A shell explodes in the Syrian city of KobaneJordi Farrus

It was January 2012 in Homs, Syria. Fourteen year old Muhammad recalls to a Le Monde writer the cold blooded killing of his elder brother at the hands of regime forces: no crossfire, no fighting, just three bullets from Bashar al-Assad’s snipers, buried in the side, shoulder and leg. He then turns to another brother, Amir, only four years old and still standing, and asks “What do the people want?” – “The people want the fall of the regime!” comes the reply, an echo of the revolt’s rallying cry.

Revolutionary struggles have the capacity to transform not only social relations and political institutions, but the consciousness of their participants and witnesses. Amid apparent defeat, with cause for little other than dejection, as counterrevolution stands victorious atop scorched earth and destroyed antiquities, the spirit of Amir lies in embers. Activists marching through the rubble of streets and homes in 2014 chanted with grimly comedic spirit: “What is left of the Syrian people wants the fall of the regime.”

Five years on from the Arab uprisings of 2011, reaction reigns in much of the Middle East. The House of Saud crushed democratic demands with a bloodbath in Bahrain, whilst Sisi clamps down in Egypt. The character of the catastrophe in Syria, though, is without parallel. Its grave particularities lie not merely in the scale and severity of suffering caused but also in the sickening successes of the dictatorship’s counterrevolutionary strategy. 

“The people still believed that song, dance and prayer were stronger than fear and bullets. They were wrong, of course, and their illusions would soon drown in a river of blood”, wrote Jonathan Littell of the tragedy of Homsshamsnn

Popular cries for democracy and economic dignity – which materialised in an embryonic web of civic participation, such as the pluralistic Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) that directed protest and organised resistance – were met with fierce violence. In May 2012 incident, eyewitnesses reported that government soldiers, possibly alongside an allied Alawite militia, summarily executed 108 people, including 49 children, in the town of Taldou which-had been an epicentre of popular protest. The Syrian government has forcefully stonewalled any independent investigation of the incident.  

“As thousands of protestors flooded into the dungeons of Damascus in the middle months of 2011, to face torture and execution, some 1500 salafi-jihadists were released.”

Calculated barbarism, of which the Houla massacre is one harrowing example amid many, was the first head of Assad’s hydra. Its inevitable end was the militarisation of the revolution; as peaceful protest and prayer were met with bombs and bullets, Syrians had little choice. Concurrently, the regime sought to sectarianise the opposition and marginalise the democratic mainstream. As thousands of protestors flooded into the prisons of Damascus in the middle months of 2011, to face torture and execution, some 1500 Salafi jihadists were released.

Repressive bombardment was, and remains, very selective; largely Sunni Arab centres of resistance remain under unrelenting siege, whilst both the Northern Kurdish statelet of Rojava and areas held by jihadist groupings that morphed into Daesh are left in relative peace. Western hesitancy to provide sufficient material support – namely anti-aircraft weaponry – to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the revolution’s infancy prompted a turn to the Gulf States. Greater prominence of jihadist militants among the opposition is, in other words, indicative of Assad’s success in defeating the popular revolution.

“Death and destruction in Aleppo came from Iranian bullets on the ground, Russian bombs in the air and international impotence all around”

Construing Assad as the lesser evil against the fanatics he maintains a tacit alliance with has been disastrous. Aside from the self-evident problems of a strategy which attacks the symptom whilst entrenching its cause, such posturing marks a shameful failure of solidarity. The positions of many on Syria, Western leftists and student newspaper columnists among them, constitute the antithesis of the solidarity that must be the starting point for any humanity or internationalism worthy of the name.

In painting the remnants of Syria’s civil society and revolution as overrun by jihadists, commentators parrot the propaganda used by Assad since the beginning of the Civil War. While creating conditions conducive to the rise of radical Islamists on the ground, the Assad regime cultivated its position as the lesser evil in the Western imaginary.

President Assad of Syria with President Putin of Russia; Russia's support has been instrumental to the regime's survivalPresident of Russia

During a vicious onslaught in Aleppo, too many sought to interrogate and smear its victims. Ostensibly progressive journalists questioned the existence of those, such as seven year old Bana Alabed, posting on social media as Putin’s bombs tore apart their lives. In searing exposés, we were told that the White Helmets, volunteers who save lives under the rain of barrel bombs, are ultimately functionaries of American imperialism. Mention of what support there was for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly affiliated to al-Qaeda, is shamelessly removed from the context of their central role in fighting to break Assad’s earlier siege of starvation. Demanding that those under relentless fire denounce those who helped save them and reject aid from Washington is at once ludicrous and perverse.

Death and destruction in Aleppo came from Iranian bullets on the ground, Russian bombs in the air and international impotence all around. Burnt out hospitals and extinguished lives are the consequences of this barbarous slaughter. Millions of Syrians who demanded democracy and dignity have faced attempted annihilation at the hands of Assad and allied autocrats in their homes, and abandonment in the surrounding seas of a fortressed Europe as they sought refuge.

In the face of these orchestrated horrors, we must stand in solidarity rather than silence, and condemn apologia which denies the agency of the Syrian people whilst attempting to obfuscate the reality of Assad’s atrocities.