A version of this article first appeared in The New Arab.
Following the Syrian regime’s recent chemical attack on Douma, US, Britain and France took swift but symbolic action to destroy three chemical weapons facilities. The action was not universally lauded. For Syrians it was too little too late; for isolationists and “anti-imperialists”, the 15,201st US airstrike on Syria since September 2014 was a “dangerous escalation” in a war where there were “no good guys”.
“There are no good guys”—or “everyone is equally bad”—has become a trope used by many otherwise decent people to absolve themselves of moral guilt for being bystanders to injustice. (The indecent on the other hand pronounce Assad the “lesser evil”, if not outright supporting him). The trope relies on a disciplined will to ignorance, unreasonable doubt, and manufactured uncertainty. It has been aided by a post-truth paranoia where cynicism passes for scepticism and all inconvenient facts expire into a haze of competing claims. “We can’t really know”!
But are facts really that elusive? And is it really impossible to tell good from bad?
Syria in fact is the most closely observed conflict in history, every aspect of which has been investigated, researched, filmed, documented, and reported on. The picture that emerges is not equivocal. In the judgment of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the war in Syria the regime is responsible for “the crimes against humanity of extermination; murder; rape or other forms of sexual violence; torture; imprisonment; enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts”.
Let us now look at the balance of atrocities.
The Death Toll
The UN stopped counting Syria’s dead in 2014 and the last estimate from the Syrian Center for Policy Research (produced in 2016) placed the number at 470,000. However the Violations Documentation Center, which only records deaths verified through documentation, estimates that at least 188,026 people have been killed during the war; the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which gathers data from Local Coordination Committees, places the number at 217,764 civilians only. The VDC attributes 90% of the civilian deaths to the regime; the SNHR 92%.
Following the rise of ISIS, media attention was diverted almost entirely to its gruesome atrocities. But even a year into the “caliphate”, UN special investigator Paulo Sérgio Pineheiro, found that the regime “remain[ed] responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily”. Since its entry into the war, Russia has at times surpassed the regime’s kill rate.
According to the UN Commission of Inquiry, the regime has used chemical weapons on at least 33 occasions since 2013. In an investigation (verified by Amnesty International and the UN), Human Rights Watch has confirmed 85 chemical attacks in Syria since 2013, only one suspected chlorine attack was attributed to an armed opposition group. An epidemiological study has shown that civilians comprise 97.6% of the people killed in these attacks.
Attacks on Healthcare and Media
The UN also condemned the regime for the “deliberate destruction of health care infrastructure”. It found “a pattern of attacks” by pro-regime forces that suggested a “deliberate and systematic targeting of hospitals and other medical facilities”. Medicins Sans Frontieres supported hospitals have been targeted by the regime with Russian assistance across Syria to this day. In 2016, there were 71 attacks on 32 of MSM’s medical facilities; in 2015 there were 94 attacks on 63.
Physicians for Human Rights found that the regime and Russia were responsible for 446 of the 492 attacks on medical facilities in Syria and 767 of the 847 medical personnel killed. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both condemned Russia and the regime’s targeting of hospitals “as a strategy of war”. Both parties have also been condemned for the deliberate targeting of aid workers.
Syria has also been one of the deadliest beats to cover for journalists. According to the Syrian Journalists Association, so far 299 journalists have been killed by the Assad regime, 18 by Russia, 59 by ISIS, 11 by armed opposition groups, 3 by HTS, 2 by the PYD 1 by the SDF.
Torture & Extermination
There is copious evidence of the regime’s policy of mass incarceration and extrajudicial murder. According to Amnesty International, the regime has hanged to death 13,000 prisoners, mostly civilians, at the Sednaya military prison alone as “a part of deliberate policy of ‘extermination’”. Over 75,000 people have been disappeared. At least 6,786 people tortured to death in the regime’s prisons have been identified through 53,275 photographs smuggled out of Syria by a military defector.
The UN Commission on Syria has also corroborated earlier reports that the regime has used rape systematically as policy, targeting men, women and children. Athletes too haven’t been spared. An ESPN investigation found that the regime has “shot, bombed or tortured to death dozens of pro soccer players”.
Starvation and Displacement
UN investigators have condemned the regime’s use of starvation as a weapon of war. The regime has used it as part of its policy of forced displacement. Since the beginning of the conflict 5.4 millions Syrians have been forced to flee the country; 6.1 million are internally displaced. A 2015 survey of refugees by the Berlin Social Science Center showed that the regime’s violence was the primary cause for their flight. Meanwhile the regime has engaged in demographic engineering to make the dispossession permanent. Through an Israeli-style “Absentee Law”, it allows regime supporters to lay claim to depopulated neighbourhoods, thereby creating a friendly political geography with a homogenous sectarian base.
None of this however is to say that the opposition is without flaws or hasn’t committed crimes. We need to ensure that every war criminal— rebel or regime—should be tried at the International Criminal Court. But only someone without a sense of proportion and complete disregard for truth would compare the two. The regime’s crimes are colossal, sustained, and deliberate; they are an expression of policy. The opposition is disorganised, anarchic, and diffuse. Its crimes are impulsive, contained and chaotic: they reflect only on the group or individual committing the crime. Russian vetoes to protect specific regime violations have created a general climate of impunity where criminality thrives. This has to be reversed.
Yet the language of “both sides” and “no good guys” has created an artificial levelling where a largely peaceful uprising is placed on the same moral plane as the murderous regime that forced it to militarise. To be sure, the regime’s ruthless campaign against the civil uprising has left a vacuum filled by many unsavoury groups. But the people who remain unvanquished in the face of a genocidal regime aided by two major powers is unlikely to be cowed by Al Qaeda. Indeed, since 2016, Syrian towns like Ma’arat al-Nu’man, Atareb and Binnish have seen regular protests against both the regime and Al Qaeda. Some towns like Saraqeb have successfully expelled the jihadis and protests against Al Qaeda are happening in Sarmada even as I write.
What we see in Syria is not a “civil war”, but a war on civilians. The label “civil war” suggests a kind of parity in a contest that is anything but equal. In Syria the battle has often been waged between high-altitude bombers and hospitals; between barrel bombs and playgrounds. “To confuse [perpetrators] with their victims”, said the great Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, “is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.” Let us not let the truth be claimed by a manufactured “fog of war”. There are good guys in Syria and they need our support.