Home > Syrian uprising > How I understand the Syrian revolution

How I understand the Syrian revolution

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.

Categories: Syrian uprising
  1. John Nesbit
    March 1, 2012 at 11:07 pm

    What working class are you talking about? Syria has no working class as it has no industry properly speaking. It will turn into another Iraq with no US troops to police it.

    • March 2, 2012 at 9:11 am

      So what does Syria have in terms of classes then?

      • March 2, 2012 at 12:41 pm

        Syria, like any country, has poor people and rich people and those in between. From what I have seen for the last 12 months, most of the demonstrations are by poor (working class) people. In particular, the rural working class (farmers, shopkeepers, labourers, etc.) have been the most enthusiastic supporters of the revolution. That is not to say that the middle class has not got involved. They have, But they tend to be the lower middle class (minor gov’t employees, teachers, pharmacists, etc.) As a proportion of the population, they are tiny compared to the wide swath of the population which is working class.

        What is also interesting is that the most rebellious urban areas are those that are populated by rural migrants to cities. Baba Amr district in Homs for instance is predominantly populated by those from bedouin origins who have migrated to Homs in search for jobs. They are very much on the fringes of society in the sense that they have very little say in government and are marginalized.

  2. christiab
    March 2, 2012 at 7:08 am

    Fatchedecon, is it the Guardian i’m reading ? i wonder how keen on a revolution you’d dare to be concerning any other country in the world, whether bourgeois or genuine. Colvin, Bouvier and their colleagues turned communists, i can hardly stomach, but you ?

  3. Mehdi
    March 3, 2012 at 1:47 am

    Hi, I am an Arab and I would like to comment on your understanding.

    The vast majority in Syria are Pro-regime and Bashar al Asad is much loved among Syrians. It’s not me who is saying it, people who got a good background knowledge about Syria know that perfectly well, please read the quotation from the U.S Embassy in Damascus website

    “The Asad regime (little has changed since Bashar Al-Asad succeeded his father) has held power longer than any other Syrian government since independence; its survival is due partly to a strong desire for stability and the regime’s success in giving groups such as religious minorities and peasant farmers a stake in society. The expansion of the government bureaucracy has also created a large class loyal to the regime.”

    Check POLITICAL CONDITIONS http://damascus.usembassy.gov/syr-bknote.html

    There were peaceful demonstrations in Syria demanding reforms, but they were interrupted by armed groups, mainly represented by Muslim Brotherhood and western mercenaries, or whatever name you like to call them.

    Muslim Brotherhood is an armed opposition and they have always had conflicts with the regime. You should go back to history and read the conflicts between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood in early 1980’s.

    So, in a nutshell, most Syrians are pro-regime. Some demanded reforms peacefully and Assad has instantly reacted positively. The problem is now with the armed oppositions (mainly muslim brotherhood) and western mercenaries, or whatever you like to call them. This is why they refuse every reforms Bashar makes.

    Syria reply to the independent

    check number 5

  4. sd
    March 3, 2012 at 6:06 am

    I don’t give a stuff if you are Arab. Most Syrians are oppressed and have been for generations by a regime with a pervasive security apparatus that uses torture routinely. If you want to quote US websites, read the United States State Department Human Rights practices reports for Syria for the last ten years, issued annually by the State Department.

    As a non-Arab, I am tired of Middle Eastern regimes continuing to blame their lack of fundamental human rights, and I mean fundamental, not Western, on their colonial past of several generations past. The oil money that has been wasted on propping up kingdoms, emirates and dictatorships – when it could have been used on education, scientific research, health and welfare – is absolutely shameful. I understand that that Syria, Lebanon and Egypt are dusty backwaters, but the rest of the Mid East should rival Norway in terms of living standards for everyone, not just the political and religious elite or princes.

    • March 5, 2012 at 4:55 pm

      I have a bone to pick with you with regard to the “dusty backwaters” comment about Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. WTF! Get some geography in you bruv!

  5. Dan
    March 3, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    To sd above. You say “The oil money that has been wasted on propping up kingdoms, emirates and dictatorships – when it could have been used on education, scientific research, health and welfare – is absolutely shameful.”

    For me what is absolutely shameful is western governments continue to place sanctions on countries to help facilitate regime change that they know will only affect the people they say they are trying to protect. The west should stay out of Arab affairs, but they can’t because of the mineral wealth they wish to steal. They can’t just say we are going to steal this wealth so they invent reasons to get involved and try and portray themselves as morally upstanding when the truth is the opposite, they are thieves.

