Archive for the ‘Syrian uprising’ Category

My latest for Open Democracy: Syria, the activists grow up

November 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Published: 14th November 2012
The course of Syria’s revolution since its idealistic early days has been a painful learning experience for many young activists, says Malik al-Abdeh.

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.

Categories: Syrian uprising

My front page feature for The Majalla: The Media War in Syria

The Majalla Magazine

The Media War in Syria

The conflict has exacerbated the media tussle between two opposing camps in the region


Exactly a year after the breakout of the Syrian uprising, Al-Arabiya TV did something extraordinary: it broadcast blow-by-blow details of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s emails that were leaked by opposition hackers. The emails contained sensitive information about the regime’s security plans, the state of the Syrian economy and embarrassing revelations about Asma Al-Assad’s extravagant online shopping sprees. The conflict in Syria has exacerbated the media tussle between two opposing camps in the region: the so-called “moderate” Arab states and the “resistance axis.”Arab media traditionally avoids stories that involve personal attacks on Arab heads of state, but in this instance Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya broke all the taboos. It was as close as you could get to a declaration of war.

The conflict in Syria has exacerbated the media tussle between two opposing camps in the region: the so-called “moderate” Arab states and the “resistance axis.” On one side, Syrian opposition satellite channels and Gulf-financed news networks are supportive of the uprising; on the other are the Syrian regime’s broadcasters plus those owned or funded by its chief ally, Iran.

For the past 18 months opposing armies of professional journalists and amateur activists have slugged it out across the airwaves and over the Internet, their stories are their slingshots. Traditional and new media have been deployed in this fight, and cyber warfare has been waged by both sides. It is a clash of two mutually irreconcilable narratives.

Martyrology: The Syrian opposition media

A central component of the Syrian opposition’s strategy for victory against Assad was control of the media narrative. Their calculations were informed by lessons learned in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, which suggested that framed correctly, the West would intervene to support a “popular revolution” to overthrow the Syrian dictator—by force if necessary. As a result, what began as a limited demonstration over a local grievance in the southern city of Dara’a quickly developed into a nation-wide anti-Assad protest movement.

For the opposition’s media, the key objective was to win Western and Arab solidarity by ensuring massive coverage of the protest movement on television—and the regime’s brutal attempts to crush it. This was especially important given that foreign journalists based in Syria were not permitted to visit areas where demonstrations were taking place. Those who tried, like Al-Jazeera English’s Dorothy Parvaz, were arrested and deported. Only the regime’s own reporters were allowed to tell the world what was happening, and they were saying that no demonstrations were taking place. The reaction from the opposition was a whirlwind of amateur video on the Internet, proving the opposite.

Having previously headed the Syrian Computer Society, Bashar Al-Assad was acutely aware of the subversive potential of the Internet. Under his reign, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were banned along with dozens of opposition and independent news websites. Activists hit back with use of proxy servers and anonymzing software to circumvent online censorship—but in a country where only 17 percent of the population have access to the Internet, satellite television remains the mass communication medium of choice.

Having previously headed the Syrian Computer Society, Bashar Al-Assad was acutely aware of the subversive potential of the Internet.

Visitors to Syria are struck by the number of satellite dishes on rooftops, and it is through these that Syrians watch uncensored news and comment. If the opposition wanted to convey its message most effectively, it needed pictures to get the satellite television channels interested.

Rather than waiting for the journalists to visit them—which was a near impossibility given the regime’s ban on journalists entering the country—the protesters used social media to reach out to the journalists instead. Twitter and Facebook may have played an important role in the Egyptian revolution, but in Syria the uprising is on YouTube. The visual nature of this video-sharing website lent itself perfectly to delivering stories to satellite news channels like Al-Arabiya or BBC Arabic, which hankered after footage of demonstrations to accompany eyewitness accounts. However, editorial controls meant restrictions on the use of user-generated content, and the networks invariably always qualified the footage with talk about not being able to independently verify authenticity. This spurred the creation of activist news agencies that were essentially groups of amateur, media-savvy young Syrians running YouTube channels under names such as Sham News Network, Flash News Network and Ugarit—to name but a few. Their job was to receive, verify, edit, and contextualize raw film into useable footage that satellite news channels would feel more confident airing.

The way in which the opposition controlled and exploited graphic images of dead or dying civilians proved to be its most effective recruiting sergeant. The massacre at Izra’, near Dara’a, on 22 April 2011 was a defining moment in the Syrian uprising. That evening, images were broadcast on all the major satellite news channels showing an anguished father carrying the body of his son, who had been shot in the head. It was the sort of image designed to induce an instant emotional response from the viewer; it certainly succeeded in convincing many young Syrians to protest in solidarity.

A few weeks later, the body of 13-year old Hamza Al-Khatib, who had been arrested, was returned to his family a swollen and badly bruised corpse. His family said that they were instructed by the mukhabarat (secret police) to remain quiet, but instead they filmed the autopsy and uploaded it onto YouTube. There were other tortured children, like Thamer Al-Shari’, a citizen journalists who had been shot like Rami Al-Sayid, and protest leaders who had their throats cut, like Ibrahim Qashush. Even dead foreign journalists were considered “martyrs of the free media,” the most famous being the Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin. More martyrs meant more rousing videos of martyrs and more reasons to challenge Assad’s rule. In their millions, the protesters chanted the now-ubiquitous slogan of the Arab Spring: “The people want the downfall of the regime!”

