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How I understand the Syrian revolution

March 1, 2012 21 comments

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.

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Categories: Syrian uprising

Candid Cameraphone: My first article for the New Statesman

February 16, 2012 1 comment

I was approached last week by the New Statesman magazine to write a short piece about the role of YouTube in the Syrian Revolution. I couldn’t possibly turn them down.

Below is the text of the article as it appeared in the 13th February edition of the magazine:

In February 1982 a massacre was committed in the Syrian city of Hama. To put down a revolt, forces loyal to President Hafiz Al-Assad levelled whole districts to the ground and murdered an estimated 20,000 people. Those wishing to commemorate this sad anniversary will however be hard pressed to find any photographs or video footage documenting the massacre. The regime made sure to keep the media out.

Thirty years on, the story could not be more different. Thanks to the Internet and the mobile phone, incidents, however minor, can be recorded and shared with millions of people around the world. In Egypt they called it the “Facebook revolution.” In Syria, it is the revolution of YouTube. With the media banned from reporting inside the country, and the regime’s propaganda machine in over-drive, uploading a video on YouTube became the only reliable method by which Syrians could hope to spread news of the crimes perpetrated against them. Thousands of videos have appeared since the start of the uprising in March 2011, and the number keeps growing.

The Assad regime had long feared the subversive potential of the Internet. It banned Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, in addition to dozens of opposition websites. Activists hit back with use of proxy servers to circumvent online censorship, but in a country where only 17 per cent of the population have access to the Internet, satellite television remains the mass communication tool of choice. Visitors to Syria are struck by the number of satellite dishes on rooftops, and it is through these that Syrians watch uncensored news. The visual aspect of YouTube lent itself perfectly to satellite channels that hankered for footage of protests and crackdowns to accompany eyewitness accounts. YouTube not only became a way to “broadcast yourself”, but an effective method by which a video could reach the likes of Al-Jazeera or the BBC at a click of a button.

Professional journalists are often suspicious of “citizen journalism.” When it came to Syria however, even the largest news networks became wholly reliant on amateur cameramen to supply them with footage. Realising that videos needed to be authenticated, edited and contextualised in order for TV stations to broadcast them, activists living abroad began setting up YouTube channels to receive and process raw footage.

Making a stand

The Syrian uprising began in southern city of Dara but the way it spread to other cities owes a lot to this mode of communication. Grainy images of soldiers opening fire on protesters made a huge impression on Syrians across the country. Watching the bravery of Dara’s residents, and the brutality of the security forces, they felt compelled to make a stand. When 13-year old Hamza Al-Khatib was arrested in April 2011 and returned to his family a lifeless corpse, they were instructed to remain quiet. What they did instead was to film his swollen and badly-bruised body and upload it to YouTube. The teenager instantly became a symbol of the uprising.

It is said that New Media empowers individuals. As the Syrian uprising enters its eleventh month, the only thing that stands between President Bashar Al-Assad and another Hama massacre is the camera phone and an Internet connection. The thesis is holding up – for now.

Malik Al-Abdeh is Chief Editor of Barada TV

Categories: Syrian uprising

The Times newspaper meets the real opposition in Syria

The lush Zabadani valley, home to a fierce anti-regime opposition affiliated to the SRCU. In the background, Mt. Hermon and beyond that Lebanon.

Far from the five-star hotel opposition conferences, the real opposition in Syria is making its voice heard. In what is known as “rural Damascus” (Rif Dimashq), a Times reporter met with local protest organisers affiliated to the Syrian Revolution Co-ordination Union (SRCU), a youth organization that is leading the revolution in Syria.

The town of Zabadani and the nearby village of Madaya are tourist hotspots frequented by the Damascene middle class and Gulf Arab visitors who enjoy its cool mountain air and stunning views over a valley irrigated by fresh spring water. Now however, there are no tourists, just disillusioned young men who demand one thing: freedom.

