THE END OF HUMANITY: SYRIA AND THE MORAL DILEMMA


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Michael Karam is a Lebanese author and journalist, who was until recently based in Beirut. His writings on politics, business, war and wine have appeared in The Spectator, The Times, Esquire, Decanter, and Monocle. In this article he brings profound insight into the impossibly tangled issues of the contemporary Middle East.

As of 31 March 2016, Lebanon hosted 1,048,275 registered refugees from Syria, 53% of them are children

As of 31 March 2016, Lebanon hosted 1,048,275 registered refugees from Syria, 53% of them are children

In early February, in a report published by Amnesty International with the rather dramatic title, Human Slaughterhouse, it was alleged that as many as 13,000 opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were secretly hanged at Saydnaya jail in Damascus. The executions took place over a five-year period, starting in 2011 as the country descended into civil war, and were carried out on orders from the highest level of the Syrian government. Saydnaya is one of the most dreaded detention centres in the whole of Syria. A guard interviewed by Amnesty call it “the end of humanity”.

The hangings were reportedly held twice a week, between midnight and dawn, in batches of 50 after prisoners were given a summary, two-minute “trial”. The regime, of course, denies everything. “The justice ministry condemns in the strongest terms what was reported because it is not based on correct evidence but on personal emotions that aim to achieve well-known political goals,” SANA, the Syrian national news agency, said in a statement.quote-8

So what are the “goals” in today’s Syria? For the opposition, depending on who you talk to, they range from the removal of the Assad regime; the holding of free and fair elections and the beginning of a new, democratic, prosperous and vibrant phase in the history of one of the world’s oldest countries, to the establishment of a Wahabi-inspired head-chopping, women-raping and enslaving caliphate as the first phase of a plan for global Islamification.

For the regime, as we in the West like to call it (President Assad would argue that Syria is founded on genuine democratic principles), it is to beat back and defeat the forces of Sunni fundamentalism that it claims is poised to engulf the region, and to do this it has embraced the help of its Cold War benefactor, Russia, its regional ally, Iran and a host of Shia mercenaries including battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon.

Asma al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria was born in London to Syrian parents and is married to the 19th and current President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad

Asma al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria was born in London to Syrian parents and is married to the 19th and current President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad

But the Syria conflict isn’t just about a struggle for regime change or even the aspirations of a berserk and bloodthirsty religious movement. It isn’t even about a powerful, corrupt, authoritarian dynasty desperately clinging to power. The Syrian civil war is also the main event in a regional Cold War between the Sunni, West-leaning, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the, Shia, Islamic Republic of Iran, an ally of an expansionist Russia. But as the new US President Donald Trump has just found out (and as the world discovered years ago) it is also a conflict of head-spinning contradictions and breathtaking hypocrisy. It will take more than 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired at an insignificant airbase to change the course of this war.

Without bringing in any of the fringe players, such as Turkey and the Kurds (sworn enemies of each other and of the Islamic State), Mr. Trump will discover that if, as he has pledged, he does succeed in defeating ISIS, it will most likely see the perpetuity of a regime that if Amnesty international is to be believed, is guilty of mass murder and the use of chemical weapons on its own people. It would also strengthen Iran, the nation President Trump has singled out as the greatest threat to US interests and its allies in the Middle East.

quote-9

This absence of moral clarity has also given those with most to lose an excuse to support the Assad regime. They include the Syria’s small but hugely wealthy business elite, Christians and other minorities, that the Assads have protected over the decades. To listen to them in the best restaurants of Beirut, London, New York, Paris and Istanbul is to understand first hand just how weird the conflict has become.

They will coo about how the President and his wife are such a modern couple who met the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2002. They will point out that Asma, the first lady, was educated in the UK and was a successful banker before Bashar, himself a dapper, if geeky, former eye doctor, came a-wooing.

They will explain that the Middle East is a rough neighborhood that plays by different rules; that in Syria if you don’t poke your nose into things that don’t concern you, you’ll do just fine; that the state was a model Arab nation in terms of social services and that the Assad family had massive approval ratings. It matters not one jot that all these points can be dismantled with ease; the fear of the Jihadist tsunami and the potential destruction of centuries of dynastic trading interests and religious freedom has forced them to see the world through a very unique lens.

In 2011, it was assumed the Assads would be gone in less than a year. It was a time we called the Arab Spring or the Arab Awakening. Dictators like Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muamar Ghaddhafi had all been deposed in one way or another. Why not the Assads?

Back then I lived in Beirut and roughly half of Lebanon waited feverishly for the moment the regime would crumble (three decades of occupation does that to you); while the other half feared his overthrow would mean another victory for the growing number of Sunni extremists in the region. All agreed that either way, when Syria sneezed Lebanon caught a cold, hence the new sense of anxiety that had gripped the country.

