At his awkward press conference with David Cameron on Sunday, Vladimir Putin made an astonishing claim – the Syrian rebels eat people. It happens to be true. Putin was presumably referring to Abu Sakkar, a rebel leader who videoed himself eating a combatant’s lung. Sakkar explained that he did it in revenge for footage he found on the dead man’s phone of the government soldier raping women. “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog!” cried Sakkar. For some Islamists, dedicating such an act to God is not as sacrilegious as it sounds. Students at Al Ahzar University in Cairo – an educational institution once graced by Obama’s presence – have access to a textbook that teaches it’s okay to eat apostates so long as the meat is not cooked. Call it Jihadi sushi.
The story underlines how difficult it is to choose the side of good in Syria: Assad’s men are rapists, the rebels are cannibals. When deciding what to do, the West has to avoid two templates of disaster. We don’t want another Rwanda, when the West stood aside and tolerated a genocide and we don’t want another Iraq, when the West got involved and stayed involved almost for a decade.
What Britain, France and America have decided to do is something in-between. Ignore the hyperbole about intervention from some in the press: at this stage all the alliance is threatening is to give logistical support to the rebels through non-military aid and a no-fly zone. Of course, this could escalate. But no Western leader wants to put boots on the ground and the goal of the sabre-rattling is actually to prod Russia into dragging Assad to the negotiating table at the proposed conference in Geneva (by the way, Putin might deliver on that but it’s far less likely that we’ll get the rebels to play ball on our side). We are deliberately internationalising the conflict, turning it into a giant game of chicken between America and Russia in the hope that they will resolve the war on behalf of the Syrian combatants. It might be analogous to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when last-minute US support for the Israelis encouraged the Soviet-supported Arab forces to back down.
But there was clear right (Israel) and wrong (the Arabs) in the Yom Kippur war, whereas here we are dealing with a far more complex situation. Consider the dangerous madness of the alliances involved. Assad is supported by Russia and Iran – varying degrees of dictatorship that span Shia chauvinism and Cold War-style Russian adventurism. Against that we might expect to see a coalition of light, but we’d be wrong. Alongside genuine democrats, barbarous Islamists form the rebel front. If we aid these people, in any substantial way, we are morally aiding the very people the War on Terror was supposed to kill. How they run the opposition-held town of Jabhat al-Nusra is a frightening vision of what could happen if the wrong Western-backed rebels win: radical preachers, closed shops, Sharia law, women interrogated for having the temerity to be alone with a man they aren’t married to, internecine assassinations. There is the threat that if Assad falls there will have to be “a second revolution” to purge the Islamists. Should purgation fail, we could find that the West has aided the establishment of a giant training camp for al-Qaeda, right on Israel’s doorstep.
This is not to say that Syria would be better off if governed by Assad – he is a butcher of men, women and children. But it is important to acknowledge that when meddling in the Middle East we are not necessarily aiding the emergence of a secular, liberal democracy in the way that we would have it but instead choosing between two versions of medieval tyranny. Assad’s is the order of the gun; the rebels’ is the order of the holy book.
Faced with this false choice, any kind of Western military intervention is morally compromised before it has already begun. Yes, we should provide humanitarian assistance, condemn Assad and support the Geneva talks. But, no, we should not take any route that ends up putting arms into the hands of cannibals. Let those monsters find their own cutlery.