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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
How do we explain the de facto civil war unfolding in Syria today? How do we predict what course it will take? How can we come up with viable and long-term solutions?
A good starting point would be to compare Syria with a country that bears a striking resemblance: Lebanon. This may seem surprising because the two countries (and two peoples) appear to be different.
Syrians regard themselves as being superior to Lebanese because their country suppresses confessional and ethnic identities in favour of a secular and all-embracing Arabism.
The Lebanese on the other hand look at the Syrians and they pity. Fortress Damascus is not a good place if you value creativity and free expression; it is the GDR of the Levant.
Broadly speaking, Syria is about unity, Lebanon is about freedom.
In reality, these differences developed only in the last 90 years of political and social evolution. What Syria and Lebanon have in common is grounded in centuries of shared experience: as part of the Greco-Roman world and then the Islamic, the last chapter of which was 400 years of of Ottoman Turkish rule. In 1920, both fell under the French mandate.
Something else they had in common was significant groups of non-Sunni Muslim minorities, who chafed under Ottoman Turkish rule and who had vowed never to fall under Sunni Muslim over-lordship again.
It was during the formative Mandate years (1920-46) that non-Sunni Muslim minorities (Christians, Alawites, Druze, Ismai’lis) began to develop survival strategies to adapt to the reality of living in a new political entity: the nation state. It is by recognizing and analyzing these survival strategies and their long-term consequences that one can trace the historic roots of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) and the Syrian civil war (2011-present).
The minoritarian order
After the retreat of the Ottoman Turks from the Levant in 1918, Non-Sunni Muslim minorities faced an acute dilemma: how to survive and flourish within societies that were overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
The Maronites of Mount Lebanon came up with a survival strategy that was not at all original: cessation. They successfully lobbied France not to remain part of Sunni-majority Syria but to be given a state where they could enjoy a monopoly on political power. Thus, the State of Greater Lebanon was born, later to become the Republic of Lebanon.
At the time of its creation, it had a slim Maronite Christian majority, yet the distribution of wealth and power was weighed heavily in their favour. Despite its outwardly secular constitution, it was a country created because of religion, and its various sects competed with one another for wealth and power within the framework of a liberal (albeit flawed) democracy.
For the non-Sunni Muslim minorities of Syria, it was a different story. The Alawites and Druze initially went along with French plans to have their own mini states, but the hostility of the economically influential Damascene and Aleppine bourgeoisie scuttled plans for independence. Long-term discrimination and neglect by the Ottomans denied the Alawites and Druze the chance to form their own states, while quasi-independence under the Ottomans and long-term French patronage enabled the Maronite Christians to “fly the roost”. Politically and economically the non-Sunni Muslims of Syria were too weak to go it alone.
The Alawites and Druze opted to be part of a unified Syrian Republic not out of choice, but out of necessity. They still had to meet the challenge of surviving and thriving in a Sunni Muslim-majority country where democracy entitles them only to a minority share of political power; not enough to guarantee that the Ottoman experience will never be repeated.
Instead of seeking independence as the Lebanese Christians had done, the non-Sunni Muslim minorities in Syria did quite the opposite: they embraced a secular, socialist brand of pan-Arabism and adopted it as their own. The Ba’th Party became a magnate for young, aspiring and poor Alawites, Druze and Ismai’lis who were drawn to the party’s secular and egalitarian creed.
By adopting pan-Arabism, the minorities had performed a great feat of one-upmanship; they had demonstrated to the Sunni Muslims that they were uber-patriots, prepared to relinquish centuries-old sectarian loyalties for the benefit of the entire Arab nation. By appearing to be so, they laid down a challenge to the Sunni Muslim majority to live up to this ideal vision of Syrian patriotism.
In reality, it was all a ruse. At first the Ba’th Party campaigned on issues of social justice such as agrarian reforms, which benefited poor Sunnis as well as impoverished Alawite peasants. But the minorities were not content with remaining as farmers. The religious minorities of Syria were still very much obsessed with the Ottoman trauma, and nothing short of a complete capture of power would allay their fears of once more becoming second-class citizens. One state institution was open to them: the military. It was through an active mass enlistment campaign, and a simultaneous policy of de-Sunnification of the officer corps following the 1963 Ba’th Party coup, that enabled religious minorities to first catch glimpse of the political power that they could enjoy under the guise of pan-Arabism and class warfare.
Ultimate power would eventually be won by a certain Hafiz Assad, a scheming Ba’thist air force pilot and son of a minor Alawite notable.
The centre cannot hold
The religious minorities in modern-day Syria and Lebanon responded differently to the challenge of surviving and thriving in a sea of Muslim. In Lebanon, the answer was secession; in Syria, it was pan-Arab unity. They were two different approaches to dealing with the same essential problem.
Despite the fact that they had lost political power, the Muslim bourgeois business and religious elite of Damascus and Aleppo did not resist the minoritarian order established by Hafiz Assad. Instead, they carved their own niche as the useful religo-merchant class: those who kept the economy ticking over, shared in the administration of the state and oversaw Muslim religious affairs – all the while enjoying the privileges of being junior partners in the mafia state run by an Alawite godfather.
Assad pursued a systematic policy of positive discrimination for religious minorities. In Assad’s Syria, it paid to be a Christian or an Alawite because it meant you had considerably better access to state patronage, both in the civil service and the military. Over a forty year period, this led to a disproportionate number of non-Sunnis becoming members of the elite. The Syrian novelist and former political prisoner Mustafa Khalifa notes in this excellent Arabic article that Christians in Syria currently represent only five per cent of the total population but account for 15-20 per cent of the bourgeoisie. A similar pattern can be drawn for Alawites and Druze. For the non-Muslim minorities, Syria was their country, it was their project.
