Syria in Revolt

By: Sadik J. Al-Azm

 

 

I am often asked: Did the eruption of the popular uprising in Syria against the ruling military regime and police state of the Assad family and sect take me by surprise?

 

Naturally, the answer is both “yes” and “no.”

 

Yes, I was surprised by the timing of the eruption. And, at the beginning, I was very fearful that the regime would succeed in suppressing it almost instantly, given what we know about its legendary ferocity, ruthlessness and repressive capabilities. This, in addition to what we know from daily experiences of the pervasive police presence in and penetration of every pore of Syrian society, both urban and rural.

 

This had given me, like a lot of other Syrians and intellectuals, an inferiority complex and a sense of total impotence before this totalitarian monster of a regime and power-structure, which obliterated from our mind any thoughts about an imminent or even possible collective “No!” to the system of tyranny — let alone other fanciful ideas about a popular uprising and an armed revolution. All Syria, then, was blinded by fear, intimidation, and oppression on one side and by assertive arrogance, high ideology, and dishonest dissimulation on the other.

 

No, I was not surprised by the eruption of the Syrian uprising because of certain, at first seemingly marginal experiences, accumulating observations, and telling daily life interactions.

 

Let me explain:

 

Living and working in the country — particularly in Damascus — first, after the violent 2001-2002 suppression of the Damascus Spring, with its civil society movement and the burial of its famous charter 99 declaration, and second, after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in 2005 (the premier leader of the Sunnis of Lebanon) and the consequent humiliating withdrawal of Assad’s troops from Lebanon, an infection of existential angst, a nausea of the spirit, and an anguish of the mind spread throughout Syria out of concern for and fear of what the immediate future had in store for our country. Attendant on this affliction were nervous feelings, contradictory thoughts, conflicting emotions, and nagging premonitions that Syria was tottering on the edge of an abyss.

 

During this troubled and uneasy period, life seemed to flow routinely and peacefully on the surface throughout Syria. Intuitively, we all seemed to sense that underneath this calm something else was happening. We tried as much as we could to turn a blind eye to this disquieting reality, hoping it would stay below the surface for a long, long time.

 

I remember having to live with this contradiction between the false calm of the surface and the deeper sense of the volcanic lava below. The feeling took its toll on me and many others mentally, psychologically and politically, in the form of a chaotic condition of stress, deception, avoidance, pretense, recognition, suspense, dissimulation, fear, hope and anticipation.

 

What could you or I or anyone else do before such a tormenting condition? Nothing at all. The traditional escape route of running away from Damascus to Beirut provided little relief. Talking about the misery of the situation publicly and/or openly was totally forbidden. Even hinting at it was dangerous. Those within earshot, who should have listened, quickly changed the subject. Denial and a conspiracy of silence on all sides were the order of the day and I could not but pretend to be on the side of the party of denial and a part of the conspiracy of silence, at least for a while.

 

During this period, a marked deterioration in the social and human relations of Syrians became palpable. It was becoming clearer and clearer every day that this deepening downward turn was along hardening sectarian lines and divides. Affected negatively were things like: long standing friendships, normally warm relations among colleagues and acquaintances, and the daily life interactions of citizens in general. Even our way of speaking to and joking with friends changed for the worse.

 

I and many like myself in Damascus found ourselves driven, almost imperceptibly, to weigh very carefully every word, phrase, metaphor and joke we uttered depending on what we knew about the affiliations not only of our passing interlocutors but also of our best friends, colleagues, and associates.

 

Broad socializing and visiting lost almost all spontaneity. Confidence and trust evaporated while offense was quickly taken as never before. The traditional solidarity of much of the Syrian intelligentsia against abiding oppression became racked by an unusual dose of doubt, suspicion, and mistrust. It quickly became evident to me that the Sunni-Alawi divide and antagonism brewing under the surface had caught up with the crème de la crème of Damascus society.

 

By 2009-2010, it was impossible to go about the chores of daily life without repeatedly hearing from the simplest of people expressions like:

 

“All it needs is a match to ignite.”

 

“It needs a spark to flare up.”

 

“All it needs is a fire-cracker to explode.”

 

And in fact it took a non-entity like Bouazizi in Tunisia setting himself on fire for it all to explode. He was the match, spark, and fire-cracker that all these simple people expected, feared, and talked about.

 

The more educated and cultured, particularly the members of the intelligentsia, had their own favorite metaphors for saying the same thing. The internationally recognized Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat (left for dead on the road side by the thugs of the regime after a famous cartoon), put it this way in an interview with Newsweek in 2007: “Either reform or ‘le deluge.’”

