There is no such thing as a good war, but there are occasionally such things as just wars. The Syrian conflict is a variation on the second theme. Syria prior to 2011 was a country at peace, it was a country that was stable, it was a country that was placid. Of course, the Syria of 2011 was imperfect and one only needed to listen to the speeches within the People’s Council of Syria to realise that. One would also realise that if one listened to the authentic voices of patriotic Syrians, but sadly few people in the wider world cared to listen to Syrians while their country was at peace and free of terrorism.
Now though, the world is watching and listening to Syria and they are doing so far more intently than in respect of Afghanistan, in most cases.
Here is a qualitative list of why that is.
1. The Moral Clarity of the Syrian Conflict
In order for people in the wider world to emotionally define a war as just, one needs to understand the conflict in terms of abstract morality in addition to having knowledge about the nature of the conflict.
In this respect, Syria was a watershed moment for much of the world. While much of the day to day fighting in Syria is complicated, the nature of the conflict itself is incredibly simple both politically and morally.
In Syria one witnesses a Ba’athist government representing a society where all religious confessions are treated equally, where men and women share the same rights, lifestyles and attitudes, where culture is allowed to flourish, where education is widespread and encouraged and where secularism combined with religious traditions exists harmoniously.
Standing in opposition to this Ba’athist government are the largely foreign forces of extremist Salafist/Wahhabist, Sunni supremacy, armed gangs whose use of barbaric violence is promulgated in the name of establishing a society in which Shi’a Muslims and Christians would suffer abuse, torture and death, one in which women would be treated as third class chattel and one in which modernity, secularism and worldly education would be eliminated.
By contrast, in Afghanistan there are no angels, insofar as viable political factions are concerned. The government in Kabul is fractured, ineffectual, corrupt and compromised. It’s primary opponents, various Taliban factions are at times only slightly more anti-modern than many government officials. Against these two main forces are those loyal to the so-called ISIS forces whose barbarity is well known.
Into this fray, many including China, Russia, Pakistan and increasingly Iran are advocating for dialogue between the more moderate elements of the Taliban and the more far-sighted supporters of the Kabul government. It is not a plan which assures a specific identity to the country after a would-be settlement, but it is the only reasonable hope for any lasting peace and stability.
This pragmatic solution to Afghanistan lacks the moral clarity of the solution in Syria which Russia, Iran and other allies of Damascus have implemented. In Syria, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and other volunteers chose the side of Ba’athism over the side of extremist Sunni terrorism and bigotry.
For me personally, the conflict in Syria is the most clear cut battle between moral good and moral evil since the Great Patriotic War in which the Soviet Union crushed the fascist aggression of Hitler’s German Reich. By contrast, in Afghanistan there is no one occupying the moral high ground.
2. Different Histories
Syria has always been a civilisation cradle of great cultures and empires. Mesopotamia and the Levant are along with ancient Indus Valley civilisations and ancient Chinese civilisations, the oldest civilised cultures the world has been able to document.
In the Hellenic period, during the Roman Empire and during the Muslim caliphates, Syria and Damascus in particular became a centre of both worldly and spiritual scholarship. From St. Paul’s conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus to Syria’s vital role as part of Islam’s Golden Age, Syria holds a special history for the world’s major monotheistic religions.
Afghanistan’s history while rich, is often remembered as ‘The Graveyard of Empires’ a place of mighty warriors rather than one of scholarship and religious institutions. While such a paradox betrays the more complex history of Afghanistan, when it comes to historical memory, such paradoxes play a large part in shaping people’s perceptions of a country or culture.
Put another way, one is less horrified when war comes to a place famed for warriors than when it comes to a place famed for ancient monuments, holy sites and scholarship.
3. Different Topography
The landlocked and mountainous Afghanistan is picturesque but hardly a place known as a tourist resort. By contrast, cities like Aleppo, Latakia and Tartus in Syria have long been places where people from around the world travel in order to admire the historic architecture and breathtaking natural beauty.
Syria’s coasts are among the most inviting on the Mediterranean. When war comes to such a place, it is clear that many people will instantly have a more immediate emotional connection and therefore be more interested in the outcome of a conflict.
This leads to the final reason why the Syrian conflict has attained more international attention vis-a-vis the war in Afghanistan.
4. America Exposed as the Emperor Without Clothes.
While many anti-war advocates including myself opposed US involvement in Afghanistan from day one, this was certainly not out of any admiration for the Taliban which by almost any objective definition was an extreme and distasteful regime. The fact that the Taliban did in fact shelter and rely on Salafist terrorists as a source of funds and protection was also a further distasteful element of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001.
Thus, while America’s involvement in Afghanistan was deeply misguided from both the perspective of military logistics and pragmatism, it was not all together the equivalent of taking a blowtorch to a work of fine art.
By contrast, America’s involvement in Syria was indeed taking a blowtorch to the fine art that was and is once again a country which has persevered through the millennia and whose enlightened government is able to combine the heritage of the past with the needs of modernity.
When it became clear that only Syria and her Russian partners had the will and ability to held preserve the ancient Hellenic old city of Palmyra while Barack Obama’s United States waxed lyrical about extremist Salafist terrorists whose ideology was the same as that of ISIS which brutalised Palmyra, it became clear that any claim America had to fighting for morality, civilisation or collective international values was more mythical than the deities the ancient statues were built to worship.
When people look at Syria, they often think ‘that could be my country, those people living in fear could be my family, those streets being rebuild could be those I once walked on as a visitor and would want to walk upon again’.
Syria as a Mediterranean culture will be deeply familiar to almost anyone who grew up in the northern hemisphere throughout which Mediterranean culture has always held a special place both for its impressive history and its inviting landscapes and cultures which are famous for being hospitable to foreigners.
Afghanistan by contrast remains a mysterious and foreboding place to many, including many of its immediate neighbours who view the peace process more as a burden to do with security than an opportunity to do with future cultural and commercial partnerships.
This is not to say that a Syrian life is more valuable than an Afghan life. All lives are equally valuable and the horrors of any war of aggression is a blemish not only on the place where such a war is fought and among those fighting it but to the entire world.
The contrasts between the two countries and cultures does however help explain why the world remains more solidly fixated on Syria.
However, the conflicts do share something else in common: the sooner the US and her allies quietly exit both places, the sooner some semblance of peace will return in each case, but particularly in Syria which unlike Afghanistan in 2001, was at peace with itself prior to 2011.