Michael Young

Syria and the banality of evil

Violence and human loss in Syria became completely normalized in 2013

Bashar al-Assad speaks to a Venezuelan TV audience

To borrow a cliché, in 2013 the violence and suffering in Syria came to embody the banality of evil. The tragedy has grown to such proportions that it has become repetitious – without variation, respite, or hope.


In much the same way, the mass of humanity that has fled Syria has also become banal. So omnipresent are the beggars and peddlers in neighboring countries, that one looks not at their misery but at the inconveniences they have created. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the center of hell is distinguished not by fire but ice. So, too, the inferno faced by Syrians – one of absolute, frigid, unalterable immobility.


The past year has also reaffirmed what we knew about Hezbollah, but which the party’s devotees always sought to play down: that it is an obedient branch of Iran’s security and intelligence apparatus, one that will willingly offer up its children to secure the interests of its sponsors in Tehran. Though the party’s leaders are competent and its intelligence services efficient, ultimately, like others in Lebanon, their role is that of employees advancing the political agenda of their paymasters.


How well I recall a statement in summer 2006, after the start of the war with Israel, issued by 450 intellectuals and academics, many of them Lebanese. They expressed “conscious support” (have you ever heard of “unconscious support”?) for Hezbollah’s resistance against Israel, and observed that “resistance is an intellectual act par excellence …[and] cultural and critical activity [is] an integral part of the Lebanese national resistance, indeed of resistance to injustice anywhere in the world.”


One wonders what cultural and critical activity Hezbollah engaged in before it entered Syria to participate in the savage suppression of a population that had dared to resist the injustice of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Will we hear the same luminaries ever admit that they were deluded about the party, that Hezbollah has come to embody the very antithesis of the qualities they had bestowed on it?


Not likely, because 2013 was also the year when the Syrian uprising allowed itself to be hijacked by al-Qaeda jihadis, changing the entire narrative of the conflict. The incompetence of the Syrian opposition was plain from the start. But its dire situation also reflected the cynicism and mediocrity of the opposition’s backers, for whom all abuses have become acceptable in defense of their own regional preferences.


The Iranians, Russians, and Saudis are all squaring off in Syria, but the bodies are mainly Syrian. Behind them are the craven Americans and Europeans, who might have been useful had Assad’s enemies been able to load their guns with empty words. The distillation of all that is wrong in the Western approach to Syria is the policy of Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Laureate and a man who, when it comes to Syria, has confirmed that he is without any substance, principle, vision, or courage.


Bashar al-Assad may be momentarily strengthened as preparations continue for talks on the Syrian conflict in Switzerland next January. That’s because the uprising is now viewed in the West as posing a terrorist threat, shifting attitudes toward the Syrian regime.


But Assad must also be worried about what the medium-term consequences of the post-Geneva process will mean for him, in a year when his presidential mandate is scheduled to end. This may turn into a convenient cut-off point for the regime’s sponsors and enemies, who are looking to terminate the conflict. With Assad in office, Syria’s war will only continue indefinitely, benefiting al-Qaeda; without him, there is some hope, albeit small, for a transitional plan that allows the Syrian state to reconstitute itself and turn its guns on the jihadis.


This may be an optimistic interpretation, but both Russia and the West may see the presidential election this year as an opening they cannot afford to miss. The anti-terrorist drive can cut both ways, as Assad surely realizes, since nothing will do more harm to al-Qaeda than the replacement of his regime by a legitimate Syrian government that steadily begins filling the vacuum the jihadis have exploited.


With Iran improving its relations with the West, the possibilities are many. No one believes that President Hassan Rouhani has the latitude to redefine Iranian policy toward Syria, given that such issues appear to be under the control of the Revolutionary Guard and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Syria has been costly for Iran and an open-ended drain on its resources. Rouhani, whose focus has been economic rehabilitation, cannot be forever be marginalized on Syria. At some stage the West will seek to place Syria on the agenda with Iran, compelling Tehran to make hard choices that might not benefit Assad. 


