Syria, Two Years On
How the Syrian revolution turned my world upside down
Published: 18 Mach 2013.
In the pre-Arab Spring era, the conventional wisdom was that an uprising in Syria was far fetched. Articles written by learned experts proclaimed Assad’s immunity to the tide of protest sweeping through Arab republics, confidently asserting that Syria was a “sturdy house,” an exception to the rule. This was the time when the cause of regime change in Syria was deeply unfashionable.
Friday, March 18, 2011 changed all that. As I returned to my office on that day after performing prayers at a community center in south London, I caught a glimpse of the first grainy images on YouTube of a mass demonstration in Dera’a, a city in the southern Hawran region of Syria. A crowd had congregated outside the historic Omari Mosque and was chanting, “Syria’s protector [Assad] is its thief!” An hour later, more images were uploaded, this time showing riot police using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Then there was shooting. One video showed several police officers dragging away the limp corpse of a young man.
My office was abuzz with these first images of revolt. At the time, I was running Barada TV, the first independent Syrian news and current affairs television channel. It was based at modest offices in London’s Vauxhall. My job was to use the channel to raise awareness of human rights issues, to empower civil society and to educate Syrian audiences on the virtues of freedom and democracy.
Being a second-generation émigré whose father had suffered at the hands of the Syrian government, I believed I had a historic duty to deliver my people from dictatorship to liberty, the sort that I had known and loved in Britain.
That was one way of looking at it. Another was that I was little more than a propagandist for the Syrian opposition, paid to make seditious broadcasts, incite rebellion and invite foreign interference.
On that Friday afternoon, it seemed that my prayers had finally been answered. Until that point, as much as I had desired regime change, I did not quite believe it would ever happen. This view was widely shared by the opposition, whose fortunes were at a low ebb after Assad survived US-imposed isolation following the Hariri assassination in 2005, and his subsequent rehabilitation at the hands of Sarkozy, Erdoğan and Qatari Prince Hamad.
Having judged which way the wind was blowing, the Muslim Brotherhood—the largest of the opposition groups—decided in 2009 to throw in the towel and suspend all anti-regime activities in the hope of negotiating its way back into Syria. By 2010, the opposition harbored no illusions about the desperate state it was in; short of direct foreign intervention (a highly unlikely prospect at the time) it had next to no chance of toppling Assad by popular revolt. When that revolt did come, I found myself a member of an opposition movement long reconciled with its political impotence.
Perhaps, then, it was a lack of confidence that made me, a normally perceptive reader of political developments, fail to see the coming tsunami in Syria. The signs were there for all to see: the mobile phone boycott of February 9, organized on Facebook to protest high charges and poor service; the spontaneous protest in Damascus’s Harika business district on February 17, after a case of police brutality; or the candlelight vigils organized by civil activists outside the Egyptian and Libyan embassies in Damascus on January 30 and February 22 respectively. These were the early tremors that pointed to a coming great eruption.
Barada TV covered all these events, perhaps the only media outlet to have done so, but my thinking at the time was clouded by calculations of a self-serving nature: since the opposition needed time to organize itself before it could hope to lead a popular revolt, the revolution must still be years away.
The Abazeid clan of Dera’a cared little for the interests of the opposition in exile. It was aggrieved at the arrest of some of its teenagers who, inspired by satellite television images of Tunisia and Egypt, scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school. Repeated attempts to negotiate their release through the intercession of local notables were rudely rebuffed by the governor and the local security chief.
My undercover reporter in Dera’a kept me fully informed of such developments. On March 9, 2011 he managed to interview a leading activist from the city, who confidently proclaimed that the revolution “had already begun.” Information came in from several villages in the southern province suggesting that isolated police stations were being vacated in expectation of looming trouble. The mood in the southern province grew darker as angry young men talked of revolt.
Despite this compelling intelligence, I was still reluctant to believe that Syrians would rise up. Sitting three thousand miles away on the banks of the Thames, it appeared overly ambitious—a near impossibility, in fact—given all that I knew and had experienced of the passivity of Syrian society, the fear it had for the mukhabarat (the military intelligence service), and the effects of brainwashing propaganda and social conditioning that discouraged collective action and promoted apathy. Besides, there were no reliable statistics on viewing figures, which meant that I was not quite sure whether my satellite broadcasts were even being watched or not. Like a ham radio operator trying to make contact with intelligent life in outer space, it sometimes felt like a hopeless task.
