Creating new perspectives since 2009

A decade on in Syria’s war, Assad has no moral high ground to cling to

March 11, 2021 at 12:28 pm

A view of the damaged houses and workplaces after an artillery attack by the Assad regime in Idlib, Syria on 11 February 2021 [Ahmet Hatib/Anadolu Agency]

As the Syrian uprising approaches yet another anniversary, enough blood has been spilled to fill the country’s barren rivers. More than ten years on, almost a million people have lost their lives, millions more have been wounded and up to half of the pre-war population of 23 million have been uprooted internally and externally. What started as an extension of the much heralded and celebrated Arab Spring — a series of cataclysmic protests across the Arab world, the like of which had not been seen before — morphed into a bloody conflict which has at times, resembled a proxy war for regional and international powers. The people of Egypt, Libya and Yemen at the time were demanding liberty and an end to the police state, as well as warning against what looked to be inherited dictatorships. Syria of course, had already seen such an inheritance eleven years earlier, when Bashar Al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez.

The Syrian uprising was one of sacrifice. It remained peaceful for the first six months, as activists and protesters were at pains to avoid violence. Protests were the main vehicle for dissent, starting on a weekly basis from mosques after Friday prayers, but soon becoming a daily reality. Activists like Giath Matar (known as “Little Gandhi”) who were abducted in the first months of the uprising preached non-violence; Matar welcomed soldiers with flowers only to be kidnapped and killed by the Assad regime.

The rationale for the uprising wasn’t ideological; it was a basic human yearning to be unshackled from the not always metaphorical chains. The trigger was the graffiti scribbled on walls in the city of Daraa with the words “You’re next doctor” in reference to the coming protest movement against Assad. When the military and Mukhabarat began firing on protesters, though, it was clear that the mould was cast and the uprising would get bloody.

As we look back after ten long years, there is no doubt that Assad’s is a pyrrhic victory; a “win” after the “battlefield” itself has been destroyed. As we edge closer to a post-conflict Syria, it remains mired in debt, death and destruction. Above all, according to a new report by UNICEF, 90 per cent of the children in Syria need support. They are the lost generation.

READ: Syria: most refugee children would not return, report reveals

Meanwhile, Assad himself can hardly be called president; he’s more a governor of sorts over loose provinces in the west and south, with sovereignty essentially ceded to Russia and Iran. A pre-conflict Syria no longer truly exists. He will stand again for the presidency with no mandate and no manifesto. The Baath Party principles that he claims to espouse have been catastrophic. No “Unity” exists in such a divided Syria, and neither does “Freedom” when soldiers and foreign militias are occupying most of the country; and nor does the “Socialism”. There is no socialism when the corrupt Assad ruling family have essentially stolen the national economy and became multibillionaires while hundreds of thousands of Syrians remain in his regime’s prisons, where they are tortured in the most horrific conditions. Syria is currently a failed state and hyperinflation is rampant. The average monthly salary for a worker is £15.

The Assad regime isn’t the only loser in this catastrophe of its own making; morality itself is. A number of states claimed to support the struggle of the Syrian people; unfortunately, their backing counted for little. Red lines were laid down by the US and then ignored when the regime carried out a massacre using chemical weapons in Ghouta in 2013. The international community looked on as the UN Security Council was paralysed under the weight of the Russian and Chinese vetoes. Iran and Israel made their preference and support for the Assad regime clear. The US and European states were ultimately paying lip service with their “support” for opposition groups.

Is Assad ruining Syria's economy? - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Is Assad ruining Syria’s economy? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

What has happened in Syria demonstrates that the UN itself is clearly not fit for purpose. A review of its founding principles about preserving peace and unity in the world is needed. The Syrian people have lost their trust in the organisation.

There is plenty of evidence to indicate that it was always Assad’s intention to radicalise the uprising; the regime wasn’t shy about branding all protesters as “terrorists” from the outset, and after extremists were released from prison the narrative could begin to take hold. The rationale was that if the regime kept saying that all protesters were terrorists, then in time, as extremist groups re-grouped and protesters were killed and jailed, the narrative would stick and it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Russia intervened on behalf of the regime, it attacked opposition groups; and civilians; and hospitals. There was little to indicate that Russia’s intervention to fight Daesh was successful, with the US and the coalition forces doing the bulk of the work.

READ: Syria: Over 282,000 displaced people return home following Idlib ceasefire 

Ironically, Assad is planning for another seven years as president and an “election” this summer will take place ignoring the fact that a political settlement under UN Resolution 2254 is not possible without real political change and genuine legal accountability. As a rule in most countries (including Syria), a basic requirement for applying for a job is not to have a criminal record. How can a war criminal stand as president, with over 11.5 per cent of the Syrian population killed or wounded? It is simply unacceptable. Barrel bombs have fallen on civilian areas. Chemical attacks have killed thousands. Cities have been destroyed. The Syrian people know what the Assad manifesto is after ten long, bloody years.

Assad may think that he has won, but at what cost? The slogan “Assad or we burn the country” was scribbled across properties looted by the Shabiha state-sponsored militias. It has proven to be accurate. Most of the country is in ruins, and like a certain Roman ruler 2,000 years earlier, Assad has fiddled whilst Syria and its people burned. A decade on in Syria’s war, Assad has no moral high ground to claim or cling to.

Revolutions do take time. The oft-cited French Revolution took years, and went both backwards and forwards. The forces of the counterrevolution in the Arab world are strong; Ancien Régimes do not disappear without a fight. However, the barrier of fear has been broken in Syria. Sacrifices have been made. The revolution started as an idea, and ideas don’t simply die. Recent developments in the legal accountability of Assad officials (albeit very junior officers) allow Syrians to look at the future with a ray of optimism. Hope springs eternal, and the struggle for peace and justice goes on.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.