28 March 2016
The liberation of Palmyra
Syrian government troops, supported by Russian air power, retook the historic city of Palmyra from the self-styled Islamic State over the weekend. Syrians, Russians and Iranians will say that Palmyra, home of many spectacular Roman-era ruins, has been liberated. Others will be reluctant to use that word, since the city now returns to the control of the old tyrant after a brief time under a new tyranny. But if we take a step back from the usual politics, we may remember that Palmyra's invaluable relics had been hostage during the IS occupation to the whims of iconoclastic religious fanatics who were proud to do damage to some of the sites that had been pagan temples. By comparison, the Assad regime has no motivation to damage the ruins, which in peacetime are sources of tourist revenue and, presumably, national pride. In the worst case scenario the government and Russian forces might have annihilated the site had that been necessary to dislodge the Daesh, but initial reports indicate that that wasn't the case. It seems safe to say that the ruins have been liberated, and it should be self-evident that wherever the Baathist government retakes land from the IS there is a relative liberation. The people who return to Syrian government control may be little or no more free politically, but many are more free to practise their religions. That may be a small thing to some outside observers, but it's not nothing to the people on the ground. To think of the Assad regime as a liberating force ought to be chastening to many armchair statesman and strategists in the U.S. and the west in general. Too many of us waste time wishing for a third force, better than either of the antagonists and something we can identify with, when if someplace like Syria should matter to us at all our obligation should be to identify the better of the two that exist. not on the basis of geopolitical partisanship but in terms of humanitarianism and international law. Under whom will the land's people be better off and the region surrounding the land more stable? There was a moment before the ascendancy of the IS when the west could see Syria as a simple struggle between tyranny and its opposite. Too many of us persisted in seeing things that way well past the time when anyone ideologically appealing to us had a chance. Once the Daesh became the greatest threat to Assad the "Assad must go" rhetoric should have stopped for the duration. To the extent that IS success in Syria would strengthen its ability to threaten other countries, and that the war-driven refugee crisis threatened to destabilize even more countries, the entire international community should have recognized an objective obligation to secure the Assad regime and drop support for any other faction, IS or otherwise. That wouldn't have meant lying to ourselves by calling the Assad regime a just or fair one, and nothing the international community might do or say should have obliged conscientious Syrians to obey unconditionally what remains in many ways a gangster regime. But once you determine objectively that the Assad regime is the least worst option realistically possible for Syrians today, you have to tell yourself that any genuine freedom fighters in that unfortunate country are on their own. It cannot be American or western policy to destabilize Middle Eastern governments while the risk of Islamist uprisings persists. If Syria is a representative sample, it proves that when outsiders try to incite or subsidize the internal liberation of distant nations from tyrants, it's the tyrants who'll end up the liberators.