This was not helped by the general attitude of the expatriate Syrian community towards people like myself, which oscillated between open hostility when they did not know me and pity when they did. To be in the opposition was to be a member of a weird and dangerous émigré sub-culture that entertained outlandish notions of regime change. The thought was enough to induce sniggers of derision in so-called respectable circles.
Intellectually, I knew that Syria was ripe for revolution. My country was no different to Tunisia or Egypt; the same corruption, poverty and authoritarianism existed in Syria. And Syrians, I thought, could not be any less courageous than Libyans, nor could Assad’s henchmen be any more brutal than Gaddafi’s. Seen this way, revolution was a logical inevitability. But I still could not quite convince myself.
The reason for my lingering doubts was not really a rational and convincing counter-argument, but a series of emotionally induced responses born out of the experience of being a member of the Syrian opposition. To be a conscientious Syrian oppositionist before 2011 was to be relegated to the margins of the political mainstream, at the time still defined by the discourse of the so-called resistance axis: the alliance formed between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Working to bring down one of its key pillars resulted in a head-on collision with a powerful set of interests, not least the pro-Iranian and pro-Hamas lobbies that were well represented in important media outlets and in key political and religious organizations.
International patronage, which could have evened the odds, was hard to come by. Although sympathetic, the moderate Arab camp was loath to make any direct challenge to Assad, while the West’s obsession with regional stability meant that the opposition were politely listened to but duly ignored. No matter what persuasive arguments the opposition mustered, it was almost always trumped by the massive gap in power between the exiled handful of expats and the Ba’athist government. Social and political isolation ensued not only in Syria, but in the wider Arab mainstream too.
With no one to come to their rescue, the opposition endured years of what could be classed as emotional abuse at the hands of demagogic bullies of the resistance axis. The Syrian opposition became the perennial joke of newsrooms; they were the embarrassment of the Islamists or weak and resentful “intellectuals” whose patriotism was questioned, and whose commitment to the all-important cause of Palestine always in doubt.
The result was a list of symptoms that victims of childhood trauma would instantly recognize: low self-esteem, insecurity, lack of confidence, social isolation, destructive behavior and an inability to form partnerships. Having been vilified and mocked by one and all, the oppositionists’ frame of mind turned into an essentially defeatist one. Little wonder, then, that on the eve of revolution the last thing the opposition expected was events that would lead to a swift and spectacular turnaround in its fortunes.
The outbreak of protest was exactly that. But moments of triumph bring with them their own set of challenges. Like a rags-to-riches lottery winner, the Syrian opposition struggled in the months that followed to adjust to its newfound cause célèbrestatus. In many ways, it still has not. The opposition’s political strategy does not appear to be based on any discernible, grown-up set of rational principles, but on an overpowering emotional urge to court cheap popularity and solicit short-term funding, which has become the hallmark of the dozens of leadership bodies set up by the opposition.
The damage that this has had on the wider cause of regime change is all too obvious. But as to the question of why, from my vantage point and experience I can say this: that in letting its heart rule over its head, the opposition sought to recapture something of a stolen adolescence, a way of making up for years of carefree politicking denied to it by both circumstance and its enemies. At the historic moment of triumph, the Syrian opposition suffered a mid-life crisis.
That Friday afternoon in 2011, as I hunched over a computer screen in stunned silence watching replays of riot police, clad in all-black body armor like medieval men-at-arms, charging up the hill and into the city’s old quarter, my initial feelings of denial and disbelief made way for excitement and euphoria. Only days later did a sober realization set in: that my life would change forever.
Everything that I had worked for as a member of the opposition, from 2005 until that day, would become redundant. All the lobbying, the conferences, the demonstrations, the television appearances and hours and hours of political meetings—which were a triumph solely on the basis that they took place—would become irrelevant, nothing more than memories of note only to myself. A new era beckoned, with new rules, new battles and new enemies, but not all will find their place in it. Mahmud Qateesh Al-Jawabra of Dera’a, the first martyr of the Syrian revolution, turned my world upside down.
