Syrian people's quest for freedom lost amid moral ambiguity

The West has been able to construct a form of wilful ignorance that has alleviated our collective guilt around the Syrian conflict, argues politics student Brian O'Flynn.

In recent years we have told ourselves that the Syrian war is too complex and multifaceted for side-taking. Terrorist groups are fighting on both sides we are told, atrocities committed by all - who is really in the right?

Assad’s regime has actively promoted and carefully nurtured this moral ambiguity since the beginning of the war.

It has been reported that he tried to seed the opposition ranks with extremists by releasing Jihadist prisoners in order to bring the rebels’ legitimacy into question and it was the moderate rebels who suffered most from this blurring of the lines.

Allies of the uprising, as Qatar’s foreign minister discussed yesterday with Al Jazeera, are afraid to give the rebels anti-aircraft missiles in case they fall into the hands of extremist groups.

As well intentioned states hummed and hawed in the dace of this moral ambiguity the Syrian regime squeezed moderate rebels to the point of desperation in the hopes that they would look to terrorist groups for assistance and thus confirm the world’s worst fears.

Meanwhile, Russia and Iran freely armed and financed the regime while maintaining the charade of diplomacy by attending UN Security Council meetings and feigning interest in a political solution.

They negotiate, only to repeatedly veto ceasefire proposals as soon as they come to the table.

The west entertained this performance because it was easier than facing the truth - that we were enabling a massacre. It was far, far easier to believe that we were negotiating with reasonable people. Lies are comforting.

This week, and especially since Tuesday, those lies have finally become untenable. The gloves are finally off.

As Assad’s regime forces closed in on the last remaining rebel territories in east Aleppo this week, they dropped all pretence of diplomacy, shelling the neighbourhoods into oblivion, burying dozens of families in the rubble - alive or dead, we still don’t know.

UN proposals for the peaceful evacuation of the remaining rebels and civilians were flatly refused. The proposals were very reasonable, including provisions that the rebels must leave behind all heavy artillery, etc. They did not want to regroup, they simply wanted to escape with their lives. Assad and the Russians finally showed their stony faces - they were unmoved, merciless.

Syrian people's quest for freedom lost amid moral ambiguity

The regime’s certain victory is not enough for Assad - he wants to obliterate his opponents, and all those who have aligned with them or even sheltered with them.

All the negotiations were just precautionary measures in case they lost the battle on the ground. But Assad never wanted a political solution. He wanted to wipe is opponents out. He wanted a massacre, and today he is getting one.

When the regime and its allies finally consented to a ceasefire Tuesday, they did so only once their military victory was absolutely assured, only once they had pushed the rebels to the brink, only once worldwide protests and condemnation reached fever pitch, and only once they had summarily executed civilians.

Too little, too late.

This ceasefire was simply cosmetic damage control, a half-hearted, last minute attempt to redeem the unforgivable.

It was a very clever attempt by Assad to once again to promote moral ambiguity, to capitalise on our moral vacillation, and our willingness to abdicate responsibility.

We cannot forget that Russia has vetoed ceasefire proposals repeatedly for weeks, right up until the rebels were confined into a few blocks. We cannot forget that yesterday we watched in horror as reports flooded in of regime forces going door to door, murdering civilians, burning them alive, and lining them up for summary execution.

Assad has simply been laying the groundwork for his reclamation of authority in Aleppo. He was determined to terrorise the civilian population while he still had the chaos of war as partial cover. The aim has always been terror, so that when he reclaims the city, there will be less chance of opposition from a cowering population.

This last minute change of tack is simply superficial, so that the “records will show” that the regime agreed to a ceasefire and tried to minimise loss of life. It is imperative that we do not allow this false memory to enter our collective consciousness. We must remember the atrocities of Tuesday the 13th, because they show who Assad truly is. We cannot allow him to rewrite history.

This morning, shelling resumed on Aleppo - the regime lazily claiming that the rebels broke the ceasefire. As if it makes any difference now that they are battered into almost complete capitulation. The point of the ceasefire was to spare as many lives as possible - but as the shells fall again, it’s clear Assad just does not care.

Tuesday’s concession was simply an effort at saving face - a small nod toward politics and diplomacy, maybe in the hopes of avoiding charges for war crimes by the international community. Maybe he hopes the international community just turn a blind eye to all he has done and let him take back power peacefully.

What’s most terrifying is that we might let this happen. We’ve constructed moral ambiguity where it has not existed for a long time, so what’s to stop us from doing it again? What’s to stop us from convincing ourselves that “Assad ain’t so bad, he agreed to that ceasefire after all”??

Syrian people's quest for freedom lost amid moral ambiguity

If we accept this lie, we are disgracing the Syrian people, allowing five years of war and bloodshed and sacrifice to be for nothing.

It is easy to forget the origins of this war, as its narrative twists and turns in real time. Over the last five years, we have seen focus shift from the regime to the rebels to ISIS to Russia to the US and back again. It is hard to keep track of who is fighting whom, and to what end.

Perhaps that is why it’s so easy to feign ignorance.

But clear it all away and the story is simple. This war started with a clear and noble aim.

The people of Syria wanted freedom from a brutal dictator, and when their peaceful protests were violently suppressed, they did the only thing they could and took up arms in the name of democratic freedom.

Things got messy after that as many different groups tried to take advantage of the vulnerable country for their own ends: ISIS and other terrorist groups exploited the unrest to make terrifying territorial advances, while Russia and the US co-opted the struggle into their own proxy war, as they both vye for influence in the Middle East.

But at the heart of it, this has remained a struggle for freedom, for democracy and for self- determination.

The people of Syria have kept fighting, have kept sacrificing their people and their cities, because they have a noble cause to strive for. That is the most fundamental aspect of this war, and yet it is continually obscured by the chaos of other competing interests.

There are no moral grey areas in Syria today, as we witness Assad’s forces violate the ceasefire and resume indiscriminate shelling on Aleppo. A huge chapter in this war may be about to effectively end, as the rebels concede their last urban stronghold. But there is nothing to celebrate about that. The wrong people are winning.

With an Assad victory, there will never be an end to violence. The only thing we have to look forward to under Assad’s rule is further suppression, further censorship, and further misery for the Syrian people. He has always been and always will be a terrorist, and no matter how much we want to stay neutral, we cannot. We cannot hide behind moral ambiguity.

The last five years of bloodshed and death will only be worth something if Assad is ousted.

The moderate rebels are the ones we must back, are the only ones we must look to for hope of eventual democratic rule.

The terrorists are winning in Syria today. The question is, will the world let them?

Brian O'Flynn has written extensively for Attitude Magazine, the Irish Examiner and Idolator. He is a student of politics in Trinity College Dublin.

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