War crimes in Syria: a shared responsibility – By Nikolaos van Dam

Dr. Nikolaos van Dam was ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Germany and Indonesia, and Special Envoy for Syria.

This article is translated to Arabic and published by al-Dustur (Jordan), here. A response to Mrs. Alia Mansour’s commentary in al-Majallah magazine is added below.

More than 50 kinds of war crimes are defined in the Rome statute of the International Criminal Court. All 50 of those crimes have been committed by various combatants during the war in Syria. Some examples of prohibited acts include: murder and torture; taking hostages; employing chemical weapons; pillaging; any form of sexual violence; conscripting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces; and intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population and civilian objects, such as schools, mosques, hospitals or historical monuments.

Intentionality’ is important. It implies that if the same act were carried out unintentionally it might not be a war crime. If, for instance, an inhabited city is bombed, one can assume the probability of killing civilians will be high. The bombers may argue that ‘they did not know’ that they would kill civilians, but realistically, ‘they should have known.’ Therefore, any war that takes place within inhabited cities will most probably have collateral effects which can be defined as war crimes. Military battles which have taken place in, for instance, uninhabited deserts, like the well-known Second World War battle of El Alamein, did not result in such collateral damage. However, the bombing of Syria’s urban centres, such as Aleppo or Raqqa, inevitably caused many civilian casualties.

It is clear that a lot went wrong with the Syrian Revolution. Not only did it fail to achieve its proclaimed goals, but the number of killed and wounded has been huge. Almost half the Syrian population were driven from their homes with half of those fleeing the country. The destruction has been massive in every part of the country. The effort of the opposition to topple the Syrian regime was bound to lead to bloody violence, which has to be taken into account when apportioning blame. The party that first ‘pulled the trigger’ – the Syrian regime – bears responsibility, but so too does the opposition which could calculate the government’s violent crackdown.

The opposition should not have been surprised that the Ba’thist dictatorship responded violently to its demands for radical reform. Earlier massacres committed by the Syrian regime were a sure guide to its actions in 2011. I am not talking about justice and moral principles here, but about the hard realities on the ground. These realities should have been taken into account. As I noted at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, to expect that President Bashar al-Asad was going to resign voluntarily and, thus, effectively sign his own death warrant, was unrealistic. Nevertheless, many people imagined that the Syrian president would decamp as had the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. This, however, was based on wishful thinking or a lack of knowledge of the power structure of the Syrian regime.

It is remarkable that war crimes are sometimes condoned, depending on which country or which leader has committed them. When, for instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates carry out bombardments in Yemen, causing numerous civilian casualties, we hear fewer protests than when something similar happens in Syria. Governments tend to turn a blind eye on war crimes when friendly countries commit them. But when unfriendly or hostile governments bomb their enemies causing civilian casualties, things are different. Even within the same country, concern for civilian casualties depends on when they were carried out and by whom. In the past some crimes against humanity committed in Syria were excused, whereas today, they are condemned and considered unforgivable. In 1982, the Syrian regime committed serious war crimes in the central Syrian city of Hama. At the time, it bombarded the city for almost four weeks with the aim of quelling the Muslim Brotherhood uprising. Estimates of the number of people killed vary between 5,000 and 25,000.

In his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, published in 1989, the American journalist Thomas Friedman argued that the Hama massacre could be justified because it had to be seen as “a natural reaction of a modernizing politician in a relatively new nation state.”

Friedman explained that President Hafiz al-Asad, the father of Bashar, was:

trying to stave off retrogressive – in this case, Islamic fundamentalist – elements aiming to undermine everything he has achieved in the way of building Syria into a twentieth-century secular republic. That is also why, if someone had been able to take an objective opinion poll in Syria after the Hama massacre, Assad’s treatment of the rebellion probably would have won substantial approval, even among many Sunni Muslims. They might have said, ‘Better one month of Hama than fourteen years of civil war like Lebanon’. [1]

The Hama massacre was clearly a war crime and a crime against humanity. Many Syrian opposition members today refuse to label the Hama uprising of 1982 as a ‘battle’, because they consider it to have been a one-sided slaughter of innocent people carried out by the Syrian Ba’thist dictatorship. Indeed, many of the civilians killed in the suppression of the uprising had nothing to do with it. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood was well enough armed to resist the Syrian army for almost a month. And it was the Muslim Brotherhood which started the revolt with the intention of toppling the regime; an aim which was quite unrealistic.