 

An expectation of “the deluge” was very much in the Damascus air. The late Omar Amirallai, one of Syria’s most prominent film auteurs, had released his movie of 2003, with the title: ‘Le Deluge du Baath’ and suffered for it later on.

 

A prominent colleague and friend in the Philosophy department at Damascus University went about emphasizing that the worst had already happened, i.e., the big antagonistic divide in Syrian society was already a fait a complis — the rest was by now a preordained matter. My favorite metaphor was to say that Syria is now a pressure cooker where the heat and the pressure are mounting by the hour and where all the safety valves have been rendered inoperable.

 

Interestingly enough, a band of young musicians in Damascus announced themselves under the name: “The Pressure Cooker.” Now, they are active in Beirut, Lebanon.

 

Yassin Haj Saleh, an old time political prisoner and the most prominent underground commentator on and critic of the revolution, as well as one of the finest contributors to what is known in Arabic as ‘prison literature,’ was already warning that if Syrians do not quickly find a way of letting their ‘Syrianness’ prevail as their insurance policy for the future, then the country was in for the worst case scenario.

 

Others, expecting the worst for Syria, maintained that the only thing that could be said about the regime at this time was that it is the only contraption we have left holding back Syrians from massacring each other. The most frightened in the depths of their souls would hope against hope by assuming an attitude of: “We all know what is happening in and to the country, but still business as usual.”

 

If you had asked me at the time when the sparks started flying in Tunisia before travelling to Egypt, Libya and Yemen: What would happen if the tsunami finally reached Syria? I would have answered: The people of Hama will immediately sharpen their knives and pour out into the neighboring Alawi villages to take revenge for the rape and destruction of their city by Assad’s troops in 1982, led by his notorious swaggering brother Rif’at.

 

You cannot imagine the relief I felt when none of this came to pass the moment the tsunami actually touched Syria. On the contrary, Hama was relatively late in mobilizing to join the popular protest movement while it was raging practically everywhere else. Most probably this was semi-conscious schadenfreude on the part of the people of Hama, considering that the rest of Syria remained calm throughout the city’s brutal ordeal of 1982.

 

In the following, I will give a sample of the kind of ideas, discourses, analyses, and questions that were the talk of the town during this crucial period, the talk of the town at all levels, from the chatter of the streets to the conceptually more sophisticated debates and arguments of the intellectuals.

 

(A) What I once called the “Merchant-Military” Complex ruling Syria and which a new generation of Syrian activists and analysts have come to dub as, “the Merchant-Military-Financial-Security-Complex.”

All of Syria knows that one side of this complex is: army, party, security agencies, public-sector command economy, and administrative state apparatuses — all Alawi-dominated. Everyone knows that the second side of the complex is: civil, urban, business, and private-sector market economy — Sunni dominated.

 

The human agents who run this complex, over the years, have come to form a reasonably self-conscious ruling elite that is arrogant, condescending, and corrupt. Every morning they manage the day-to-day affairs of Syria while at night they interact socially, arrange marriages between their respective sons and daughters, and close business deals. They party together, frequenting the same restaurants, clubs, and nightspots. Their womenfolk attend the same receptions, social functions, cultural events, and philanthropic activities. Still, they hate and despise each other to no end.

 

According to today’s younger analysts and activists, all these forces have come to coalesce into something that is more than just a self-conscious ruling class. They fused into an insolent, Brahman-like upper caste that sees itself beyond all accountability. It has come to believe strongly in an innate superiority of its own and an assumed right to lord over the common people, who are now regarded as no more than rabble and a mob that is ignorant, backward, unprepared for any form of democracy and undeserving of liberty of any sort.

Each side of the pair forming the Syrian Merchant-Military Complex is strong in its destabilizing capacity but weak in its constructive power, so they stick together and consolidate in the face of any possible opposition or popular protest movement.

 

One mistaken idea circulated at the time, particularly among the intellectuals, was the serious entertainment of the possibility of the Sunni bourgeoisie seizing the opportunity provided by the generalized crisis gripping Syria to wrest power from the other component of the Merchant-Military Complex, bringing to an end that costly partnership. Costly, because the merchant side of the complex was visibly sick and tired of being blackmailed to fund and enrich the second side — paying tributes, commissions, bribes, kickbacks, protection money and false business partnerships. However, the complex proved to be much better cemented and coherent than anyone had either thought or predicted. “The essence of Damascus is trade and politics,” as Syria’s most famous poet, Adonis, once put it. So in a way, you can say that the bourgeois core of Damascus remained true to its essence throughout this tribulation.

