Global Politics Long Read World

The Syrian Civil War: an Example of Goodies and Baddies Syndrome

Syrian soldier during the civil war. Source: Getty
Written by Daniel Holland

Intentionally or not we are conditioned to categorise things into one of two categories, either good or bad. Things often become black and white and it shapes our view about certain issues. This can be seen throughout our politics and in an increasingly polarised world that can have clear consequences on our ability to fully understand and appreciate difficult topics. It’s something I call goodies and baddies syndrome where people refuse to even acknowledge the weaknesses of the “good” side and refuse to try and understand the perspective of the “bad” side. However you might be surprised to find out I am not here to talk to you about remain or leave, republican or democrat, or even, independence or union, but Syria. 

In Syria a brutal civil war has been raging since protests began in 2011 ignited by the Arab spring which spread like wildfire across countries in the region. This civil war had been brewing for a long time. It’s remarkable in fact there had not been a similar conflict before this. This is as Syria is not really a state, with rough borders formed in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, like many Arab nations formed in that era little attention was given to the consequences of many different religions and ethnicities all being part of the same nation despite their massive cultural and linguistic differences. Syria inhabits large groups of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, Palestinians, Circassians and Druze among others.

The Syrian Ba’ath party swept to power in a coup in 1963 and have relied on ethnic and religious tensions to survive ever since. The current leader Bashar al-Assad has been leader of Syria since 2000. He is from the Alawite sect, a denomination of Shia Islam. Although 74% of Syrians are Muslims a mere 12% are Alawites. As such the Syrian government has been forced to rely on religious sectarianism in order to maintain power. Among minority groups religious secularism was a popular policy as groups such as Druze, Jews and Christians avoided persecution unlike neighbouring states in the region such as Saudi Arabia, UAE or Pakistan, where there is active persecution of Christians. This has allowed the Ba’ath party to keep a loyal base throughout the conflict.

From 2000 to 2011 religious sectarianism, massive government corruption, unemployment in many cities such as Daraa and Homs -which remained rebel strongholds throughout most of the war- and the use of the secret police as a means to stifle dissent, meant that civil war was inevitable.

The Syrian government throughout the conflict has been marred with accusations of some of the most abhorrent war crimes imaginable. The Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs -bombs filled with shrapnel, oil and chemicals- throughout the conflict has been deadly among civilian populations. As well the probable use of the chemical weapon Sarin in Ghouta and Khan-Shaykhun. Naturally it seems obvious why regime change was needed and necessary.

However as the years of war have dragged on, it has become harder and harder to assert who the bad guy is, and who the good guy is. It may be hard to see how this could be possible when linked up with the accusations by opponents and many of the government’s actions before and during the war.

This is until you learn who the rebels really are, as sadly the “moderate” good rebels that so many wished to see take power in Syria no longer exist, if they ever really did.

This can be seen as from as early as 2012 it was clear that jihadist fighters were beginning to dominate the Syrian rebel movement. In fact, a New York Times article says:

“Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster.”

Yet despite this, weapons still flowed to “moderate” groups such as Nour-Al-Din-Al-Zenki movement which was “vetted” by the CIA and given sophisticated TOW Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) launchers. In 2015 the group celebrated the 9/11 attacks, in 2016 its members beheaded a child and in 2017 the group de facto merged with Hayat Tahrir al Sham, Al Qaeda in Syria, allowing American weaponry to fall into the hands of jihadists.

Another group Jayesh al Islam – whose name translates to the army of Islam, and have still not been designated a terrorist group by the EU, United Nations or USA – have been involved in a number of high-profile peace negotiations most notably at the Geneva peace conference. They were a part of a delegation of “moderates” and have been seen to use women and children as human shields, with the Telegraph showing pictures of hundreds in cages strategically placed in order to prevent artillery attacks. All of whom were citizens and part of the Alawite religious sect. They have also been a part of the intense inter rebel divisions which have seen mass executions inside areas they control.

Even the Free Syrian Army who was hailed as the leading light of moderate Syrian rebels beheaded a Christian and fed him to dogs in late 2012. They have also used large numbers of child soldiers and one report stated the rebels strapped a young boy to a car full of explosives and tried to force him to drive towards an army checkpoint.

The group however have effectively ceased to exist since 2014 when the group crumbled as large numbers of fighters defected to the better armed and funded Islamic groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al Sham. This has been mirrored across Syria and neighbouring Iraq where large numbers of the countries poor Sunni Muslim population have seen the comparative wealth and status of being a jihadist inside groups such as the Islamic State or Al Qaeda. This led to Islamic State’s forces swelling to 200,000 during the height of the conflict, according to senior Kurdish officials.