Four decades later, many Westerners judge Syria quite differently. This time a massacre like that in Hama has been resolutely condemned. One similarity between the uprising of the Hama Muslim Brotherhood in 1982 and the uprising of 2011, is that the opposition forces in both instances wanted to topple the Asad regime but were unable to do so. The main difference between the two is that in 2011 the Syrian uprising was not confined to one city or one political group. It quickly spread to every province of the country. The spectrum of opposition forces was broad. Some of the protests were peaceful at first, others not.

Tens of thousands of war crimes have been committed in Syria, by the regime, by the opposition, by the international supporters of both sides, and by the Islamic State. The number of civilians killed by the regime outnumber those killed by the opposition, perhaps by ten to one. It is not only the numbers that count, however. The victor often kills more than the vanquished. The facts also count, irrespective of the numbers. In that sense, the various sides are equally guilty of war crimes. Being guilty of a smaller number of war crimes does not mean that one is less guilty.

My vision of how the Syrian conflict could best have been approached, can be summarized as follows:

  1. I am generally against military intervention in countries which do not pose a threat to the foreign countries which want to interfere militarily. For example, the Syrian regime threatened its own people, but not the countries that militarily intervened in it; neither did the Iraqi regime of president Saddam Hussein pose a threat to the United States and Great Britain who occupied the country in 2003. A principal reason I am against such interventions is that invariably they cause more casualties, greater instability, more widespread destruction, and larger numbers of refugees. In the Middle East, there is no shortage of examples to prove that interventions cause greater harm. One need look no farther than the wars in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The military interventions in these seven countries were not only unsuccessful; they were disastrous. They generated thousands of war crimes. The countries that intervened achieved the opposite of what they claimed to want to achieve by intervening. The American-British removal of the regime of President Saddam Hussein produced a power-vacuum that enabled the rise of al-Qaida and the Islamic State. It also dramatically increased the regional influence of Iran. The unintended consequences of intervention are many and usually lead to greater death and destruction. There is, however, a second type of military intervention: a response to another country’s invasion and occupation of a country. A good example of this sort of intervention is the expulsion of the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991, Operation Desert Storm. This was a successful operation. It ended a foreign occupation and liberated Kuwait.
  2. If a military intervention is undertaken under the auspices of the UN principle of Responsibility to Protect, the intervening parties should not leave the country once they have achieved regime change, as happened for instance after the killing of the Libyan leader Qadhafi. In such a case, the intervening forces should stay until a new and better situation has been realized. In practice, this would mean that the intervening parties would have to stay for 10, 20 or even 30 years. Naturally, the hope is that stability would not collapse once foreign forces left. Iraq and Libya are clear examples of interventions where imposing ‘better government’ and durable stability was not realized following occupation. Because few countries are prepared to occupy other peoples for decades, as we have seen in Iraq and Libya, it would have been better had they not intervened at all.
  3. If foreign military interventions are intended to change the political order of the occupied countries, the outcome will depend on the views of the occupier. But democracy and political freedom cannot be imposed by military force. It even sounds contradictory to militarily impose so-called ‘freedom’. Moreover, it would be naïve to think that military interventions are generally only motivated by idealistic ideals, such as bringing democracy, without strategic calculations playing an important role.
  4. In the case of Syria, it would have been better not to intervene at all. Without foreign military intervention, the regime would in all likelihood have clamped down on the opposition forces just as ruthlessly as it did. But the number of casualties would have been far fewer. Perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 Syrians would have been killed rather than 500,000. The number of refugees would surely have been smaller, and the country would have been spared such extensive destruction. It would have been better to have the Asad regime remain in power with 10,000-50,000 dead, than to have more than ten years of war with over 500,000 dead, the country in ruins, 10 million refugees, and al-Asad still in power. The expected number of victims should always be an important part of the equation. One could argue that those officials who now complain of the large numbers of Syrians who have taken refuge in their countries helped cause the refugee flow themselves through their intervention in Syria. Turkey, which has most of Syria’s refugees, is a clear example in this respect.
  5. It reminds me of the words of Thomas Friedman, whom I quoted earlier: “Better one month of Hama than fourteen years of civil war like Lebanon.” When applying these words to present-day Syria, they should read: “Better a year of intense bloody conflict, than ten years of bloody war with no political solution in sight.” The longer the conflict lasted, the more difficult it became to see a way out or a solution. Solutions that might have been practical one year after the start of the Syrian Revolution, were not practical later on. As the violence grew more intense and the destruction of Syrian society compounded, the chances for halting the war narrowed.
  6. One could argue, of course, that all this should never have been allowed to happen, but most foreign countries only interfered half-heartedly. Yes, some countries sent military weapons worth billions of dollars, but they did not send large enough quantities with enough military sophistication to help the opposition prevail against the Asad regime. Actually, by supporting the opposition morally, without arming them sufficiently to achieve the goal of toppling the regime, the countries that sided with the Syrian rebels effectively sent them to their deaths. And once the Asad regime was threatened in earnest in 2015, Russia and Iran intervened. Their intervention should have been expected. It was naïve not to expect Russia and Iran to defend Asad or to counter the ambitions of the United States, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Russia and Iran simply wanted to save their most important ally in the Middle East. Ironically, the result of Western intervention in Syria is that the position of both Russia and Iran in the region has been strengthened.
  7. The most serious threat to the Syrian regime may come from a coup, carried out by members of its own military. But possibilities for such a threat to materialize have essentially diminished over the past half a century since Hafiz al-Asad took over in 1970. During this period, the regime has efficiently protected itself from coups, by posting only the most loyal people to the most sensitive military positions and units. Any doubt about loyalties has always led to purges from those who were suspected or were considered to be disloyal. The persons involved have been dismissed, imprisoned, or executed.
  8. Personally, I would have preferred a continuous dialogue with the Syrian regime on how to end the conflict, even though the prospects for such a dialogue have been very bad from the outset. A failed dialogue, however, would have been better than a failed war.

