Few things are as thoroughly demoralising as arguing with a close family member over the revolutionary events currently gripping Syria. This was made even clearer to me after an extended period of not having discussed the issue with said family member. Our initial discussion took place shortly after the revolution broke out; it was still in its nascent stages, but there was already a sense of palpable tension in the air.
More recently, we were engaged in a heated, contentious debate over possible solutions to the Syrian revolution, but how can you even begin to have a proper discussion on this uprising when the other side won’t acknowledge that there is a legitimate, active movement in place to begin with?
After over two years of feeling completely outcast on the issue among most members of my family, this acrimonious state of loggerheads between myself and one of my closest and most admired mentors is perhaps the most lamentable fracturing of a previously cherished relationship that I’ve experienced since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.
This relative made a few revealing – and fallacious – comments regarding not just the revolutionary activities of Syrians in protest of Bashar Al-Assad’s sadistically violent campaign of repression, but also about the perceived practicalities of these forms of resistance and their subversive nature. I feel these points need to be addressed, regardless of how imbecilic, patriarchal, and orientalist, as these are views which have been so frequently echoed by some of the more cynical (and, let’s face it, bourgeois) strain of Syria observers, irrespective of how well-meaning they think they are.
Myth #1: revolutions have to be, and have historically been, organised activities with a clearly defined leader, and if they’re not that – they’re invalid and somehow to blame for all the death and destruction unleashed upon them.
This absurd statement flies in the face of the stark reality of how popular revolutions have historically unfolded, and even of recent examples hypocritically lauded by the so-called ‘leftists’ and ‘anti-imperialists’ that dismiss the Syrian revolution, namely the on-going uprisings in Egypt and Palestine. In both cases, tactics for popular struggle have developed within the ranks of labourers, peasants, working-men, and other groups oppressed by the state regimes over many years entirely independent of the vanguard influence of any leader or elected representative. One can even say that this has been (and very much continues to be) their chief strength. The popular struggles in both countries faced set-backs in their legitimate struggles for civil rights, dignity, and self-determination precisely when their revolutionary movements were co-opted by organised groups with internally elected leaders: in Egypt, a corrupt electoral process overseen by Mubarak’s ruling junta (Security Council for Armed Forces) saw the farcically unpopular Muslim Brotherhood headed up by Mohammad Morsi rise to power; In Palestine, and more specifically the West Bank, popular dissent among Palestinians against Israel’s lawless occupation and colonisation of their land was negatively impacted by the moral and political disintegration of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and Fatah under them, who, despite having an electoral mandate, harshly ruled the cantons Israel left them, proving to be little more than quisling puppets in thrall to the influence of the Israeli & US governments, and the neoliberal loan organisations. In so doing, Fatah/the PLO, headed up by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, have kept the grassroots development of Palestinian resistance firmly in check, collaborating with Israel’s security apparatus in gathering intelligence and preventing demonstrations, strikes, and civil disobedience from threatening the established order of either Fatah or Israel.
Nevertheless, the civil struggles in Egypt and Palestine defiantly continue to this day, despite attempts by organisations and leaders speaking on their behalf to hijack them in their own quest for power, wealth, and social dominance. It is a testament to the indomitable spirit and durability of both Egyptians and Palestinians that their revolutions have made their most enduring gains (such as the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions initiative in Palestine and the April 6th Youth Movement in Egypt) entirely independent of traditional partisan organising. The notion that unorthodox political organising is in any way a detriment to the legitimacy of these revolutions is completely unfounded, particularly if any meaningful civil gains are the goal.
What does this mean for Syria? It denotes, above all, that nobody can plausibly expect to hold Syrian dissidents to the impossible and wildly unrealistic standard of the ‘pure’ revolution which has no historical analogue anyway. And that it is entirely unfair to hold Syrians internally struggling to topple an incredibly barbaric and inhumane regime to a standard that says their revolutionary struggle is only legitimate in so far as traditional opposition groups working towards the same subversive ends are organised and coherent.
Myth #2: the opposition has rejected dialogue with the regime and in particular, efforts by Russia to mediate a political settlement.