The optimistic version is that Syria hit rock bottom in 2013, therefore it has no place to go but up in the coming year. Given the beginning of negotiations in January and the end of Assad’s term, this attitude may be justified. But it is just as likely that the country will remain at the bottom for months or years to come, while the gangrene of its conflict spreads to Iraq and Lebanon. In fact, negotiations may well mean a further escalation in violence, as all sides seek to improve their leverage.


Whatever happens, Syria has become a blemish on the region and the world, a moveable atrocity that daily demolishes the moralistic pretensions of an international order supposedly built on a foundation of norms and values. Like the Spanish civil war, the war in Syria has come to define the worst of an age, and perhaps foreshadow new nightmares ahead. This was what Obama once called “someone else’s civil war.” Even in their terrible trial, the Syrians must suffer fools. 


Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling. 

The banal butcher. (AFP Photo/HO/Syrian Arab News Agency)

"The Iranians, Russians, and Saudis are all squaring off in Syria, but the bodies are mainly Syrian."

  • Beiruti

    Hanibaal, you have asked me for an example where military intervention worked to end the savagery of a regime where the outside power was not blamed for intervening. The examples that you have given are compelling in support of your position. But I can name a few in support of mine. US intervention in WWII to put an end yo Hitlers NAZI regime and the militarists in Japan. The whole world thanked us for this. and what of US intervention in the Balkans during the Clinton administration? It seems that stopping genocde is the imperitive when the atrocities are committed in Europe, but in the MENA areas, life is too cheap to warrant the world spending blood or treasure. The Arab People do not value their lives much or the lives of their sons and daughters. So, why should the US care enough to give our sons and daughters lives, lives that we care for quite a bit? This is the basis of your argument, is it not? If the Arabs don't care for each other, then anyone else who would care are foolish people leading foolish countries.

    January 4, 2014

  • Beiruti

    Does the US have an interest in the Syrian Civil War? Do we have an interest in preventing the wholesale slaughter of civilians and the making of hundreds of thousands more as refugees? I say yes there is an interest. The bar of what is acceptable has been lowered by this war, so that for the next one, the precedent of acceptable slaughter of civilians is not what it was before this war. To that extent, the whole world has accepted the Bashar Assad standard of morality of killing unarmed civilians. What of the children in the refugee camps who are having their memories indelibly stamped with images of their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters brutally killed, or dying from starvation while the rest of the world turned their heads the other way, first and foremost, the United States and Barak Obama? Will this generation grow up to be happy well adjusted people or recruits in 20 years to come here and to visit upon the US that which we have allowed to happen to them. As long as the perception exists in the world that the US is a force for good, and evil rules the day, then the perception will be lasting that those who could have stopped the evil failed and therefore became accomplices in the evil that was wrought. So is there an interest in taking action? Yes. Is it immediate, will a suicide bomber attack America this year or next year or before Obama leaves office due to his failure to act? No. But we are like that ostrich with its head in the sand. What is it seeing down there?

    December 31, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    The chronic failure of your argument is that it feeds into the same cycle that has repeated itself over and over throughout history: 1-trouble in a country or region, leads to 2-intervention by outsiders (on the surface for humanitarian reasons, but suspiciously for economic and other reasons), which leads to 3- occupation, failure and debacle, and 4- for decades and centuries, the intervening party is blamed for having intervened, regardless of the intention or the outcome itself. Just name me one example where outside intervention netted a positive outcome AND where the intervening party is not blamed for stoking violence and radicalism and anger etc.. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Post-WWI British-French mandates in the Near East... In the first four, outside intervention failed in solving the problem, at best created a dangerous status quo (North Korea), suffered defeat (Vietnam and Iraq) and created an even more dangerous and violent situation than existed before (Iraq, Afghanistan). In the British-French mandates in the Levant, even as they created states and institutions under international authority, the British and French left huge unresolved problems AND are still blamed for them, even as the problems are indigenous and not imported, and even after 60 plus years of their withdrawal. My point is - even if the price on the short term is extreme violence against civilians by butchers like Assad, the optimal solution is to let the conflict take its course on its own without direct outside intervention, let the people pay the price themselves for their freedom and not owe it to anyone else, and close the chapter in historical terms. One example in this last category is the Algerian revolution: Very little outside interference, a purely indigenous revolution, leading to freedom and independence for the Algerians, and no outsiders to blame for having intervened. We need to break the stupid cycle of relying on former colonials to intervene and create justific