To conclude, as the old adage goes: don’t start a war unless you can win it. This is particularly true if such a war implies the high risk of massive bloodshed, as could have been predicted – and was predicted – in the Syrian case. The party that failed to achieve its aims – however idealistic and positive these may have been – carries a responsibility for the bloody results, just as does the party that frustrated the revolution. In the end, the results count; not the so-called good intentions that led to those results. The costs of not-winning should have been sufficiently calculated before engaging militarily in the conflict, the more so as it was bound to include thousands of war crimes. This is easier said than done, of course. The Syrian Revolution erupted to a large extent spontaneously as a result of the so-called Arab Spring. Developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya led to the swift fall of their leaders, causing euphoria among many Syrians and leading opposition members to misjudge the chances of success. Even though opposition leaders were painfully aware of their own disorganization and lack of a plan for success, they believed that they could not let the revolutionary moment slip through their fingers. Their euphoria turned out to be unjustified. Moreover, the fate of the Syrian opposition groups was quickly determined by foreign countries. The Syrian civil war turned into a war-by-proxy.

If external powers really wanted to help the Syrian opposition, they should have done so with full conviction and not half-heartedly. The countries that intervened in the fighting should assume full co-responsibility for the results. But they did not, and it was predictable that they would not do so. Thus, it should be concluded that all major parties to the Syria war are responsible for war crimes, some by proxy, some directly, and some more than others. In Syria, perhaps even more so than in similar conflicts, the commission of war crimes is a shared responsibility.


[1] Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem, London 1989, pp. 100-101.

