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.
The early days of Syria’s uprising in spring 2011 saw young activists across the country rising to demand an end to the authoritarian regime led by Bashar al-Assad. Many were idealistic students or recent graduates now working in modern professions, who were inspired by the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Their aspirations for a new Syria began with free and fair elections, constitutional reform, freedom of speech, respect for human rights and a farewell to the brutal police state.
Samir, a 31-year-old IT professional and protest organiser from Zabadani, forty-five kilometres northwest of Damascus, is typical of many from this emergent activist community. He helped coordinate the first demonstration in his hometown on 25 March 2011, and co-established there the first tansiqiya(protest coordination committee). Before this, Samir had been unaffiliated to any political party but had kept himself informed by watching satellite news channels and browsing the internet.
What tipped him into action? Samir had admired figures such as a local doctor and pro-democracy activist, Kamal Labwani, then held in jail on trumped-up charges. He was also buoyed by events in Tunisia and Egypt. But it was the vigils, boycotts and demonstrations that had occurred in Damascus in previous weeks – even before the eruption in the town of Der’aa – that gave him the boldness to act. Samir and other activists say that Syria’s revolution began on 15 March 2011 when a courageous band of young people staged the first protest in the capital’s historic Hamidiya market. Their chants were “peaceful, peaceful”, “the Syrian people are one,” and “God, Syria and Freedom.” This nascent model of protest would later be replicated in towns and cities across Syria.
The intellectual point of departure for Samir and activists like him was a belief in the innate goodness of Syria’s people and the decency of Syria’s society. They believed that Syria, once freed from the malign grip of Assad and his cronies, would return to a liberal default setting – with a multi-party system and a free press – that resembled the model of the 1950s. If Syrians were left to their own devices, they would reject sectarianism and violence, coalesce around a freedom agenda, and create the conditions for a new society to emerge: de-Ba’athified, demilitarised, and democratic. What’s more, all this could be done without foreign military intervention.
Against the odds
The heady heights of the early phase of protests made such idealism almost forgivable. Now, twenty months and later – after thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of reguees, and massive destruction of infrastructure, with no end in sight – it is clear that this Jeffersonian vision of Syria’s refoundation from a “state of nature” was nothing more than wishful thinking. The country’s steady descent into sectarian civil war and chaos makes the initial hopes of a non-violent people’s revolution look naive. This hard experience has taught many activists who began by jumping headlong into a struggle for peace, freedom and democracy a hard lesson. Between the Syria of their dreams, and the land beneath their feet, a huge chasm has widened even further.
The turning-point for Samir came in September 2012, when a Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander in his hometown gave him a video recording to pass on to the Al-Jazeera broadcasting network. It was of local fighters, inside a holiday villa belonging to a wealthy Damascene, going through the owner’s library and removing Shi’a theological books. The FSA wanted to show the world that the presence of such books was evidence that Shi’a Iran was aiding the Syrian regime in a proselytising plot against Sunni Islam.
What really upset Samir was how little he still shared with his revolutionary comrades in the way of political vision. He had joined the uprising out of patriotism, believing that by getting rid of dictatorship and campaigning for progressive values, Syria would be on the road to joining the ranks of successful nations. “The incident reflected how much our priorities have changed”, he laments, “it was a real wake-up call.”
But it was not only the rising sectarianism that put him off. He accuses jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood of stealing a revolution started by everyday citizens and skewing its aims for their own ends. “People came out to demonstrate for four main reasons: the Arab spring, corruption, religiosity, sectarianism – in that order.” Now he explains, the order has been reversed. “A lot of people stopped participating in demonstrations when the radical Islamists began controlling them.”
Emma Suleiman, a 31-year-old media activist, goes further. She visited the northwest town of Idlib in June 2011 to record a documentary about the uprising, and returned to the governorate in August 2012. “The change was huge”, she says, “it was like Afghanistan.” What alarmed her was not just the growth of Islamist power, but the general chaos. “There was no cooperation between the different groups, no strategy, no political programme, and everyone was working for themselves.” She cites a recent French initiative to fund the running of administrative councils in rebel-held areas of Idlib, which collapsed because local commanders couldn’t agree. She wanted to advise, “but no one was prepared to listen.”
