Syria and the banality of evil : Violence and human loss in Syria became completely normalized in 2013

Michael Young- Daily Star – Lebanon

28-1-2013 – To borrow a famous quotation:  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.