  6. Mehdi
    March 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    The following reply is to SD.

    Have you considered speaking to Syrians regarding them being oppressed? I bet you didn’t. If you do, you will know that there are too many Syrians love their regime.

    The quotation is from the U.S Embassy in Damascus, this is not a so hard information that the embassy would get it wrong, anyone who got a good background knowledge about Syria know that, there is no reason for the embassy to lie about that, Syria is not a friend of America.

    On the other hand, the U.S Human Rights is not objective, do they focus on their crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Bahrain the same way they did with Al-Basheer? obviously not!

    Regarding the oil rich countries, let me ask you this questions, do you know how these countries were in the 1960’s? they were under British Mandate and people were poor. Take Oman as an example, before 1970 we had only two schools, one road from Mutrrah to the old city of Muscat, one american hospital, that’s it. Today we have schools everywhere, we have hospitals, we have businesses, we have electricity, we can open the tap and get water…. READ A BOOK CALLED ‘REFOMER ON THE THRONE’ FOR Sergey Plekhanov.

    Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine have educated people. Their problem is the resources and the wars with Israel.

    I advice you to learn more before making general judgments.

  7. Mehdi
    March 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm


    You are totally right. The western powers do not have good intentions, they just do things for their own good. This is why they don’t speak about Bahrain, they don’t want a regime change there as the regime is their alley and U.S has military bases there.


    Also, Obama was a joke in his speech on Egypt, he tried to avoid the word ‘democracy’ because Mubarak was western alley, at the same time he did not want to be against the people, just not to be in trouble if Mubarak falls. There was a fear in Israel as Mubarak stepped down, and Obama met Jordan’s king Abdullah to fill the vacuum.


  8. Mehdi
    March 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Check this out


    You should also check all the pro-bashar pages on Facebook.

  9. londoner25
    March 3, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    Wouldn’t it be good if Jenny Tonge could suspend her hatred for Israel and her implicit rejection of its right to exist and show some concern for civilians under attack by their own government in Syria? But no, for her Syrai is fine , Iran is cool………..

  10. vivien alsibahie
    March 5, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Perhaps it would be better to make it clear that Malik Al Abdeh is a member of Muslim Brotherhood from Madia (smugglers area in the suburbs of Damascus) he is responsible for arranging and supplying money and arms from backers such as Saudi and Qatar to terrorists in Lebanon to smuggle into Syria with the sole aim of killing and destruction, his brother Anas AlAbdeh being a terrorist member of the SNC. Any comment he makes is only an extension of his and his employers agenda

    • March 5, 2012 at 4:51 pm

      Classic Syrian official black propaganda i.e. stupid. So Madia, which you don’t even know how to pronounce, has become a “smugglers” den. And of course, true to his roots from “Madia”, he is now smuggling the Qatari and Saudi funds to terrorists.
      But i really liked a “terrorist member of the SNC”. You should take out copyrights on this one.

  11. Mohammad Ahmad
    March 5, 2012 at 1:32 am

    Dear all
    Lets start learning about the following massacres by the Assad family:
    1-Tal alzaatar, Lebanon ,1976, 5000 Palestinians were slaughtered, by Assad Syrian katiusha Rockets.
    2- Sawfar and bhamdoun ,1976, 2000 Palestinians and Lebaneese slaughtered, in the mountains, by Assad Syrian Regime.
    3- Saida, 1976, 1500 Lebaneese slaughtered, by the Assad Syrian Regime.
    4- Ra’as alnabea, Beirut,1976, 1000 Lebaneese, slaughtered, by Assad Syrian Rockets. One of the rockets came into my flat , on the fifth floor.
    5- Ashrafiah, Beirut, April to June,1978, 2500 Lebaneese Christians slaughtered by Syrian Katiusha Rockets.
    6- Tadmur, 1980, 1000, prisoners, killed in the desert, by the Assad Regime.
    7-Aleppo, 73 killed, by the Assad Regime, 01/08/1980,
    8-Hama ,February 1982, 40 000, Syrians slaughtered by the Assad Regime.
    9- Sabra and Shatila camps, 1984- 1986, 4000 Palestinians starved and slaughtered by the Amal Militia, who were given orders, by the Assad Syrian regime.
    10- Tripoli, Lebanon, 1984 -1987, 5000 Lebaneese and Palestinians slaughtered by the Assad regime.
    11- Presidential Lebaneese Palace area, Baabda, Lebanon, December1990-January1991, 300 slaughtered by Syrian Fighters.
    12-Renez Moawwad, Basheer Jamayeel, Kamal Junbulat, Mufty, Hassan Khaled and others were bombed and assasinated by the Assad family, in the 1970s and 1980s.
    13-Sednaya Prison, 150 killed by Maher Al Assad, in Prison.
    14-Deraa, Hama, Homs, Latakia, Talbissah, Der Alzoor, Idlib,….etc, March 2011 untill present 7000 demonstrators, women and children killed and massacred in their own homes and streets, 20000 injured, 100000 kidnapped and taken to Iran, by the Assad family regime.

