Syrian soldiers are heroes, just not the kind you're used to
Recently the veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk had a thoughtful article in The Independent. Fisk's point was straightforward: the war in Syria can not be compared to the Second World War because the rebels, unlike those in WWII, are no heroes:
So back once more to Aleppo. No-one doubts that foreigners are fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra/Al-Qaida and the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham and other groups around the city. But, oddly, that’s not what we call them.
We refer to them as ‘rebels’ – as if they were the Maquis fighting in the French resistance or Partisans freeing Yugoslavia from the Nazis or, indeed, the insurgents of Warsaw struggling for freedom from the German SS. Which they clearly are not.
And while we know that the ‘rebels’ of eastern Aleppo have died fighting bravely, we also know that they have executed their internal enemies, slit the throats of their prisoners and that – well, since Jabhat al-Nusra is al-Qaida (and has since changed its name yet again) – they have flown passenger aircraft into very tall buildings in New York.
My colleague Patrick Cockburn has expressed his own deep unease at the coverage of the Aleppo siege. For months, Western reporters have failed to state the obvious: that they cannot send their dispatches from ‘rebel’ areas because the ‘rebels’ would slit their throats open – or hand them over to other ‘rebels’ who would.
And thus the ‘rebels’ have been tuned out of the story except for that one amorphous description. And the more anonymous they become, the braver they appear – fighters whose predecessors fought the Nazis in the Second World War rather than foreign-paid and armed opponents of the Syrian regime.
I think Fisk's point is valid as far as it goes but it also misses something very crucial. Fisk concludes rebels are no WWII-style heroes but that is also the only place he looks for them. But might there be heroes on the side opposing side?
Fisk never entertains the idea but Syrian soldiers are easily likened to the tragic heroes of WWII Red Army. Men who fought for dictatorship and a police state because the alternative was worse. Men (and women) who benefied very little from the Soviet system and had in many cases been ruthlessly brutalized by it but still fought like lions on its side because it was preferable to racial extermination.
In Syria today the Islamist rebellion does not promise to downscale any of the authoritarianism of the Syrian state but it does promises to add to them greater social controls and vicious sectarian opression. There is no doubt that victory for the Sunni fundamentalist rebellion would spell very dark days for Syria's minorities and possibly their destruction in their ancestral lands.
Syria's Christian, Druze, Shia, Alawite and even Sunni soldiers are not a far cry from USSR's Jews and Slavs who donned the uniform of a dictator who opressed them because in the situation they were in it was the only way they could preserve what they had left of their rights.
The men fighting and dying to deny victory to the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in Syria may not have the luxury of figting for a perfect system or wonderful liberal rulers but that only makes the tragedy of their situation and the size of their sacrifice all the greater.
You want your heroes? Look at the downtrodden making the best of a very, very bad situation.