 

(B) Corruption. Ideas were circulating to the effect that corruption at the lower levels of state, society, and economy is basically a primitive mechanism for the redistribution of wealth among Syrians. While aggressive corruption at the top levels is a form of “primitive capital accumulation,” as Karl Marx called the phenomenon.

 

Speculations were rife whether Syria’s “primitive accumulators” had reached the stage where they developed a vital interest in such things as law and order, state institutions and proper business practices to normalize, legitimize, and protect their loot. Actually, images of old American Westerns were recalled, by way of illustration, where the bandit moves away with his ill-gotten gains to a far corner of the country to become a regular businessman, a pillar of the law and order machinery, and eventually the sheriff of the county.

 

(C) The mortal dangers inherent in the regime’s cunning manipulation of the fissures and weaknesses of Syria’s rural society as well as of Syria’s urban society, pitting them against each other for its own short term benefit and survival.

 

It is well known that rural society is characterized by the primacy of primordial relations and forms of social organization such as: kinship, blood ties, clan, tribe, village, ethnicity, religious sect and so on, each with its own ‘Asabiyya.’ The concept of ‘Asabiyya’ comes from Ibn Khaldoun and is usually translated as ‘group solidarity’. But the term ‘solidarity’ is too weak really for our purposes here, as it fails to communicate the powerful charge of fanaticism and intransigence that needs to be added to the English ‘solidarity’ before approximating the Arabic ‘Asabiyya.’

 

The manipulation intentionally worked on fragmenting whatever civil society Syria may have achieved, fragmenting it along the lines of the primordial divisions of rural society by energizing their latent ‘Asabiyyas’ — all in order to render any kind of organized popular opposition unthinkable. This kind of discourse gave us a good explanation as to why the Damascus Spring and its civil society movement were so swiftly and brutally crushed. In the end, both military rule and Islamic Shari’a rule use, abuse, and instrumentalize rural society for their own purposes and interests and they do it always at the expense of emerging civil society and in ways detrimental to civil society.

 

(D) The visible but unseen official policy of willful blindness vis à vis the gathering storm on the part of the power-structure. This raised in all kinds of disbelieving minds the question of whether it was credible at all to assume that this literally incendiary situation had really escaped the attention of the establishment and its inner circle. This, in spite of all the operating spies, the available instruments of surveillance and manufacture of consent, the multiplying intelligence services, and the ubiquitous Mukhabarat with their innumerable branches and extensions?

The answer one would hear at street level was God “blinded their heart” to what was really boiling under the surface. At a more elevated level, some well-meaning optimists argued that at some approaching point the powers that be would wake up and do something to avert the worst case scenarios — out of the instinct of self-preservation, if nothing else. Others (among them many Alawi activists, friends, critics and opposition-figures) spoke in apocalyptic terms about the impending disaster, emphasizing that the greed, cynicism, arrogance, and corruption of the power structure was now beyond redemption.

 

Add to that the regime’s self-serving delusion that it had instilled enough of the “culture of fear” in Syrian hearts and minds that any gathering of a few persons could be instantly dispersed by firing three or four bullets at most — a blinkered policy of security solutions for the mildest objection, expression of concern or alarm, and for even loyal opposition and/or criticism.

 

A view circulated among the more knowledgeable and experienced of intellectuals that this willful blindness resulted from a deeper subliminal perception on the part of the inner circle and its accomplices that the system had become so brittle that tampering with any of its parts in the name of reform would lead to the quick collapse of the whole edifice. Whispers were heard coming down from the upper reaches of power about the absolute priority of survival at this stage of Syria’s life. Bashar’s early promises of reform soon slid back to the more technical and vague talk about “development and modernization.” This whole march backwards culminated in Abdulla Dardari’s (then vice Premier for Economic Affairs) “Five Year Plan for Deregulation” which I heard explained to Senator John Kerry on his visit to Damascus in 2005 at a dinner party hosted by Ms. Margaret Scobey, the U.S. ambassador at the time.

 

When Kerry retorted, “deregulation” and “five year plans” do not go together, Dardari simply said, “We have to call it that.” I cut in asking, “Why don’t you tell us, the people, what you are up to and really doing?” Silence prevailed. I was supposed to understand on my own and without further explanation that the lie is necessary for the “deregulation” to go through as popularly unnoticed as possible. Now we know that this kind of contrived deceit failed miserably.