Images from Syria taken by amateur cameramen, often on mobile phones, were always carefully vetted by the activist news agencies to fit a specific narrative. This was that the country was undergoing a peaceful, non-sectarian, all-Syrian revolution that aimed to bring about the end of a bloody dictatorship and usher in an era of “freedom and dignity.” This narrative has hardly ever changed. What freedom and dignity meant in practical political terms, and what effect they would have on existing socio-economic structures, was neither asked nor made clear. The opposition’s narrative was successful inasmuch as it won over Arab and international solidarity, but as the conflict enters a civil war phase, the extent to which it remains factually correct is open to question.

Resistance versus moderation: Arab reporting on Syria

The key battleground in the media war remains, predictably, satellite television. At the start of the uprising, the Syrian opposition had two dedicated satellite channels: Barada and Orient. Meanwhile, the regime had its own state-run broadcaster, and could rely on privately-owned Addounia to toe the official line, as it can with a number of Iranian-funded channels. The rank of opposition satellite channels has since swelled to nine, and it includes religious-leaning channels, such as Shada Al-Houriya (which hosts firebrand preacher Adnan Arour), to local channels that focus on revolutionary activity in a specific region of Syria, such as Aleppo Today or Deir Ezzour TV. For the opposition, the two most significant recruits of all were the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera news networks, by far the most-viewed news networks in the Arab world.

The decisions by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to utilize their media assets to hasten Assad’s demise represent the most significant development in the media war between regime and opposition. For Al-Arabiya, the turning point came in August 2011 when the channel broadcast the content of a message by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, which condemned Assad’s “killing machine” and called on the Syrian leadership to “see sense before it was too late.” This immediately reflected upon Al-Arabiya’s coverage of the Syrian uprising, which up until that point had been broadly sympathetic to the opposition but stopped well short of endorsement. The channel’s subsequent championing of the Syrian uprising certainly raised the morale of the opposition, but it the Arab political legitimacy bestowed upon its struggle through television endorsement that became the opposition’s real prize.

The decisions by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to utilize their media assets to hasten Assad’s demise represent the most significant development in the media war between regime and opposition.

Joining the fray, the two pan-Arab heavyweights clashed head-on with their “resistance axis.” Unintended consequences became inevitable. Al-Arabiya was able to survive and thrive unscathed, mainly because its top management includes liberal Saudi journalist Abdulrahman Al-Rashid, for whom the Assad and Khamenei regimes are a political and ideological anathema. His views, found often in his column in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, fit in well with the foreign policy thinking of the Saudi establishment, of which he is a member and perhaps most eloquent advocate. Turning against Syria and Iran so violently did not cut against the grain of what Al-Arabiya was made of.

For Al-Jazeera, however, the impact of the sudden change of editorial direction was more keenly felt. The channel’s reputation was partly established because many “pro-resistance” journalists filled the higher echelons of its management, and who used the channel to voice a populist anti-Americanism that echoes in the Arab World—and most particularly in Damascus and Tehran. Their positions became untenable when Qatar moved off the fence on Syria and joined Saudi Arabia and the West in a hostile alliance against Assad.

This led to a number of high-profile resignations from the channel, the most prominent of which was that of its Beirut bureau chief, Ghassan Ben Jeddou. He went on to establish Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, a satellite news channel that serves as a valuable addition to the Syrian–Iranian media front. It launched in June 2012 and claims to offer a brand of journalism “committed to nationalist, pan-Arab and humanitarian issues within the template of professional journalistic objectivity.” It is one of the very few channels whose reporters are embedded with Assad’s forces. It recently came under criticism from opposition activists who accused it of passing information about Free Syrian Army (FSA) positions to the Syrian army in Aleppo.

In the war between satellite channels, you can only fight if you remain on air. The decision taken in early September by Arabsat and Nilesat to suspend their broadcasts of Syrian state TV in compliance with an Arab League directive is a blow for the Syrian regime’s media effort. Although state TV in Syria can still be viewed terrestrially, this decision will impact on its reach and prestige. But while there are legal ways to get a broadcaster shut down, Al-Jazeera has fallen victim of an illegal method favored by the Islamic Republic: jamming. In January 2012, Reuters reported that the frequency used by Al-Jazeera was being jammed from two positions in Iran, leading the Doha–based channel to change its frequency for Arabsat viewers. (Al-Arabiya and a host of Syrian opposition channels have come under systematic jamming attacks from Iranian sources for years.)

Cult of the soldier-hero: Assad’s counter-attack

In an interview with a Russian broadcaster in May, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad admitted that his regime was losing the media war but said “the reality is what really matters” and not “the illusions” created by the media. Illusions, however, are the Syrian state-controlled media’s expertise. Keenly aware that NATO airpower is the ultimate arbiter of Arab civil wars, Assad’s media strategy focused primarily on projecting staying power. He figured that if he could convince enough of his own people and key Western countries that he was unlikely to be dislodged as easily as some of his less fortunate colleagues, he could weather the storm.