Unlike poor Alawites, Druze or Christians, the Sunni Muslim working class had little ideological affinity with Assad’s Syria. Their conservative instincts are informed by unofficial religious education, supplemented by many hours of watching religious satellite channels and reinforced by weekly sermons at the mosque. For them, only religion bestowed real legitimacy upon a political order. The one that rules Syria today is run by “heretical” Alawites who managed to shift public discourse in a decisively secular direction, and by definition, in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the religious majority.
The order held, however, because it was able to contain the Sunni Muslim working class through a twin policy of repression by a multitude of security forces, and by providing the basics cheaply: food, water, housing, electricity and fuel. With rapid population growth, rampant corruption and the end of Soviet patronage, Assad was less able to provide these essentials to placate the masses. The Sunni Muslim “proles” in this Oceania bore the brunt of economic liberalisation reforms, which resulted in an exponential rise in prices and a net decline in purchasing power.
Poor Sunni Muslim farmers ached under the strain of increasing fuel and pesticide costs, a situation exasperated by several years of virtual drought (2007-2009) All the while, wealth and political power were concentrated in the hands of a globalised, minoritarian clique, represented most grotesquely in the figure of Assad’s billionaire cousin and Syria’s mister ten-percent, Rami Makhlouf.
The Sunni working class is a mixture of farmers, day labourers, small shop keepers, mechanics, taxi drivers, tradesmen, and of course, the unemployed. Because they had little money, they could not buy influence with the Alawite military elite as the wealthier Sunnis of Damascus and Aleppo had done.
Many lived in shabby and over crowded neighborhoods like Baba Amr in Homs for instance, or in small and dusty towns that enjoyed few amenities like Jisr Al-Shughur in Idlib. Because the doors of state patronage was locked to them, they felt the heavy hand of undeclared but institutional sectarian discrimination more than most. They watched on satellite television the unfolding of the Arab revolutions and saw an historic opportunity to turn the tables on the minoritarian order.
The first large-scale demonstration was held in Deraa on 18th March, and the chant was “Syria’s protector is its thief!” – essentially an economic demand. The fact that it grew rapidly into a nation-wide protest movement to topple the regime as a whole has much to do with the disillusionment of the Sunni Muslim working class with its living standard, and the most obvious lesson of the Arab Spring: that the hated mukhabarat secret police can be defeated, and that the West was willing to lend a hand.
The “Syrian revolution” is a revolt by Syria’s Sunni Muslim working class, which have fared poorly under the minoritarian order. The Assad mafia state has proved to be particularly prejudicial to their interests: the inequity in the distribution of political power and economic wealth was too stark, and too unjust. It is against this order (and not the Alawites per se) that the uprising in Syria aims to bring down. The survival strategy developed by religious minorities in post-colonial Syria has failed because it did not evolve new mechanisms to share wealth and political power with a rapidly growing and an increasingly aspirational Sunni Muslim population.
Lebanon was, in the words of the brilliant historian Albert Hourani, a lost star from the Ottoman galaxy. So too is Syria. The sectarian balance of power, so carefully maintained under the Ottoman millet system, has been shaken; the consequences are not difficult to predict. Look no further than to Lebanon circa 1975, when the entry of the heavily armed Palestinian Sunni Muslims into the sectarian melting pot created volatility in the system, causing a civil war that lasted for 15 years. It only ended in 1989 when a new political order was established following the signing of the Taif Agreement in Saudi Arabia, which established a more equitable distribution of wealth and political power between Christians and Muslims.
In Syria today there is a conflict of wills: the desire by a minority to remain free of majority domination, and a majority no longer willing to pay the price for that minoritarian privilege For both sides, it is first and foremost a struggle for survival. On the ground this battle is being fought with street protests but increasingly with bullets, tanks and roadside bombs. In the media, it is fought euphemistically, using the language of “democracy” and “human rights”, “salafists” and “terrorists”, “shabiha” and “Arourites”, etc. Neither side is willing to be honest and admit to the sad reality of the situation because that would be considered too “Lebanese”, unbefitting of a proud Syrian.
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
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:
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.”
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.
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.
Sky News called me this morning and asked if I would comment on what has been happening in Syria these last few days. Understandably, I jumped at the opportunity. As far as 24-hour rolling news networks go, Sky News is a big player, and for them to take an active interest in Syria when Libya and Japan have been dominating the headlines must surely be applauded and encouraged.
That got me interested in Sky News’ take on Syria so I started following their hourly news bulletins. To my pleasant surprise, I found their foreign affairs editor Tim Marshall’s take on Syria refreshingly frank and to the point. He understood the Sunni/Alawi issue and he correctly noted that Syria was the most repressive Arab dictatorship out there (that’s right, not Saudi!) Dr Omar Ashour of Exeter University was also there in the studio and he offered an incisive look at the nature of Middle Eastern dictatorships. I found it all very interesting so well done Sky News team.
At around 6:40pm it was my turn to appear live on Sky News as a “spokesman for the opposition.” I am nothing of the kind of course, but there is a saying in Syria: “Better to be known as a rich man than a poor man”. Here’s how the interview went:
I tried to convey two important messages in what little time I had. One was that Syria is the one to watch because regime change there will have widespread regional repercussions, more so than Yemen or Libya. The second message was related to the situation in Dar’a which is critical given the very real risk of massacres by the army and security forces that were descending upon the city in frightening numbers.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get hold of a good quality recording. The best I could manage was this mobile phone footage from my niece who watched the interview on her laptop. It’s not even the whole interview but you get the idea.
If any of you were wondering, that comfortable-looking chair I’m slouched on is a POÄNG armchair from Ikea, available for £90.90.