Even more difficult for many of the initial activists to accept was how many opportunists and fake revolutionaries there were. These are the “climbers” who saw in the collapse of law and order and the availability of guns an occasion to profit. Edward Dark (not his real name) is a 35-year old protester from Aleppo turned relief worker, and one of few activists to have publicly criticised the FSA. “When I saw at first hand the crimes of some of the rebel militia done in the name of the revolution, my attitude changed”, he says. “There was open sectarianism and sectarian killing, kidnappings for ransom, killing of prisoners, looting and theft were rampant, as well as extortion of businessmen and landowners, the things which had always been whitewashed by mainstream media and prominent opposition figures.”
Behind closed doors, these activists admit that they have lost ownership of the revolution. That the majority remain largely muted suggests their disillusion is mixed with a degree of bet-hedging and (even more) saving face. Inter-opposition wrangling and recrimination play into the hands of the regime, which has already won much propaganda mileage out of a few activist defections. The opposition’s ranks, albeit mostly in rhetoric, remain united against Assad.
In fact, though, the activists’ fortunes have already been declining for some time. The rise of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the FSA in the latter months of 2011 helped relegate the young, university-educated idealists, armed with nothing more than their laptops and their conscience, to the bottom of the revolutionary pecking order. The latter had tried to set up their own organisations but these were either too narrowly focused on human-rights work to the detriment of playing a more active political role (as in the case of the Local Coordination Committees [LCCs], run by human-rights lawyer Razan Zaytuna), or unable to create a single representative body (as in the case of the Syrian Revolution General Commission [SRGC], which effectively collapsed).
The sad reality is that the odds were stacked against the activists from the start. They were mostly urban, middle-class and educated, a minority within a largely rural and working-class revolution. The regime’s uncompromising totalitarianism meant that they were neither able to act as interlocutors by extracting real concessions, nor commit wholeheartedly to the armed struggle. Amid the shelling, their initiatives to encourage nonviolent civil disobedience and civil-society empowerment began to appear indulgent, even luxurious. No wonder then, that when the unarmed protests lost centrality in the uprising, many of the more ambitious activists – from sincere conviction, or attracted by by the limelight and the facilities – gravitated towards the opposition’s political or military wings.
Between dream and reality
This tale of shattered dreams is not unique to Syria. The youth that created Tahrir Square were not able to capitalise on their victory, and have seen their march stolen by Islamists and former regime associates. In Tunisia, the young unemployed are beginning to turn against their democratically-elected masters. In Yemen, the game of musical chairs continues to alienate and disgruntle, a Nobel peace-prize notwithstanding. Perhaps, it was all too much to expect from a new and untested generation.
The activists themselves may also be criticised for failing to learn from history. Violent social upheavals do not always bring about lasting and positive change; quite often, they result in power shifting sideways to new elites and new paradigms of governance that are not very different from the old ones. The Russian revolution led to the gulag and the cold war, the Iranian revolution to the rise of an expansionist sectarian theocracy.
Syria’s own history, the 1950s precedent notwithstanding, provides little in the way of optimism. “Syria” and “Syrians” were, in Albert Hourani’s view – referring to the creation of a state by Britain and France after 1918 – “ancient entities but very modern notions.” The societies that inhabited a provincial hinterland of a backward and crumbling empire proved unable to keep pace with the rapid demands of newly-bestowed nation-statehood. The outward appearance of modernity belies a society still wrestling with a host of subnational and supranational loyalties and injustices that are the Ottomans’ legacy to today’s Levantines. A candid look at Syria today reveals a picture of tribal selfishness masquerading as populist nationalism; little wonder that scheming politicians, local toughs and extremists of every kind have prospered, and why violence, vulgarity and bravado have become the order of the day.
Peoples and systems entrenched in power don’t go down without a fight. More than ever Bashar al-Assad deserves to go, but both his regime and the opposition will stop at nothing in their desperation to triumph. Outside observers have been shocked by the levels of wanton cruelty perpetrated on each side, to the extent that they wonder what Syrians now still have in common. The divide is accentuated by propaganda campaigns that focus on rallying core constituencies at the cost of promoting a middle-ground consensus. Events on the ground suggest that Syrians face a grim choice: a regime victory or the destruction of the state.