While the regime’s tactical messages changed depending on the particular phase of the conflict, the broad strokes of the regime’s message has remained constant throughout. Assad’s media adviser, Buthaina Sha’ban, set the general tone five days after the first major protests erupted, when she declared in a press conference that Syria was under attack by a “seditious sectarian conspiracy.” The notion that hostile external forces were animating internal players to destabilize and destroy the country under the guise of democratic slogans remains at the core of the regime’s grand media narrative.
In an interview with a Russian broadcaster in May, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad admitted that his regime was losing the media war but said “the reality is what really matters” and not “the illusions” created by the media.

From the outset, the regime’s media campaign suffered from a crippling credibility gap. Its failure to report on massive demonstrations happening across the country—and its attempts to besmirch the reputations of perfectly law-abiding demonstrators—earned it the contempt of many of its own viewers. Its repeated attempts to bolster its narrative with undercover recordings or TV confessions, often featuring pictures of confiscated weapons, drugs, and wads of foreign banknotes, not only made little impact on the constituencies that were set on bringing down Assad, but radicalised others that had been neutral. Efforts by pro-regime broadcasters to highlight inaccurate reporting by “strife channels,” such as the daily “media dishonesty” segment on Addounia TV that exposes enemy disinformation, did not stop Syrians switching over to the other side. A popular chant at protests was, “The Syrian media is a liar!”

The regime may have lost the battle of accurate reporting, but its narrative was still very much alive. It also had one major advantage over the opposition in that its media machine was centrally-controlled from an office in the presidential palace. A noticeable shift in the regime’s media strategy came about following the siege of Baba Amr in February 2012. By this time, the army had been committed to a nation-wide campaign aimed at achieving total military victory against an increasingly armed and belligerent opposition. As the level of violence escalated, and the regime’s hopes of placating the masses through limited reforms were dashed, the regime’s media switched to an all-out counter-offensive with the armed forces as its spearhead.

Assad figured that if he could no longer command the respect and loyalty of ordinary citizens, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) might. Having been the beneficiary of massive defense budgets and the source of important patronage networks, the Syrian Army was both the most powerful institution in Syria and Assad’s last line of defense. What stood between him and a fate like Qadhafi’s was the commitment of the humble grunt. It was imperative that the regime’s media campaign focus on rallying Syrians—not around Assad per se, but around the Syrian army of which he is commander-in-chief. It is a subtle difference that could prove decisive in solidifying Assad’s core support among religious minorities and the salaried urban middle classes, many of whom view the rise of the rebel Free Syrian Army as the harbinger of their decline.

State broadcasting is now full of vociferous, pro-army propaganda. It aims to portray the soldier as a committed and selfless defender of Syrian values and civilization against hordes of brainwashed “armed terrorist gangs” funded and trained by foreign enemies. Songs are broadcast that extol the virtues of the fighting man, and TV advertisements are aired encouraging recruitment into the various branches of the armed forces. In what has become a staple diet of news bulletins, young female reporters in flak jackets embed with the Syrian army and file daily reports from the front lines highlighting the army’s victories and sacrifices. A typical report includes an interview with “defenders of the homeland,” who invariably say that their morale could not be higher and that they were committed to defeating the terrorists wherever they may be. They also tend to include interviews with local civilians who declare their gratitude to the army for having evicted “terrorists” from their neighborhood and for having brought back “safety and security.” Often these reports include a human interest story, such as one about a citizen in a Damascus suburb who had been robbed by insurgents only for his money to be recovered by the army, or a soldier who had requested he be sent back to the front line, not perturbed by the fact that he had lost his left arm in an FSA ambush. In such reports, house-to-house searches are conducted with the utmost respect, and would often conclude with scenes of jubilant residents shouting, “God Save the Army,” or with images of children handing out sweets and cups of tea to the soldier-heroes.

The cult of the soldier-hero is expressed in less restrained terms online. While the regime has been outperformed on that front largely due to the opposition’s army of Internet activists, there are a number of YouTube channels updated daily by regime supporters whose primary purpose these days is to glorify the SAA. “SyriaTube” is one these, in which you will find images of dead FSA fighters accompanied by text commentary that reads, “The Syrian Arab Army’s jackboot seal has been stamped on this terrorist’s neck.” Another video shows a column of Syrian army tanks and vehicles that snaked for miles to the soundtrack of Requiem for a Dream, entitled “Aleppo: We are coming.” It is an unbridled expression of fascistic militarism, and it is the stuff that Bashar Al-Assad is using to build his illusion of power and permanency.

Categories: Syrian uprising

The Abdulrazaq Tlass affair and the naked truth

September 24, 2012 7 comments

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.

Categories: Syrian uprising

My latest for Foreign Policy: SNC is a gang that can’t shoot straight

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Foreign Policy have kindly allowed me to express my strong feelings about the opposition Syrian National Council on their website. The result was a well-received article published yesterday (7th September) entitled  “The Gang That Cant Shoot Straight.” The title was not chosen by me, but I wholeheartedly approve.

The origin of this term appears to be a 1971 comedy called “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” about a New York mafia gang that uses a lion to blackmail a rival gang’s “clients.” It doesn’t appear to be a very good film but the term entered American English idiom. Before anyone takes offence, I’d like to stress that it does not imply that the SNC is a gang; it is simply a popular expression in the US to denote an incompetent group of people, which SNC politicians undoubtedly are.