But as 2011 drew to close, I remember sitting in the bar at Beirut’s Gabriel Hotel. The room was thick with the smoke from cigars and cigarettes. The inhabitants of the Lebanese capital decided long ago that they had more important concerns that the long term effects of tobacco. If it wasn’t the deadly grind of the 1975 -1990 civil war, it was successive skirmishes with Israel, political upheaval, popular revolutions and attempted coups. That year, it had been the Syrian conflict and the way 2012 was looking, no one was considering giving up any time soon.)

quote-10

I was with a group of friends including a senior Swedish diplomat based in Damascus who had just had just crossed over the Syrian-Lebanese border at Masnaa and was ready to see in the New Year Beirut style. The border was still open, but the fear back then was that Beirut’s port, a vital transhipment hub for goods heading to Syria, Jordan, Iraq and beyond, would suffer if it closed and the economy would take a hit. And then there was the question of what to do with the ever-increasing number of, mainly Sunni, Syrian refugees.

In those early days, the debate over Assad, the mild-mannered ophthalmologist who had been thrust into the role of heir apparent to his father, the mighty and uncompromising Hafez el Assad, after the death of his elder brother, Bassil, veered between the idealistic and pragmatic. Those Lebanese with a pro-Syrian bent (and there were many who saw the country not only as a natural ally but as an historic extension of Lebanon) overlooked his less than tasteful methods because they felt he was the only regional leader capable of stemming the Sunni extremism that was popping up in the Levant and North Africa.

Indeed one only had to see what had happened to Iraq after the disastrous US-led invasion of 2003 to recognize that Saddam Hussein, whose ways of getting things done were also not to everyone’s liking, had in fact been holding the balance rather well between Iraq’s tribal and religious factions. When the Americans and the British went in without a plan, disbanding the army and creating a vacuum, there was only going to be one outcome.

And then there were those in Lebanon, the region and the world, who saw the Assad regime for what it was – a ruthless crime family, slightly less bloodthirsty than Saddam and his psychotic sons, but more murderous than the urbane but wildly corrupt Mubaraks. It mattered not whether the nerdy Syrian President probably wasn’t really the one calling the shots and that it was more likely his brother, Maher, along with the army command and Iranian advisors, who were quarterbacking the show. They felt, quite reasonably, that Bashar had to go if the region was to genuinely embrace democracy and realize its potential in terms of human rights and economic prosperity. My God we were so naïve.

But there was a reason to hope. This part of the Middle East was clearly in a state of flux, , democracy was the buzzword among a new generation of Arabs with access to cell phones and the Internet. And, let’s not forget that in 2005 in the wake of the bloody assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, 1 million Lebanese, 25% of the population, had taken to the streets of Beirut to force the Syrian army out of Lebanon, ending a 29-year, often quite authoritarian, occupation that had cost the country dearly. If the fractured and partisan Lebanese could unite to pull that off then surely anything was possible.

But sadly not. Six years later Syria’s sneeze has become a pandemic, the biggest refugee and displacement crisis since World War II, one that would shake European and US politics to their core; inspiring Right wing parties in France, Austria and Greece; influencing the UK’s Brexit and helping none other than the ridiculous Donald Trump win the race for the White House on a wave of xenophobia, ignorance and paranoia. Meanwhile, ISIS has become global enemy no.1 after terror outrages in Paris, Nice, Berlin, Istanbul and Brussels.

That night in Beirut six years ago, I asked the Swedish diplomat how long he gave the embattled Assad regime. “Longer than we think, but not as long as he thinks,” he said with a wink. We all laughed, ordered more drinks and relit our cigars. Yes indeed. Not tomorrow but soon enough.

But despite the death and destruction, the refugees and the brutality, the Assads now look like they will prevail. On the one hand we want them to win (or is it a case of we don’t want them to lose?) because an ISIS victory in Syria too awful to contemplate and yet a regime that has allegedly used Sarin gas on its own people in two occasions, the most recent being in the town of Khan Sheikhun on April 4, is clearly beyond the pale by anyone’s standards.

Assad will simply argue that he has done what is necessary to survive. Syria’s war may soon force us to reset our moral compass. other minorities, that the Assads have protected over the decades. To listen to them in the best restaurants of Beirut, London, New York, Paris and Istanbul is to understand first hand just how weird the conflict has become.

They will coo about how the President and his wife are such a modern couple who met the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2002. They will point out that Asma, the first lady, was educated in the UK and was a successful banker before Bashar, himself a dapper, if geeky, former eye doctor, came a-wooing.

They will explain that the Middle East is a rough neighborhood that plays by different rules; that in Syria if you don’t poke your nose into things that don’t concern you, you’ll do just fine; that the state was a model Arab nation in terms of social services and that the Assad family had massive approval ratings. It matters not one jot that all these points can be dismantled with ease; the fear of the Jihadist tsunami and the potential destruction of centuries of dynastic trading interests and religious freedom has forced them to see the world through a very unique lens.