Click the following link to download the full article in a PDF file:

Syrian farmer hoping for his best harvest_ freedom _ The Times

The report  is very telling about the nature of the Syrian Revolution and who is leading it.  It is not intellectuals in Damascus or in exile, nor even the much-vaunted Local Co-ordination Committees (mentioned by Hillary Clinton in a recent article), which the local youths accuse of  “hijacking” their cause, but young Syrians who come from very ordinary backgrounds who have borne the brunt of mukhabarat oppression.

This is not a peasant revolt – these young men are very media savvy and very well-organized. But they are driven by an instinctive desire to live in freedom. Theirs is not a revolution inspired by ideologues or led by politicians, but it is the natural result of a system that has always viewed them as “germs” and which has denied them the opportunities to better themselves.  In the words of the youth leaders in Zabadani: “They treat us like we are nothing. But now we are going to make something of this country.”

Categories: Syrian uprising

Syrian embassy in London under fire for spying on dissidents

June 24, 2011 1 comment

I’ve come out of blogging semi-retirement to plug this story. Not that it needs much plugging mind. The Times is big as far as big newspapers go, and according to Wikipedia, one of the oldest.

8 Belgrave Square: Syrian intelligence HQ in UK?

In keeping with the paper’s proud tradition of fearless journalism, reporter Laura Pitel has exposed the Syrian embassy’s Vice-Consul as a “representative of the Syrian intelligence service.” Mohammad Samouri is said to have risen through the mukhabarat ranks before being posted to London with the aim of spying on and intimidating members of the Syrian opposition under the guise of  ‘diplomacy.’

Click below to read the full report:

The Times: Diplomat ‘leads secret police threats against Syrian opposition in Britain’

The well-heeled residents of Belgrave Square will, I am sure, be aghast. And so they should be. Using diplomatic privilege to conduct a vicious campaign against dissidents is illegal and the Met Police and the Foreign Office should be having quiet words with Mr Samouri that unless he ceases his thuggish behaviour, he will be summarily kicked out of the UK.

Categories: Syrian uprising

Syria’s revolution has yet to capture the world’s imagination

April 4, 2011 3 comments

 

It may sound cruel but over the past few weeks Syria’s pro-democracy revolutionaries have been pushing and shoving for headline space with their Libyan and Yemeni counterparts. It’s not hard to see why. Getting the West interested in your particular revolution is a sure way of maximizing the potential for its success, for every Arab knows that the US and the EU who have long accepted dictators as a fact of life (and therefore legitimized them) can de-legitimize them with a press conference or two. Getting the Western media to talk about your revolution will lead to public pressure, which leads to leaders making statements, paving the way for policies to be formulated and political pressure exerted.

The Libyans have so far received the lion’s share of interest. To be fair, they did get in first when they sparked their uprising against Gaddafi back in mid-February. Their column inches is impressive, if not the present course of their revolution which has stalled on the battlefields of Brega and Ras Lanuf.

The Yemenis have so far followed the rather more peaceful Egyptian model, remarkable given the amount of weaponry in ordinary citizen’s hands. However, lack of economic incentives, the relatively low number of dead and injured and the real threat of Al-Qa’ida has made the Western media somewhat wary of embracing the Yemeni revolution. In many ways its a less “sexier” revolution than Libya’s: there’s no Dr Evil-type villain, no African mercenaries, no perfect Mediterranean backdrops, no oil fields; just thousands of Yemenis in traditional garb squatting in the centre of the capital San’a.

The Syrian revolution took everyone by surprise. I say everyone; some did foretell what was to come but these voices were drowned out by the well-informed experts who assured us that the Syrian regime was ‘immune.’ How the mighty have fallen. The problem as far as the Syrian revolutionaries are concerned was that their timing was awful. By mid-March the Western media was enthralled by the images of NATO jets taking off on bombing runs in Libya, and terrified by the threat of nuclear meltdown in Japan; both stories easily relegated Syria to the back pages.

Remains of the day: Hafiz Al-Assad's statue torn down by protesters in Deraa.

Not for long though. Hundreds of protesters turned into thousands, and inevitably, dozens of dead and injured. Syria is at the crossroads of converging political interests; it is a police state par excellence run by a militarized mafioso family; it’s beauty and romance tempered by undercurrents of danger and extremism. The world just had to take notice.

