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Syria caught between barbarism and civilization

A mural featuring Syrian President Bashar Assad in Latakia, Syria. Credit: Emesik via Wikimedia Commons.
A mural featuring Syrian President Bashar Assad in Latakia, Syria. Credit: Emesik via Wikimedia Commons.

Remember how the terrorists fighting American forces during the occupation of Iraq gave us a chilling new acronym, IED, which stands for Improvised Explosive Device? The four-year war in neighboring Syria has now done the same.

Syrian opposition activists are urging world leaders to pay heed to the favored weapon of the dictator Bashar al-Assad’s fighter planes and helicopters. It’s called a “barrel bomb,” and it’s the airborne equivalent of the IED—a crude, deadly, and unguided barrel casing, often made of metal and filled with chemicals and explosives to cause maximum harm. In the second week of September alone, Assad’s killing machine dropped 346 barrel bombs across Syria.

One of the worst-hit locations was the city of Darayya, where Assad’s helicopters dropped 32 barrel bombs on a single morning (Sept. 20). In the city of Aleppo, which has become a potent symbol of the Syrian civil war’s sheer inhumanity, the cowed populace speak of “elephant rockets” that eradicate any target that they hit. And while the stories of migrants fleeing the massacres to the shores of Europe are now well-known, there is less familiarity with the predicament of those who are forced to remain where they are. In an interview with an Arab broadcaster, the patriarch of a family living in the northwestern province of Idlib spoke of the misery of living under the stringent laws of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. But the alternative, he explained, is for his family to leave and risk being killed in Assad’s bombing campaign.

To be sure, this is madness, but there is a clear method here. One Syrian democracy activist I spoke to in Washington, DC recently told me that the barrel bombs are not primarily aimed at the barbarians of Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State, but at hospitals, schools, and bakeries—those, at least, that are still standing.

Additionally, there is an ugly ethno-religious dimension to Assad’s strategy. As a member of the ruling Alawi minority—a state of affairs that would be described as “apartheid” in other contexts—Assad believes that the fewer Sunni Arabs remain in Syria, the better the chances of his evil regime’s survival. This is nothing less than ethnic cleansing of the sort that disfigured the Balkans, Central Africa, and parts of Asia over the last quarter-century. Since Assad has lost control of three-quarters of Syrian territory, his best response is to target civilians in those areas, thus creating a mass of refugees.

Would Assad pursue that strategy if he knew that a robust military response, instead of an agonized European Union debate over how many refugees to admit, awaited him? I somehow doubt it.

In that sense, the degree of responsibility on the part of the United States and its allies for this continuing slaughter is almost too painful to contemplate. We should never forget how, in 2013, President Barack Obama shamefully backed down from his “red line” warning to Assad after the Syrian tyrant deployed illegal chemical weapons against his own subjects. Nor should we forget how Obama was spurred to this position by elements of the left in Europe—specifically Ed Miliband, the former leader of the British Labour Party, who has since been replaced by Jeremy Corbyn, a stalwart admirer of Iran and Russia, the two powers that are doing the most to keep Assad in power. When Miliband successfully persuaded the British parliament to vote against the use of the Royal Air Force in Syria, Obama, perhaps with a sigh of relief, decided that his red line was not so red after all.

This appeasement policy still prevails today. At the same time that Assad tells the Syrian people, in the words of a French doctor working in Syria, “Either you come back to us and recognize our authority, or you will die,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry babbles on at a press conference in London about “dealing with the root cause, which is the violence in Syria”—with no mention that the root cause is Assad, who is backed to the hilt by Iran and Russia.

According to Kerry, Russia’s stepped-up activity in Syria stems from its desire to do more to defeat Islamic State and the other Islamist groups that have emerged in that country’s vacuum, which conveniently ignores that Assad’s primary enemy is not Islamic State, but anyone in Syria who opposes him. The conclusion that Kerry has drawn is that Assad should not be cajoled into departing. “We’re not being doctrinaire about the specific date or time. We’re open,” breezed Kerry. One might easily forget, based on the words of America’s chief diplomat, that we are dealing with the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.

While Kerry dithers, the Russians are taking full advantage of America’s retreat from the Middle East, exemplified by the flawed nuclear deal with Iran. In the weeks since that agreement was reached, Russia has—in coordination with the Iranians—delivered fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, tanks, and 1,000 troops to its Syrian client. (That relationship goes back many years, as the Soviets were key supporters of Bashar’s despotic father, Hafez al-Assad.) Nor should we be surprised if we see Russian troops participating in combat operations in Syria, much as they have, with impunity, in the occupied parts of Ukraine.

When it comes to Israel, there is a strand of opinion that regards stabilizing Assad as preferable to Sunni Islamism—which is rather like saying that there’s a “good” Islamist state (Iran) and a “bad” one (Islamic State, a;-Qaeda). That view is both immoral and dangerously short-sighted. For now, the Israelis can hold a civil discussion with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, but that doesn’t mean he will absorb their concerns. Nor is there any guarantee that Putin won’t throw Israel to the wolves down the line, much as his Soviet predecessors did after the 1967 Six-Day War.

What Syria represents is nothing less than the fault line between civilization and barbarism—a point that is either eloquently understood by many of the Republican candidates for president, like Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Chris Christie, or regarded with contempt by others in that crop, like Donald Trump and (ironically) his nemesis Sen. Rand Paul. How we halt the flow of this river of blood, and how we bring about the peaceful return of Syrian refugees to their homes, is the fundamental test of our values.

But I’ll wager that in the coming days, amid the papal visit and the U.N. General Assembly meeting, we’ll be told again and again (and again) that climate change is the greatest problem our global society faces, and that we all need to redouble our recycling efforts. No wonder things are the way they are.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).   

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