In 2011, it was assumed the Assads would be gone in less than a year. It was a time we called the Arab Spring or the Arab Awakening. Dictators like Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muamar Ghaddhafi had all been deposed in one way or another. Why not the Assads?

Back then I lived in Beirut and roughly half of Lebanon waited feverishly for the moment the regime would crumble (three decades of occupation does that to you); while the other half feared his overthrow would mean another victory for the growing number of Sunni extremists in the region. All agreed that either way, when Syria sneezed Lebanon caught a cold, hence the new sense of anxiety that had gripped the country.

But as 2011 drew to close, I remember sitting in the bar at Beirut’s Gabriel Hotel. The room was thick with the smoke from cigars and cigarettes. The inhabitants of the Lebanese capital decided long ago that they had more important concerns that the long term effects of tobacco. If it wasn’t the deadly grind of the 1975 -1990 civil war, it was successive skirmishes with Israel, political upheaval, popular revolutions and attempted coups. That year, it had been the Syrian conflict and the way 2012 was looking, no one was considering giving up any time soon.)

I was with a group of friends including a senior Swedish diplomat based in Damascus who had just had just crossed over the Syrian-Lebanese border at Masnaa and was ready to see in the New Year Beirut style. The border was still open, but the fear back then was that Beirut’s port, a vital transhipment hub for goods heading to Syria, Jordan, Iraq and beyond, would suffer if it closed and the economy would take a hit. And then there was the question of what to do with the ever-increasing number of, mainly Sunni, Syrian refugees.

In those early days, the debate over Assad, the mild-mannered ophthalmologist who had been thrust into the role of heir apparent to his father, the mighty and uncompromising Hafez el Assad, after the death of his elder brother, Bassil, veered between the idealistic and pragmatic. Those Lebanese with a pro-Syrian bent (and there were many who saw the country not only as a natural ally but as an historic extension of Lebanon) overlooked his less than tasteful methods because they felt he was the only regional leader capable of stemming the Sunni extremism that was popping up in the Levant and North Africa.

Indeed one only had to see what had happened to Iraq after the disastrous US-led invasion of 2003 to recognize that Saddam Hussein, whose ways of getting things done were also not to everyone’s liking, had in fact been holding the balance rather well between Iraq’s tribal and religious factions. When the Americans and the British went in without a plan, disbanding the army and creating a vacuum, there was only going to be one outcome.

And then there were those in Lebanon, the region and the world, who saw the Assad regime for what it was – a ruthless crime family, slightly less bloodthirsty than Saddam and his psychotic sons, but more murderous than the urbane but wildly corrupt Mubaraks. It mattered not whether the nerdy Syrian President probably wasn’t really the one calling the shots and that it was more likely his brother, Maher, along with the army command and Iranian advisors, who were quarterbacking the show. They felt, quite reasonably, that Bashar had to go if the region was to genuinely embrace democracy and realize its potential in terms of human rights and economic prosperity. My God we were so naïve.

But there was a reason to hope. This part of the Middle East was clearly in a state of flux, , democracy was the buzzword among a new generation of Arabs with access to cell phones and the Internet. And, let’s not forget that in 2005 in the wake of the bloody assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, 1 million Lebanese, 25% of the population, had taken to the streets of Beirut to force the Syrian army out of Lebanon, ending a 29-year, often quite authoritarian, occupation that had cost the country dearly. If the fractured and partisan Lebanese could unite to pull that off then surely anything was possible.

But sadly not. Six years later Syria’s sneeze has become a pandemic, the biggest refugee and displacement crisis since World War II, one that would shake European and US politics to their core; inspiring Right wing parties in France, Austria and Greece; influencing the UK’s Brexit and helping none other than the ridiculous Donald Trump win the race for the White House on a wave of xenophobia, ignorance and paranoia. Meanwhile, ISIS has become global enemy no.1 after terror outrages in Paris, Nice, Berlin, Istanbul and Brussels.

That night in Beirut six years ago, I asked the Swedish diplomat how long he gave the embattled Assad regime. “Longer than we think, but not as long as he thinks,” he said with a wink. We all laughed, ordered more drinks and relit our cigars. Yes indeed. Not tomorrow but soon enough.

But despite the death and destruction, the refugees and the brutality, the Assads now look like they will prevail. On the one hand we want them to win (or is it a case of we don’t want them to lose?) because an ISIS victory in Syria too awful to contemplate and yet a regime that has allegedly used Sarin gas on its own people in two occasions, the most recent being in the town of Khan Sheikhun on April 4, is clearly beyond the pale by anyone’s standards.

Assad will simply argue that he has done what is necessary to survive. Syria’s war may soon force us to reset our moral compass.


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