Syrians need a fresh start, not ugly appeasement

Jimmy Carter’s proposal to rehabilitate Assad and ignore Syrians’ demands for justice isn't just morally bankrupt in the extreme, it also would fail to produce even the “ugly peace” of his imagination.

US President Jimmy Carter has dedicated much time in the last decades to building homes for those in need. He has laid foundations, put up walls brick by brick, and provided solid roofs over many people’s heads, helping them secure the basic human rights of shelter, safety, and, just as importantly, dignity.

Yet the very rights he helped support and provide for so many, he would deny to Syrians who have been bearing the brunt of unrivaled savagery for over seven years, at the hands of the Bashar al-Assad regime and its accomplices. For Carter, the house of horrors crumbling over millions of Syrian heads should be left untouched; instead, the international community should refurbish the Assad regime’s standing in the world with near-unconditional engagement; cheerlead alleged reforms; and ignore the fundamental issue of accountability.

This is the gist of his appeal, published in the New York Times last month, to give Syria what he calls an “ugly peace,” after a war whose longevity he seems to blame on an imagined international push for regime change in Syria, and on the fact that much of Syria still remains outside Assad’s control. If only these two factors were to change, and if the world instead immediately lifted sanctions, opened embassies in Damascus, and basically let bygones be bygones, peace would ensue, he argues. Why does he then call it ugly? If these sole reasons for war, according to Carter, were resolved, wouldn’t the result be a peace so beautiful it could win pageants?

President Carter is far too knowledgeable to be unaware of the real causes of this brutal war. He knows that responsibility for what the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, amongst others, has called a genocide, and for what UN Secretary General António Guterres has called "hell on earth,” is on the bloody hands of the Assad regime. For the thousands of killings by (not under) torture, for the barbaric barrel bombs which have destroyed most of the country and buried innumerable innocents in the rubble, for the sarin gas attacks on civilians, for the primitive sieges on millions of Syrians, for the forced displacement of over half the population, there is no argument about who the perpetrators are, no matter how carefully Carter avoids naming them. Indeed, there is enough documentation to hold the regime accountable to eternity for war crimes and crimes against humanity on a scale unprecedented this century.

Even more strangely, Carter deems that the Assad regime’s eventual release of detainees, as a “confidence-building measure” (and not as a prerequisite for peace), would include accountability for their treatment. While this is the only violation of human rights he is willing to attribute to its authors, and the only crime he deems worthy of accountability, this proposition is absurd. Privatized, denationalized dynastic power, the essence of this regime, is completely at odds with the notion of a public, institutional construct which is able and willing to dispense justice even to its own members. Had Bashar al-Assad held Atef Najib, his cousin, accountable in 2011 for his detainment and torture of children in Daraa, and for his deliberately insulting taunt of their parents, the uprising may not have been ignited.

But for most Syrians, accountability is not just about the past, nor is it even about the present as we impotently watch Idlib, like numerous Syrian areas before it, meet its inevitable fate under Assad’s assault, with Russian cover and Iranian support. For most Syrians, accountability is precisely about the shape of their future, and about the place of justice in it.

By denying Syrians their political and civic agency, by shrugging off their rights to a just and dignified life worth living, by ignoring their long struggle to break free of the criminal dynasty which has gone and will always go to every length imaginable to perpetuate its own existence against any opposition, peaceful or armed, Carter is offending not just Syrians but the very notions of peace and justice for which he has claimed to fight.

Such blatant disregard for human lives, and disrespect for human deaths, was to be expected from war criminals, but not from esteemed peacemakers. What President Carter is advocating is full and total appeasement of mass-murderers, and the abandonment of an entire nation and future generations to their tormentors and executioners. By doing so, he is applying the same false dichotomy that the Assad regime itself has been unashamedly pounding, literally and figuratively, on a weary population: Assad, or the country burns.

Whether on ethical or on geopolitical grounds, there is not a single scenario in which imposing the Assad regime on battered Syrians can work in the long term, and fantasies of reconstruction and normalization with this same regime fail to consider even the most basic consequences of ninety months of genocide and demographic engineering by this extremist sectarian regime. When foundations have been shaken to their core, and when the putrid smell of death has infested every stone, Carter’s proposed lick of paint to the decaying remnants will merely delay the inevitable. What is needed for a peace that does not end all peace, to borrow from David Fromkin, is a deep rebuilding from the ground up—without Assad.

Like the rest of humankind, Syrians are entitled to meaningful lives without oppression, which is why they named their peaceful uprising the Revolution of Dignity. Humanizing the regime which has dehumanized them for half a century would be an immense mistake, a regression towards the ominous state of nature on a global level, and not contained by any means to a Syria which has been denied a just peace.