At long last, a policy on Syria that makes sense. This week, prime minister David Cameron indicated that Britain was ready to bypass an EU arms embargo and deliver arms to Syria’s opposition fighters – much to the horror, I expect, of Bashar Assad.
Syria is in the throes of civil war, and thanks largely to continuing Russian supplies of ammunition and vital spare parts, Assad’s forces have so far enjoyed superiority in the air and on the ground. Only the indefatigable spirit of the country’s citizen militia – known popularly as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – has denied Assad the victory that he believes lies only round the corner.
The FSA’s resilience has been tested and found not wanting, but it cannot be expected to hold its own for much longer without external assistance. Its lack of air cover and effective means to tackle armour has limited its capacity to end the war quickly by dealing Assad’s war machine a knockout blow. No one in Syria is calling for Nato intervention anymore; after two years of heroics all that they want is to be given the chance to finish off their dictator themselves.
Recent fighting in Raqqa, Homs and Deraa has shown that loyalist soldiers, most of whom are brainwashed conscripts, are losing their stomach for the fight. When attacked, they are choosing to surrender than risk dying for a sinister tyrant who has pitted them against their fellow countrymen. That is why the Prime Minister’s decision to push through with plans to deliver battle-winning weapons to the FSA could not have come at a better time.
Yes, there will be that will argue that pouring more arms into the conflict will only exacerbate the situation, and that only a diplomatic solution will do. They may be right on the latter point, but in order to achieve that elusive diplomatic breakthrough, there must first be a shift in the military balance of power on the ground.
It might be worth recalling that only when the US unilaterally lifted its arms embargo on Bosnia in November 1994, which was followed by a successful push by Muslim and Croatian forces the following year, did the Serbs finally agree to sit around the negotiating table.
The problem in Syria is that Assad still believes he can win. He has the support of the Alawite community (10% of population) which has foolishly tied its fate to his, and has the active support of Russia and Iran. In theory, the West supports the opposition, but in effect any support the opposition has received has been strictly of the non-lethal kind, meaning it has had little or no effect on the battlefield. This policy has only emboldened two camps: extremist elements within the opposition who say that the West is perfidious and unreliable, and Assad, who has banked on the West dawdling from day one.
The Syrian opposition has expressed its willingness to negotiate with Assad. He doesn’t appear to be interested while his bombers are still able to reduce cities to rubble. It’s time for the MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems).
Published: 13 March 2013
Syria was the first modern Arab state to come into existence and the first Arab republic to elect its president, and it had the first Arab army to procure arms from the Soviet Union. Syria was also the first Arab democracy to elect an Islamist to parliament (Mustapha Al-Sibai in 1947), and the first Arab dictatorship to witness an armed jihadist insurrection (waged by the Fighting Vanguard, 1975–1982).
Syria, then, has something of the pioneering spirit; where its elites have led, other Arabs have tended to follow. This is especially true of the Islamists, whose journey from the ballot box to violent insurrection, and now seemingly back to the ballot box once again after the Arab Spring, appears largely to have been foreshadowed in the story of one organization in particular: the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. It therefore came as something of a bittersweet irony for me, a Syrian, to learn that the first authoritative political history of that organization was written by a young Frenchman at Cambridge University.
That is not to take away anything from Raphaël Lefèvre, who, in his encouraging first book Ashes of Hama: The Perilous History of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, seeks to bridge the considerable gap in the knowledge of the Syrian Brotherhood’s ideological evolution and internal politics without resort to partial sources. In the process, he has written a work of tremendous importance to anyone seeking a nuanced understanding of the dynamics driving the revolution in Syria, whose violent and sectarian turn has left many looking for answers.
Unlike many of the offerings of late, this book on Syria has not been written hastily, lazily or politically. Lefèvre comes across as a scholar with a delicate appreciation for continuity in an area of the world where history moves slowly. He correctly identifies the origins of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the Salafi movement of 1860s Damascus, where a number of reformist religious scholars attempted a selective revival of Ibn Taymiyyah’s thought.