Take notice it did; the problem was that the debate was being framed within the context of reform, not revolution. This has meant that news editors are giving Syria less attention that it deserves. In part this is the fault of the protesters themselves who initially went out onto the streets demanding reform, not regime change. The media as a whole however, Arab and Western, did not pick up on the subtleties of Syrian doublespeak, which inevitably develops in a totalitarian dictatorship of 48 years. When Syrians say they want “change”, they mean regime change, not just a change in the law, and when they talk about “freedom” they mean freedom not to be ruled by the Assads. The culture of fear still permeates Syrian society, and many still prefer to skirt on the edges of the hated “red lines” rather than dare cross them. All this has meant that there is a great deal of confusion as to the real aims of the revolution. The body count is there, but not the clarity of purpose.

In Tunisia it took several weeks for the protests to solidify into a popular, coherent and nationwide anti-Ben Ali uprising. Syria will take longer; the adversary is more sophisticated and considerably more brutal. If the protests continue, which they will, and Libya-fatigue begins to set in, Syria will feature more prominently in newspapers and on news channels. Glad tidings for the revolution as it seeks to find its deserved place in the media limelight.

The uprising they said would never happen

March 17, 2011 6 comments

Syrians do not want “chaos”. The Syrian people all love their president. Syria was immune to change because of its anti-Israel stance. Syrians do not want “Western democracy”. Syria is immune to protest. Syria is not Tunisia or Egypt. Syria is a “sturdy house”.

Not true as it turns out. The democratic revolution has reached Syria, and a protest movement is beginning to gain traction there. The doubters have been proved wrong.

Not to get carried away, the demonstrations that have taken place in Syria have not been large-scale. We are talking about hundreds, not thousands. They did occur right across the country though, with protests taking place in Damascus, Aleppo, Deir az-Zour, Qamishli and Hassaka. The video above is for a demonstration that took place on Tuesday 15 March in the heart of Damascus. A second demonstration in the capital was organized by family and relatives of political prisoners the following day on Wednesday 16th March [pic below] opposite the Interior Ministry building. To put things into perspective, the last time an anti-regime protest took place in Syria was 31 years ago. These demonstrations, however modest, are an important ice-breaker and a harbinger of things to come.

Protest opposite Interior Ministry in Damascus, 16th March 2011

Those participating in the demonstrations have not been the usual suspects. True, there were the pro-democracy activists that we know and admire like Suheir Al-Attasi, but from the list of those arrested, the vast majority have no political affiliation and are unknown to human rights organizations. They appear to be middle class Damascenes in their twenties and thirties who reacted positively to the Syrian Revolution 2011 page on Facebook.

Fahd Faysal Al-Nijris is a typical protester. He is a university student and son of a former MP who posted this video on 14 march urging fellow students to participate in next day’s demonstrations. He says he wants freedom of expression, a decent quality of life, an end to emergency law, constitutional reform and an end to corruption. Not much different then from what the Egyptians and Tunisians had been calling for when they first hit the streets.

The demonstrations have not been confined to the capital. This YouTube video was posted on 16th March of a tribal chief criticizing the regime and calling on Syrians to participate in the “Day of Dignity” demonstrations planned for on Friday 18th March. The eastern city of Deir az-Zour has long been a hot-bed of opposition, and the army’s elite Fourth Division has been stationed there since 2006 to quell any unrest. Hassaka to the north witnessed demonstrations, so too did Qamishli, and in the southern province of Dar’a demonstrations took place amid heavy security presence. Described as “Syria’s parched farmlands”, reports have been emerging for some weeks from the southern Hawran region of a concerted anti-regime graffiti campaign, and of isolated police stations being abandoned in the build up to 15 March.

The battle at this stage appears to be one of public perception. The Syrian regime is very keen to show its people and the world that the protest movement has no popular support and that it is orchestrated by “enemies of Syria”. With diabolical efficiency, plain-clothed men of the mukhabarat have dispersed protests as soon as they begin, often using brute force and confiscating mobile phones so that footage does not come out. Not only are they overwhelming the protesters with sheer numbers and arresting them, they are also resorting to staging pro-Assad demonstrations to give the impression that the protests were in support of the regime. Semi-official news websites like this one have released dozens of reports suggesting that the protests were tiny and that they were inspired by Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood. The young people on the streets however are hitting back on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and of course, on independent Syrian satellite channels Barada TV and Orient TV.