This presents an acute dilemma for the activists, because in their idealised conception of regime change there is still a firm requirement for, if not a strong dosage of civic awareness, then at the very least a modicum of state cohesion. This dilemma was never felt in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen, where government changed hands but society remained relatively cohesive and consequently the state remained standing. By misjudging the nature of their own society, the activists became actors in a struggle that was stubbornly refusing to play to the rules they had imagined for it.
The day after
Despite all this, it’s not curtains just yet. Almost two years and thousands of videos on, the activists still carry the unique currency of hope. That may seem less powerful than the violence of the FSA rebel warriors, it still matters. For revolutions are in the end judged primarily by what they aspire to and build, not what they destroy.
The uprising may have been lit by events elsewhere, but its fuel is homegrown: rural poverty and (mainly) Sunni discontent. In the end all combatants grow tired of fighting, and a new political order will almost certainly emerge that will address, in one shape or another, the delicate question of how to redistribute political power and national wealth more equitably. This is not a task that angry men with kalashnikovs can do. Wherever it may lead and however long it takes, in the struggle for Syria there will always be a place on the political stage for the champions of rationalism and pragmatism, moderation and compromise. When the guns fall silent, the liberal vision held by the activists is the only one that makes sense for multi-religious, multi-ethnic Syria.
In the race to rescue meaning from the nihilism of civil war, much will depend on whether Syrian activists can turn from disillusioned idealists to aspiring realists. In the process, they may achieve something that has so far eluded the youth of the Arab spring: the creation of a real leadership that advocates inclusive change.
To such an end, forty-five activists launched The Day After project in August 2012. This is an initiative designed to foster a shared vision of Syria’s democratic future, define the goals and principles of a transition, and prepare a detailed yet flexible transition planning document.” It’s a start, though many challenges remain: to frame the conflict within its real real historical and socio-economic roots, and set out out specific policies to address them, thereby laying the foundations for an enlightened settlement. In this regard, the younger generation of activists face a long road, and the moral qualities that motivated them in the early days of the Syrian uprising – as well as the tougher political ones picked up along the way – will be needed if they are to become agents of what Montesquieu called “a deeper immanent tendency of their society in motion.”
In truth, Samir and his colleagues may not see the fruits of their labour until they are well into middle age. But if the Syrian revolution is to grow up, it will still need the young men and women who once claimed it as their own.
In the same week as Prince Harry’s nudity made it onto the front page of the UK’s biggest selling newspaper, an equally racy expose was made on a Syrian news website involving a naked rebel commander and his laptop.
The commander in question is little known outside the Middle East, but 25-year old Abdulrazaq Tlass (pictured) is the undisputed poster-child of one of the largest groups in the Free Syrian Army: the much-vaunted Farouk Brigades. He is a brave and handsome lieutenant who led the successful defence of Homs against Assad‘s hordes of army and shabiha. Recently, and to signal a growing religious piety, he took to sporting a beard in the Salafist fashion.
So when he decided to go online and engage in a spot of Skype sex sometime in mid-August, little did he know that regime hackers had installed spyware that enabled them to capture images from his webcam. The recording found its way online and one opposition news website decided to run with it.
Terribly embarrassing it may have been for him, at a time of revolution personal indiscretions are easily forgiven. A public apology would have helped, but in the end Syrian media activists like myself decided that, big-picture wise, it wasn’t worth the fuss.
What happened after that made me, a dyed-in-the-wool opponent of Assad, question the motives of those leading the revolution to oust him.
Three days after the video was posted on the Internet, Lt. Tlass issued a video response in which he, quite straight-faced, claimed that the entire recording was a regime fabrication aimed at besmirching the reputation of revolutionary figures. Assad’s accomplices in this cheap propaganda trick were Russia and China, “who supplied him with the technology to do such things.” In the words of Shaggy, it wasn’t me.
At this point it might be worth reminding ourselves of what Lt. Tlass had done wrong. He used a laptop and satellite Internet connection donated by Syrian expats to conduct an online sexual liaison. He sort-of cheated on his wife with an unidentified female, though the rumour points to a journalist in Turkey. He displayed a gross lack of judgement and brought the FSA into disrepute.
All that, however, was dwarfed by the simple fact that he lied. The intelligence of millions of Syrians was trumped by his sense of personal honour; he actually wanted us to believe that his word outweighed video evidence. The audacity, the gall, the bare-cheeked effrontery of it, was remarkable.