 

Before the uprising, I tried several times to engage Syria’s most prominent present day military defector from Assad’s Pretorian Guard, General Manaf Tlas (the son of the forever Defense Minister of Syria, Mustafa Tlas). I tried to engage him in some serious conversations about the perilous condition to which Syria seemed to have come, about the issues, concerns, fears, apprehensions and anxieties circulating the streets of Damascus. Every time he would change the subject, deflect the conversation away from these matters, and assume the attitude of “business as usual” for Syria.

 

During the last two years, I have had the opportunity in Europe to discuss Syria with some upper crust wheeler dealers (some of them distant relatives) implicated (by their own admission) in the rampant high level corruption and business dealings. They all confessed that even a few months before the eruption of the uprising they felt fully confident and optimistic about the future of Syria and its economy. They were investing generously, reaping super-profits, negotiating all sorts of rewarding agreements with in-coming Germans, and closing highly profitable deals with out-going Dutch business delegations. They said they had no clue as to what was in store for Syria in the immediate future. They all mused sadly and in disbelief about how this could have happened to them and regretted their incredible clumsiness, shortsightedness, and mindlessness.

A young woman working closely with Bashar’s wife, Asma, on her various pet social and cultural projects admitted regretfully in Berlin, (before a panel of opposition personalities) that not even in her worst nightmares could she have thought for a second that Syria was on the verge of a revolution.

 

Similarly, Imad Tinawi, a Syrian business expert and consultant living in the United States who had worked as an advisor to Mrs. Assad on the same projects, expressed openly and in the strongest terms his shock and dismay at the willful blindness dominating the higher reaches of power to the point of shifting sides and putting his expertise at the service of the opposition.

Then, suddenly all these types were rudely awakened to the fact that business was not as usual in Syria.

 

(E) After the American occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the regime change that occurred there in favor of the Shi’a Arab majority, it did not take long for Syria to want the same for itself. Damascus murmured with wonder at the time: If the Arab Shi’a majority can have Iraq, why can’t the Arab Sunni majority have Syria? Actually, with the regime change in Iraq, Syria had reached a crossroad and refused to cross. Or, more accurately, the Asad regime did not let it cross. So, the explosion finally occurred. The point of the discussions was to what extent can Syrians rely on the United States to help bring about a similar regime change in their own country? As it turned out, (and to the misfortune of Syria), American policy set the example for the region in Iraq on the one hand, then permitted poison gas for those who wanted the example for themselves, on the other.

 

All in all, Syria had become a divided dangerous place with intimations of anarchic violence. Beneath Damascus’ shiny surface a malignancy of hatred and oppression was growing and mutating into a winding mass of violent energies ready to spring. Practically every Damascene had one prayer on the tip of his tongue: Please, oh Lord, inspire him to do something before it is too late.

 

Here, I would like to add a reflection in the language and idiom of “poetic justice.” The on-going blood letting seems in this light like Syria is finally settling old scores and evening accounts with itself; it is making amends for its past failures, cowardice, betrayals, guilt, blunders, and sins of omission as far as the long standing horrendous crimes of its rulers are concerned.

Damascus, in particular, is now atoning for having calmly watched from a comfortable distance the savage destruction and pillage of Hama and its people in 1982, for having quietly tolerated for so long the routines of arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, torture, wanton deaths and disappearances of countless citizens, for accepting almost as a natural fact the extermination of more than one thousand souls in the Palmyra Prison Complex in June 1980, for having shamelessly swallowed the indignity of turning the republic, in no time, to hereditary dynastic rule, and for having seen the Damascus Spring – Syria’s last flicker of hope – brutally crushed without batting an eye.

 

 

 

At the start, the underlying spring pierced the calm surface gently in the form of little protests, small demonstrations and minor disturbances of the peace in the souk and the Omayyad Mosque in the center of Damascus.

 

Then, to everyone’s surprise, the real eruption occurred in the rural south, i.e., the Hauran district and in Daraa its capital. A region of Syria traditionally known as khazan al-Baath – “the reservoir of the Baath” — as it supplied both party and state with a high proportion of their operatives, functionaries, cadres, and second rank leaders. The Baath party had billed itself as the party of the workers and peasants. For a second time, the workers and peasants found themselves in open revolt against their own presumed party.

 

I will not repeat the Daraa story here, as it is famous and has been covered very well: the school children scribbling anti regime graffiti on walls, their arrest and torture by the intelligence servies, the humiliation and degradation to which their parents and families were subjected, and so on and so forth.

 

After the Daraa incidents and the consequent repression and killings, much of Syria found itself in an all out uprising against the regime, the oppressors, and the Assad dynasty. The school children of Daraa quickly became the Bouazizis of Syria.