Much of what I know about the Syrian opposition comes from first-hand experience. I have been a known Syrian opposition activist for at least the past six years, in other words, when it was highly unfashionable to be so. I have known the leaders of the opposition before and after they became of interest on the world stage. My involvement in the creation and running of opposition TV channel Barada TV gave me inside access into how and why the Syrian opposition makes the decisions that it does, and what consequences these carry on the political game. This insight is often missing in journalistic analysis about Syria, much to the detriment of the reader.

Special thanks to Arab commentator Sultan Al-Qassemi and The Guardian’s Ian Black for helping to spread the word about this article on Twitter and their kind words about it. Special thanks also to my friend and fellow SOAS alumni Ed Husain for describing the piece as “astute, courageous and visionary.” I think he was just being polite.


The Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight

The Syrian National Council has failed to galvanize international support for the rebellion — and it has only itself to blame.


Last week, the Syrian opposition columnist Ghassan Muflih, writing  in the online newspaper Elaph , informed his readers who was to blame for the failure to dislodge Bashar al-Assad. “The West is supportive of the demands of the Syrian people [to live in] freedom and dignity but does not encourage the success of the revolution,” he wrote. “The reasons are related to the Israeli desire to see the destruction of Syria at the hands of the Assad gangs. The Western position is justified by flimsy arguments, for example, when they speak of Islamist militants or the unity of the opposition. However, the essence of the western position remains: Give Assad more time to kill.”

It’s understandable that some try to hold the West accountable for the continuing horrors in Syria. Last month was the deadliest so far, with the overall death toll surpassing 20,000 and the number of refugees  that have fled the fighting exceeding 150,000. (The photo above shows a street scene in Aleppo earlier this week.) All UN attempts to end the bloodshed have so far come to nothing — a dismal failure underscored by the resignation  last month of UN-AL special envoy Kofi Annan. The prospects for his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi , are poor. Air support from the countries of the West would probably be far more effective when it comes to loosening Assad’s grip – but the prospects for that appear remote.

But while the West recognizes the inadequacy of the international response and has clashed with Russia and China over the matter, the Syrian opposition appears to be blissfully unaware of its own role in prolonging the conflict. By failing to create a credible alternative that appeals to Syrians, as well as to the international community, the opposition has consistently put a damper on any plan for western military intervention. Their division and incompetence are now the main lifeline for a beleaguered Assad.

The Syrian National Council  claims to be the largest, the best-financed, and the most well-organized of all the various Syrian opposition coalitions. According to its own books, it has received over $25 million from Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, not to mention assistance from the U.S. and the UK in the form of “non-lethal aid.”

Last week, SNC President Abdulbaset Sieda  lashed out at U.S. officials for saying that it was premature to speak about a transitional Syrian government. He described the many differences within the SNC as “normal.” Normality is a relative concept, but in suggesting that the SNC’s performance during the past year could in any way be considered “normal” in a country crying out for alternative leadership is as breathtakingly insulting as it is naïve.

SNC members like to cite the Western intervention in Libya as the sort of thing that needs to happen in Syria now. But the West’s involvement in Libya came about partly because the Libyan opposition demonstrated a basic capacity for leadership. A transitional council was formed within one week of the first anti-Qaddafi protests. That council appointed a commander-in-chief to lead the rebel forces. It sent emissaries around the world to represent the opposition to foreign governments, and it immediately established contacts with grassroots constituencies inside the country. A respected defector, Mustafa Abduljalil, was elected to head an executive team tasked with implementing a clear-headed strategy to bring down Qaddafi at all costs.

The SNC has done nothing of the sort. Its control over the Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition groups remains tenuous, sustained only by payments of cash but little else. Repeated attempts to bring the armed opposition under its political wing have failed because there is little trust in the SNC as a representative body. The resultant void in leadership has been filled by radical jihadist groups that have emerged as powerful challengers to the SNC.

Despite its claims to “serve as a political umbrella for the Syrian Revolution in the international arena,” the SNC has yet to appoint a single delegate or spokesperson in any of the world’s major capitals.

Competing factionalism within the SNC means that ponderous and ineffective delegations of twenty or more fly around the world at great expense because none of the constituent parties trust each other to sit with foreign governments alone. It should come as little surprise that no country apart from Libya recognizes the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Among the Syrian revolution’s rank-and-file, the SNC appears distant and increasingly irrelevant. Despite access to at least seven satellite television channels and dozens of websites and YouTube channels, the SNC was neither able to appeal to its own core constituency (Sunni Arabs) or to develop sophisticated messages to engage with the minority groups on whose continued support Assad relies.

To this day, the SNC does not have a discernible media strategy. It failed to understand that the key to winning the media war is not credibility but consistent messaging. Opposition activists have become obsessed with reporting details while the regime media machine keeps its eye on the big picture. “People don’t have to believe what is being broadcast,” says Nadim Shehadi, Syria specialist at Chatham House, “but the overall message [of the regime’s propaganda] is ‘we’re here and here to stay,’ which is quite strong.”

Leadership in the SNC is very much “by committee,” and this precludes the emergence of a strong and popular leader. The SNC was created by a series of delicately constructed alliances between competitors: secularists and Islamists, Arabs and Kurds, party affiliates and independents, tribal chiefs and Facebook activists. What this means in practice is that decisions, more often than not, are compromises.

The SNC’s first president, Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, was just such a compromise, and it showed. A Paris-based academic with no prior experience in front-line politics, his nine months at the head of the organization were marked by dithering and confusion over policy towards militarization and foreign intervention. Under his watch, the initial goodwill that was extended by the international community steadily ebbed away. His successor, a Stockholm-based Kurdish academic, did nothing to dispel the air of the exiles’ elitist disconnect from the street.

