While attending a conference hosted in Damascus by the British Syrian Society I met an interesting Syrian member of parliament from Aleppo named Fares Shehabi. He was quite a firebrand on stage, yelling in genuine outrage at western journalists as he pointed to pictures of Al Qaeda commanders in Aleppo running al-Nusra operations centers. “Would you want these people in London?!” he said furiously. “Would you want to elect these people to your parliament?!” Well, you got me there Shehabi. I sure don’t.
Shehabi has come under scrutiny by the western media, and been outright attacked by many, as a beacon for the Syrian military actions in Aleppo which can with some justification be pointed to as a cause of much suffering by the Syrian people. However, we also have to take these criticisms into perspective. Should the Syrian military stand down in the face of a al-Nusra and FSA rebellion? Should Shehabi abandon Syrian government control of his home city and just hug it out with the Jihadists? What rational actor would take such a position?
The Syrian regime has done some terrible things in this war from deploying Alawite death squads to dropping barrel bombs which have killed scores of civilians. All parties involved have plenty of blood on their hands. However, I don’t think that Mr. Shehabi wakes up in the morning plotting to indiscriminately kill Syrian civilians. Rather, I think the regime is locked in an existential struggle with the rebel groups, a zero sum game in which one side will claim victory and the other will die.
Syrian military tactics are somewhat lost on the minds of westerners because the style of warfare appears almost medieval throughout the conflict. American forces bring a robust military infrastructure to war. We try our best to minimize civilian casualties by leveraging an array of human and signals intelligence assets. We drop smart munitions on the enemy, which can literally strike with laser-like accuracy. Our Special Operations soldiers are used as surgical assets.
And yet, American war fighting is rife with so-called collateral damage. When the Marines engaged in urban combat in Fallujah, it turned into a horror show, despite their best efforts to minimize civilian casualties. In Kunduz, Afghanistan the US military accidentally blew up a doctors without borders hospital, although Special Forces elements were receiving enemy fire from the building from the Taliban. By contrast, the Syrian military does not have many of the high tech military technologies that the United States brings to battle.
I can’t, and won’t, justify civilian casualties. It is wrong whether the party responsible is the Syrian military or the US military. But this is war. Compromises are made and the results are ghastly. If someone can think up a more effective way to fight, one which clearly separates the enemy from the civilians in a confusing counter-insurgency campaign, I’m all ears.
You can hear Shehabi in his own words in the below clip from Channel 4: