Syria has become the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time that has claimed half a million lives and caused the displacement of more than 11 million people. In the last 48 hours, there was a “complete meltdown of humanity” in Aleppo — the most war-torn city in the world. The Syrian army was reported to have slaughtered 82 civilians, including women and children. Verbal condemnation flooded the media. Amid this horrendous mess, I received a message from a Syrian friend: “Only people on the ground know what happened.”
I immediately recalled the trip I made to Syria in 2012. The family who hosted me was torn apart over supporting President Bashar Assad’s regime. While the father wanted him dead, the children were not far from rallying for him. Caught between a rock and a hard place, even a 9-year-old-nephew had to make a decision. He chose to be a double-agent spy who eavesdropped on everyone, including me.
The fear and split I witnessed in this family was not uncommon. Friends and families clashed head-on over a civil war that is too complex and disastrous. While the whole world was harshly condemning Assad, in many parts of Damascus, shops that displayed Assad’s picture on their doors, windows, balconies dotted the streets and scattered around in the main squares. I was overwhelmed by the observation that a large portion of the population genuinely backed him. These are not just Alawites in the armed forces, but also an elite that is centered around the merchant classes of Aleppo and Damascus who are mostly Sunnis; upper middle and middle class enjoying social benefits and economic advantages; Christians and Druze who make up almost 20% of the population; and many educated women who have been enjoying a more liberal and equal stand in public life under a secular government.
I genuinely think we have a problem with the need to simplify the world into trivial forces of good guys versus bad guys. This defense mechanism helps us understand our terribly complicated reality without being inundated with information we can’t possibly digest. We are bound to take action, but before we do so, we need to make sure our investment goes to the side of righteousness. Hence, we instinctively have this dark desire to demonize some, victimize others and romanticize certain parts so that judgment and punishment come easier. In the end, killing bad guys is much less problematic than killing anyone else.
My experience in Syria and observation over the past four years have taught me that it is not useful to stratify the actors in Syria into contrasting forces of right versus wrong. If we do have to put a label on everyone, I would say that this war is a battle of devils. Let’s start with the rebels. How often have we been shocked with accounts of Western-backed freedom fighters committing war crimes, including abductions, torture and summary killings? Next, the Syrian regime has been ruthless in the past and inhumanly careless with collateral damage, yet it would be utterly wrong to assume that it does not have support from a large number of Syrians. We should be aware that even ISIS, despite its disastrous acts against humanity, has some members receiving respect from certain people on the ground of religious morality.
I have also learned that there is a great deal of diversity within this label. The three battling forces in Syria (regime, rebels and jihadist) are not unified within themselves. There are hundreds of rebel factions whose interests are anything but mutual. Jihadist groups compete with one another in gaining territories and attracting recruits. For Assad, more and more of his loyal co-religionist Alawites are distancing themselves from him. Last year, Assad’s cousin killed an Alawite officer, provoking intense protest. Many Alawites say they are being betrayed by a leader who will cling to power until the last drop of Alawite blood is shed and by a regime that is losing the war. Alawites — who in 2011 chanted “Assad! Or we set the country on fire!” — now chant a different tune: “God willing, we will witness the funeral of your sons.” The fate of Alawites, a majority of whom are in the Syrian army, is one of the most tragic stories in the history of the Middle East. They have always been part of an impoverished sect almost destined to attach to the regime for survival. In this war, one-third of Alawite men have died serving the army.
I was moved to tears when Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., unleashed a scathing attack on Assad and his allies: “Are you incapable of shame?” But when the emotion was subdued, I wondered whether the war in Syria had been reduced to a cold number, name-calling, finger pointing, shaming and bundling everything together for cursing and condemnation. Those days in war-torn Syria has told me that more than ever, we need to humanize the brute data and trivial side-taking sensation that flooding the media. We have too many headlines that boil the blood, and we lack stories that portray real struggling humans regardless of affiliation, such as a New Yorker review of the film Timbuktu, a story about two Syrian brothers and Humans of Syria. We need to go beyond the labels of “refugee,” “jihadist,” “freedom fighter,” “rebel” and “regime soldier” and consider their inner desires, their sadness, their own battles, their quest for dignity and mercy. Would we hesitate to call people devils if we can touch the complexity of their lives, if we can feel how they are torn between the different voices of their own soul?
I do believe that one of the many ways to deal with this tragedy of Syria is to find a way to know Syrians as those complex and dynamic fellow humans, with a name and not a stereotypical label. Judgments still might come, but at least they might be held back by a brake of compassion and empathy.