Perhaps the most damning failure of the SNC was its inability to frame the struggle in Syria in its own terms. In what can only be described as a shameful case of intellectual cowardice, little attempt was made to define the revolution using the language of politics. Where is the list of specific grievances and demands? Where are the revolutionary slogans and symbols? Where are the thinkers that are shaping the way that Syrians understand their act of rebellion? What the revolution is about and what it aims to achieve are questions that invariably draw vague and emotional responses from SNC politicians — responses that, though playing well to Al-Jazeera’s audience, have left western observers feeling confused and underwhelmed.

The conflict exposed a series of ruptures within Syrian society — be it sectarian, ethnic, class-based, or ideological — which the SNC was expected to address head-on as part of a compelling new vision. The adoption by protesters of the pre-Ba’ath Party, green-white-black tricolor known as the Flag of Independence, a symbol around which Syrians rallied in their struggle against the French mandate, should have been enough to convince the SNC that they needed to seek legitimacy not in Doha or Paris but in Syria’s “golden age.” The post-independence liberal democracy (1946-58) is a reference point from which the SNC could have launched a progressive political program based on freedom, equality, and national reconciliation. What they actually came up with was an uninspiring four-page document called the National Covenant for a New Syria. It is doubtful whether any Syrian inside the country has heard of it, let alone knows what it says.

The regime, meanwhile, has been able to frame the conflict in terms favorable to itself: a struggle between secular urban sophistication and religious tolerance versus Islamist country bumpkins fuelled by petro-dollars and jihadist ideology. While this is not a wholly accurate portrayal, the SNC’s failure to offer an alternative that allows for the role of rural religious conservatives and absorbs them into a broader liberal-national narrative, has allowed the regime to claim, not without sympathy from some in the West, that it is on front lines of the war on terror. The SNC’s fundamental failure is not one of organization but of imagination.

The SNC claims to draw legitimacy from the Syrian people. In reality, it sources of legitimacy are external: Arab money and western recognition. For now, Arab money still flows into its coffers but the West has grown impatient and is looking for alternatives.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to meet an SNC delegation in Istanbul last month; she opted to meet with independent activists instead. Recent diplomatic activity points to an incipient consensus in London, Washington, and Paris that encouraging a credible alternative to Assad based around the SNC is a policy that has failed. And, that in turn, has prompted criticisms of the West from the SNC leadership.

But so what? Blaming the West has always been a useful crutch for failed political institutions in the Arab world. In this case, the SNC has concluded that it cannot afford to lose contact with the U.S. As a direct result of the recent snubs, the SNC announced on September 1 a restructuring of the organization that would see the group’s general assembly grow from 300 to 400 members and each opposition group to be represented by at least 20 members. The idea is to make the SNC more representative.

In reality the SNC needed to slim down, not pile on weight. More members means more contenders jostling for position, more avenues for corruption and waste, and less chance for consensus-building and thoughtful policy formulation. It also means more meaningless posts, adding to the noxious mix of ego, ambition and incompetence that has stifled the SNC from its inception. It is a solution worthy of a committee of Arab bureaucrats.

Last week a key founder of the SNC resigned. Dr Bassma Kodmani had been involved in a tug-of-war with the Islamists for months, who reacted decisively by voting her out of the all-powerful executive committee. Her exit signals the end of the liberal-Islamist concord that established the SNC as a cross-party coalition. Now it is the Muslim Brotherhood who are firmly in the driver’s seat.

The Syrian National Council has presided over a catastrophic failure of leadership. The West is right to seek an alternative, but in so doing, it will need to contend with the Muslim Brotherhood. Right from the start, the SNC was viewed by the Islamist movement as a useful tool to rebuild its own organization and position itself to capture power in Syria. Knowing that many in Syria and in the West dislike the Brotherhood, the SNC proved to be useful camouflage.

Sidelining the SNC means sidelining the Brotherhood, a task that poses considerable problems. Brotherhood leaders are well-versed in the arts of prevarication and backroom dealing, and they will try to smother any rival organization that attempts to compete with the SNC for money and international recognition. In the meantime, one can be sure that anti-western rhetoric will get louder.

It must surely be a worrying development when those working to bring down dictatorship are found to be borrowing from the dictator’s manual. West-bashing will not save the SNC or the Syrian revolution. Only by demonstrating a modicum of effective leadership can the Syrian opposition hope to convince the international community that it is a credible alternative and worthy of a Libya-type investment in men, materiel, and political will.

A British diplomat summed it up nicely at a meeting with SNC representatives in April: “Spend less time communicating with us and more time communicating with your own people.” The irony is that the SNC is now doing neither.

Categories: Syrian uprising

George Sabra: A man for all seasons?

April 9, 2012 39 comments

George Sabra is being increasingly touted as a future leader of the Syrian opposition, and potentially, of Syria itself. In this interview, I get to meet the real George Sabra, the fiery left-wing politician who has gained the confidence of diplomats and activists alike.

