One of the many disturbing sentences written by Boris Johnson in his column for Britain’s Telegraph newspaper is this: “The victory of Assad is a victory for archaeology, a victory for all those who care about the ancient monuments of one of the most amazing cultural sites on Earth.” That was his reaction to the news that regime forces in Syria have retaken control of the ancient city of Palmyra from Daesh. It was not only disturbing because he is praising someone who he admits is a mass murderer who rules with “one of the vilest regimes on earth” but also because it shows how disconnected an average British politician is from the realities of what is happening on the ground.
The tone of Johnson’s writing was autocratic and his elitist sentiments about Syria were very evident in his words. Furthermore, the complex dynamics of the Syrian conflict were missing in an article simplistic enough to make any Middle East observer’s eyes roll in disbelief. He didn’t mention Palmyra’s 51,000 residents and the post-Daesh implications for them, given the nature of the crimes of the Assad regime; forces loyal to the regime have committed appalling crimes indeed.
Boris Johnson described Daesh as a death cult “warped and sick almost beyond belief.” The extremists “burn people alive – simply for holding to a slightly different version of Islam. They throw gays off cliffs or out of windows. They put their opponents in cages and then lower those cages into swimming pools.” Has he forgotten that the Assad regime itself has committed heinous crimes both before and since the start of the revolution in 2011?
The fact that Johnson brought gays into the equation shows little awareness of what it has been like to live in Assad’s Syria, especially as a homosexual. The regime is notorious for its infiltration of underground gay communities and punishing them. Homosexuals were forced to conceal their identity in order to avoid being subjugated to institutional and social harassment and discrimination. The London mayor and MP completely dismissed the seriousness of the crimes of the Assad regime, despite acknowledging them briefly.
What about the regime’s heinous crimes that are — at the very least — equal to those of Daesh, Boris, especially against women and children? The mass rape of women by Daesh extremists, specifically the Yezidi sex slaves, is worth a mention as far as the British politician is concerned ; the mass rape of women by Assad forces is not mentioned, nor are the alleged sexual assaults involving rats. Human rights organisations have been monitoring and documenting the regime’s crimes, so Johnson can’t say that he has no way of knowing what has been going on. There is also video evidence on the internet. One example is this video of a teenage boy captured by Assad’s forces and tortured into revealing the names of others opposing the regime and protesting. (Warning: this video contains rape threats, torture and strong language.) The video shows only one section of a torture session, wherein the teenage boy called Haidar is slapped and electrocuted, and threats are made to rape his mother and sister.
Furthermore, Johnson completely disregarded the barrel bombings, the sieges leading to starvation and Assad’s mass destruction of his own country. He also forgot to mention that Assad’s relationship with Al-Qaeda has not always been tense. Shortly after Bashar Al-Assad succeeded his father as President of Syria, when Al-Qaeda expanded from Iraq into his country, he turned a blind eye to the group’s smuggling routes. Syria became a transit point for jihadists wishing to enter Iraq; in 2005 the Assad regime was condemned globally for its complicity in this. The regime has also traded with Daesh, via George Haswani, a Syrian-Christian businessman.
When looking at Daesh and Assad, it is clear that both have committed horrible crimes against the people of Syria; both have used torture; both have burnt people to death; and both have used rape and starvation as a weapon of war. The main difference between the two is their impact on the West. At most, it seems, Assad’s mass destruction of Syria, along with Daesh, has created a refugee crisis, which has been a concern for European politicians. However, the Grand Mufti of the Assad regime, Ahmed Hassoun, has threatened the western world by saying that he will send foreign fighters to conduct terrorist attacks in Europe; thankfully, such attacks have not yet materialised.
Daesh, on the other hand, has conducted multiple terrorist attacks and killed Europeans as well as Middle Easterners, making the group’s fanatics more dangerous to Western lives than Assad and his thugs. That’s why, for someone like Boris Johnson, Daesh is seen as the biggest threat in Syria. From his perspective, it is easy to forget that Assad has killed far more civilians than the extremist group; more than 120,000 compared to just under 1,400 in 2015. It is fairly obvious that the logic he employs is simple: if the biggest threat to Europe is Daesh, then it is convenient to say that the biggest threat to Syria is Daesh, even though the statistics prove otherwise and that it was Assad who created the environment for Syria to become a breeding ground for terrorists.
To say that Palmyra is now free because it is under regime control instead of Daesh is neither accurate nor honest. If anything, the military crackdown on Palmyra by Assad forces is likely to cost even more civilian lives.
For Boris Johnson to write a whole article praising Assad for his “archaeological victory” when Syrian lives are under constant threat eternises the narrative that prolongs the war in Syria. Procrastination about stating clearly the root cause of the war enables Assad to continue turning Syria into a dystopian nightmare which encourages groups such as Daesh to take advantage of the instability and grow. By ignoring the human cost and effectively reducing the Syrian conflict into a war about archaeology, Johnson does a great disservice to the victims of the Assad regime, past, present and future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.