Equally remarkable was the reaction of the Syrian opposition, office-holders and humble activists alike, who launched into vulgar verbal tirades against anyone who dared question Lt Tlass’ character. “His shoes are more honourable than you dirty scoundrels” was one comment left on the opposition news website that dared to post the video. “You are Assad’s dogs and whores. Why do you make up lies about the opposition? Who is paying you?” screamed another.
The journalist who called for his resignation was bombarded by over one thousand abusive messages on his Facebook page, some even demanding he be hanged as a traitor. Those less shrill dismissed the video as a fabrication, and calmly asserted that even if it was genuine “who among us has not wronged?” It was a case of a public corruption passing off as private misdemeanour.
The big taboo
Assad’s propaganda machine spent the first few months of the uprising trying to convince the world that protest footage aired on Al-Jazeera was fake. It went as far as to claim that a giant Hollywood set of famous Syrian landmarks had been erected in Doha as part of a US-Zionist-Wahhabi wag-the-dog conspiracy. It didn’t quite wash, but it wasn’t all together unexpected coming from a regime that accused teenage bloggers of being Mossad agents.
Naturally, one would assume that the opposition would be radically different. They would champion free and independent media reporting as part of a wider vision for a post-Assad Syria that centered on freedom of expression and public accountability. Unfortunately, experience of working within the opposition media machine has shown that that vision is lacking.
The Syrian opposition runs at least seven satellite television channels and scores of news websites. But if you want to know what the opposition is up to, you’re better served trawling Facebook where you can pick up half-truths and hearsay. Voices that criticize opposition leaders (and there is much to be critical of) or that shed light on the internal workings of opposition organizations such as the Syrian National Council, have been quietly hushed. Rocking the boat is taboo.
In February of this year, an Istanbul-based member of the SNC Executive Committee, the highest body in the organization, claimed on Al-Jazeera that his brother in Aleppo has been murdered by the regime. A Barada TV investigation that I oversaw however, revealed that it was the FSA itself that carried out the hit because it believed his brother was a financier of the shabiha. Family honour dictated that the SNC leader suppress this news, and so he lied. He did so because he thought he could get away with it.
And he did. He threatened to sue the channel if it broadcast the story and promised swift political retribution on all those associated with the investigation. The channel’s management caved in, and an hour before it was due to be aired the story was spiked and replaced with something less offensive.
This was by no means an isolated incident. Eighteen months of self-censorship has meant that gross incompetence, petty squabbling, vote-buying, clientelism, embezzlement of funds, and yes, lying to the world by members of Syria’s opposition has gone unreported and unaccounted. The result has been a break down of trust between the political opposition and the grassroots, and a strained relationship with the West – and the revolution as a whole has suffered for it. The Abdulrazaq Tlass affair shows that the rot has now infected the FSA.
At stake is the kind of media that will emerge in a future, democratic Syria. Opposition media activists should not be impervious to the risks of cosying up to the revolutionary figures of today who may turn into the dictators of tomorrow. There is a balance that can and should be struck between robust and responsible journalism and not handing the regime a propaganda victory. If the Syrian revolution is genuinely about freedom and democracy, those claiming to be its champions should live up to its ideals.
How do we explain the de facto civil war unfolding in Syria today? How do we predict what course it will take? How can we come up with viable and long-term solutions?
A good starting point would be to compare Syria with a country that bears a striking resemblance: Lebanon. This may seem surprising because the two countries (and two peoples) appear to be different.
Syrians regard themselves as being superior to Lebanese because their country suppresses confessional and ethnic identities in favour of a secular and all-embracing Arabism.
The Lebanese on the other hand look at the Syrians and they pity. Fortress Damascus is not a good place if you value creativity and free expression; it is the GDR of the Levant.
Broadly speaking, Syria is about unity, Lebanon is about freedom.
In reality, these differences developed only in the last 90 years of political and social evolution. What Syria and Lebanon have in common is grounded in centuries of shared experience: as part of the Greco-Roman world and then the Islamic, the last chapter of which was 400 years of of Ottoman Turkish rule. In 1920, both fell under the French mandate.