 

How did a civilian, basically peaceful, youthful popular protest movement turn into an armed revolution in slightly less than a year from its inception?

 

This is a particularly pressing point given the disdainful language used by US President Barack Obama to describe the common people’s protest movement. This, in his long and usually frank interview given to Jeffrey Goldberg on Middle Eastern affairs, and published in Bloomberg View (2014-03-02).

 

According to this interview, the Syrian conflict consists of “a professional army that is well-armed and sponsored by two large states (Russia and Iran)…fighting a farmer, a carpenter, an engineer who started out as protesters and suddenly now see themselves in the midst of a civil conflict…” Actually, there was nothing sudden about the morphing of the protesting “peasant, carpenter and engineer” into armed “civil conflict.”

 

The repression of the security and military agencies tried, at first, the tactics of “shock and awe” (to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld) to intimidate the peaceful protests — nipping them in the bud, as the saying goes. This phase culminated in the first major massacre of peaceful civilian demonstrators in the city of Homs. Homs tried to replicate, at the time, the Tahrir Square experience of Cairo by a mass congregation and demonstration in the city’s central square known as Clock Square.

 

When it became evident that “shock and awe” was not working as the protest movement kept snowballing and spreading in spite of the mounting casualties, the repression went into what can be called the “Pinochet” phase, where schools, sports stadiums, hospitals, football fields, and public facilities became mass detention centers. Prisons overflowed with the arrested at random and torture reached an all time high.

 

When it became clear that the “Pinochet” strategy was not working either and the protest movement simply went on spreading, intensifying and deepening, the repression went into the Samson option phase: tearing down the Syrian “temple” on everybody’s head no matter what. Villages, towns, and city quarters were literally razed to the ground. Crops were burnt; trees and forests were set on fire. Schools, hospitals, university buildings, and health centers were systematically bombed and destroyed. Doctors, pharmacists, nurses, and health care personnel were either imprisoned or killed. The Samson phase reached its predictable natural climax in the poison gas attack on the villages of Ghouta in Damascus. It was a well-covered and documented criminal act of desperation.

 

The Samson option was not a mere decision of the moment but a premeditated act whose time had come. Still imprinted on our minds are the whispers emanating from Rif‘at Assad’s entourage—since his heydays in the 1970s—to the effect that we, the Assad clan and Alawites, conquered Damascus by force of arms and if they want it back (i.e., the Sunnis), we will return it to them only as a ruin. All this, metamorphosed into the regime’s current fighting slogans of:

“Assad or no one else” and “Assad or we incinerate the country.”

 

Hardly any Syrian believes the fanciful story that the Russo-American chemical weapons deal was the result of a simple slip of the tongue on the part of John Kerry before being instantly picked up by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and lo and behold! An earth shaking deal was suddenly born.

 

Syrians knew that the chemical weapons stockpile was a major concern to the great powers from the very beginning of the uprising. Russia gave public assurances and private guarantees to its “partners” that the Syrian chemical weapons were fully under control and would not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. When Bashar started using chemical agents against civilian population centers in diluted form and on a limited scale (to test the tolerance of the West), Russia reinforced those assurances and guarantees, particularly to the Americans. This helped Obama draw his famous red line affirming that the use of such weapons would be a “game changer.” In any case Obama admitted to Jeffrey Goldberg in the Bloomberg View interview that from the very start he “threatened kinetic strikes on Syria unless they got rid of their chemical weapons. When [he] made that threat, Syria denied even having chemical weapons. In the span of 10 days to two weeks, you had their patrons, the Iranians and the Russians, force or persuade Assad to come clean on his chemical weapons, inventory them for the international community, and commit to a timeline to get rid of them.”

 

Furthermore, Syrians remember that when Kerry was trying to bolster his full throated indictment of the regime he mentioned that the United States knew three days before the Ghouta assault that the chemical agents were being mixed, prepared and mounted on delivery systems for actual use in the attack. In other words, for Syrians, Kerry claimed to know beforehand the crime was coming but failed to do anything to stop it.

 

This whole episode shows that, when the threat is serious and imminent, dictators and tyrants like Bashar and his father simply capitulate. The father did so when he turned over to Turkey the Kurdish PKK leader Abdulla Ocalan in 1998 (after years of resistance and denial) the moment the Turkish military threat to him and his regime became serious and imminent. This, after Asad had given Ocalan asylum for long years as a political refugee, anti-Turkish militant, and ally. The same pattern repeated itself when Bashar capitulated, under serious pressure and imminent threat, in 2005 and withdrew his troops from Lebanon in highly humiliating circumstances.

