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There is no 'noble war' that will justify this bloodshed

Syrians who grew up with the repression of the Assad regime are discovering the anarchic brutality of life in "liberated" Syria

After the terrible bloodletting on the battlefields, the fever began to die down. People looked war in the face with cooler, harder eyes than in those first months of enthusiasm, and their sense of solidarity began to weaken, since no one could see any sign of the great "moral cleansing" that philosophers and writers had so grandiloquently proclaimed.

– Stefan Zweig, The

World of Yesterday

Stefan Zweig, that most humanistic of interwar European writers, confronted the First World War as a loyal Austro-Hungarian. That is, he opposed not the official enemies Britain and France, but the war itself. War was destroying his country. Joining fellow artists on both sides of the trenches, he refused to murder his fellow man.

In 1917, two distinguished Austrian Catholics, Heinrich Lammasch and Ignaz Seipel, confided in Zweig their plans to manoeuvre the Emperor Karl into a separate peace with Britain and France. "No one can blame us for disloyalty," Lammasch told Zweig. "We have suffered over a million dead. We have done and sacrificed enough!" Karl despatched the Prince of Parma, his brother-in-law, to Georges Clemenceau in Paris.

When the Germans learnt of their ally's attempted betrayal, Karl demurred. "As history showed," Zweig wrote, "it was the one last chance that could have saved the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the monarchy, and thus Europe at that time." Zweig, in Switzerland for rehearsals of his anti-war play Jeremiah, and his French friend, Nobel laureate Romain Rolland, urged fellow writers to turn their pens from propaganda weapons into instruments of conciliation.

If the Great Powers had heeded Zweig in Austria-Hungary, Rolland in France and Bertrand Russell in Britain, the war might have ended well before November 1918 and spared at least a million young lives.

The peacemakers in Syria are discovering what Zweig did almost a century ago: bugles and drums drown calls to sanity. A report on the Open Democracy website a few days ago reported that demonstrators in the rebel-held Bostan al-Qasr quarter in Aleppo chanted, "All armies are thieves: regime, Free [Syrian Army] and Islamists."

Armed militiamen of Jubhat Al Nusra, the Islamist faction backed by Saudi Arabia and deemed terrorists by the United States, dispersed them with live fire. On both sides, those who demand negotiation over bloodshed are marginalised and worse.

The regime arrested Orwa Nyarabia, a filmmaker and activist, for his peaceful protests. On his release, he fled to Cairo to continue the call for non-violent change. Dr Zaidoun Al Zoabi, an academic whose only weapons were words, now languishes, along with his brother Sohaib, in a Syrian regime security centre. (If you wonder what that implies, ask the CIA why it used to "render" suspects to Syria.)

Syrians who grew up with regime repression are discovering the anarchic brutality of life in "liberated" zones. Guardian correspondent Ghaith Abdul Ahad attended a meeting of 32 senior commanders in Aleppo last week. A former regime colonel now in command of Aleppo's military council told his comrades: "Even the people are fed up with us. We were liberators, but now they denounce us and demonstrate against us."

When I was in Aleppo in October, the people of the poor Bani Zaid area pleaded with the Free Syrian Army to leave them in peace. Since then, battles have erupted among rebel groups over loot. Abdul Ahad described the rebel looting of a school:

"The men ferried some of the tables, sofas and chairs outside the school and piled them up at the street corner. Computers and monitors followed."

A fighter registered the loot in a big notebook. "We are keeping it safe in a warehouse," he said.

Later in the week, I saw the school's sofas and computers sitting comfortably in the commander's new apartment.

Another fighter, a warlord named Abu Ali who controls a few square blocks of Aleppo as his personal fief, said: "They blame us for the destruction. Maybe they are right, but had the people of Aleppo supported the revolution from the beginning, this wouldn't have happened."

The rebels, with the concurrence of their outside backers in Riyadh, Doha, Ankara and Washington, have steadfastly rejected jaw-jaw in favour of war-war. The leader of the newly created Syrian National Coalition, Moaz Al Khatib, rejected the latest call by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Sergei Lavrov to attend talks with the Syrian government. Mr Al Khatib insists that Bashar Al Assad step down as a precondition to talks, but surely Mr Al Assad's future is one of the main points for discussion.

The rebels, over whom Mr Al Khatib has no control, have not been able to defeat Mr Al Assad in almost two years of battle. Stalemate on the battlefield argues for negotiation to break the impasse through acceptance of a transition to something new. Is it worth killing another 50,000 Syrians to keep Mr Al Assad out of a transition that will lead to his departure?

When the First World War ended with nearly 9 million soldiers killed and European civilisation poised for the barbarity of Nazism, the struggle did not justify the loss. The bloody aftermath was little better. Zweig wrote:"For we believed - and the whole world believed with us - that this had been the war to end all wars, that the beast which had been laying our world waste was tamed or even slaughtered. We believed in President Woodrow Wilson's grand programme, which was ours too; we saw the faint light of dawn in the east in those days, when the Russian Revolution was still in its honeymoon period of humane ideals. We were foolish, I know."

Are those who push the Syrians to fight and fight, rather than to face one another over the negotiating table, any less foolish?


Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books

Editor's note: This article was amended to correct a formatting error.

Updated: December 31, 2012 04:00 AM