When murder and war trump democracy

When murder and war trump democracy
Comment: Our intolerance of what is different is costing half a million lives in Syria, as we prop up a leader for his supposedly secular values, says Francesca Borri
6 min read
13 May, 2016
The killing of innocents has become less of an evil than what we don't like

A major Italian daily, la Republica, included Syria as one of the countries where "you can drop everything and start it all over". Morocco, Costa Rica, the Bermudas, the kind of countries where you can open a café on the seafront and be happy, walk barefoot in the sand, were also part of that list. It is like recommending Bosnia in the 1990s.

According to the highest estimate, the wars of the former Yugoslavia, all together, caused 250,000 victims: half of Syria's death toll. Yet twenty years on, we all hold countless memories of those wars; the siege of Sarajevo, the Srebrenica massacre, the collapse of the old bridge of Mostar. Those who were in school at the time, like me, studied the diary of Zlata, the new Anne Frank.

So what's changed since the years of Bosnia? Or of the protests against the war on Iraq in 2003, when 15 million people in the streets of 600 cities, protested against the war with no ifs or buts? What's changed since the last war on Gaza, with protests all over the world? As you read this, a Syrian is killed every 25 minutes. After five years and 500,000 victims, how is it possible that we journalists are still asked: Aleppo? And where is it?

In April, after the umpteenth airstrike on a hospital and the death of the only pediatrician left in the city's rebel-held neighborhoods, Syrians called for international support with the Aleppo is Burning campaign: in the world's squares, we have seen just a handful of flags. But it is too easy to argue that the peace movement, that movements, overall, are declining. Too convenient. And not only because that's not true in wider terms, think for example of the Occupy movement: it isn't true in this particular case.

It isn't true that the peace movement doesn't exist anymore. In Syria, simply, it stands with Assad

For Kobane, there's been a huge show of solidarity. Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan, is deemed to be a model of democracy, and activists from everywhere are engaged in a number of activities not only at home, but in Kurdistan itself. It isn't true that the peace movement doesn't exist anymore. In Syria, simply, it stands with Assad.

It stands with the man who has resorted to the use of any potential weapon against Syrians, from chemicals to starvation, this is the man who introduced barrel bombs, who has issued orders to strike everything and everyone, except for the Islamic State: he is the man who has killed or wounded 11.5 percent of the population he pretends to govern. And yet he is widely seen as the lesser evil.

Because anything is better than Islamic Extremism. It does not matter today that more than half of Syria's population are displaced or refugees, that four out of five are below the breadline, that a million of them, are currently surviving on grass and rainwater: it doesn't even matter that Assad, from a military standpoint, resists, thanks only to external support, just as is the case for his widely despised opponents.

Without Hizballah, Russia, Iran and without dozens of mercenaries Assad would not be winning this war (and actually, superior airpower notwithstanding, not really winning but surviving). It doesn't matter that we are maintaining a man in power who indeed has no power. It doesn't matter because Assad is secular. And that, for us, is the only thing that matters.

Last week I happened to tweet a selfie taken by a pro-Assad journalist, Kinana Allouche. She was smiling against a background of corpses. I got hundreds of insults. These aren't Syrians, they said: these are terrorists. And so? And even if they were terrorists? Did we justify the pictures of Abu Ghraib, just because the inmates were al-Qaeda's?

Faced with Syria's tragedy, we are told, the world stands idle. I wish it were true

Faced with Syria's tragedy, we are told, the world stands idle. I wish it were true. Now that Russia has stepped in, and it did so with the tacit approval of the United States, it's clear. Yet Syria had already seen intervention from many countries - because in war opening a border, as well as closing it off, as in the case of Turkey, is a strong form of intervention. In Syria the only player standing idle, actually, is international civil society, which has a key role to play, because the Geneva talks never aimed to reach a truce, only a reduction of hostilities.

And this can mean one of two opposite outcomes. For some, it cannot be denied that this is a way of supporting Assad, through local ceasefires that help him focus on strategic areas, one by one, a battle at a time; especially when these ceasefires exclude unspecified "terrorists" thereby allowing Assad to bomb whoever he wants. But for others, these talks are a real peace efforts.

There are too many armed groups now, on both sides of the frontline, too numerous and fragmented to reach a comprehensive agreement. Consequently, none of the fighting sides, neither Assad nor the rebels, have enough power, and above all, enough popular consent anymore to rule the country.

Short on alternatives, Syria's civil society needs to take the initiative. International civil society therefore has a key role to play in strengthening Syrian civil society. We are currently relying on it only to deliver humanitarian aid when actually we should be helping it to get organised. This should involve the same kind of empowerment initiatives that activists from everywhere are currently running with the Kurds, and with Palestinians, with Iraqis, Tunisians. Afghans.

Syrians, instead, are alone. Totally alone.

And why? Let's be blunt. They are alone because we believe that if Syria turns into a democracy, Islamists will win the elections. As in Egypt. And we like votes only when we like the voters. In all honesty, experience, shows that once in power, Islamists usually perform quite poorly: to defeat them, it makes more sense to let them govern, and wait for the next elections - but the problem, here, is deeper.

Beyond the rhetoric of multiculturalism, of tolerance - the problem is our total inability to confront ourselves with Islamists

It's also our total inability to really confront ourselves with those who are different to us. Beyond the rhetoric of multiculturalism, of tolerance - the problem is our total inability to confront ourselves with Islamists. I am not talking of al-Qaeda, of course, or of jihadists. I am talking of all others. Of those countless Islamist movements whose very presence, whose very significance within their own society we deny - let alone accepting their political role.

Their ideas are often far from ours, true. But that's a cultural struggle. A struggle over ideas, over lifestyles. And sometimes, it is true, also over rights and freedom. But how do we think of winning it? Through mass killing? Or perhaps by trying to convince the others of our reasons?

But that comes at a high price. The price of really getting into these countries, spending time in their shantytowns, among the hunger, the injustice, the alienation, the rage, rather than with English-speaking elites - so nice, so well-read, so similar to us - the price of confronting ourselves with those whose diversity questions our values, our policies: those who expose our flaws - the price of realising that if you grew up in Berlusconi's Italy, you aren't such an impressive example of women’s emancipation, the price of remembering that as philosopher Norberto Bobbio used to say, it is never our freedom against their oppression: it is rather a matter of different forms of freedom, different forms of oppression.

It is the price of 500,000 dead.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.