By far the most prominent Syrian opposition figure with grassroots support, National Coalition head Moaz Al-Khatib made the unprecedented offer of dialogue with the regime on the condition that it releases all political detainees. It is important to note that he took this initiative despite the objections by Muslim Brotherhood-dominated factions of the traditional opposition, and the ethical ramifications of conversing with a regime that commits heinous war-crimes of a genocidal nature. It was the regime that rejected the offer, after growing signs of division started to appear within Assad’s circle on how to respond to Al-Khatib. Russia, much like Assad himself, has paid copious amounts of lip-service towards dialogue and settlement, but has done nothing to implement them beyond their foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, agreeing to meet with political opposition representatives. The fact that Russia steadfastly vests Bashar Al-Assad with diplomatic protection at the UN and the wider international arena while systematically providing his army with the arms, bombs, and logistical expertise needed to inflict destruction, bloodshed, and human misery in Syria not only demonstrates that it has no interest in a ‘political settlement’, but that it is actively working to ensure it is as prolonged as possible.
The regime of Bashar Al-Assad has also paid lip-service to dialogue for a political resolution in the way that totalitarian regimes seeking to crush a popular revolt often do, rhetorically, and while continuing to foster the same violence and human cruelty that makes such dialogue ineffective to the point of being impossible.
Myth #3: it’s not in the regime’s interest to commit these campaigns of terror and oppression of which they are accused.
This statement is more or less an empty platitude, and proves nothing in real terms, because the Syrian regime is acting in violently barbaric ways that may be geared towards what it assumes will yield short-term military victory, but which sows so much hatred and vengeance among its human targets that its imminent destruction is a matter of time, and not possibility. This argument that crimes the regime is accused of and for which the evidence is abundant cannot be true because they don’t serve whatever mythical ‘purpose’ it’s defenders think it has is a digression from analysing the Syrian situation on the tangible realities it faces. But then, that’s probably the whole point.
Myth #4: well, I don’t dispute that this regime is bastard, but look at Darayya (a town in the Damascus countryside). If these so-called ‘rebels’ had not hid amongst civilians and fired on the capital with their hand-held missiles, the regime would not have had to respond as it did by shelling the town and subjecting it to aerial bombardment.
This is a very familiar argument, which is virtually identical to the ‘justification’ the IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces) gave for subjecting the Gaza Strip to incessant bombardment from tanks and planes during the three-week-long Gaza Massacre of December 2008 – January 2009. Completely disregarding its role in initiating the conflict and the wider context of hostilities (and the occupation), Israel claimed that the attack was justified because Hamas militants were firing on southern Israel with home-made rockets, and that, purely out of Israel’s right to self-defence, it had to retaliate with its own onslaught. Yes, Israel acknowledges, the loss of civilian life in Gaza is a reality during this incursion, but it is because Hamas hides amongst the civilian population, using innocents as human shields. Leave aside for a moment the fact that the former excuse is an incomplete obfuscation at best, and that the second is a blatant falsehood. Nowhere is it stated in the official US and Israeli narratives on this incident that those committing the military massacre in Gaza are the ones that initiated the violence to begin with. At no point is the full truth about the context of the struggle imparted, which, in this case, is that the Gaza strip has been subjected to an inhumane Israeli-controlled blockade since 3 years prior that has severely limited the flow of food, gas, electricity, building materials, and other basic necessities to the people of Gaza. At no point was the 60-year-long occupation of Palestinian territory and mistreatment of their communities ever mentioned.
Similarly, the Darayya excuse betrays the same brand of intellectual dishonesty and refusal to acknowledge those primarily responsible for human suffering. Just like the Israeli excuse for its actions in Gaza, those who pin the responsibility for the destruction on the rebels in the case of Darayya (and countless other towns, regions, and districts besieged, shelled, and bombarded by the Syrian army) are stripping away the context of what lead the rebels to fire back towards the centre of Damascus with the limited arms they have in the first place. Nowhere is the Darayya massacre of August 2012 mentioned, in which at least 400 civilians, many of whom were children, were slaughtered in cold blood by shabiha militia gangs loyal to Assad, who went on a house-to-house rampage executing entire families. Nowhere is it admitted by those employing such insidious lines of reasoning that towns such as Darayya have been besieged for months, with communications, water supplies and other essentials cut and movement restricted. And at no point is it ever admitted that the resistance against the regime in Darayya and other places was entirely peaceful and non-violent at first, and that it is the regime that reacted to demonstrations and civil disobedience with violent repression in these very areas, causing dissidents to take up arms. None of these facts are mentioned because to do so would be to tell the whole truth and to show honest regard for the welfare and civil aspirations for the human beings living there.
Myth #5: the idea that the US is somehow playing a large role in meddling in Syrian affairs.