It is worth adding that the Assads, father and son, fit very well the profile drawn long ago by the Frankfurt School of the petty fascist personality in power: cruelty and contempt for the weaker and craven servility before the stronger.

 

Still, it is not by chemical weapons alone that men, women and children die in Syria today. After the chemical agents were seized by the stronger, a no less lethal weapon went into effect against the weaker. I mean siege tactics to starve the population into submission under the slogan: “kneel or starve.”

 

Syrians know by now that international realpolitik reduced the crisis in Syria to ridding Bashar of his chemical weapons while simultaneously reinstating the criminal, cynically forgetting the accusations Obama and Kerry heaped on Bashar of the order of criminal, murderer, tyrant, and even a new Hitler.

 

The other piece of International and Western realpolitik says, in effect, about Syria, “let it bleed;” the main contenders in this macabre drama of life and death are all of long standing and confirmed anti-West credentials: Iran, Syria itself, Hezbolla, Al-Qaeda plus an assortment of Islamists, Jihadists, Talibanis and what have you from all parts of the world. So, why bother? In fact, Obama, frankly enough, used the very term “bleeding” to describe what is currently going on in Syria. According to him, Iran’s one friend in the Arab World (Syria) “is now in rubble.” It is also “bleeding them” that is Iran, Hezbolla and the Sunni extremists fighting Hezbolla inside Syria (Bloomberg View). Obama’s realpolitik satisfaction with Syria “in rubble” and “bleeding” everyone else along the way is unmistakable.

 

This, while knowing full well, from past experiences, that letting the war drag in this fashion and allowing the wound to fester and fester will necessarily act as a magnet for the in-gathering of these jihadists, terrorists, bandits, and adventurers in Syria. Perhaps, this is all the more reason to say again: “let it bleed” – at least until it is time to go in and clean up the mess, as the French are now doing in Mali and Central Africa.

 

Three additional factors contributed to the militarization of the uprising turning it into an armed revolution.

 

(1) Attrition among the ranks of the more enlightened, educated, cultured, and skilled first cohort of leaders energizing the peaceful and civil phase of the uprising. Quickly, most of them ended up either dead, in jail, permanently impaired, or out of the country. They would be successively replaced by new layers welling up from society’s lower depths, necessarily unqualified, more fanatical, less progressive, and more disillusioned with the peaceful character of the whole popular protest movement.

 

(2) The formation and rise of the Free Army of Syria as a consequence of the stream of defections, at all ranks, from the regular army when called upon to suppress the uprising using unrestrained violence.

 

This is an issue of particular significance. I know, for example, that Europe and the United States did a lot of soul searching during the second half of the last century on the question of whether higher orders – especially higher military orders – do absolve those so commanded from responsibility for their actions. The defectors from the Syrian army are spontaneously and without too much reflection living up to the norm that higher orders to commit crimes and atrocities do not in anyway absolve those so commanded from responsibility for their actions and deeds. They live up to it, by refusing superior orders to shoot at and bomb villages like their own villages, people like their own people, and city quarters like their own city quarters. This is the ethical meaning both of their defection and of putting their life and the lives of their families and relatives at great risk by refusing to obey higher orders of this kind. We should thank our stars, as Syrians, that the Syrian army is still a conscription and people‘s army and not a professional one.

 

(3) The fact that the stakes are very high, indeed, for both sides in this struggle. On the one hand, what the Alawis stand to lose is such an intolerable enormity that anything goes for them to continue holding on to what they now have. On the other hand, the revolting Sunnis are currently under the absolute sway of a “never again” stand of resolve and determination to retrieve Syria from the usurpers. Tragically enough, it all seems to boil down to the old impossible paradox: “What happens when an irresistible force hits an immovable object?” Anything and everything can happen.

 

This is why no one claims to know at present what way Syria is heading or what will be the final issue of this bloody struggle. Still, the one thing I am confident of is: which ever way it all turns, the Assad dynasty can never rule Syria and the Alawi minority can never have supremacy again.

 

 

 

At the moment it seems that an uneasy stalemate prevails in Syria between the military regime and the revolution. But there is something deceptive about this appearance. It results from a static approach to the revolution, as if there was no yesterday, there is no tomorrow and only the “now” matters.

