The West: Only killing certain civilians is a crime

The West: Only killing certain civilians is a crime
The West is springing into action on Syria, but only to tackle the 'threats' of refugees and terrorism, not Assad's regime, the root-cause of the tragedy, argues Dr Azmi Bishara.
6 min read
16 Dec, 2015
The West sprang to action only when Western, not Syrian, civilians were hurt [AFP]
It was perhaps embarrassment that has led international diplomats to stop being mere spectators in the tragedy of the Syrian people, and launch marathon efforts and conferences for its ostensible resolution.

Even the otherwise tireless media has grown tired. And sympathisers with the Syrian people wasted precious time claiming nothing could be done, as long as the Syrian opposition was disunited.

Two whole years and almost a third of the life of the rebellion (so far) had passed, without anyone having ever heard of the Islamic State group, whose emergence slowed Syria's slip down the headlines.

Yet every year of those felt like a century for the Syrian people, because unlike the international community, Assad did not waste a single day, ensuring Syrians were killed, tortured or dispossessed around the clock.

Then at long last, the Western countries confessed that the two main problems in Syria - for the West - were IS, and the refugees flocking to their shores.

The West placed the Syrian regime at the bottom of the list of problems.

In vain, the Arabs waited for the US and Europe to develop an earnest stance on the suffering of the Syrian people.

But the Arabs also wasted precious time they could have put to better use by looking for alternatives to Western support.

The various constituent fragments of the Syrian opposition were not innocent of time-wasting either.

At the outset, many in the ranks of the opposition wished for the Libyan model in Syria, despite what happened in Libya ultimately and Iraq before it.

The opposition failed to develop an organised political-military alternative. Many in the opposition failed to see that proposing an alternative was an urgent priority no less important than fighting the regime.

Peaceful uprising to militarisation

Meanwhile, both Western and Eastern powers have been fully aware the crux of the problem in Syria lay in the nature of the ruling regime.

Everyone has been fully aware that this regime's refusal to heed the demands of a civil uprising - whether through reform or by stepping out of the way if reform were impossible - and the regime's insistence on a military-based approach in suppressing the popular uprising has neutralised the peaceful protests.

As a result, the Syrian revolution spawned localised spontaneous self-defence formations. However, these failed to develop into a unified, nationwide armed front.

Soon enough, organised armed militias were drawn in to the battlefield.

Some of these had nothing to do with the goals of the Syrian revolution, and did not differentiate much between the regime and opposition to begin with.

For these groups, everyone else was an infidel.

Some were not radical religious groups, but opportunistically adopted religious slogans anyway.

Then, when armed struggle became the only option in the confrontation with the regime, no adequate strategy was developed, due to the extreme fragmentation of the armed groups in Syria.

A blind eye to the regime

The Syrian people rose up against oppression, humiliation and the systematic plundering perpetrated under the regime.

Before the Syrian people rebelled, silence in the face of the regime's crimes was possible, because of its various - and often conflicting - regional roles.

But the nature of the regime was known to all.

When the Syrian people rose up, everyone knew they had good reasons to do so, perhaps more so than other peoples. For this reason perhaps, the silence became embarrassing.

There was no other choice than to express sympathy with the Syrian people.

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Yet some stood alongside the regime, for reasons that had nothing to do with the wellbeing of the Syrian people. This party can only react with angry defensiveness and obfuscation because of its support for criminality against reason and righteousness.

The supporters of the Syrian regime thus routinely resort to lies and conspiracy theories, because any rational and factual discussion is certain to discredit their position.

In addition, the pro-regime camp is unable to criticise any practices by the regime, no matter how barbaric and criminal they are.

For one thing, this could open a breach through which some light could shine in - and threaten the otherwise solid wall of their defence.

For this reason, we find people defending things like torture, forces displacement and even barrel bombs.

Failures of the Friends of Syria

Those who later called themselves Friends of the Syrian People failed to protect Syrian civilians.

Peaceful protesters were still mown down with full impunity; urban population centres were occupied using military armour; and populated neighbourhoods were bombed indiscriminately from above.

The issue of protecting civilians had nothing to do with the question of the unity of the Syrian opposition. And yet, the Friends of Syria not only failed to protect civilians, but also failed to even threaten a no-fly zone for the purpose.

Suddenly, the Western countries rushed into action, but only when their civilians were harmed by - deplorable and cowardly - terrorist attacks, or when their borders were affected by the influx of refugees.

Yet the Western countries sprung to action not to rescue the Syrian people, but to tackle these two threats exclusively.

At the same time, the Western powers decided to turn a blind eye to the roots of both problems, and of the plight of the Syrian people: The nature and conduct of the Syrian regime.

If the Syrians should now argue before the Western powers that the regime is the main enemy of the people, and Islamic State group the secondary enemy, some leaders would answer thus: To the Western public, IS is the main enemy.

True, the regime is tyrannical, they would say, but it is killing hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, not Western civilians. By contrast, IS is killing Westerners - dozens or hundreds of them.

A democratic alternative

There is some kind of calculus to establish the worth of civilian lives in our world. We all know this, and no one should have forgotten this for an instant.

Therefore, the Syrians will have to come up with a comprehensive democratic alternative to the regime, and find allies to support it. They must unify their military, political and public relations efforts to alter both the facts on the ground and public opinion trends.

True, this is not fair. No people has ever been required to meet all these difficult conditions to free themselves of tyranny.

However, the Syrian people's cause has become complex.

This is not only because of the nature of the regime, its regional roles and the nature of its allies, but also because of obscurantist forces that have entered the battle against the revolution, more so than the battle than against the regime.

Azmi Bishara is a Palestinian intellectual, academic and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.