  12. Mohammad Ahmad
    March 5, 2012 at 1:50 am

    Why do not the Assad Family and their allies allow journalists to discuss these massacres openly on Western and Arabic TV Stations. There are thousands and thousands of documents in UN and Lahai courts, that can prove what massacres, have been committed, that I have just mentioned, in my last comment.
    By the way, I have not even mentioned the bombs that the Iraqi governments accused the Syrian Regime, committing in Iraq, in the last 6 years.

  13. gus
    March 5, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Mehdi seems to think that the number of pro bashar pages on facebook or a statement on the us embassy website constitutes evidence that bashar is “much loved” – it reminds me of the interview Jeremy Bowen had with Qadhaffi where he said “my people love me!”. True, Assad still has substantial support – this can be divided into two – a small minority of ‘die hards’ who ‘love’ their president, having been spoon-fed years of state propaganda – the rest, who support the regime purely out of fear.

    Whilst I agree that the West has its own reasons for taking the stances it has (as do Qatar and Saudi) to say that Bashar “instantly reacted positively” to the protests is beyond a joke. As will thousands and thousands of you tube videos and news reports testify (and no, before you say it, al jazeera have not built a Homs set and staged fake protests there).

    Malik, I agree that class is at the root of the revolution – another example is Hajr al Aswad in Damascus where there have also been big protests in recent days. The majority of residents there are Bedouins and ‘gypsies’, on the margins of society and discrimated against on all sides.

  14. Azam
    March 5, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    good analysis…syria will turn into taliban land if the west intervenes
    time the west stays of the civil war and leave the saudis to fund their twister version of petro religion

    • Ahmad
      March 7, 2012 at 4:37 am

      Syria will be taliban land if the West does not interfere soon to stop the killing in Syria, as fighters from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia have started pouring in to help defend the victimized Syrian Sunnis against the pro-Iran Alawite Assad regime..

  15. March 7, 2012 at 8:10 am

    You doubtless changed the world! Sorry for the sarc, maybe you are a genuine journalist but they barely exist at the BBC.

    If they did, they’d be all over this story … (and if you are, so would you.)

    “CIA: Yup, 9/11 was an Inside Job”


    shortlink: guv.li/911cia

    A former CIA anti-terrorism asset has gone on record saying 9/11 was an inside job planned from the Oval Office.

    The CIA’s Susan Lindauer directly implicates President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney-General John Ashcroft, among others, in a treasonous “false flag” conspiracy geared to paving the way for war.

    “It’s not like [top US officials] just spontaneously wired the World Trade Center [with thermite explosives]. They knew [a terrorist attack] was coming and they wanted to ensure there was maximum damage when it hit. They knew they were gonna use the airplanes as cover to demolish the buildings. […] The hijackers got a lot of help.”

    The implication is that it is through the context of the later war with Iraq that the troubled tangle of 9/11 misinformation may best be unpicked. Currently deciding the outcome of the UK-based Iraq Enquiry, also known as the Chilcott Enquiry, it will be interesting to see if Sir John Chilcott agrees.

    * The motivation for 9/11: “War with Iraq”

    “The agenda was that when this attack happened they were going to war with Iraq.”

    … et cetera …



  16. Mohammad Ahmad
    March 7, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    We need to approach the Syrian Bourgoisies, especially in Aleppo and Damascus, and convince them to support this revolution for the benefit of all Syrians. They have to know that we cannot go back to bribery, dictatorship and corruption. We want transparency. These Bourgoisies are the ones who can ” pull the rug from under Bashar’s feet”. Please do not miss this opportunity. This chance might not come back for another 40 years.

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