The name “Free Syrian Army” is now used as a way to garner international support and legitimacy which is strange considering the original group themselves. Now even stranger it’s now a name used by Turkish forces in Syria who are aiming to disguise themselves from being Turkish proxies another dimension to an already confusing conflict.

If these are the moderates then it says something about the hardcore Islamist groups doesn’t it? The Islamic State are the most well-known and have used their disgusting interpretation of Sharia Law to set up slave auctions where women were sold for as little as a packet of cigarettes, encouraging rape as a necessary part of war, children as young as 12 used as suicide bombers, and the mass extermination of minority groups through beheadings, indiscriminate sniper fire, crucifixion and stoning used on any one who opposes their brutal regime. One commander -of the then Al-Nusra group- Abu Sakkar bragged about eating the heart of a dead Syrian government soldier. Naturally these aren’t the people you want running the country and are correctly branded as terrorists elsewhere in the world. Yet because of the nature of the Syrian government these are the groups that people support if they align themselves with the rebel faction. This is because simply there are no moderates in Syria, merely jihadists.

Not to mention the use of chemical weapons by the rebel groups themselves, with Carla Del Ponte Swiss investigator for the UN explicitly stating in 2013 that she believed the rebels had used Sarin gas. The Islamic State also used mustard gas in the defense of Mosul in neighbouring Iraq. Robert Fisk of the Independent and former Royal Navy commander Lord West have claimed that chemical attacks have either not happened or have been used as a political tool in the conflict.

Although it is impossible to discount the Syrian government’s role – especially in the early years of the conflict- it has left confusion even in the west as to the nature of these attacks. Further muddying the waters as to who has been responsible for some of the most prolific uses of chemical weapons in recent history and to who is the bad side and the good side. Hopefully however you might have been able to see that there is no good side.

Even Kurdish forces – who are on the whole a force for good – are linked with the actions of the PKK – Partiya Karkeren Kurdistane or the Kurdish Workers Party in English – whose terror attacks have left tens of thousands dead over the last 50 years. Their place as a minority group in Syria has also meant that they cannot be seriously considered to rule Syria as otherwise they will replace the ruling Shia junta with a Kurdish one instead. It is also unlikely that they well ever reach any form of internationally recognised independence due to the likelihood of an outright invasion by Turkey as we have seen partially in Afrin and their intervention into North Eastern Syria in 2019. Showing that even the best option is not a realistic one.

The rebel groups in Syria have also been unable to work together with factionalism and ideological divide leading to all-out war. Mass beheadings by the Islamic State, suicide bombings perpetrated by all sides and assassinations has meant that in the rebel side they have been unable to put up co-ordinated resistance against the effective and re-organised Syrian government. In 2017 Jayesh al Islam opened fire on demonstrators who urged an end to infighting. Ironically mirroring the start of the conflict and showing how many rebel groups had gone full circle and become the thing they wished to overthrow.

It also shows how Syria would likely end up similar to failed states such as Iraq, Libya or Afghanistan where rival groups have endlessly fought for power leaving them without effective government nor stability.

You must remember that this is Syria’s only experience with democracy and it has been a painful one, although many remember the life before the civil war many have turned back to the Syrian government. Even many who were supportive of the revolution have realised that the rebel movement has not turned out as many had hoped, with almost no groups talking about democracy but rather the caliphate. With nearly 80% of those displaced by fighting choosing to return to government-controlled areas. Several thousand people pass through the Jaber border crossing in Jordan each day. Many Syrians are wishing to return home to areas controlled by the government which are comparatively calm and peaceful in comparison to the constant fighting from groups inside and attacks from government forces into rebel-controlled areas.

The Syrian government has won the war now, are they the best government a citizen could ask for? No. Are the rebels any better? No. Where the country will go from here is an impossible question to answer, with elections in 2021 it will likely be another sham election. However, if you don’t support this then the alternative is radical jihadism, there aren’t many options left.

I think it can be seen that in Syria there is no good side, no heroes and no victors. It has destroyed the country and has led to the worst refugee crisis since 1945.

If you want to overthrow the Syrian government this is what you will get. Warlords and jihadists battling it out for control. In Syria under government control women are not forced to be sex slaves and harsh sharia law is not practised. Although the Syrian government controls most of the country they preside over a broken country, economic ruin and thousands living in squalor in refugee camps. However maybe, just maybe, you will think a little harder the next time you see Syria on the news.

About the author

Daniel Holland

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