Ibn Taymiyyah was a pioneer in his own right, and he was ‘Syrian’ inasmuch as he was an influential theologian of fourteenth-century Damascus. Although he is not considered progressive today, his ideas nonetheless provided the intellectual ammunition for many reformist movements within Islam that sought to confront the challenges of European domination through fundamentalism. Whether in the Salafi movement of the Najd, theIkhwan (Brotherhood) of Egypt, the Sanusia of North Africa, or the contemporary worldwide jihadist current, Ibn Taymiyyah’s ideas on what it means to be a “real” Muslim were hugely influential.
In Syria, this brand of revivalist Islam accommodated for democracy when the elites that championed it were able to play the parliamentary game. Once the country slipped under Ba’athist dictatorship, however, those elites had to find alternative arenas to probe and challenge. With an eye firmly set on the present, Lefèvre reminds the reader of the formative impact of Syria’s first (and failed) Islamist ‘revolution’ of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which in turn profoundly shaped the Syrian government’s attitude to the current one. Sectarian strife, regionalism, class struggle, the fragmentation of the army, and the jihadist phenomena: all these have their antecedents in Syria’s not-so-distant past.
Ashes of Hama, then, is a sophisticated study that treats the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria less as a local franchise of a global brand and more as an organic expression of a largely middle-class and urban Sunni conservatism. Relying on a large number of first-hand interviews and the memoirs of key players, Lefèvre charts the Brotherhood’s rise from humble and relatively moderate beginnings to becoming the Syrian government’s most dangerous enemy, membership in which is still punishable by death. It is a voyage into the murky underbelly of an organization where truth and rhetoric are difficult to prize apart, and where codes of silence and a culture of opacity has made Lefèvre all the more enterprising.
Where the book is letdown is where Arabic words have been misspelt, or where there are gaps in the knowledge. For instance, the social and ideological roots of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hama and Aleppo factions are dealt with superficially, and there is no mention of the negotiations that took place in 1979 between Brotherhood leaders and Hafez Al-Assad prior to their declaration of an all-out jihad that same year.
These, however, are minor oversights that take little away from a book that is highly readable, well researched, and long overdue. As a study it breaks new ground; my only wish is that it had been written by a Syrian.
Published: 3 March 2013.
It is said that the Arab revolutions are the revolutions of the young. Statistically at least, this is true.
The first martyr in Syria, Mahmud Qteish al-Jawabra [left], was a teenager, and the symbol of the revolution, Hamza al-Khatib, was a 13-year old tortured to death. According to this database, 70 percent of the revolution’s martyrs are under the age of 30.
Whether it be citizen journalism phenomena, or tansiqiyat protest-organizing committees, or massive online campaigns, these were all made by young people.
What al-Jawabra and al-Khatib stand for is not only the revolution itself, but also for the demographic that made it happen. So why is it that when it comes to political leadership of the revolution, it is left to middle-aged men in bad suits?
The median age of a member of the SNC executive committee is 56, more than quarter of a century shy of the median age of the fighters and activists who are carrying out the revolution on the ground.
While the term “Arab Spring” denotes something new and fresh, revolutionary leadership in Syria has seen the return of many of the old faces: Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, assorted Salafists and ex-Communists and a sprinkling of balding generals.
Perhaps this is to be expected in a paternalistic society where young people are expected to remain reverential, and where matters of importance are decided by a family’s older members.
Given the level of physical and moral sacrifice made by the young, however, this is no time to submit to tradition.
Revolution is about challenging hierarchies of power, wealth and authority. It’s not just about writing slogans and posting YouTube videos. Setting up a human rights abuse documentation center or helping out in the relief effort does not equate to a political program.
Too often, Syria’s youth have mistaken day-to-day activism for revolutionary politics. This has led to an atomized movement that lacks clear intellectual direction.
In order for Syria’s youth to take back ownership of the “their” revolution, they need to change the way they view themselves.
More energy should be focused on promoting “demographic consciousness,” an understanding of Syrian politics that regards the 18-35 age bracket as a distinct political constituency that is above sect, ethnicity and class.