    January 1, 2014

  • Beiruti

    Inertia is a term of physics as well as of politics. As in physics, a policy tends to move in the same direction at the same speed until and unless a countervaling force acts upon it. Where is the countervaling force to act against the policy being played out in Syria? There is none. So, what will happen? Assad, let us remember is a butcher at heart. He lets up only when the kleig lights of international media shines upon him, but when the light moves off, as it invariably does, to other international issues, then darkness falls on Syria and it is in the dark that the butcher does his most vicious work, as we are now seeing in these days. To the international community, as long as the conflict is contained in Syria, what is it of any concern to anyone else? As Lebanese we dealt with this indifference coming from Washington for decades. Let us not forget, for the Levant, the American watchtower is manned by Israel. They hold the veto over any US action in this part of the Middle East. Let us not forget also, that the only attack on a US Navy vessel in the Eastern Med was carried out by Israelis (USS Liberty Incident 8 June 1967) The only force to attack the US Marines in Beirut in 1982, other than Hezbollah/Iran/Syria were Israeli ground forces. It is Israel that has vetoed any adverse action against the Assad Regime, and continues to do so.

    December 31, 2013

  • mossy

    I'm an American who supports greater help for the FSA. I strongly believe it's the right thing to do and having a democratic ally in Syria would greatly benefit America. My respect for Obama dropped significantly over his mishandling of Syria. He should have listened to all his original advisors and acted to support the secular FSA early on. By ignoring Syria he's let Al Qeada run amuck and let Iran strengthen its influence in the region. Syria is nothing but an Iranian/Russian pawn for the next few decades now.

    December 30, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Mossy: Your brain is definitely not mossy. You are either abysmally uninformed or you are inciting further violence. The US should not take sides in this barbaric intra-Islamic dispute, and if you truly believe that Al-Qaeda's presence in Syria was caused by Obama, then you should go back to 2003 when another unwarranted invasion by Bush of Iraq led to the killing of 5,000 Americans, caused a huge resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and to this day, the sectarian killing in Iraq continues despite the departure of the Americans. It does not really matter whether the Americans intervene or do not intervene: They will always be blamed by all sides; that is the nature of the beast we are dealing with. The only difference with Obama's wise policy is that we will not lose another 5,000 American soldiers for no reason or gain whatsoever.

    December 30, 2013

  • tony.seta.50

    There are no strategic interests for the US to intervene. As witnessed in August and early September of 2013, the President could not satisfy the American electorate's desire to articulate such interests and both houses of congress were prepared to vote down any military action. If the President is guilty of lack of vision, courage, strategy, substance, principles, etc... then join the crowd. All of us Americans are equally guilty of lacking these qualities, even the know-it-all arm chair generals that think they have a plan. I have yet to meet one (not one) single regular American that has been supportive of entering this conflict and have not heard one talking head on the daily news cycles make a convincing argument to spend blood and treasure to 'save' the poor Syrians, who will undoubtedly hate us even more regardless of outcomes simply because we are the infidels. Please spare us the faux outrage Mr. Young. Your entire news organization has been on the crusade for Syrian intervention for some time now. Apparently the fatigue of failure has hit home, and now nothing left but empty words coming from empty journalistic suits in the form of lame editorials. Life must suck when you finally realize that nobody cares about your opinions. Yet even in these terrible times, Americans must suffer fools. The use of the word 'fools' in this context is directed at you and your colleagues, in case you missed the sarcasm.

    December 29, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Indeed, the Syrians must suffer those fools who keep telling them to bury their heads in the sand, expect salvation from outsiders, and reject any responsibility for their future. To your continued baseless attacks against President Obama who has wisely stayed clear of the filth of Arab and Islamic barbarism lest he be accused of stoking them, I can only quote Samuel Beckett: "Any fool can turn a blind eye but who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand."

    December 28, 2013