The Syrian Awakening?

Ghiyath Matar, a 25-year-old Syrian human rights activist from Darayya near Damascus, was best known for handing out roses to soldiers sent to monitor or quell demonstrations. He died in detention in September 2011.

This year has been gut-wrenching for anyone who loves Syria and Syrians. For Syrians living outside Syria it has been worse. For Syrians inside, I can’t even imagine.

One of the best sources of measured information and commentary on events and developments Middle Eastern (from an explicitly anti-imperialist and anti-corporatist point of view) is Middle East Report. Published by the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), it has been in the business of reasoned analysis as though Middle Easterners count since 1971. It represents Middle East reporting and analysis for the “Democracy Now” crowd.

In their latest on-line publication, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group and Sarah Birke of the Economist have put together the most comprehensive yet still relatively concise, realistic and optimistic assessment of the Syrian uprising one year on. It is also very readable with nice turns of phrase: “Calls for aid are somewhat worse than a pact with the devil: They entail pacts with many devils…” If you have a chance you should read it in its entirety, but here a summary with some excerpts.

In Beyond the Fall of the Syrian RegimeHarling and Birke go beyond the two dueling narratives that shape most interpretations of the violence between the Asad regime, on the one hand, and the motley but wide-spread opposition, on the other. Most Americans are familiar with the narrative that coincides, not surprisingly, with American foreign policy: the Asad regime is destined to collapse because it has no legitimacy internally or externally. This is the line touted by the exile-led Syrian National Congress which has proved to be as representative, as politically astute, and as in touch with struggle inside the country as was the US’s Iraqi handmaiden, Ahmad Chalabi’s ill-fated Iraqi National Congress, on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq. The fact is that regime has a resilient and powerful base of support and will not whither away. Furthermore, Russia and China have proven that the US and the West cannot have their way in the region as they might have had before the Iraq debacle. Certainly, the US (which leads the Security Council in vetoes, most in support of Israeli aggression), cannot “cry wolf” and expect the UN to be a politically free deliberative zone.

The narrative of the regime and its supporters inside and outside Syria paints the country as one ridden so with sectarian fault lines and susceptible to outside conspiracies and that the brute force of the militia-state is all that stands between Syrians and the abyss of civil war and outside aggression. Many Syrians, fewer and fewer though, buy this line.

As Harling and Birke point out:

“What does not fit any prior stereotype is the behavior of Syrian society. It certainly is fissiparous, but not along predictable lines. Past uprisings — the Muslim Brother-led insurgency in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Druze intifada of 2000 and the Kurdish rebellion of 2004 — raised suspicions in society at large for their communal nature. In contrast, today’s protest movement is surprisingly broad-based and cross-cutting. Many an ‘Alawi, especially among intellectuals and simple villagers, resents how his community has been taken hostage by the regime. The Druze are split somewhere down the middle. Christians, who are geographically dispersed, adopt remarkably different viewpoints depending on how much they see of the security services’ abuse on the ground. Those in Damascus and Aleppo have generally rallied to the regime’s side, but in many other areas Christians at least sympathize with protesters. Ismailis, based in the town of Salamiyya, were among the first to join the opposition. And Sunni Arabs, of course, are not all against Bashar; the Shawaya tribes in the northeast, to cite one example, tend to be supportive.

Nor is a communal prism the only one through which the conflict should be seen. Although it started off as an underclass and provincial phenomenon in the Hawran plain, the protest movement has crossed socio-economic boundaries, drawing in doctors, engineers and teachers. It has spread to the capital, where flash demonstrations stand in for the large rallies that would take place were it not for massive security deployments. The business establishment, whose interests initially made for a cautious, conservative stance, has realized the regime is compromising them: Most — even within crony capitalist circles — have long been donating money to the opposition. Fault lines have appeared in less likely places still. Within the same family, older generations are more likely than the youth to cling to the devil they know. Couples are sometimes torn; some women are prone to prefer stability and dialogue, while others push the limits of dissent beyond what their husbands are inclined to do.

