Syria is our collective failure, and should forever be etched on our conscience.

I have meant to write this piece for some time but for a host of reasons have only been able to do so now. I, alongside many others, have watched in horror and utter dismay at events in Syria since 2011. While there seems to be some dispute about the causes -and as is often the case with such events there are many who have sought to intentionally obfuscate the facts-there is little doubt in my mind who is chiefly responsible for the slaughter in Syria: Assad and his allies.

Yes, it has become a complex war-almost a modern-day middle eastern version of the Spanish civil war- and with a range of actors involved (many neighbouring countries, regional actors, sub-state terror groups and major global players such as Russia and the ubiquitous United States). However, it is not difficult to establish how this horrific carnage began.

I am no expert but have a passion for History and International relations. I travelled to Egypt in late 2010, returning in early January 2011; the inequality and social injustice were palpable. My access to Egyptians was limited as I was on an organised tour, but from those who I spoke to, I got a distinct sense that they were fed up of Mubarak’s corruption and nepotism.

As I was there, events took a revolutionary turn in Tunisia resulting in the flight of Ben Ali- who had ruled Tunisia by Emergency decree for 23 years. Given the political conditions in Egypt paralleled those in Tunisia, my historical reading taught me that sometimes it only takes one spark (Iskra as the Russians call it) for revolutions to spread and that revolutions also tend to have a ‘domino effect’, I figured we would see a similar awakening in Egypt. Further, given that Egypt is the Arab World’s most populous country and one that has long been perceived as a regional leader- this would spread across the Arab World and fast.

Alas, days later, the revolution arrived in Egypt, resulting ultimately in the ouster of Mubarak after 30 years, then one by one the revolutionary fire spread across the Middle East. In Libya, Gaddafi was ousted and brutally killed, then Yemen, Bahrain and so on .…the region was ablaze and Arab leaders-mostly authoritarian dictators-were quaking in their boots.

It was in this context that the fervour spread to Syria a few months later. Apparently, the trigger was a protest over a local injustice, but the response of Assad and his security forces was brutal. They began to kill and slaughter anyone who dared to protest-not even sparing minors. In many respects, Assad’s killing machine hasn’t stopped since.

For me, there can little doubt that the original uprising against Assad was ‘organic’ and that for a while at least-perhaps approximately 12–18 months- there was some genuinely ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition to Assad’s regime.

When political leaders are democratically elected and they lose power, they can return to civilian life. For dictators such as Assad, if they lose their often illegitimate power, they stand to lose everything; their money, their lifestyles, their influence, their freedom and even their lives (ala Gaddafi). It is this reality, as well as ego and hubris that goes a long way in explaining the often extreme violence of the likes of Mubarak, Gaddafi or Assad when their position is threatened.

The US (led by Obama) because it didn’t have the same influence over Assad that it had over the likes of Mubarak-and had already involved itself in the war in Libya (not to mention Iraq)-remained reluctant to act. Alas, it wasn’t long before regional actors got involved: some of the GCC countries sponsoring Sunni ‘Jihadis’ as is their wont and Iran coming to the rescue of its friend and ally Assad.

The fighting on the ground soon became more polarised with the ‘jihadi’s’ (and their sponsors) on one side, and Assad and his allies on the other (with innocent people caught in-between). That was long Assad’s intention: he aimed to polarise, brutalise and radicalise so that he could portray the opposition as extremists.

There have been several turning points during the conflict. Assad was apparently losing much ground to the opposition before Soliemani organised the IRGC and Hezbollah to support him. Then there was Barack Obama’s famous ‘red line’: the use of chemical weapons. Assad tested him, and Barack Obama flinched as the World watched. This was all the invitation the Russians needed to intensify their response, and the rest (more or less)is history as they say.

The killing has been on a phenomenal scale. Last I checked over half a million Syrians have been killed and 11 million displaced (6 million internally and 5 million externally) resulting in nationalist backlashes in several European countries. We have seen some of the most historic and wondrous cities on the planet being decimated, and as I write, Idlib is facing a catastrophic humanitarian emergency. Of all the wars in the last generation or so in that region that the West has been involved I can’t think of many clearer cases of humanitarian intervention than Syria.

There can be little doubt that most of the slaughter has been carried out by Assad and his allies. The writer Idrees Ahmed calculates that regime forces have caused anywhere between 90–92% of civilian deaths in the conflict and have also used chemical weapons, starvation tactics, torture and rape against their opponents and civilians. While noting that the opposition are by no means beyond reproach, he argues;

‘only someone without a sense of proportion and complete disregard for the truth would compare the two. The regime’s crimes are colossal, sustained, and deliberate; they are an expression of policy. The opposition is disorganised, anarchic, and diffuse; Its crimes are impulsive, contained and chaotic.’

After the World awoke to the horrors of the Holocaust, there was a powerful sense of guilt and much introspection among the World’s major powers. This was in part the stimulus behind the creation of the UN and other international institutions (including to some extent the EU). The idea was to create a sense of International community, common values and to prevent the kind of aggression that the likes of Adolf Hitler embodied.

Then again after the atrocities in the Balkans and Rwanda the UN-led on developing the responsibility to protect doctrine under which if a state failed to protect its own population against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity then the International community had a duty to protect using violence through the UN security council if necessary as a last resort.

However, beyond words, threats, ‘red lines’, bluster, and the occasional airstrike the said International community has ultimately failed the people of Syria. Given similar events like the genocide in Srebrenica (in Europe), Rwanda, Myanmar, Palestine, Yemen and Kashmir it makes one wonder whether the ‘International community’ is just a pseudonym for the ‘western community’; one that will only act if the victims are white and has little interest in saving the lives of those who don’t resemble them and especially Muslims.

However, it is not just the Western World that has failed; many Muslim-majority countries have also done little to protect their Syrian brethren (countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey deserve some credit for the number of refugees they have taken in though and Turkey has even taken limited military action against Assad even if it is primarily for its own selfish interests).

No less shamefully, there is the role of the Western left. The Western left can be hugely influential; it can mobilise, initiate discourse, highlight causes (the Palestinian cause, for example, is a pet cause of theirs), foster accountability and even influence or change policy. On ‘Syria’, however, it has failed dismally with many of its most vocal voices either intentionally obfuscating the facts or even worse siding with Assad- on the grounds that he is ‘anti-imperialist’ and/or because some on the left subscribe to the absurd notion ‘of anyone except the US’. Ultimately, however, we are all morally complicit in the biggest mass slaughter if not outright genocide of the 21st century. This is our collective shame, guilt and moral failing.

My first published book ‘Lord Louis Mountbatten and the British role in the Kashmir dispute, 1947–48' is available on Amazon.

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Faisal Khan

I am a published writer. My book 'Lord Mountbatten and the British role in the genesis of the Kashmir dispute, 1947-48' is available on Amazon.