By Bessma Momani, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bessma Momani is a professor at the University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs, and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Brookings Institution. The views expressed are the writers’ own.
Yes, Syria is a mess. When the uprisings started, things seemed clear – an authoritarian regime, run by the same cronies for some four decades, was suppressing the rights and freedoms of its citizens. The Syrian people, like their brethren in the Arab world, were longing for a more accountable government.
Simply put: Syrian government, bad. Syrian people, good.
For Westerners, moral clarity for a conflict zone is necessary. Like a Lonely Planet guide book to “the other,” we want mental shortcuts. “Just tell me who the good guys are in this fight,” is the perennial request that political analysts are asked.
It’s not that easy, and our Western palate may not like the dish being offered. Make no mistake, the Syrian regime has blood on its hands as it continues to ruthlessly suppress its people. Generations of Syrians will remember the Assad family for the years of death and destruction it has caused on its people.
But now, as diplomats are meeting in Geneva to try to chart an end to the conflict, it is clear the country’s civil war is more complicated than ever.
The secular-leaning (if you could have ever called it that) Free Syrian Army was the opposition group that the West could back morally and politically. We stalled and retreated from supporting the FSA with the military arms needed to tip the balance of power against the al-Assad regime. This ragtag army was cobbled together with its political counterparts under the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). For the West, these opposition figures were the best hope, at least it seemed at the start of the revolution, for a transitional government that could usher in an alternative to Assad and his ruthless army. But, the hope of a strong SNC and a secular opposition army that could create a de facto government is no more.
In addition to Western hesitation, there are other actors and factors that can shoulder the blame for the failure of this secular opposition: the Arab Gulf funding and arming of franchise militia groups that increasingly radicalized over time, and the SNC members that became comfortable in their Istanbul five star hotels, drifting farther and farther from the roots of the revolution and its people, are just two examples.
From starving defiant neighbourhoods to using chemical warfare, descriptions of the tactics used by this regime will only scratch the surface of how brutal it truly is. The fact is, the strongest militarized opposition is a combination of foreign and domestic fighters with extreme views of a post-Assad Syria.
How did a once moderate opposition force produce a radicalized system?
A number of factors have been at work. On the one hand, after seeing the evil of al-Assad’s “secular” regime, many of the fighting forces have turned to puritanical and fringe interpretations of Islam that remove any moral ambiguity of what social behaviour is permissible. There’s truth in the saying that “few atheists exist in foxholes.” On the other hand, under the state of anarchy that prevailed in many rebel-held areas, several ruthless warlords entered Syrian neighbourhoods to profit. From providing bread to allowing people passage in and out of their own communities, they exploited control over basic life necessities.
These factors produced unsavoury characters, broadly termed as radicalized Islamists, who now rule many parts of rebel-held Syria. For some Syrians, these new rulers provide comfort in creating a cleaner system of governance than under either the FSA or the current regime. But for most Syrians, this puritanical version of Islam is foreign and doesn’t fit the interpretation of Islam that they have grown up with. Rightly or wrongly, foreign ideas, particularly backed by Arab Gulf financing, are often blamed for this rising trend.
The situation is complex, but does this mean we should do nothing? Tell me when that was the solution to any problem in life.
Many observers have forgotten the “good guys” in this conflict I talked about: the Syrian people. Millions are refugees, even more are internally displaced, and more than 130,000 have been killed – of which more than 11,000 are children. The rate of this death and refugee exodus increases exponentially with every passing day.
The Syrian people need us. So what can we do to help?
Increasing refugee resettlement throughout the globe would be a start, as would increasing foreign aid for humanitarian aid relief, putting pressure on the Russians and Iranians to stop funding and arming the Syrian regime and strengthening Syrian civil society. We can also help train the next generation of Syrian political leaders now in exile as well as promoting moderate and progressive Islamist views in rebel-held territory and supporting reconciliation efforts across ethnic and sectarian communities throughout the Arab world. Finally, we should be supporting Syrian students, who have had their studies cut short by this conflict, by making room for them in the best universities and institutions the West has to offer.
Still feel helpless? Yes, it’s complicated. But the Syrian people are still the good guys in this fight and we can do more than sit back and give up. The future of a country and its 22 million people depend on it.