The protest movement in Syria has still a lot way to go. Following yesterday’s protest, 54 have been arrested, seven of whom have since been released. They included 12 year old Ricardo Dawud, the son of political prisoner Raghida Al-Hassan, and Tayib Tizini, an acclaimed professor of philosophy. Reports of deaths has so far been unconfirmed. Bashar Al-Assad’s men appear to be avoiding unnecessary force, preferring to smother the uprising than to smash it. The challenge now for Syria’s youth is to maintain the momentum of their protest. It will not be easy.

Categories: Syrian uprising

Don’t rule out revolution in Syria just yet

March 11, 2011 11 comments

Revolutions are notoriously hard to predict. When they do happen, the experts are usually left looking silly. To illustrate the point, a university lecturer once told me of how he, the Soviet “expert”, published an article in The Times entitled “Why the Berlin Wall will not fall in my lifetime.” Weeks later in 1989, crash!

Many Middle East specialists are now finding themselves in similarly uncomfortable situations. They have quite obviously failed to predict the democratic revolutions now sweeping the region. It is not difficult to see why this has happened. Kevin Brennan writes:

Sovietologists of all political stripes were given strong incentives to ignore certain facts and focus their interest in other areas. I don’t mean to suggest that there was a giant conspiracy at work; there wasn’t. It was just that there were no careers to be had in questioning the conventional wisdom.

The problem then is succumbing to conventional wisdom. To answer the question: “Where the next revolution will take place?”, Middle East experts should now start thinking unconventionally. They should be meeting with activists and youth leaders on the ground, researching what’s happening on the blogosphere, following youth groups on Facebook and Twitter, engaging with the political opposition, monitoring local news sources, looking at what’s happening in the provinces and not only in the state capitals, and generally developing a more nuanced approach than has so far been the case. Conventional wisdom, with its emphasis on Western security concerns and macroeconomics, has been turned on its head post-Tunisia. It is at the street level that the rumblings of the next revolution will first be detected.

You would think someone will take note. This week, and within a space of only 24 hours, two articles appeared on the prospects of revolution in Syria, both of which belong firmly in the conventional wisdom school of Middle East analysis. The first was this by Rania Abouzeid in Time Magazine in which she claimed that, “much-publicized acts by Assad that have apparently helped endear him to the public include his driving to the Umayyad Mosque in February to take part in prayers to mark the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday and his strolling through the crowded Souq Al-Hamidiyah marketplace with a low-security profile.” Presumably like the impromptu appearances of Gaddafi in Green Square to thousands of jubilant supporters. 

Post-Tunisia, the Arab world is a very different place

The second article was Michael Bröning’s piece for Foreign Affairs, describing Syria as a “sturdy house that Assad built.” This was a more substantial piece, but it contains the same clichés and conjecture that plagues much of what is written about Syria these days. Bröning essentially argues that, “Despite various parallels with Tunisia and Egypt, a close look at Syria reveals that the Assad regime is unlikely to fall.” So it’s a Syria-is-not-Egypt argument. Sound familiar?

It was J K Galbraith who said, “The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.” The problem with these analyses is that they demonstrate an unwillingness to challenge the underlying assumptions of the great debate on Syria in the light of what has happened in the region during the past three months. Tunisia proved that “performance legitimacy” was no guarantee against revolution; Egypt the extraordinary power of citizen protest; and who could trust a word of state television after Libya? Syria is as much immune from revolutionary change as Romania was in the summer of 1989.

To be fair to the Middle East experts, the Arabs themselves didn’t see what was around the corner. Now that we are on the corner however, it seems rather foolish to predict where a revolution will not take place when the same experts failed to predict the revolutions that did take place. Like the Soviet experts before them, the Middle East experts are good at many things; prophesying is not one of them.

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