[*] Dr. Nikolaos van Dam was ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Germany and Indonesia, and Special Envoy for Syria. As a junior diplomat he served in Lebanon, Libya, Jordan and the Palestinian Occupied Territories. He is the author of various books on the Middle East, including The Struggle for Power in Syria and Destroying a Nation. The Civil War in Syria (also published in Arabic and other languages). This article is part of a lecture he presented to the World Affairs Council of the Desert (California) on June 8th, 2021, on behalf of The Hague Institute for Global Justice. https://nikolaosvandam.academia.edu

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This article was commented upon by Mrs. Alia Mansour in al-Majallah magazine. You will find Nikolaos van Dam’s response below

ما لم يقله فاندام | مجلة

في محاضرة ألقاها في مجلس شؤون العالم للصحراء في كاليفورنيا بتاريخ 8 يونيو (حزيران) الماضي، اعتبر الدبلوماسي والمبعوث الخاص السابق لهولندا إلى سوريا الباحث نيكولاس فاندام أنه من الواضح أن أخطاء كثيرة حدثت في الثورة …arb.majalla.com

Response to Mrs. Alia Mansour’s column about “What Van Dam did not say

Mrs. Alia Mansour has been so kind as to informing me about her column in al-Majallah, giving her views on my article in Syria Comment concerning “War Crimes in Syria”, which was also published in Arabic in the Jordanian newspaper al-Dustur.

She wrote largely about subjects which I, in her view, did not bring up, hence her title “What Van Dam did not say”. I have written about developments in Syria frequently and at length about Syria since the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, and also before the Revolution. Most of my writing on Syria, published over the last fifty years (starting in 1970), can be found on my website, and several of them also in Syria Comment. There, I have dealt extensively with most of the issues which I did not specifically address in my 25 minutes presentation on “War Crimes in Syria.

Some specific comments on Mrs. Mansour’s column. The Arabic text is hers.

أثارت محاضرة فاندام بعد نشرها كمقال بعدة صحف استياءً بين أوساط معارضين وناشطين سوريين، ورأوا أن فاندام الذي كان متعاطفا مع الثورة في سنواتها الأولى، قد أصبح يتحدث عن سوريا كأي مستشرق أوروبي وأن ما قاله غير منصف بحق السوريين حيث لام الضحية لأنها لم تكن تتوقع رد فعل النظام وحجم الإجرام الذي سيرتكبه.

I did not only sympathize with the Syrian opposition during the first years of the Syrian Revolution, but also afterwards. In particular, I sympathize, until today, with the ideas expressed in the Riyadh communique of December 2015. Its main principles are: a “democracy through a pluralistic system in which all Syrian groups, including both men and women, would be represented, without discrimination or exclusion on the basis of religion, denomination or ethnicity and to be based on the principles of human rights, transparency, accountability and the rule of law as applied to all”.

I sympathize with those who sincerely believe in those principles and would themselves be willing to implement them, once they would have the power to do so. There are also parties, however, which signed the Riyadh principles as a political compromise, even though their ideologies are not in line with those principles, or even contrary to it. I doubt whether these parties would be willing to implement these ideas once they would be in power.

Supporting the Syrian opposition is not only showing sympathy and solidarity, but should in my view also consist of putting forward realistic views, if possible. What is the use of flattering the Syrian opposition without taking the realities on the ground into serious consideration? Just to give an example from my book Destroying a Nation (in Arabic: Tadmir Watan):

“During one of the meetings in March 2016 in Geneva between the Higher Negotiations Council and the Special Envoys for Syria, Muhammad ‘Allush [who had been appointed as principal negotiator] asked the Envoys who represented the permanent members of the UNSC what their countries were going to do to help implement UNSC Resolution 2254, particularly paragraphs 12 and 13. After all, their countries had fully subscribed to it. The reaction was that they were ‘fully committed’ and would ‘go for it’. In reality these countries were not able, however, to impose the resolution they had adopted, because they had excluded direct military intervention.”

After the session, I told the leader of the Syrian delegation that nothing was going to happen, because in practice direct military intervention had been excluded. Nice words of moral support had been spoken by representatives belonging to the group of the “Friends of Syria”, but it would have been better to additionally, and in all honesty, provide a realistic picture. That, in my opinion, is a preferable kind of friendship and this is what I have done over the years, also in my time as Special Envoy for Syria.