Something else they had in common was significant groups of non-Sunni Muslim minorities, who chafed under Ottoman Turkish rule and who had vowed never to fall under Sunni Muslim over-lordship again.
It was during the formative Mandate years (1920-46) that non-Sunni Muslim minorities (Christians, Alawites, Druze, Ismai’lis) began to develop survival strategies to adapt to the reality of living in a new political entity: the nation state. It is by recognizing and analyzing these survival strategies and their long-term consequences that one can trace the historic roots of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) and the Syrian civil war (2011-present).
The minoritarian order
After the retreat of the Ottoman Turks from the Levant in 1918, Non-Sunni Muslim minorities faced an acute dilemma: how to survive and flourish within societies that were overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
The Maronites of Mount Lebanon came up with a survival strategy that was not at all original: cessation. They successfully lobbied France not to remain part of Sunni-majority Syria but to be given a state where they could enjoy a monopoly on political power. Thus, the State of Greater Lebanon was born, later to become the Republic of Lebanon.
At the time of its creation, it had a slim Maronite Christian majority, yet the distribution of wealth and power was weighed heavily in their favour. Despite its outwardly secular constitution, it was a country created because of religion, and its various sects competed with one another for wealth and power within the framework of a liberal (albeit flawed) democracy.
For the non-Sunni Muslim minorities of Syria, it was a different story. The Alawites and Druze initially went along with French plans to have their own mini states, but the hostility of the economically influential Damascene and Aleppine bourgeoisie scuttled plans for independence. Long-term discrimination and neglect by the Ottomans denied the Alawites and Druze the chance to form their own states, while quasi-independence under the Ottomans and long-term French patronage enabled the Maronite Christians to “fly the roost”. Politically and economically the non-Sunni Muslims of Syria were too weak to go it alone.
The Alawites and Druze opted to be part of a unified Syrian Republic not out of choice, but out of necessity. They still had to meet the challenge of surviving and thriving in a Sunni Muslim-majority country where democracy entitles them only to a minority share of political power; not enough to guarantee that the Ottoman experience will never be repeated.
Instead of seeking independence as the Lebanese Christians had done, the non-Sunni Muslim minorities in Syria did quite the opposite: they embraced a secular, socialist brand of pan-Arabism and adopted it as their own. The Ba’th Party became a magnate for young, aspiring and poor Alawites, Druze and Ismai’lis who were drawn to the party’s secular and egalitarian creed.
By adopting pan-Arabism, the minorities had performed a great feat of one-upmanship; they had demonstrated to the Sunni Muslims that they were uber-patriots, prepared to relinquish centuries-old sectarian loyalties for the benefit of the entire Arab nation. By appearing to be so, they laid down a challenge to the Sunni Muslim majority to live up to this ideal vision of Syrian patriotism.
In reality, it was all a ruse. At first the Ba’th Party campaigned on issues of social justice such as agrarian reforms, which benefited poor Sunnis as well as impoverished Alawite peasants. But the minorities were not content with remaining as farmers. The religious minorities of Syria were still very much obsessed with the Ottoman trauma, and nothing short of a complete capture of power would allay their fears of once more becoming second-class citizens. One state institution was open to them: the military. It was through an active mass enlistment campaign, and a simultaneous policy of de-Sunnification of the officer corps following the 1963 Ba’th Party coup, that enabled religious minorities to first catch glimpse of the political power that they could enjoy under the guise of pan-Arabism and class warfare.
Ultimate power would eventually be won by a certain Hafiz Assad, a scheming Ba’thist air force pilot and son of a minor Alawite notable.
The centre cannot hold
The religious minorities in modern-day Syria and Lebanon responded differently to the challenge of surviving and thriving in a sea of Muslim. In Lebanon, the answer was secession; in Syria, it was pan-Arab unity. They were two different approaches to dealing with the same essential problem.
Despite the fact that they had lost political power, the Muslim bourgeois business and religious elite of Damascus and Aleppo did not resist the minoritarian order established by Hafiz Assad. Instead, they carved their own niche as the useful religo-merchant class: those who kept the economy ticking over, shared in the administration of the state and oversaw Muslim religious affairs – all the while enjoying the privileges of being junior partners in the mafia state run by an Alawite godfather.
