Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and U.K. MP for Uxbridge and Uislip, has just tried to parrot Winston Churchill the way many aspiring—and, indeed, established—writers of English extraction ape Christopher Hitchens: some of his style, less of his substance, even less of his sense, and almost none of his sensibility.
In his tepidly-written, terribly-reasoned piece in The Telegraph, Johnson essentially gave us his “Two Cheers for the Dictator.” Casually conceding that the dictator in question, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is a “monster” who “barrel-bombs his own people,” fills his jails with “tortured opponents,” and serves as the son and successor of a man who ruled “by the application of terror and violence,” Johnson nonetheless celebrates Assad’s conquest of Palmyra—and indeed goads him on.
Perhaps writing with the best of intentions, Johnson displays an audacious amount of idiocy, insensitivity, and ignorance on Syria.
Johnson demonstrates sheer idiocy in expressing “elation” in reaction to the Assad regime’s move on Palmyra. Assad’s recent and brief campaign against ISIS has not unfolded in some sort of strategic and moral vacuum. (Syria’s war did not begin when ISIS seized Palmyra or beheaded an octogenarian archaeologist, any more than the militarization and radicalization of the struggle for Syria began when rebels began skirmishing with Assad’s security services.)
Assad’s campaign comes only after the Russians have helped him, as Johnson himself put it, “turn the tide.” During a months-long incursion into Syria, amid a years-long effort to support Assad militarily, financially, and diplomatically, the Russians have helped him route rebels of all stripes—without so much as sneezing at ISIS and the territories it controls. Having helped Assad secure and stabilize his hold over areas he deems necessary for strategic survival, the Russians are already trying to create more strategic space, leverage, and legitimacy for themselves and their client. At a minimum, they’ll fight ISIS fleetingly to position Assad as a partner in peace at Geneva. And they may very well succeed in the longer term, too: by wiping out the only factions that could conceivably challenge Assad in shaping Syria’s future, they can now wage war against ISIS, drag international participants and perhaps some Syrian rebels into a coalition of the awkward, and help Assad survive and spin his story as he already has for more than five years.
From that baseline, Johnson then moves to peddle the propaganda of both ISIS and Assad: he amplifies the terror of ISIS while feting—and indeed goading—on Assad, the latest in a long line of brutes branded as bastions of civilization. To be sure, ISIS—and the menace we’ve made of ISIS—seems far worse than the image of the Syrian regime. But that’s largely because they’ve each distorted their deeds differently as part of propaganda campaigns aimed at specific audiences as part of their respective, self-styled struggles.
ISIS tries to terrorize, and tries to instigate and empower others to terrorize, the West: it thus commits barbaric acts, spews hate, and tweets and taunts about it all. Instead of trying to mask its dark deeds, ISIS plasters them up as posters. It beheads American and British journalists and aid workers, burns Jordanian fighter pilots, shoots up cultural capitals and political capitals of the West—and then trots out sinister spokesmen like Jihadi John and his ilk, other Anglojihadist villains, it conjures from time to time—precisely because most of the world views such as beyond the pale. The Assad regime, meanwhile, tries to terrorize its own people (and any others in the Levant who stand in its way or otherwise fail to demonstrate sufficient fealty). Unlike the bearded barbarians they brandish as bugaboos today, Assadists deny their deeds on the diplomatic stage, before the press, and in the halls of power; but they then use the threat of such deeds to sow fear and chase respect at home (buttressing their credentials with the Alawite communal core, for instance, or deterring dissidents who—understandably—prefer not to be murdered, maimed, or maimed and then murdered).
Against that backdrop, Johnson now sees Assad as Assad sees and sells himself: a suited and booted secularist ready to do business with the West as he did before the war and at key junctures during the war—like when he gave up chemical weapons, after using them, in 2013; allowed airstrikes against others competing to control Syria; or when he now offers to work with archeologists and preservationists to restore the ruins of Palmyra while he cleaves through the Sunnis of Syria. He does not duly acknowledge or address how Assad created conditions for the sort of radicalization and militarization of Syria’s struggle that have caused so much grief today. Nor does he consider how Assad contributed to the resurgence of radicals specifically (by, for instance, cooperating with terrorists bound for Iraq after the American invasion of 2003 or releasing hundreds of jailed jihadists after protests against his rule began spreading across Syria in 2011).
Johnson’s also insensitive to the lives, plights, and perspectives of the many Syrians, Iraqis, and Lebanese that don’t fall within the communities he and so many in the West have concerned themselves with. Cheering on the Assad regime as some sort of protector of minorities, unlike an ISIS “engaged in what can only be called genocide of the poor Yazidis,” Johnson—like so many others—again misses the mark. By fixating on and fascinating himself with the Yazidis, which he uses as a proxy for all minorities in the Middle East, he only elevates communities over individuals and categories of human beings over human beings themselves. Sunnis in Syria—or in Iraq or Lebanon, where they constitute minorities too—are being slaughtered by the thousands. Their lives don’t matter less, Johnson would surely agree, because they aren’t Jews in Israel, Christians in Lebanon, Alawites in Syria, or Kurds in Iraq. And yet he dumbly and dangerously suggests as much, by mirroring majoritarianism with the sort of minoritarianism that the Assad regime has used to shape Syria through decades of brutal rule and years of bloody war.
And, finally, Johnson essentially equates ruins and rubble with people. He ignorantly cheers on the regime responsible for the onset of war and for most of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in it because that regime, see, at least hasn’t dynamited the ruins and historical artifacts of Palmyra. But while Palmyra is of course worth cherishing, saving, and restoring, it doesn’t matter more than the people of Palmyra—and of Syria—themselves.
Swept up in a struggle between civilization and barbarism, and caught up in his appreciation for art, culture, and history, Boris fails to focus on a few simpler, deeper, and far more pertinent truths. He celebrates how Assad has driven out the barbarians at the gates, but does not warn of the savages that lurk within the walls, too—or care to tell us that such savages have proven to be more dangerous to states and societies in the long sweep of history. He celebrates a symbol of our common heritage, but does not really remind us that our common heritage is itself a symbol and aspect of—not a substitute for—our common humanity.
And he cheers on civilization, but does not have the clarity or courage to see and say that civilization means—and must mean—more than ruins and rubble it has accrued or the value it gives them. A civilization is, and must be, about more than whether and how its people—and especially its leaders!—remember the past… It is, and must be, about whether and how they understand and cope with the crises of the present. It is, and must be, about whether and how they see and forge the future.
Anthony Elghossain would torch the Cedars of Lebanon to save a life—let alone hundreds of thousands of lives. He tweets @aelghossain