly entrenched as an operational stronghold. Whatever the outcome of the government-rebel fight, conflict with ISIS is inevitable. The rebels themselves share a common ideology with ISIS, but their intergroup power struggle prevents cooperation. Both ISIS and major rebel groups like Al-Nusra have a common origin in Al-Qaeda. With the latter group’s fading prominence post-9/11, leaders in Iraq and Syria formed their own groups, which each vied for dominance. ISIS became most successful of these groups, but that didn’t ensure cooperation by itself. Wary of ISIS’ growing influence, groups like Al-Nusra cut their ties with ISIS as early as 2013, and have been in conflict with it ever since.

As we’ve seen, the modalities of the Syrian civil war are far more complex than the media would have you believe. But what’re particularly dangerous are the ulterior motives behind the media’s opinion-shaping efforts, and exhortations to “do something.”

The real power play in Syria isn’t between Assad and ISIS, the Rojava or the “rebels.” It’s between NATO and the Russians. American-led coalitions have a long history of putting boots on the ground to make sure countries they don’t like, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, get a healthy dose of “democracy.” 14 years and approximately $1 trillion later, the US/NATO have extensive military presence in the Middle East, backed by their strategic presence in Turkey at Incirlik Airbase, and the ever-solicitous Pakistanis on the other side.

There are a lot of nuclear warheads at Incirlik. And they’re all a bombing run away from Moscow. NATO’s military presence in the Middle East, together with missile installations in Eastern Europe, essentially box Russia in. Assad formally inviting the Russians to help in the civil war effort throws a massive spanner into NATO’s Middle Eastern strategy. If the Russians manage to help Assad push the “rebels” and ISIS out (which seems to be happening), there’s no telling what kind of concessions they’ll receive in kind. The Russians will acquire a strategic position in the Middle East, which may well include the establishment of military bases. A Russian airbase in Syria would be just a stone’s throw away from Incirlik. It’d give the Russians strategic depth if a conflict ever arose in Europe. That’s the stuff of NATO’s worst nightmares. What’s the US and NATO to do, then?

Public opinion has swerved away from boots-on-the-ground intervention since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Americans just don’t want to see their people getting killed in yet another pointless war in a far-off country. Isolationist tendencies are on an upswing, and the Trump presidency appears to be challenging the established norms of American foreign policy. What’s the solution, then? Exploit public sentiment and generate “outrage.” Make people around the world, the masses on social media, feel that “something needs to be done.” That “something” is intervention. It’s not necessary to recount Iraq or Vietnam to remind us of the consequences of intervention. Pre-invasion Iraq wasn’t exactly a great place to live. But today’s Iraq is no place to live. NATO intervention in Syria could take a bloody conflict that appears to be slowly tilting in the government’s favour, and turn it into a mess of even greater proportions. Odds are, NATO’s not looking to gets boots on the ground.

Public sentiment and “outrage” at slanted news reports flooding the media will in all likelihood be used as leverage against the Russians to ensure that their Middle Eastern presence is limited as much as possible. The greater the “outrage” generated, the greater the risk of an actual confrontation.

In some aspects, social media is the best-worst thing to have happened to democracy. If you have a responsible and informed citizenry, it can help to curb excess. It can serve as a channel to ensure that governments are held accountable. But few people appear to take the time to understand multiple perspectives. A Pew survey indicates that nearly half of all Americans get their news from social media. In this kind of a situation, all it takes to shape public opinion is to keep drip-feeding the kind of content that can game SEO algorithms. This is the reason why fake news articles were so infamously successful in the run-up to the US elections. Actions need consensus. Apart from emotional manipulation, mainstream media coverage appears to be securing a broad-base anti-Assad, anti-Russian consensus. What NATO and the US plans to do with that kind of consensus, is anyone’s guess.