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Author’s note: This article is an excerpt from my book, The Holocausts We All Deny.
At the height of fighting, Syrians liked to joke that Assad was just trying get the population back to where it was when he took office.
The Syrian population grew by almost six million between 2000 and 2011, when his regime began slaughtering demonstrators. But four million would later emigrate, and at least half a million would be killed, putting him well on the way to his goal.
It is little wonder that Syrian humor would become so dark, like thick Arabic coffee whose grounds settle at the bottom of the cup. The Assad regime reduced Syria to rubble, with all too many Syrians crushed at the bottom.
The resulting trauma produced an array of coping mechanisms, from extremism to nihilism.
Social media made the atrocities suffered by Syrians readily accessible to anyone who cared to see. And as videos of prison torture and staged beheadings became the new norm, apocalyptic visions of the future crept into the consciousness of settled democracies.
Syria may be the first country to have entered postmodernity through the Stone Age, for its images and voices did not become globalized until it was being reduced to rubble. The Syrian conflict was akin to the First World War in that while it involved virtually everyone, it was understood by practically no one.
This leant to the conflict the impression of a war of all-against-all. Since everyone possible seemed to be fighting, all too many concluded no one could possibly be right. But while war usually dirties everyone’s hands, some were always more sullied than others.
It was well understood in pre-war Syria that people could do what they wanted, so long as they did not discuss politics. But freely discussing politics is a matter of survival when the state is a criminal enterprise, which brainwashes the public so as to more thoroughly loot it.
The Assad regime made participation in communist parties punishable by lengthy jail sentences and membership in the Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death. And Reporters Without Borders continually ranked its media one of the few most censored in the world.
And with a media blackout and few Syria experts on hand, it was often difficult to tell what was going on. Hence, when Assad blamed the peaceful protests that broke out in 2011 on “terrorists” and “foreign elements,” there were few authorities to point out he was simply making it up.
It is ironic that while the effort to democratize Syria failed so miserably, the truth itself was so radically democratized. Where facts were hard to come by, hack-bloggers and conspiracy theorists simply took a cue from Assad and made them up. And as the conspiracy theories abounded, passive audiences became morally paralyzed.
The more Syria was reduced to rubble, the more discourse on it came to dissolve into mud. It was a classic postmodern case of moral authority being buried in a barrage of perspectives, and it foreshadowed a future in which truth itself would be assaulted from all sides.
It was not simply the abundance of perspectives that made deciphering the truth so difficult. Leftist activists stopped reading relatively impartial Human Rights Watch reports in favor of Russia Today, blithely ignoring its reliance on mass political repression and journalist assassinations.
Meanwhile, right wing propaganda transformed relatively manageable refugee flows into an existential threat, made all the more salient by the postapocalyptic imagination of Isis. Refugees who were struggling for freedom soon came to be associated genocidal Islamopunks, spurring a new wave of fascism soon to be felt across the world.
Syria came to be the axis upon which the geopolitical order turned—and it sometimes seemed to be crumbling faster than a Syrian city under regime bombardment.
The geopolitical changes transforming the Syrian landscape were tectonic. American hegemony gave way in Syria to a multitude of would-be imperialists: Russia, Turkey, the Saudis, Iran. And as the ground moved, the left was caught flat-footed, forever fighting the last war.
Whereas Iraq began violently, Syria began nonviolently. Whereas Iraq was waged by a foreign power, Syrian protests were homegrown and from the ground-up. The Syrian left demonstrated for a better life; the Western left to protect regime war criminals against mainstream media criticism.
But if the left got Syria wrong it was simply because their models did not match reality. The deeper problem lay in the fact that Syria was like some great hinge upon which history was turning, and few had any idea where it would turn next.
Syria was a factory producing imperialists and anti-imperialists alike. But all too often the anti-imperialists cheered on the new imperialists, with far too little irony. Somehow, the world’s most absolutist dictators successfully posed as bastions of freedom against Western-inspired democracy.
Syria was the final nail in the coffin of not just the Arab Spring but a wave of pro-democracy protests that swept the world in the earlier part of this decade. It normalized the starvation sieges that would later threaten millions in Yemen. And while Assad began his crackdown as an international pariah, seven years of fighting would make of him a model for countless strongmen, seeking to enforce their rule with unrelenting violence.
It was not just a victory for fascism but also a furnace through which a more resilient version of it was forged—it is difficult to come away from observing, let alone participating in a genocide mentally and emotionally unscathed, after all.
Syria has, since ancient times, been a sort of vortex that draws in empires. The Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, and the Ottomans all ruled Syria, but few called it home. And once again, a multitude of lesser-great-powers were sucked into this essentially poor, largely land-locked state, with apparently little geostrategic value.
It is ironic this backwater would become a proving ground for aspiring imperialists. It is ironic that so many bit players would use it to take the global stage. It is ironic that somehow the black hole came to appear the center of the universe.
And this abundance of ironies leant to the global imaginary a sense of existential dread.
The fighting in Syria generated an Isis genocide against Yezidis and a regime genocide against secular democrats and their communities of support. It intensified the slide toward fascism in Russia, and contributed to a fascist backlash in Europe and America. It intensified a Sunni-Shia divide that would serve as a catalyst to the starvation siege Saudis are now leveling against Yemen.
And in the process, it brutalized us all.
But far from complete, the fighting in Syria is now at a standstill, as the last remaining fighters of the opposition, who have been backed into a small corner on the country on the border of Turkey, along with three million civilians, wonder whether a fragile cease-fire will hold.
If the genocide in Syria and the refugee crisis it generated broke the world order, the worst may still be yet to come. And given the chaos that has recently swept the world, it may be harder to stop this time around.
Sometimes, all we can do is bear witness with clear and open eyes and remember our humanity so when the moment is right to intervene, others might do the same. We should keep our eyes on Syria, for if the worst is yet to come, it will only intensify all the worst crises it helped generate in the first place.