When he was twelve, George Sabra had an experience that would shape him personally and politically for the rest of his life. It was 1959 and Syria had become part of the United Arabic Republic headed by President Nasser. As part of the terms of the union demanded by Nasser, all political parties in Syria were disbanded, Syria’s parliament was merged with that of Egypt and a Nasserite stooge was placed as head of military intelligence in what became known as “the northern province.” It was not a happy marriage, and its impact was felt more keenly than most by the Sabra family.

“My father was sacked from his government job during the Union [with Egypt] under the false charge that he was a Communist,” Sabra says, “this was the way that the Second Bureau [military intelligence] oppressed people at that time.” Sabra’s mother was forced to enter domestic service in the homes of wealthy Damascenes, and baked bread which she sold for one piaster each. “If she sold one hundred loaves, she would earn one Syrian pound a day. It was a time of hardship and deprivation for us.”

George Sabra

Many factors have shaped the forceful yet understated politician that is George Sabra: disillusionment, as for so many other Syrians communists, with the Soviet brand that forced itself onto them and against which they rebelled; a work ethic that saw him distinguished as a primary school teacher then a Geography student at university, and which, by 1985, made him a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party – Political Bureau at the age of 38; perseverance, having spent two years in solitary detention, and almost a lifetime in a country where, up until very recently, the prospects for democratic change appeared very slim indeed.

As the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising fast approaches, Sabra sits in his Parisian exile feeling increasingly confident about the future, even when that future grows more bloody and uncertain by the day. Perhaps he needs to be – he is being tipped as a future leader of the Syrian National Council, the opposition body working to topple President Bashar Al-Assad. It’s the latest challenge for the working-class Christian boy made good.

The Syrian boiler

On 18th March 2011 a demonstration took place in the southern city of Daraa to protest against the unlawful detention of minors who had scribbled anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school. The heavy-handed response of Assad’s security forces left scores dead, and within days demonstrations broke out in a number of other cities in solidarity with Daraa’s residents.

For Sabra, that was Syria’s “Bouazizi’s moment”, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, but he claims that the signs of popular resentment had always been there. In a swipe at those in the west who foolishly proclaimed the regime’s immunity from the Arab Spring, he says that “the boiler from inside was at breaking point but from the outside you could hardly see the signs.” He would know; he only left Syria in October last year following a brief spell in detention. He admits though that it was easy to lose heart. “More than half a century of totalitarian dictatorship and repression left a very deep scar in the conscience of Syrians and in their collective memory, so that some people thought that the spirit of the people had died and that there is no hope.” The Egyptian uprising, however, proved decisive. “When the Egyptians came out onto Tahrir Square the road to revolution in Damascus was opened.”

For Sabra, the Syrian uprising began for many of the same legitimate reasons that drove other Arabs to take to the streets. “The repressive and totalitarian regime in Syria created an authoritarian state that left no free space in the state or in society for ordinary Syrians. People felt that they were outsiders.” He argues passionately that it is this alienation of the people, the feeling that Assad’s Syria is not theirs, that is the underlying cause of the uprising, and which drives the people to make unparalleled sacrifices.

A golden age: the Syrian parliament in 1950s

The great fear of course is that for all the good intentions, Syria may end up a broken country, an Iraq circa 2005, or even an Afghanistan run by religious extremists and warlords. It is a risk that Sabra recognizes but he is adamant that the vision of Syria that the fires the revolutionaries’ imagination is that of modern Syria’s so-called “golden age”. “Syrians fall back on the democratic experience of 1954-58 whose taste they still find sweet after all these years,” Sabra claims, “they feel nostalgic for that era.” In fairness, it was also an era of weak and unstable coalition governments, of politicians on the make and of regional and superpower meddling, but there were free and fair elections, a multi-party system, a free press and the mukhabarat secret police had not yet made an appearance. After decades of being ruled by the Assads, Syrians may well choose to take a little republican corruption along with a little republican freedom.

Dreaming of Faris Al-Khoury

It has become something of a cliché to talk about a divided Syrian opposition. George Sabra doesn’t argue the case. “The weakness of the opposition explains its pale performance during the revolution.” But equally clichéd, he blames the regime. “Because political life was criminalized in Syria, there emerged two types of politicians: the opportunist, who was bribed into silence by the regime, and the principled, who invariably found himself in prison or in exile.” Sabra undoubtedly is of the latter school, having been incarcerated for a total of eight years.

Nevertheless, can’t the opposition get its act together at this momentous time? On the issue, Sabra is his trademark honest self. “When the street moved, there was a need for a parallel movement on the political level that was not provided by the political parties. Opposition politics became an arena for individual ambition and personal rivalries, even when these individuals lacked capability and genuine intention.”

Could he possibly be referring to Dr. Burhan Ghalioun, the current president of the Syrian National Council (SNC), who is being blamed by activists for much of the opposition’s woes? Sabra is too much of a seasoned politician to begin mud-slinging, but in a meeting in February, he did throw his name into the ring as a replacement for Ghalioun, only one of two other people to do so. Ghalioun survived with a two-month extension to his term (that runs out on 15th April 2012), allegedly with the help of Qatari lobbying, but little can hide the frustration felt by the experienced hands in the Syrian opposition at the relative newcomers who lack the experience to manage broad-based political coalitions yet, for better or for worse, find themselves in the driving seat.