Assad pursued a systematic policy of positive discrimination for religious minorities. In Assad’s Syria, it paid to be a Christian or an Alawite because it meant you had considerably better access to state patronage, both in the civil service and the military. Over a forty year period, this led to a disproportionate number of non-Sunnis becoming members of the elite. The Syrian novelist and former political prisoner Mustafa Khalifa notes in this excellent Arabic article that Christians in Syria currently represent only five per cent of the total population but account for 15-20 per cent of the bourgeoisie. A similar pattern can be drawn for Alawites and Druze. For the non-Muslim minorities, Syria was their country, it was their project.
Unlike poor Alawites, Druze or Christians, the Sunni Muslim working class had little ideological affinity with Assad’s Syria. Their conservative instincts are informed by unofficial religious education, supplemented by many hours of watching religious satellite channels and reinforced by weekly sermons at the mosque. For them, only religion bestowed real legitimacy upon a political order. The one that rules Syria today is run by “heretical” Alawites who managed to shift public discourse in a decisively secular direction, and by definition, in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the religious majority.
The order held, however, because it was able to contain the Sunni Muslim working class through a twin policy of repression by a multitude of security forces, and by providing the basics cheaply: food, water, housing, electricity and fuel. With rapid population growth, rampant corruption and the end of Soviet patronage, Assad was less able to provide these essentials to placate the masses. The Sunni Muslim “proles” in this Oceania bore the brunt of economic liberalisation reforms, which resulted in an exponential rise in prices and a net decline in purchasing power.
Poor Sunni Muslim farmers ached under the strain of increasing fuel and pesticide costs, a situation exasperated by several years of virtual drought (2007-2009) All the while, wealth and political power were concentrated in the hands of a globalised, minoritarian clique, represented most grotesquely in the figure of Assad’s billionaire cousin and Syria’s mister ten-percent, Rami Makhlouf.
The Sunni working class is a mixture of farmers, day labourers, small shop keepers, mechanics, taxi drivers, tradesmen, and of course, the unemployed. Because they had little money, they could not buy influence with the Alawite military elite as the wealthier Sunnis of Damascus and Aleppo had done.
Many lived in shabby and over crowded neighborhoods like Baba Amr in Homs for instance, or in small and dusty towns that enjoyed few amenities like Jisr Al-Shughur in Idlib. Because the doors of state patronage was locked to them, they felt the heavy hand of undeclared but institutional sectarian discrimination more than most. They watched on satellite television the unfolding of the Arab revolutions and saw an historic opportunity to turn the tables on the minoritarian order.
The first large-scale demonstration was held in Deraa on 18th March, and the chant was “Syria’s protector is its thief!” – essentially an economic demand. The fact that it grew rapidly into a nation-wide protest movement to topple the regime as a whole has much to do with the disillusionment of the Sunni Muslim working class with its living standard, and the most obvious lesson of the Arab Spring: that the hated mukhabarat secret police can be defeated, and that the West was willing to lend a hand.
The “Syrian revolution” is a revolt by Syria’s Sunni Muslim working class, which have fared poorly under the minoritarian order. The Assad mafia state has proved to be particularly prejudicial to their interests: the inequity in the distribution of political power and economic wealth was too stark, and too unjust. It is against this order (and not the Alawites per se) that the uprising in Syria aims to bring down. The survival strategy developed by religious minorities in post-colonial Syria has failed because it did not evolve new mechanisms to share wealth and political power with a rapidly growing and an increasingly aspirational Sunni Muslim population.
Lebanon was, in the words of the brilliant historian Albert Hourani, a lost star from the Ottoman galaxy. So too is Syria. The sectarian balance of power, so carefully maintained under the Ottoman millet system, has been shaken; the consequences are not difficult to predict. Look no further than to Lebanon circa 1975, when the entry of the heavily armed Palestinian Sunni Muslims into the sectarian melting pot created volatility in the system, causing a civil war that lasted for 15 years. It only ended in 1989 when a new political order was established following the signing of the Taif Agreement in Saudi Arabia, which established a more equitable distribution of wealth and political power between Christians and Muslims.
