Historian, journalist and fellow-in-residence, Carleton University
“We await you, red plague / To deliver us from the black death,” a soldier-poet in Poland’s Home Army wrote in 1944, as his countrymen and women in Warsaw rose up against the Nazis, and the Soviet Union’s Red Army sat back and waited for Poland’s non-Communist resistance to be crushed.
They were. Fighters died by in their thousands, civilians in their tens of thousands. Then the Soviets marched in and Warsaw’s suffering continued. Survivors, one presumes, were expected to celebrate. No doubt many did. What choice did they have? And who, after the Home Army was bled white, might have delivered them?
Syrians, after five years of civil war, have tasted—choked on—versions of both scourges: the black death of the so-called Islamic State, and the red plague of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who is backed, appropriately enough, by Russia, as well as Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah.
Late last month, the Syrian army and its Russian allies retook the ancient desert city of Palmyra, which Islamic State had held for 10 months. Islamic State’s occupation was marked by the group’s usual brand of terror. Young Islamic State militants, some of whom appeared to be children, were filmed in the city’s Roman amphitheatre shooting dead captured Syrian soldiers. The group beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, the octogenarian scholar and head of antiquities in Palmyra, and smashed and blew up many of the artifacts he loved—on at least one occasion with prisoners tied to columns that were then exploded.
And yet for all that there is something deeply pathetic about footage of Palmyran civilians welcoming Syrian soldiers after the city’s recapture. “God bless Bashar al-Assad!” one elderly woman intones repeatedly and mechanically when a microphone is held to her face. Syrian soldiers look on and are then filmed distributing food aid.
Who really knows how heartfelt was her gratitude. Government forces are responsible for far more death and displacement than any other party in the civil war, including Islamic State. A Syrian military photographer known as Caesar smuggled out photographs showing the systematic torture and murder of some 11,000 detainees held by the regime—in one part of the country, and only between March 2011 and August 2013. The true death toll of detainees in government prisons, in other words, is much higher.
How do you measure this kind of industrial torture and slaughter, to which must be added the thousands more killed in government and Russian airstrikes, against the lurid barbarity of Islamic State—which has been accused of genocide by the United States Holocaust Museum, as well as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry? How do you pick between black death and red plague?
It’s a choice millions of Syrians refuse to make. Camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and now Greece; processing centres in Germany; and cities and small towns across Canada are home to millions of Syrians who have rejected both.
And yet one is beginning to sense that Western powers are willing to make that choice on Syrians’ behalf. Canada, like most of its allies, says Assad must go. Like its allies, Canada is doing close to nothing to make that happen. When speaking about Syria, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is far more more likely to invoke the need for peace and stability than freedom.
Assad promises that peace. Many politicians—implicitly or explicitly—are ready to take him at his word. London Mayor Boris Johnson, who has a good chance of becoming the next prime minister of the United Kingdom, cheered the Syrian regime’s capture of Palmyra and urged its forces—who, lest we forget, used poison gas against children—to press on. Islamic State is worse, he says, and now the city’s monuments will be saved.
But Assad’s pledge is a false one. His army’s conquest of Palmyra is not a liberation. It is a plague returning. And whatever accommodations Western powers may eventually make with Assad and his patrons in Moscow and Tehran, most Syrians will not accept a future in which Assad’s murderous regime persists.
Soviet rule in Poland, which followed on the heels of the Red Army’s entry into Warsaw, once appeared far more resilient than is Assad’s grip on Syria today. But Poles, like subjugated people everywhere, preferred freedom over stability. In 1989 they got it.
Several years later, Lech Walesa, president of a free Poland, approved the posthumous award of the Polish Home Army Cross to 26 Canadian airmen who died over Poland, most during the Warsaw Uprising. There’s a plaque in Ottawa’s Confederation Park, commissioned by Polish-Canadian Home Army veterans, honouring those men.
Syria will one day be free of both Assad and Islamic State. How will Canada’s role in that struggle be remembered by future Syrian leaders and citizens?
We’ve given refuge to thousands, and that is the right thing to do. For a short time, we bombed Islamic State. Then we declared it is better to train and assist local actors so they can do the fighting themselves. But we didn’t train anyone in Syria. And we’ve left Assad alone. If a plaque commemorating our efforts to help Syrians liberate themselves is ever erected, it will be tiny.