Managing broad-based political coalitions is what George Sabra has been doing for the past seven years. He is a founder-member of the Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change, which first attempted to create a national council in 2008 to unite the opposition around a pro-democracy agenda. True to form however, Assad jailed its key leaders and the organization as a whole stagnated. The SNC took the Damascus Declaration model and expanded it to a wider membership, yet the same problems persist: policy and personality differences, lack of strategic communication and an inability to keep pace with events. “How can old politics and ageing politicians keep up with a revolution this deep, this fundamental and with this level of sacrifice?” He can ask the question, but does he have an answer?

Sabra is by no means a spring chicken, but he does appear to enjoy the support of the younger crowd. In May 2011 he addressed a gathering of mourners at a funeral of an activist in his home town of Qatana (30km south west of Damascus) which stands as one of the finest pieces of oratory made by any opposition politician that anyone can remember (Watch YouTube video above.) His appearances on television are similarly impressive for their clarity of ideas and forthright views.

Faris Al-Khoury (1877-1962)

On a more subtle and perhaps more significant level, his popularity stems from the fact that he is “George”. Sabra may have a point about nostalgia for Syria of the 1950s; one of its enduring icons was Faris Al-Khoury, a Presbyterian who served as prime minister in several cabinets and was Syria’s representative at the inauguration of the United Nations. Al-Khoury’s political success is hailed by Sunni Muslims as proof of their willingness to accept members of religious minorities as equal citizens; certainly there is something satisfying about a Christian heading up the opposition at a time when Assad is stoking up fears of sectarian civil war. True to his secularist credentials however, Sabra plays down his Christian background, which, ironically, may prove to be an asset as Syrians dream of a new Faris Al-Khoury to unite the opposition and heal confessional wounds.


Dilemma of the Left

To understand Sabra is to understand the dilemma of the left-wing Arab intellectual. He grew up as a leftist “because of class affiliation and the life of poverty”, indeed, he joined the Communist Party – Political Bureau at the age of 23 and rapidly became one of its rising stars. After Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union, was he still a communist? Sabra is unequivocal: “I stopped being a communist since I left prison in 1995, and the party too left communism following its sixth congress in 2005.”

The party that he belongs to was formed after a significant number of members led by veteran left-winger Riad Al-Turk broke away from the Communist Party of Syria in protest at its slavish dependence on Moscow. It is now no longer called the Communist Party – Political Bureau but the People’s Democratic Party, and Sabra now firmly identifies himself as a social democrat. It is a trend happening across the Arab world as leftists have, to their credit, re-branded and re-adjusted.

The challenge now facing “the Left” in the Arab world is daunting. It has to remain relevant and keep the flag of secularism and modernity flying at a time when power seems to be increasingly in the hands of Islamists. Sabra is unfazed. “There will always be a meaning to being a leftist today, and every day. How else would you explain the success of the Left in Sweden, Switzerland and other advanced European countries?”

Perhaps. But Syria is not Sweden or Switzerland, and the Left was not entirely at the forefront of the Arab Spring. Was there not a risk that it will become marginalized at the ballot box? “The Left is not all the same” replies Sabra, “those who have fought for democracy for more than four decades, and who have joined the ranks of the revolution from day one will not feel alien to what is happening now or what will happen in the future. Those who have sowed the seeds will see the rewards in the future.”

It is in his outlook on the future that Sabra displays an unassuming pragmatism and an aversion to dogma and ideology that can rarely be found among members of his generation. He is very much a secularist progressive, but in a nod to Islam he says he “respects the culture of the Arab nation and its belief and history.”

He is a leading member of the Syrian National Council but is quite forthright about its future prospects. “Most likely the [SNC] coalition will end when the regime falls and a democratic transition takes place.” He expects some parties to die out and new coalitions to be formed, but warns against parties based on cults of personality that he expects will make their presence felt on the Syrian political scene.

What does Sabra think of the Free Syrian Army and its potential role in bringing down Assad through force of arms? He is matter-of-fact about the “militarization of the revolution”, regarding it as a natural consequence of the regime’s brutal crackdown. Crucially, he does not feel threatened by the boys with Kalashnikovs. “When the military solution takes centre stage there will need to be political solutions to accompany it. Guns eventually will fall silent and will be put aside while politics continues.” Guerilla fighters may join the ranks of the unemployed but never the politicians.

It is not difficult to pin down the appeal of George Sabra. With his thick-framed glasses, full head of white hair and owlish countenance he does not come across as sinister or threatening as many politicians do. Beyond the physical, he encapsulates in his words and deeds the spirit of the Syrian uprising: liberal, pro-democratic, non-sectarian and manifestly rural and working class. Above all, he reflects a vision of Syrian identity that is far more compelling than the card-board cut out offered by the Assads. It’s a vision deeply-rooted in history; the essence of what it is to be a Syrian.

“You are talking about Syria which is the cradle of civilization for the past six thousand years,” Sabra tells me, “it is the pathway of religions to the world, the country where the first letter was written, the capital of the word “Read.” It is Damascus, which sleeps but will never die.”

Categories: Syrian uprising

Syria’s rebels need to change strategy – and fast.

March 28, 2012 10 comments


The Free Syrian Army, the military arm of the Syrian revolution, is in trouble. Its attempts to hold ground against Assad’s forces in Rastan, Homs, Zabadani, Deir az-Zour and Idlib have failed.