In Syria today there is a conflict of wills: the desire by a minority to remain free of majority domination, and a majority no longer willing to pay the price for that minoritarian privilege For both sides, it is first and foremost a struggle for survival. On the ground this battle is being fought with street protests but increasingly with bullets, tanks and roadside bombs. In the media, it is fought euphemistically, using the language of “democracy” and “human rights”, “salafists” and “terrorists”, “shabiha” and “Arourites”, etc. Neither side is willing to be honest and admit to the sad reality of the situation because that would be considered too “Lebanese”, unbefitting of a proud Syrian.
On January 26th 2012 I participated in a BBC College of Journalism panel discussion on Syria. The attendance consisted of senior BBC journalists and broadcasters, some of whom are household names in the UK. What they were looking for was a nuanced understanding of what is happening in Syria from experts, which goes beyond the superficial and the cliche.
On the panel was Dr Fawaz Gerges of the LSE, who offered his own reading of the situation. Then it was my turn. This is what I had to say:
I looked at the Syrian revolution from a historian’s perspective and asked myself: how would historians in 30-40 years’ time explain the remarkable events that we are now witnessing? It is difficult to make those kind of judgements without the benefit of hindsight, but I had a go.
My reading is that the Syrian revolution is the revolution of the rural Sunni working classes against the Alawite-dominated military elite and the urban bourgeoisie (both Muslim and Christian) that has profited from the Assad dictatorship.
I make the case that the Syrian opposition, itself an elite group, albeit political/intellectual, is almost as fearful of the revolution as the regime itself because of the wide-sweeping social change that will follow a collapse of the status quo. That is why its role in the revolution is more mediator than leader.
Genuine democracy in Syria will usher in a new elite that will give political expression to disenfranchised sections of society, who in turn, will transform the nature and identity of the Syrian state. This is why regime loyalists (and some within the Syrian opposition intelligentsia) find the revolution to be so dangerous.
The collapse of the regime may not come soon because the social groups that represent the backbone of Assad’s Syria are still cohesive and believe in the Assad regime’s ability to survive. It is not so much belief in Bashar Al-Assad as blind faith in the system.
However, if Assad falls, it will be as a result of regional and international consensus on the need to remove him from power. That consensus has not yet been reached, and it may never be reached.
Keeping the system or ditching it is a separate question all together. Assad’s Syria without Assad is a scenario currently being floated by the political opposition and the west.
The success of the Syrian revolution is not a foregone conclusion. The regime is bolstered by Iran and Russia, and indirectly, by Israel’s better-the-devil-you-know attitude. It is also encouraged by the west’s reluctance to commit to military intervention – quite possibly the only effective deterrent that Assad will take seriously.
A lot will depend on Syrians’ ability to organize themselves and speak with one voice. The signs so far are not encouraging. The political opposition has not been able to offer a convincing narrative of what the Syrian revolution is about and what kind of Syria they wish to create. Simply saying that it is a revolution for democracy and human rights is not enough – the question is: whose democracy and whose human rights?
This may all sound too academic but unfortunately, this is what it takes to truly understand the Byzantine nature of Syrian politics and society. In other words, to make sense of the Syrian revolution.
Far from the five-star hotel opposition conferences, the real opposition in Syria is making its voice heard. In what is known as “rural Damascus” (Rif Dimashq), a Times reporter met with local protest organisers affiliated to the Syrian Revolution Co-ordination Union (SRCU), a youth organization that is leading the revolution in Syria.
The town of Zabadani and the nearby village of Madaya are tourist hotspots frequented by the Damascene middle class and Gulf Arab visitors who enjoy its cool mountain air and stunning views over a valley irrigated by fresh spring water. Now however, there are no tourists, just disillusioned young men who demand one thing: freedom.
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The report is very telling about the nature of the Syrian Revolution and who is leading it. It is not intellectuals in Damascus or in exile, nor even the much-vaunted Local Co-ordination Committees (mentioned by Hillary Clinton in a recent article), which the local youths accuse of “hijacking” their cause, but young Syrians who come from very ordinary backgrounds who have borne the brunt of mukhabarat oppression.
This is not a peasant revolt – these young men are very media savvy and very well-organized. But they are driven by an instinctive desire to live in freedom. Theirs is not a revolution inspired by ideologues or led by politicians, but it is the natural result of a system that has always viewed them as “germs” and which has denied them the opportunities to better themselves. In the words of the youth leaders in Zabadani: “They treat us like we are nothing. But now we are going to make something of this country.”