The uprising has caused parts of Syrian society, which had long been apathetic and fragmented, to undergo a sort of renaissance. Protesters have been extraordinarily dedicated and creative. They have set up committees to collect and distribute money and document individual deaths with a fastidious sense of duty. In the midst of bloodshed, they have expanded their inventory of smart slogans and eye-catching posters, chanted in support of besieged cities in different areas of the country, stitched together new flags, and spoofed the regime in video and animation. Areas such as Daraya, close to Damascus, have become known for their acts of civil resistance. Ghiyath Matar, a young activist who was later killed under torture, had ordered roses and water to hand out to soldiers and security forces sent to police the area.”

In contrast to the revolutions in Libya and Egypt, Syrian opponents of the regime have created an original and uniquely Syrian culture of dissent:

“Unlike Libyans, who in a matter of hours defected en masse, took up arms and called upon the outside world to step in, Syrians took months to resort to weapons or cry out for international intervention. Unlike Egypt, where revolution was a sublime but somewhat shallow moment of grace, the Syrian uprising has been a long, hard slog: The protest movement has gradually built itself up, studied the regime’s every move and mapped out the country to the extent that small towns such as Binnish in the northwest are now known to all.”

Harling and Birke do not suggest, however, that the road ahead will be easy or free from potential catastrophe. They point to three possible pitfalls. If the opposition refuses to acknowledge that millions, rather than dozens, have thrown in their lot with Bashar, it will do so at its peril. The SNC, which has done little more than alienate potential allies who are on the fence (like the Alawi poor and Alawi intellectuals who oppose the regime but fear a backlash and Kurds who are suspicious of the SNC’s reliance on the Turkish state),  has misjudged the situation almost as badly as Bashar and his cronies.

Finally, and of most relevance to Americans who are wary of their government’s policies in the region:

“As increasingly desperate protesters call for help, there is a danger that the outside world will make matters worse as it plays at being savior. Calls for aid are somewhat worse than a pact with the devil: They entail pacts with many devils that do not agree on much. The Gulf monarchies, Iraq, Turkey, Russia, the US, Iran and others all see geostrategic stakes in the fate of the Asad regime. The greater their involvement, the less Syrians will remain in control of their destiny. Crying out for foreign intervention of any kind, to bring this emergency to an end at any cost, is more than understandable coming from ordinary citizens subjected to extreme forms of regime violence. Exiled opposition figures who pose as national leaders have no excuse for behaving likewise, when what is needed is a cool-headed, careful calibration of what type of outside “help” would do the minimum of harm.”

For Americans who have a historical consciousness that stretches back at least a decade:

“Close to home, another Middle Eastern experience — Iraq — serves as an example… A political process excluding even a relatively small minority within Iraqi society led to a collective disaster. A group of returning exiles, without a social base but enjoying international support as the only visible, pre-existing “alternative,” quickly took over the transition and agreed only on splitting up power among themselves on the basis of a communal calculus. Their division of the spoils gradually contaminated the entire polity, and ultimately led to civil war. And the US, presiding over this tragedy, succeeded only in turning Iraq into a parody of itself, a country that now fits every sectarian and troubled stereotype the occupying power initially saw in it.”

That said, Harling and Birke close their assessment by celebrating the achievements Syrian protesters have made. In the world of political calculus and punditry that we inhabit, it is worth remembering how much the generation of 2011-2012 has already achieved:

“Prior attempts at breaking with the legacy of colonialism, in the revolutionary bustle of the mid-twentieth century, failed, grounded as they were in narrow politicized elites and military circles. What is different today is the awakening of a broad popular movement, motivated less by parochial interests and grand ideologies than by a sense of wholesale dispossession of their wealth, dignity and destiny.

This awakening, in a sense, is precisely what the regime has been fighting. Although foreign interference is a fact, there is less a conspiracy in Syria than a society on the move, headed along a path that the regime simply will not follow. The road ahead is a dangerous one, and the chances are real that it will lead Syria, and the region, into the maze of civil war. But for all too many Syrians there is no going back. The regime was given a year to stake out a safer way forward, but has clung ever more fiercely to its old narrative, ultimately recasting itself as a historical cul-de-sac.”


About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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