Currently, the FSA is a loose umbrella group of at least eleven local militia groups operating across the country with various degrees of success.  Only a minority of its fighters are army defectors; the majority are civilians, albeit those who may have received basic military training during compulsory national service. They are organized locally and armed with nothing more sophisticated than AK-47 assault rifles, RPGs, and PK machine guns.

Lack of sophisticated hardware, effective leadership and nation-wide co-ordination, has meant that the FSA has had to retreat in the face of overwhelming firepower from ground and air by an enemy which is well-trained and cohesive. The prospect of NATO military intervention that saved the Libyan rebels, appears slim.

Recent reverses call for a shake-up in the way the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has approached the war with Assad. It needs to stop believing its own propaganda and be more realistic about its own capabilities and those of the enemy. It should operate on the assumption that there will no foreign military intervention and it should plan for a long guerrilla insurgency that builds on its own strengths and the enemy’s weakness.

Strategic re-think: The long war.

In early June 2011 armed clashes between locals and the shabiha militia in the town of Jisr Al-Shughur in Idlib province precipitated a defection by the Syrian army’s Lt. Colonel Hussein Harmoush and around 30 of his men. Harmoush later fled to Turkey and announced the formation of the Free Officer’s Brigade (the precursor to the FSA) with the military objective of protecting civilian demonstrations against Assad’s murderous forces and, ironically, declaring that it was firmly committed to the peaceful nature of the revolution. This was politically-correct; the revolution needed to appear non-violent to attract international solidarity and quash regime claims of “armed bands”. In militarily terms however, it made no sense at all.

The FSA developed its strategy on the notion that it needed to protect civilians protesting peacefully. This involved holding ground: manning barricades and fortified positions to physically stop Assad’s forces entering an area. The battle of Rastan was the first test for this strategy. FSA fighters had taken control of the town in mid-September 2011 and made a very public show of defiance. The regime responded by launching a full-scale assault on the town, and within one week, the FSA withdrew after suffering heavy losses.

The same story was repeated in January 2012 in Madaya and Zabadani, two towns 40kms from Damascus that had been declared “liberated” by activists on the Internet but which fell after only five days of fighting. Ditto Baba Amr, Duma, Idlib, and most recently, Deir az-Zour.

Damage to homes in Baba Amr. Pitched battles have always resulted in reverses for the FSA.

At present, the FSA is not only incapable of holding ground, its repeated attempts to do so risk losing it the support of the civilian population. Regime forces have little compunction about shelling residential areas where the FSA are holed up, and it means that more, rather than fewer, civilians die.

In Baba Amr for instance, the entire residential neighborhood was shelled for two consecutive weeks in which hundreds of civilians have died and no building was left unscathed. Local community leaders in many areas are now exerted pressure on the FSA not to enter into pitched battles and only to operate in sparsely populated areas lest their town or district turns into a war zone. The FSA cannot risk losing local support. It must re-think its strategy in light of its inability to hold ground.

War, as Carl von Clausewitz famously proclaimed, was a “a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”  Although it remains a useful political slogan, claiming to protect civilian protests is no longer a viable policy.  It is a limited objective in a total war. Instead, the FSA should declare an unequivocal political aim, which to my mind can only be to force Assad’s departure from power.

Wars are often of two types: wars to achieve limited aims, or wars to render the enemy politically helpless or militarily impotent. In the case of Syria, the brutal and uncompromising nature of the enemy means that the FSA must fight the latter. Only by degrading Assad’s war machine will he be forced to step down, or else like Gaddafi, be forced to flee the capital. Given the FSA’s logistical problems and organizational challenges, capturing Damascus should remain a long-term objective. In the short-term, the FSA’s military objective should be: to cause sufficient loss of men and material so as to accelerate the fragmentation of Assad’s forces.

The regular Syrian army, made up largely of Sunni conscripts, has no stomach to fight its own people. Many will defect, and many others will co-operate clandestinely with the FSA, passing on arms and vital intelligence. Assad has been forced to commit his most loyal units (invariably always Alawite) in some of the hardest fighting, and their effectiveness can be blunted by a well-executed guerrilla warfare campaign.

For this to be achieved, the FSA should avoid pitched battles and adopt guerrilla warfare tactics that a- maximizes enemy losses while keeping its own losses to a minimum b- makes efficient use of limited resources. IEDs (like in YouTube video above), anti-tank missiles, mortars and sniper rifles should be the weapons of choice. The emphasis should be on a statistical strategy for victory; there are only a limited number of loyal army units and a war of attrition would destroy them.

The FSA is a loosely-knit militia organization that needs to start thinking and acting like a cohesive guerrilla army. There are positive indications that certain talented field commanders are beginning to change their tactics and organization following the fall of Baba Amr. Much will depend on the Syrian National Council (SNC) and what financial assistance it can extend to the rebels. Much also will depend on the FSA leadership in Turkey, which can offer local “brigades” strategic vision and direction. For Syria’s armed rebels, its a case of adapt or die.

For more on the FSA, this recent article by Jeffrey White paints an optimistic picture, while this study by Joseph Holliday is perhaps the best researched study on Syria’s armed opposition, although some of the information is dated.

Categories: Syrian uprising

The Lost Stars: why there is a civil war in Syria today

March 17, 2012 6 comments

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.

A postage stamp issued by the short-lived Alawite state.

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 spark: Deraa, 18th March 2011

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.

The Taif Agreement established a more equitable share of political power in Lebanon.
















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.

Categories: Syrian uprising
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