While the politicians are busy jockeying for position, there is now an opportunity for the youth to formulate an agenda of their own – one that puts their interests above all others.
Young martyrs have talked about the pent-up frustrations that led so many of Syria’s young people to take a stand against the existing regime.
Why then are the sources of these frustrations not being addressed? Where is the guaranteed funding pledge for education? Where is the commitment to investment in the IT and new media industries, at which younger Syrians excel?
Why are there no demands for a minimum wage for young workers face exploitation? Why has no one addressed the problem of military conscription? And why is there no talk of a guaranteed quota for young people in a future parliament?
The lack of young political leaders to give voice is worrying.
The focus should be on the future, and what it will look like depends much on the youth who will set to inherit political power in the decades to come.
They will have an opportunity to shape their country in their own image rather than that of their parents, but for that to happen they should begin to entertain collective political ambition.
Published: 29 January 2013
The recent elections in Jordan, held amidst a boycott by the main opposition parties, have fuelled talk of a missed opportunity. The argument goes that a toothless parliament, composed mostly of loyalists elected by an unfair electoral system, will be unlikely to provide a legal and democratic channel for dissent, leaving the opposition no option but to resort to the street.
Indeed, recent protests over price hikes have led some observers to speculate that Jordanians have grown wary of the king and are, like their neighbors to the north, ready for an uprising. Others concede that a full-blown uprising is unlikely, but that sweeping political reforms are urgently needed to avoid serious instability in the future. The side that advocates reform has, by and large, dominated the debate on Jordan.
But does King Abdullah II really need to reform so quickly and so deeply? A little-publicized incident from the northern town of Ramtha suggests that he can afford to take his time. In November 2011, twenty-year-old taxi driver Najm Al-Azayza was arrested by Jordanian military police on suspicion of smuggling arms across the nearby border with Syria. After four days in custody, the family of the young man were informed that he had “hung himself,” and were instructed to collect his body from the local mortuary. What followed was a riot that saw the Amman–Damascus highway closed and a police station and municipality building burned to the ground. The clan to which the young man belonged demanded justice, accusing the authorities of torturing their son to death.
What followed could so easily have been a re-run of events in Dera’a, Syria. Eight months earlier, similar circumstances in that city involving police brutality resulted in a nationwide uprising that continues to this day. Instead, Awn Al-Khasawna, then prime minister of Jordan, intervened and ordered an immediate investigation by the country’s chief coroner. When that failed to pacify the townsmen, it fell to King Abdullah II to settle the matter in person. The officer accused of the torture was arrested, compensation was promised and calm restored to the town.
While acts of royal magnanimity alone may not be enough to stave off future internal instability, they do underscore a number of key lessons that Jordan watchers will be wise to take on board. The first is that whatever mistakes agents of the state commit in their dealings with ordinary people, in Jordan the king is still seen as the ultimate guarantor of justice. That, in a clan-based society, is hugely important in affirming his legitimacy to rule over the kingdom.
The second is that the government has grown accustomed to handling outbursts of popular anger. Because Jordan is not a repressive state, and because the security forces there tend to tread lightly when compared to their neighboring counterparts, demonstrations and calls for reform are nothing new. At times, disturbances have resulted in real and immediate reforms, such as during the April 1989 food riots that led to the resumption of parliamentary politics. Most of the time, protests do not end in fatalities and local grievances are settled within the community through civil society networks. The moderation of the Jordanian political system helps to prevent sparks turning into fires.
Jordanian monarchs are not stubbornly resistant to change, but they are resistant to change where significant challenges to their authority exist. Given the civil war in Syria, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and growing instability in Iraq, it would seem uncharacteristically enterprising for the Jordanian monarch to embark on a program of deep political reform at this time.
King Abdullah II can take heart from the fact that the demands of recent protests have been mainly economic, and that the Islamist-dominated opposition remains weak and splintered. Despite high fuel prices, the Jordanian middle class does not object to subsidy reform as long as it is offset by greater inward investment. There is still some ground to cover in the war against high-level corruption, but with the conviction last year of the former head of the intelligence directorate, it appears that a serious start has been made. The impression in Amman is that the king will deliver reform at a pace congruous with wider developments in the region, but at least he is listening.