Sweida massacre deserves the same attention as attacks in the West

Sweida massacre deserves the same attention as attacks in the West

Imagine if around four in the morning, in the center of Miami or Sheffield, a mob of hard-line members of Daesh stormed into homes, butchered entire families and massacred around 250 people in cold blood in a 12-hour killing spree that included four suicide bombings. Imagine if dozens of others had been kidnapped and many were missing, fate unknown. Imagine then the reaction of the White House or Downing Street. It is a fair bet Donald Trump would have tapped out a few semi-intelligible tweets in angry CAPS. War would probably be declared again, and enemies would be found to sate the appetite for revenge. The media would have devoted inordinate hours of coverage to the attacks. 

Except for those who have been following the news in Syria, the majority in the West might well have missed this massacre in Sweida in the country’s south-west. It was not front page. The Eiffel Tower did not go dark as it had done after attacks in Europe. No hashtags circulated saying the people were standing with Sweida. 

Time and time again bloody massacres in Syria, or indeed Iraq, register far lower on the political and media Richter scale than far smaller atrocities in the West. The indifference rings loudly across the Middle East. Still invariably people outside the Islamic world imagine that Daesh is chiefly in a war with the West as opposed to a war within Islam, unaware that far, far more Muslims and people from the Middle East have been killed by both Al-Qaeda and Daesh than in Europe and North America. 

This is one of the key lessons that the attacks in Suwaida highlights. The second lesson is as vital. Daesh and Al-Qaeda are far from finished. Their capability of committing such mass murder is still very much alive. US President Trump had promised to “extinguish ISIS from the face of the earth.” In this year’s State of the Union address, he was “proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory just recently held by these killers in Iraq and in Syria.” The way in which he airbrushes out any role of his predecessor in this endeavour, whose policy he had broadly followed, is typical. Daesh may have lost territorial control, but this was always comparatively the easier bit. Daesh-controlled towns and their buildings could be targeted, but now its forces have dissipated, going back to what it successfully did for years, becoming like a shadow in the desert and border areas. 

Another lesson, which may well not be learnt, is that the Syrian regime is incapable of defending its own population against Daesh and in many ways is still at ease with its actions if it reinforces the fear the regime depends on. The “it’s us or Daesh” dichotomy has been one of its most effective tools in preventing further defections and rebellions in its loyalist ranks. The largely Druze population will understand the message, but how many will also ask whether the regime did enough to try to stop this?

The Eiffel Tower did not go dark as it had done after attacks in Europe. No hashtags circulated saying the people were standing with Sweida

Chris Doyle

The Syrian opposition claims this was a regime-designed operation, asserting that the Syrian army only arrived after the massacres were finished. They believe the regime is meting out punishment for the Druze of Sweida that had never been truly loyal especially as the Druze lobbied successfully to be excused from military service. One loyalist remarked: “The Druze won’t help us to defend our families; why should we defend theirs?” The argument goes that Daesh fighters evacuated from south Damascus were transferred to the semi-desert close to Sweida. A power cut ensued on the night of the massacre and Daesh four-by-fours roamed freely. Rumours abound that in the days prior to the attacks, regime forces had started confiscating weapons from villagers in the region. What is for sure is that many in Sweida were terrified of Daesh’s menacing presence on their borders. 

Yet this might serve the regime’s purposes in reinforcing the engrained belief that the regime is all powerful, when actually it is remarkably weak. Daesh is able to hit targets, and knew the Sweida region well, given its deeply entrenched trading and smuggling networks. The regime’s political legitimacy, such as it was, is in shreds. It failed to protect Sweida; its people feel betrayed. A regime delegation was turned back at the funerals. Increasingly it is seen akin to an occupying power, acting as a proxy for Russia and to a lesser extent, Iran. Israel has bombed Syria at will, and the regime can only play the role of spectator. But perhaps above all, the regime, like Daesh and other actors, can only rule with the tools of fear and violence, as it has no trust and it has failed in its role as a protector. It has also served to strengthen those who look for a federal or more local solution to Syria’s future governance, something which is anathema to Damascus. 

Daesh now has a hold over the regime as it negotiates prisoner swaps, the women it has kidnapped for its own fighters in regime hands. Residents of Sweida still fear further Daesh massacres. The regime has failed them, but then again so too has the anti-Daesh coalition. Will the international powers do anything? Probably not. Sadly, the only way forward is to find a political solution that brings legitimate and credible government in Syria with broad support that will truly shrink the space for extremists like Daesh in a way bombs never will. 

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Twitter: @Doylech
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