There Are No Good Guys in Syria


The Syrian Civil War just took a turn for the worse

In February 2011, students in Daraa, Syria were arrested for posting anti-regime graffiti. When Daraa residents learned that these students were being beaten and tortured in prison, they took to the streets in protest.

Anti-government demonstrations spread across Syria, demanding President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation, and protesters were met with increasing amounts of force. Protesters began arming themselves in defense, and the fighting worsened, leading to a civil war that has resulted in the deaths of over 400,000 and the displacement of millions.

Last week marked the first major victory for the pro-government forces with the fall of Eastern Aleppo, a rebel stronghold throughout the Syrian Civil War. This signals the beginning of a new phase of conflict.

Worse, the depths of the violence in the aftermath shows that Assad has no qualms about continuing to use violence against his own citizens, even in the event of his victory. Aleppo has faced indiscriminate bombardment, killing even women and children as they attempt to escape.

Men face a particularly awful dilemma: If they survive their attempt to flee, they may still be detained and tortured. If they reach government territory, they may be forced to fight in the Syrian Armed Forces.

That doesn't mean we should root for the rebels

However, some civilians report that rebel fighters have also stopped people from fleeing the danger, and the rebel forces are certainly responsible for the deaths of dozens of civilians after Aleppo’s fall. Throughout the war, the rebels have had an outstanding history of targeting residential areas in government-held territory with indiscriminate weapons such as car bombs and suicide bombers, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians.

On December 12, 82 people—including 13 children and 11 women—were killed by pro-government forces in Aleppo. That same day, rebel forces killed 80 people, also including women and children.

Since then, the United Nations has worked tirelessly to broker a ceasefire long enough to send in buses to evacuate civilians. Both sides are guilty of blocking those international efforts to evacuate civilians.

The entire Syrian Civil War has utilized a brutal methodology. Neither side is innocent. There are no good guys in Syria.

The rebel tactics are not surprising when you consider that the remaining rebel groups in Syria are almost all Islamic extremist organizations, including the terrorist groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Sham, formerly known as al-Qaeda. There were moderate rebels, and the United States assisted them, but most, if not all, of them have been killed by the Syrian Armed Forces and Russia—precisely because of the United States’ assistance.

So why hasn’t Western media adapted to the changing circumstances and started reporting on these extremist rebels who are willing to utilize similarly destructive tactics in their fight against the Syrian regime? It seems likely that our desire to focus on the atrocities of the Syrian regime is so strong that it completely overwhelms the ability to criticize the opposition. Consider the CNN article from late November detailing Assad’s use of carpet bombs in Aleppo, or the recent Economist headline, “Assad’s Torture Dungeons.”

Of course Assad deserves our condemnation

The impulse to focus on Assad is a good one, so long as that isn’t the end of the discussion. Assad and the Syrian Armed Forces are, at least on paper, the governing force of their country, and that means their use of force against their own civilians will always outpace the rebels on the moral reprehensibility scale. And in a war that is fundamentally about the Assad regime’s claim to governance, it utterly undermines his legitimacy as a leader.

The Assad regime's attacks on medical care have been so bad that the United Nations accused the government of a “deliberate and systemic targeting of hospitals and other medical facilities," a tactic that is highly illegal under international law.

Additionally, Assad has relied heavily on barrel bombs, which are oil drums filled with explosives and metal shrapnel. There is no way to use them with precision, making them instruments of indiscriminate killing. Assad’s reliance on them speaks to his overall strategy throughout the Civil War: to cause as much death and destruction as possible

It’s not a media creation: Assad really is a caricature of a Marvel villain, except this Marvel villain is going to win and run a country. The fall of Aleppo indicates that Assad will maintain some semblance of control over Syria through military force, but the deaths of Syrians at the hand of its own government indicate that Assad’s control will be without popular support.

Assad’s war for legitimacy has already been lost on moral grounds

So we can criticize the Syrian regime. No matter our obligation to condemn the rebels for their attacks on civilians, we cannot act like their crimes are comparable to those of Assad.

But we must also ignore the temptation to focus entirely on Assad’s villainy. We need to ensure that our critique of Assad isn’t the end of the conversation.

Ignoring the crimes of the rebel forces implicitly legitimizes them. When we refuse to criticize the rebels for killing civilians out of some fear of distracting from Assad, we say that it is acceptable to violate international law and kill civilians so long as the people doing so oppose Assad. We cannot, in the pursuit of a humanitarian policy, provide the rebels with a justification to abandon humanity.

The fall of Aleppo marks a new era in the Syrian war

Assad will emerge victorious—the question now is "how?" One key deciding factor in that question will be the role of the United States, whose previous policy of supporting "moderate" rebels is not viable. Our priority in Syria needs to fit our new understanding of the rebels.  

Why do we care?

We care because we have an obligation, as human beings, to intervene on behalf of the Syrian civilians. That intervention cannot be reactionary; on the contrary, it must be measured and thought-out.

The sooner we acknowledge that there’s no easy choice—no good guy to back against the bad guy—the sooner we’ll be able to make the hard but necessary choices. By recognizing the nature of both the regime and the rebels, we will be able to pressure law-makers to pivot their attention on Syria to focusing on assisting Syrian IDPs and refugees, assisting our allies throughout the Middle East and Western Europe maintain stability, and focusing on counter-terrorism efforts.

There is nothing we can do about the Syrian regime itself. There are no heroes waiting to take up the helm.

But that doesn't mean we get to do nothing.

Nelle spends most of her time wondering how to best live an ethical life. She has a master’s degree in Middle Eastern and North African Studies from the University of Arizona, and her idea of fun is a good ol’ fashioned political debate, preferably paired with bourbon.

PC: Zein al-Rifai