Mrs. Mansour criticizes me for blaming the many Syrian victims who apparently did not expect the regime’s reaction and the extent of the crimes it would commit. I am well aware that this part of my presentation must be the most sensitive and painful.

I have predicted a bloodbath 30 years before the start of the Syrian Revolution, in the case of serious efforts of toppling the regime (as I did in the second edition of my book The Struggle for Power in Syria in 1981 and later editions). And in March 2012, I publicly expected the number of victims to go up from 10,000 to 300,000 if the situation existing at that time would continue (as was the case, and it resulted in even more than half a million dead). Unfortunately, all these predictions have turned out to be correct. And those who had some knowledge of the Syrian regime could have predicted them just as well, including the numerous Syrians who personally were the victims of the regime’s repressive methods over the past decades, or who heard about them. But wishful thinking and over-optimism got the upper hand and encouraged them to think and act otherwise. And foreign forces only encouraged them further in this, hoping in vain that the Syrian regime would be toppled.

ولكن ما لم يقله فاندام، هل كان بقاء نظام ديكتاتوري كنظام صدام حسين هو الوسيلة الأنجح لوضع حد للنفوذ الإيراني في المنطقة؟ أليست بيئة القمع والظلم بيئة خصبة أساسا لظهور حركات مثل داعش وأخواتها؟

With Saddam Hussein in power, Daesh and al-Qaeda would not have had the slightest chance, and the Iranian influence would have been curtailed. It was the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein which made the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq possible, just as the rise of IS. The American claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime had been cooperating with al-Qaeda turned out to be a pretext to occupy the country in 2003. The American claim was not only false, but also illogical.

لكن فاندام لم يتحدث عن الدعم الذي تقدمه دول العالم «الديمقراطي المتحضر» للديكتاتوريات التي تقمع شعوبها، وتمدها ليس بالمال والغطاء السياسي فحسب بل وبكل أنواع أسلحة القتل أيضا،

In my article I pointed out that “it is remarkable that war crimes are sometimes condoned, depending on which country or which leader has committed them. When, for instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates carry out bombardments in Yemen, causing a lot of civilian casualties, we hear fewer protests than when something similar happens in Syria. Countries sometimes tend to turn a blind eye on war crimes when friendly countries are involved. But things are different when a government is considered as unfriendly or hostile.” On many occasions I have pointed at the double standards applied by Western countries towards allies with authoritarian regimes, including in my book Destroying a Nation, and in various articles, giving the additional message that “the West should stop creating false expectations.”

فهنا أيضا لم يطرح فاندام أين هي مسؤولية المجتمع الدولي بنشر ثقافة الحرية والديمقراطية، بدل سنوات من محاولات تلميع صورة نظام الأسد وتصويره على أنه نظام حداثي شبيه نوعا ما بالأنظمة الأوروبية بحكم دراسة الأسد العابرة لمدة عامين في بريطانيا وزواجه من امرأة تحمل الجنسيتين. ألم يكن المجتمع الدولي حينها يعلم بالانتهاكات الفظيعة التي يرتكبها الأسد في سوريا وسجونها ضد أصحاب الرأي الآخر؟

I fully agree with Mrs. Mansour. In my book Destroying a Nation, I noted that the “influence of Bashar al-Asad’s exposure to the West and its ideas have generally been highly exaggerated. It was more based on wishful thinking than on realities… Instead of being a child of the West, Bashar was an authentic child of Syria and his Syrian parents.”

The recent presidential elections in Syria in 2021 are another example. Most articles in the Western media stressed that they were not legitimate and a farce. But do these articles, by saying so, imply that the earlier presidential elections were genuine and representative? Of course not, but on earlier occasions hardly anybody bothered.