 

Consider for a moment from where each of the two sides of the stalemate had started. Here, I would not be exaggerating if I say that the militarized security agencies of the regime (the fearful Mukhabarat) saw themselves like an invincible granite block where anything that bumps into it crumbles to dust very quickly. Many jailed Syrian intellectuals and prisoners of conscience have testified, upon their release, that after their detention the interrogating and torturing officers would give them the following final advice: “Why do you bother to criticize, oppose, and protest when you know we are a solid invincible block with a will of steel that crushes anything and anyone that stands in its way? Go find something more profitable to do than to dabble with this kind of hopeless politics and opposition.”

 

It is not an exaggeration either to say that the most important achievement of the Syrian revolution so far is to have reduced, at great sacrifice, this arrogant, insolent, and merciless granite block to a shadow of itself and to a ghost of what it had thought of itself and of its invincible powers, reduced to a trifle of what it once imagined and wanted others to imagine. This is why Bashar had to call in the Hezbolla militias from Lebanon and the paramilitary Shi’a organizations from Iraq and Iran to bolster his deteriorating position and weakening hold on the country. This is why, also, his storm troops, Hezbolla, and the other fighting militias took so long in occupying a small rural town like Qusair near Homs and only after such an extended siege, in spite of their far superior numbers and their surplus of fire power.

 

As the Tahrir square experience proved impossible in Syria because of the ferocity of the military repression, the revolution got accused of being spontaneous, leaderless and lacking in strategy. This, without realizing that the charismatic moment of the revolution had shifted from the old leaderships of organized vanguard parties, inspired single leaders, and unrivaled singular heroic personalities, to the youthful local coordinating committees known as the Tansiquiyyat. It is these local coordinating committees that led and energized the street power of the revolution and continue to be responsible even now for sustaining what is left of its non-violent side.

 

Despite the spontaneity of these committees, they still have been able to knit themselves into a national network constantly in touch with similar activists in Syria and the Arab World, as well as the wide world beyond, using with great expertise the most up to date electronic forms of communication to further their revolutionary agenda. They have been able as well to frustrate the regime’s efforts to block and suppress the flow of information. They achieved this by sustaining a steady flow of real-time images and vital pieces of information concerning the reality on the ground all around the country and practically around the clock. Add to that the various forms of art, innovative types of expression, music, performances, songs, plays, dances, balloons, prayers, satirical cartoons, sarcastic comments, and critical graffiti that this revolutionary generation resorted to as new forms of opposition and resistance. Actually, there was a carnivalesque spirit in all these practices, in the Bakhtinian sense of carnival mocking and deflating the pretensions of high power and oppression. All of which is certainly unheard of in the history of modern Arab political protest and popular opposition movements.

 

On the military side, the fighting local equivalents of the coordinating committees, through their very dispersion all over Syria, forced the regime’s storm troops to spread themselves very thin all over the country. This led to their scattering and exhaustion, having to shuttle suddenly from Deraa in the extreme south all the way up to the Turkish border in the north and then back again to the middle and south of the country once more. This is why we heard that a rural town like Deraa was invaded, occupied, and then evacuated by these storm troops, at least 20 times during less than 15 months.

 

Similarly, the common view that Syria is simply going through a civil war is equally inaccurate. For example, in the generalized civil war of Lebanon, the communities, sects, factions and fractions of the country attacked and fought each other very ferociously while the regime and state apparatuses pretty much helplessly stood by. In the case of Iraq, the occupation had abolished regime, state, army, and party. So it was the Shi’i and Sunni communities of the country (including the Kurds) that mobilized and went to war against each other.

 

In Syria, contrary to the Lebanon and Iraq models, regime, state, army, and party remain the main and primary actors in pursuing scorched earth tactics and policies against both civilians and combatants in an attempt to stamp out the uprising. There are no indications, for example, that Syria’s Druze are about to attack their Sunni neighbors in Horan, nor that the Sunnis are preparing to invade en masse Ismaeli or Christian territories. Nor are the Ismaelis readying themselves to violently settle old scores with the Alawi community and so on. Neither did any Syrian community, sect, or ethnicity mobilize itself collectively to fight on the side of the regime or to defend it. Let me note as well that whatever excess and extremism comes out of the revolution, it remains hardly anything in comparison to the excesses of a genocidal dictator and a regime and power structure that is ready and willing to shower its own people with poison gas.

 

Syria is certainly not in a condition of generalized civil war. If a historical precedent and/or analogy are needed, I would recall Hungary’s armed revolution against the Stalinist regime in 1956. A revolt crushed by Russian tanks exactly as is happening in Syria today. As Hungary’s revolution unfolded, no one ever said, then or now, that Hungary was simply in the throes of a generalized civil war because Hungarian was killing Hungarian. The regime of the two Assads is a hybrid construct out of the fascist traits embedded in the Ba’ath party ideology and structure from a long time, on the one hand, and out of mechanisms of surveillance, control, and oppression imported from Stalinist East Germany and Ceausescu’s Romania.

