Never forget how this started: the spontaneous outbreak of peaceful protest. A people brutalised by decades of dictatorship and harsh repressions, in solidarity with the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring, saw a slim chance for freedom, and took it. They – the people – filled ancient cities with chanting, and song. This, the dictatorship could not have.
First, the snipers; the beatings; the mass arrests. Boys as young as ten returned to their families with their bodies pulverised and their genitals burnt off. Never forget how this started: with an act of self-preservation. The people took up arms to protect themselves, their neighborhoods and their families. It was the spirit of resistance, not fanaticism, that drove them.
When the dictatorship saw the rebellion grow, it responded as the logic of Arab fascism insisted it must, by unleashing a relentless and indiscriminate campaign of state terror upon a captive population. For daring to raise their voices, the people were to be mercilessly crushed. So here came the bombs, the airstrikes, the artillery; whole regions reduced to rubble and bones. The vast apparatus of mass killing, mass rape and mass torture gorged itself on the blood of the people.
The dictatorship had an excuse for all this. From the start it insisted it was “fighting terrorism”. This was classic fascist doublethink. The orgy of barbarism was well underway before a significant presence of foreign fighters was in the country. The only power doing any terrorising was the dictatorship.
But the dictatorship had powerful friends – veto-wielding friends – and those friends could protect it and arm it and help propagate the lie. When the jihadis began to arrive in earnest it became easier to believe it. As the number of groups ostensibly fighting the regime proliferated, confusion set in. It became harder to disentangle the motives of these various and often competing factions. Under the pressure of relentless disinformation they began to blend. The language of moral equivalence crept in, and those who rose up against the dictatorship were now judged by the actions of the most psychopathic hijackers of their cause.
Many in the outside world gazed upon this bloodshed and counseled against, as it was said, “getting involved”. For them the regime’s propaganda was intrinsically seductive; if the West said the dictatorship was bad, then the dictatorship’s badness could be questioned, and anyway, even if the dictatorship was bad, the West has done bad things too. The lie produced its own brand of apologetics.
When the dictatorship gassed over a thousand people, it had a growing Western audience for its deceptions. The pornographers of doubt came up with a bold inversion: The people, they said, had gassed themselves in order to gain our sympathy. Proving that no idea is so offensive you won’t get some people to believe it, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist helped the dictatorship embroider this myth in print.
By now many people were struggling to see past the black flag of ISIS. Maybe, they wondered, just maybe, the dictatorship really was fighting terrorism. Perhaps that meant the dictatorship was, in some sense, on our side. Perhaps the dictatorship was not so much murderous as a stabilising force in a chaotic region. The bullish British journalist Peter Oborne, writing from Damascus recently, argued the dictatorship “is fighting in defence of an ancient civilisation.”
That it is possible to contemplate the ruins of Homs and Alepo, let alone the choking faces of Ghouta, and still think that, is testament to the lie’s ability to reorder reality.
For as Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan have shown, the dictatorship did everything in its power to turn the lie into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not only had the dictatorship colluded with ISIS’s forerunner organisation al Qaeda in Iraq, it helped foster their resurgence by releasing an untold number of top Salafi jihadists as part of a 2011 ‘amnesty’. High level defectors from the regime testify that this was a deliberate strategy to destabilise the uprising.
Moreover, far from “fighting terrorism”, studies have shown that the regime has actually spared ISIS in 90 percent of its operations. (ISIS have reciprocated, by targeting the regime in only 18 percent of its attacks.) The dictatorship, in other words, knows its fight is with the people and acts accordingly.
In four years of fighting an estimated 250,000 people have been killed, half of that number civilians, including over 10,000 children. The overwhelming majority of these people – as much as 75 percent – were killed by government forces, who are are reckoned to be responsible for 95 percent of civilian casualties. ISIS’s brutality may capture our imaginations, but it is the dictatorship that owns the lion’s share of this slaughter, and the people, not the terrorists, filling up the graves.
You are free to call that defending civilisation if you so choose, but in doing so you are emptying those words of all useful meaning. You are wallowing in the lie.