مما زاد من حدة العنف وسقوط الضحايا الذين يحاول فاندام تقليل أعدادهم، ومجددا أليس هذا ما حصل في سوريا من دون أن تتدخل الأمم المتحدة ومن دون أن يتم إسقاط نظام الأسد؟ أليست سوريا اليوم ساحة حروب كثيرة لمتحاربين كثر؟

Mrs. Mansour is correct. The war in Syria has become a war-by-proxy to a large extent. I noted this in my book and articles more than once. And see also my remark above about some UN Security Council members that they were “committed” and “would go for it” to implement UNSC 2254. The United Nations only intervenes militarily if it is authorized to do so by the Security Council, and in the case of Syria it was not.

ومن النقاط التي ذكرها فاندام كسبب من أسباب معارضته للتدخل العسكري في سوريا خصوصا، أنه كان من الأفضل عدم التدخل على الإطلاق. ولكن تفنيده لهذه النقطة تحديدا فيه الكثير من عدم العدالة بحق السوريين، فهو يقول: «لولا التدخل العسكري الأجنبي، لكان النظام على الأرجح سيضيق الخناق على قوى المعارضة بنفس القسوة التي مارسها. لكن عدد الضحايا سيكون أقل بكثير. ربما قُتل ما بين 10 آلاف إلى 50 ألف سوري بدلاً من 500 ألف». فهل بات الأمر يقاس فقط بعدد الضحايا؟ وهل من المبرر أن نسكت عن سقوط خمسين ألف ضحية خوفا من أن يرتفع العدد إلى 500 ألف؟ وكيف يمكن لوم السوريين لأن عدد ضحايا الأسد من أبنائهم قد ارتفع، ومع ذلك بقي في السلطة؟ ألا توجد أي مسؤولية أخلاقية على المجتمع الدولي والدول المتحضرة؟

Any number of victims should be criticized, of course. And there is a moral co-responsibility in this respect for the international community; but this responsibility has mainly been expressed in the form of declarations, by way of a “declaratory policy”, without accompanying actions on the ground. As a result, the “international community” has not always lived up to its responsibilities.

In my article I stressed that “the expected number of deadly victims should always be an important part of the equation.” In my recent Dutch book “Grenades and minarets. A diplomat in search of peace in the Arab and Islamic world”, I argued that “each victim is one too many. In some cases, however, it might still be argued – at least by the survivors – that the deadly victims (i.e., the death of others) would have been “worth it” if something “very positive” would come out of it, for example a radical improvement of the situation as a result of a revolution [perhaps like after the French Revolution of 1789-1799]. But it remains worrisome, especially when the number of victims is large. And if a revolution has failed, those who started it bear at least some co-responsibility, whether or not their aims could be considered as being of the highest moral standards. The same goes for failed military interventions.”

 نعم كان على المعارضة توقع التدخل الروسي والإيراني، دفاعا عن الأسد، وكان عليها أن تكون أكثر تنظيما وواقعية، ولكن كان على المجتمع الدولي أن يكون أكثر صدقا، أما القول «إن استمرار الحوار مع النظام السوري حول كيفية إنهاء النزاع، كان أفضل رغم أن آفاق هذا الحوار كانت سيئة للغاية منذ البداية». وأن «فشل الحوار يظل أفضل من فشل الحرب»، فقد يكون ذلك صحيحا بالنسبة لدبلوماسي غربي، ولكن بالنسبة للسوريين، فإن نجاح المصالحة في بعض المناطق تسبب في قتل المصالحين تعذيبا في سجون الأسد، فكيف لنا أن نتخيل ردة فعل هذا النظام على تراجع السوريين يومها عن ثورتهم.