 

On a similar note, the international system, at present, sublimates Syria to the ethereal levels of grand geopolitics, high strategy, great power conflicts of vital interests and the game of nations in general, without much attention to the internal springs and dynamics of the revolution itself, something I am trying to emphasize. A segment of the left (Arab and international) buys into a version of this approach by seeing a universal Western imperialist plot or conspiracy against the only regime in the area that still stands up to Israel and remains a stumbling block in imperialism’s way to the total domination of the Middle East, its countries, and resources.

This way Syria and its popular uprising are seen only as pawns in this grand game of nations, while the reality of long term and mounting oppression is at best neglected and at worst dismissed as irrelevant.

 

Similarly, the international dealings with and discourses over Syria express a lot of concern over the minorities of the country and over their rights (Kurds, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Ismaelis, Turkmen, Circassians, and so on). This, at a time when the Sunni Arab majority of the country is getting a savage beating from the army, militias, and Scud missiles of a small militarized minority that has an absolute monopoly on the power and wealth of the country. The villages, towns, cities, and neighborhoods that have been bombed, destroyed and often razed to the ground are of the Arab Sunni majority. The minority communities, villages, towns, and cities have remained fairly safe and relatively calm until this moment. The absolute majority of the over 130,000 or so killed so far, of the wounded, of the permanently impaired, of the disappeared and vanished, of the imprisoned and tortured are predominantly from among the Arab Sunni majority as well. The millions of Syrians who have become internal and external refugees, who are exiled and/or displaced persons are also of the Sunni majority. So, what is trampled underfoot in Syria right now, in this supposed grand game of nations, is the majority itself and its rights, about which no one seems to speak outside of Syria. Add to that the silent – but false – assumption that somehow the Sunni majority is just waiting for the right moment to assault the minorities of the country and to persecute and oppress them. Under these circumstances, all Syria now needs rights, protection, concern, and attention — not just its minorities.

 

Actually, this international discourse over Syria’s minorities and the protection of their rights at a time when the Sunni majority is being destroyed and exposed to savage repression takes me back to Europe of the 19th century and to what was then called the “Eastern Question” and “the sick man of Europe,” with its famous gunboat diplomacy, where every European power worth its salt was searching for a minority in the Middle East to adopt and protect. France found the local Roman Catholics and Alawis, Russia, the local Greek Orthodox. Britain found the few local Anglicans and Protestants along with the Druze minority, and so on. The Eastern Question is obviously not dead. The Man is still sick. And Russia today wants to be the protector of all these minorities in general and to replace France as the main guardian of Christian and Alawite minorities, in particular.

 

The longer Bashar Asad and his police state cling to power and continue to use their MiG and Sokhoy airplanes and their missiles against Syria’s population, cities, villages, farms, and forests, the greater are the dangers of growing extremism of all kinds, not least of which is religious extremism.

 

For, in our societies in moments of great peril, extreme danger, and severe crisis, people turn to God. This brings solace, consolation, and endurance on the one hand and it brings holy revenge, militant jihadism, and desperate suicidism on the other. The high tension Islam that the Syrian Revolution is living through now promotes to no end the recruitment of Islamists, Muslim brothers, Jihadis, Talibanis, and suicide bombers among Syria’s youth.

 

When these genocidal dictators are applauded and praised in the language of eternity (“Assad forever”), is it surprising, then, if the oppressed counter by raising their own banners, conceptions, and adulations of eternity and the eternal? When the arbitrary law and order of the Baath police state is totally discredited, escaped, and reviled, is it surprising if people revert to customary law and order which, naturally, contains a high dose of Shari’a Law?

 

The way out of the impasse is certainly not simply decapitating the murderous system, by removing Bashar, and leaving the criminal police state beneath intact, all in the name of stability, continuity, and an orderly transfer of power. Nor is it in the Godot of Geneva’s conferences.

 

Actually, if Geneva is to succeed at all it will have to bring an end to “political Alawitism” and its confiscation of Syria in the name of Syria being Assad’s forever. This is pretty much the way the Taef Conference in 1989 ended the Lebanese civil war by bringing an end to “political Maronitism” and its predominance over Lebanon in the name of Phoenicianism. The end of political Alawitism would mean the end of the Assad dynasty, the end of Alawite supremacy, the end of the sway of the minority, and the rebirth of the republic.

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