Among the many events that have contradicted the West’s “Star Wars” narrative in Syria—starring heroic rebels, evil Russians, and Samantha Power cast in the role of Princess Leia—has been the siege of Fua and Kefraya. Both are Shiite villages controlled by the Assad regime and both have been under ruthless attack by the rebellion since early 2015, with an unknown number of civilians having been killed by snipers and shelling. It is Iran, our favorite Middle East scapegoat, that’s been Fua’s and Kefraya’s patron, recently arranging, as part of a deal to save civilians in Aleppo, the evacuation of both towns.
On Sunday, those evacuees were attacked. Six buses were ambushed and torched by fighters from Jund al-Aqsa, one of the many jihadist factions that make up the rebellion. Rescue efforts were briefly stalled, though the convoys are reportedly moving again, out of both the Shiite hamlets and Aleppo. These atrocities—both the siege and the bus attacks—are noteworthy not because they’re unique, but because they mirror the warfare of the regime, its own horrific siege of Madaya, its mortar attacks on the city of Homs during the early days of the war, and the Russian destruction of an aid convoy at its behest earlier this year. Squint for long enough and the two sides begin to look eerily similar in all but military capability.
This is too often the reality of third-world civil wars, where the polarization of combat ends up empowering the most extreme factions willing to use the most savage tactics. It’s why incanting “Aleppo” as a rationale for action against the Assad regime, as so many have done in recent days, is insufficient. Assad is not the only one incongruous with our values. The most powerful forces in the rebellion crossed that threshold long ago. There is no victory to be had in this stupid war. The only thing to do now is to keep pushing the boulder of peace up the Syrian hill, a Sisyphean and sometimes humiliating task, but an imperative one all the less.
The jihadists who immolated the buses from Fua and Kefraya were caught on camera shouting at their victims: “You pigs are here to help Shiites!” one yelled. “You won’t leave alive!” For reference, al-Qaeda, though it’s largely a Sunni terrorist group, opposes assaults on Shias, preferring instead to unite Muslims against exterior enemies like Israel and the United States. It’s the spartan ideology of ISIS, which was excommunicated from al-Qaeda for being too bloodthirsty, that dictates Shias must die, with the goal of first cleansing Islam and then leading its purified Islamic forces against the Western crusaders in an apocalyptic battle.
The Syrian opposition, which has benefitted from American and Saudi involvement, has nourished the most extreme brand of intra-religious fanaticism. It’s likely to get worse before it gets better. The rebels being evacuated from Aleppo are headed for Idlib, where they’ll bolster the jihadist fighters currently holed up there. This is presumably by design, so the regime can concentrate its most fanatical enemies in one place, but it still serves to show just how dangerous the threat from Syrian Islamism has become. We can bleat all day about how Assad has become a magnet for jihadist fighters and it won’t change the fact that had we taken him out or even weakened him it would have availed Sunni terrorists.
From the White House podium last week, President Obama said of Syria, “There’s not a moment during the course of this presidency where I haven’t felt some sort of responsibility.” His approach to that civil war has been klutzy, tripping over his own red lines, but he is no more at fault for the carnage in Syria than he is for the proto-genocidal brutality of the Dinka and Nuer peoples in the South Sudan or the slaughter between Christian and Muslim militias in the Central African Republic. Let’s hope our next president, who has suddenly warmed to the ludicrous notion of “safe zones,” remembers Fua and Kefraya, and doesn’t make a foreign policy mistake he’ll regret.