نقاط عديدة أثارها الدبلوماسي الهولندي في محاضرته تستحق التوقف عندها ونقاشها بين السوريين أنفسهم، ولكن نقاطا كثيرة أخرى تجاهلها فاندام ليؤكد وجهة نظره، فلم يتطرق إلى صراعات دول ما كان يعرف بأصدقاء الشعب السوري ولا إلى تخاذل الإدارة الأميركية في زمن أوباما، التي كانت من أسباب استمرار الكارثة التي وقعت على السوريين، كما تجاهل بشكل تام عدد المرات التي أبدت فيها المعارضة استعدادها بل وانخراطها في مفاوضات للتوصل لحل سياسي وإصرار الأسد على استمراره بحربه على السوريين واعتباره كل هذه المفاوضات «تفاصيل لإغراق المجتمع الدولي»،

In my book Destroying a Nation and my article “No room for Political Compromise”, I concluded that the opposition wanted to negotiate on the basis of the removal of president Bashar al-Asad, but this was a non-starter, because al-Asad was in power and the more powerful. As I predicted at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, it was unrealistic to expect the president and those around him to voluntarily step down, and this was not that difficult to predict. Bashar al-Asad was not going to sign his own death warrant. I think the maximum achievable at the time was a “government of national unity” with the opposition having hardly anything to say.

 ولو طبقنا منطق فاندام بشكل حرفي فإن الثورة الفرنسية التي سقط فيها مئات آلاف الفرنسيين كانت خطأ جسيما، وكذلك فإن منطق فاندام يقودنا للقول إن تضافر العالم الحر للوقوف في وجه النازية والفاشية خطأ لأنه أدى لسقوط عشرات ملايين الضحايا، وكان من الممكن توفير هذه الدماء لو أن العالم الحر تعايش مع ظاهرة هتلر وموسوليني.

There are many differences between the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the Syrian Revolution (2011- ), one of the most important things being that the French Revolution has been considered a success, with its principles (Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité) surviving strongly until today. The number of victims of the Syrian Revolution has already strongly superseded that of the French Revolution, and the Syrian opposition parties remain divided over some of their main principles. There is no agreement on a Syrian version of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. Islamist forces have gained the upper hand militarily in some of Syria’s regions, and they in practice reject the original ideals of the Riyadh Declaration (2015). The Kurds of the PYD/YPG have their own agenda.

Drawing a parallel between the victims of the Syrian Revolution and the millions of victims who fell during the Second World War as part of the defeat of Hitler’s Nazi Germany is not very reasonable in my view, because the war of the allied forces against Nazi Germany was part of a war of liberation from German foreign occupation. Likewise, the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 was a successful military operation, because it meant the liberation of the occupation by Iraq. Syria was not occupied by foreign forces when the Syrian Revolution started in 2011, but now it is.

Whereas many Syrian demonstrators at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution stressed in their slogans that they wanted freedom, most foreign countries subsequently did not intervene in Syria to help bringing the freedom of these Syrian people about – as has been suggested more than once – but they did so to rather serve their own perceived interests, and not those of the Syrian people. Turkey wanted a Muslim Brotherhood type regime in Damascus, not a democracy as portrayed in the Riyadh Declaration. Qatar and Saudi Arabia did not either have the intention of bringing democracy to Syria, if only because it is forbidden in their own countries. The United States is more concerned with its own strategic position in the region than in helping to bring democracy to Syria. And Russia and Iran are there to help their ally, the Syrian regime, staying in power. Democracy cannot be imposed by military force.

هذه الازدواجية عند بعض المثقفين الغربيين ليست جديدة؛ ألم يقل الرئيس الفرنسي إيمانويل ماكرون نفسه: «إن بشار يقتل شعبه وبالتالي هو ليس عدوا لفرنسا»، ربما هذا ما لم يقله فاندام.

I have noticed more than once that in case I write something with which some Syrians (or other people from the Middle East) disagree, it is conveniently attributed to me as being from the West, or being a so-called “orientalist”. This type of criticism looks to me like an unjust cliché. Moreover, many “orientalists” and “Europeans” or people from “the West” have views on Syria which differ essentially from mine. And what about those Syrians who agree with my opinion? Are they also “orientalists”?

To conclude: I hope that my writings will at least contribute to stimulating some further critical debate among Syrians, and for them to rethink and reconsider possibilities for looking for solutions to the present conflict, thereby taking into account the new circumstances that have developed during more than ten years since it started. It is up to the Syrians themselves, of course, to give the answers. I am just an observer, feeling great sympathy and personal affection for the people of Syria.

Nikolaos van Dam

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