It is a peculiar thing when bittersweet outcomes are cast as victories. But this is Syria. Last week, the forces of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, who have killed more Syrian civilians than any other force in history, retook the ancient city of Palmyra from the brutes of ISIL. Celebration should be in order – but this is Syria.
From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the Syrian president has been trying hard to cast the battle as one between him on the one side, and the radical Islamist camp on the other. He appears to be gambling that the rest of the world will come to the conclusion that while they may not like him all that much, they like the likes of ISIL and Jabhat Al Nusra even less – and, as such, they’ll leave him be.
Mr Al assad isn’t foolish in this regard. Certainly, for a large proportion of the international community, his wager is paying off. Many western journalists, who used to be noted for their anti-imperialist and contrarian tendencies in western capitals, are now describing Mr Al Assad as somehow “defending civilisation”.
Officials in Washington, Brussels and Paris are murmuring about how much they do not trust Mr Al Assad, but how, perhaps, he’s what Syria needs, at least for now. And so the pact is being drawn – as it was meant to be.
Take, for example, the retaking of Palmyra. Based on so much media coverage in the West and in the Arab world, one could be forgiven for forgetting that while ISIL did indeed loot and destroy much of this ancient, glorious city, it wasn't as though Mr Al Assad's forces were so kind to it when they were in charge. On the contrary, human rights groups were quite clear about their claims of mistreatment. And in order to take Palmyra, the bombing campaign against ISIL seemed to give little to no thought about the civilians who were in that part of Syria. Civilians, as always, have paid a double price – the price of being subjected to both ISIL's brutality and the regime's devastation.
But, again, as happens so often, the narrative is drawn up differently. Rather than focus on the human cost in Syria, all too often, the focus is on the relics of Palmyra – relics that then lend credence to the claim that Mr Al Assad’s forces are, indeed, “defending civilisation”.
And the people of the world are then forced into a false choice: between Mr Al Assad on the one hand and ISIL on the other. Countries as well. Egypt, for example, declared it viewed with favour the retaking of Palmyra by Mr Al Assad’s forces.
It was as though an angel had removed a devil, but the reality is that two devils are competing and ordinary people suffer the consequences.
The Syrian quagmire isn’t a simple one. It is complex – but that complexity ought to push decision-makers in the international community to realise that the primary concern in Syria must be to defend civilians from brutality. Whether that brutality is from the Assad regime forces or from ISIL. If the issue of civilian safety is placed as the primary motivator for action, then the international community’s priorities will be far more lined up with declared “human values” and the charter of the United Nations.
But there are other issues here: security and stability. These two words have energised discussions around the Arab world to the most deleterious effects, because they are so frequently abused. Security and stability require the upholding of fundamental rights, because otherwise, neither will be sustainable. It is direly important to defend the fundamental rights of Syrians from the likes of both ISIL and Mr Al Assad. Otherwise, any notion of long term security and stability will simply be a pipe-dream. When a people have been brutalised in so many ways, how can anyone expect for them to be made to suffer even further, without consequences?
It is good that Palmyra is no longer in the hands of ISIL. But let us not delude ourselves. Palmyra did not pass into the hands of a force that we can applaud. Rather than be happy about the continued existence of the ancient relics, the international community ought to be clear that Syria continues to be that place where a destruction of a nation is going on, in broad daylight.
I have little doubt that this will be the shame of my generation. We should at least be honest about it.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC
On Twitter: @hahellyer