Harry Hagopian

Two wrongs in Syria don’t make a right

As Jonathan Tepperman suggests, Bashar Assad may be in denial, blithely complacent or downright deceptive, but a look at statistics of the Syrian war make a different truth very clear

Injured Syrian boys receive treatment at a makeshift hospital in the rebel held area of Douma, north east of the capital Damascus, following reported air strikes by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad on 3 February 2015  (AFP/Abed Doumani )

As my colleague James Abbott often enjoys reminding listeners on our Middle East Analysis podcasts, I am not particularly “into” Twitter. A lot of it is redundant fun for me, and I tend — perhaps wrongly — to use it more as an eccentric pastime than as a serious platform to the outside world. However, it occasionally yields useful dividends even for me.


One of those dividends occurred last weekend when I came across two telling retweets! Both the You-Tube link as well as the Washington Post piece focused on quite an adventurous visit this month by Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, to Damascus, where he interviewed President Bashar al-Assad.


There have been other journalists, including few Western ones, who have also previously interviewed the Syrian president. So the fact that he did it was not really the major feat for me. Rather, it was the long trek that took him to Syria via Beirut (with all the behind-the-scenes action) as well as his own assessment and conclusions after the hour-long interview.


But given there are also other bloggers and social media aficionados who never cease to dazzle us with their uninterrupted analyses, why would Jonathan Tepperman’s input impress me so vividly?


Clearly, one answer is that he actually went to the People’s Palace and spoke to the man who has been at the heart of so much blood and gore over the past four years. It takes guts to get to this huge and rectilinear building and is, in my opinion, one of the best methods — especially for a keen eye and knowing mind — of sussing out the state of mind of the president.


But let me digress for a few moments from the interview and share with readers a few spine-chilling statistics from a Syrian site that reflect a gruesome reality today. Just read these figures contemplatively — take your time — and note the number of zeros.


  • Over 250,000 killed, including some 20,000 children
  • Over 1.1 million injured and thousands maimed
  • Over 11,000 tortured to death
  • Over 5,000 (reported) cases of rape & sexual violence
  • Over 250,000 detained
  • Over 13 million displaced
  • Over 2 million properties destroyed


And just to recap, let me also briefly remind readers that the Syrian protests initially erupted in Daraa (in the south of Syria along the border with Jordan) in March 2011. They were peaceful and consisted ab initio of some schoolchildren drawing anti-regime graffiti on the wall. They then ballooned peacefully, still without arms, until the regime attempted to crush them with all its brutish might as if the demonstrators were not Syrian citizens but flies who had to be swatted away. Such unsparing brutality eventually “weaponized” those protests, neutering the so-called “moderate,” albeit hapless and dissonant, rebels and then also radicalising the country with the introduction of Al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State (ISIS) into the overall imbroglio.


Back to Jonathan Tepperman and his piece, though! His assessment of the Syrian president is complex. He suggests that Bashar Assad is either in deep denial, is blithely complacent, or else is deceptive and mendacious. He also adds that he is unrepentant and not ready for a settlement. Many keen observers of the Syrian scene already suspected — I am eschewing the use of “knew” here — that the president has been ably clinging to power despite wreaking so much havoc. What makes it much more chilling is that the world community, let alone some cross-sections of his own population, support him.


I have often stated in interviews or write-ups that the majority of the Syrian population today is caught between a rock and a hard place. There is a regime that has committed untold crimes against its population and would rather destroy the country than hand it over to others who might perhaps exercise better governance. Then there are ruthless thugs who belong to various groupings such as ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra rampaging across the country as they kill, behead, abduct and blackmail Syrians and other nationals. Caught up amidst both extremes, it is the disempowered and broken human mass that is paying the stiff price today, since the regime is indifferent to suffering, while other groups seem to actually relish making others suffer.


It is a shame that we in the hard-fought democracies, as well as many Arab “brothers” in various countries, allowed Syria to descend into such Stygian depths and devastating un-realities. Yet, despite our knowledge of what the Syrian people have endured over four years, the world has simpered politically just as others have whimpered too, and we have willy-nilly supported one side or the other in our proxy wars as we shielded ourselves and our interests from the fallout. We have used ordinary men, women and children as political dross. And today, we find ourselves in a place where earlier solutions are no longer applicable too — even if they were still available — given the amount of blood, rancour, destruction or meltdown.


The appalling statistics on Syria scream out the colossal — in some sense irredeemable — debt we owe Syrians, whilst Tepperman’s interview and piece reinforce the fact that Syria today is facing two equally monstrous and paranoid evils. Will we ever repay this debt and retrieve some self-respect? After all, supporting one side at the expense of the other is a non-answer: as the proverb claims all too well, two wrongs simply don’t make a right, even in such murky political waters.


Dr Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, political analyst, and ecumenical advisor based in London. He tweets @harryhagopian

Over 250,000 Syrians have been killed, including some 20,000 children. (AFP/Abed Doumani )

Despite our knowledge of what the Syrian people have endured over four years, the world has simpered politically just as others have whimpered too, and we have willy-nilly supported one side or the other in our proxy wars as we shielded ourselves and our interests from the fallout."

  • imad.saoud.31

    So what does this whole article say? It is interesting how one can write a whole article that reads quite well but explains nothing. Tepperman's article was full of stupidities but it was obvious that the guy had an agenda. Any smart person knows that one hand cannot clap. It takes two. Anytime I read an article that starts blaming one person or one side, I drop it and do something better with my time. The Syrian conflict, just like the Ukrainian conflict, is part of a new cold war fought by proxies on foreign lands. If we start with this idea, the rest falls in place.

    February 4, 2015