The US, like many other countries, is playing a role in trying to manipulate events in Syria to their own advantage. This much is true enough. The insinuation that they – along with the West in general – are doing so on the side of the Syrian opposition is factually inaccurate. Again, here one must sideline all the acrimonious rhetoric from US officials towards the Assad regime and look at the facts. For starters, one of the few tangible actions the US has taken with regards to the conflict in Syria is the formal listing of the Al-Qaeda linked fundamentalist group Jabhat Al-Nusra, who are presently fighting in Syria in some parts of the north, as a terrorist organisation. In practise this puts it on par with Hamas, meaning anyone in the US caught providing what they deem ‘material support for terrorism’, even if it’s as innocuous as issued statements of alliance or the offering of advice, will be subject to criminal prosecution. The US has not issued such a severe legal indictment to Bashar Al-Assad or any other elements of his regime, as apparently their mass campaigns of shelling, murder, rape, torture, enforced disappearance, and inhumane detainment are not considered ‘terrorism’ worthy by the Obama administration.
Furthermore, far from arming the Syrian rebels, which is something the US hasn’t even seriously indicated it is willing to do, it has actively ‘discouraged’ countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are funnelling some arms to rebel groups, from shipping in the anti-aircraft weaponry that Syrians need in order to down the jets that are responsible for almost all of the bombardment and wholesale destruction of villages and towns in the country. CIA officers seem to be regarding the flow of weapons into Syria with some scrutiny, without actually availing themselves of the opportunity to provide American weapons themselves. The US’s actions therefore indicate what should be obvious to anyone observing the proxy war angle of the Syrian conflict; the Obama administration is far more concerned about weapons falling into the hands of groups it considers hard-line jihadists, particularly those affiliated with Al-Qaeda or some of the other fundamentalist groups that have fought US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, than it ever was in supporting a popular revolt against Assad’s oppressive state apparatus.
Myth #6 : the idea that the armed opposition is somehow the sole representative of the revolutionary forces that have been unleashed in Syria following the uprising.
I mentioned this in my first post, but it bears elucidating, because apparently some people like to quickly make up their minds based on unsubstantiated perceptions of geopolitical interest and what they reflexively assume is the Syrian reality. The armed opposition, consisting of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and a small collection of other groups with specific agendas (mostly battle-hardened Islamists from outside), make up only a small percentage of Syria’s liberation movement. One of the major peaceful components of grassroots activism takes the form of the Local Co-ordination Committees, a decentralised network of groups in Syria that emerged from the very beginning of the revolution to organise and document protests, civil action, and more recently, to report on civilian casualties and other human rights violations. The LCCs have also played a role in supporting local councils that are forming in the many Syrian regions that have slipped from government control, such as Idlib and Deir ez-Zor. These administrative bodies are taking on ordinary civic duties such as administering food, safeguarding social justice, and keeping a semblance of order and security in their communities. Unlike the corrupt governorates that ruled these districts before the revolution, they are developing organically from the ground up based on community trust and decision making. They are doing this despite the constant threat of aerial bombardment and other violent incursions by Assad’s forces.
Additionally, a very large section of the Syrian revolution consists of burgeoning social and artistic movements, which have exploded onto the Syrian cultural scene and has not so much hijacked it as redefined it entirely. Syrian creative types are putting out their own home-made sketch shows, music, banners, art, poetry, installations in ways that are so numerous that a museum specifically devoted to revolutionary art has already opened up within Aleppo itself. Internationally, exhibitions devoted to promoting art by Syrian refugees and others who have suffered in the bloody conflict have appeared everywhere from London to Copenhagen. I would even argue that the social and artistic components of the Syrian revolution are more prevalent and will prove to be more influential than the entirety of the armed opposition combined, as indispensable as that is right now for eliminating the Assadist threat. They will endure long after military arrangements cause the chips to fall as they may. They represent a populace that has allowed the unencumbered aspects of their personality to shine through, despite everything that’s happened.
(Homsian Spotlight, a comedy sketch series created by a group of young Homsi’s under an actual military siege.)
Myth #7: look at all the countries meddling in Syria’s affairs, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, America. It’s a mess. it’s complicated.
The lack of human compassion in those who are so overly obsessed with this sole aspect of the Syrian uprising is quite difficult to stomach. There is a proxy war in Syria involving states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US, Russia, and Iran; but it is so frequently mischaracterised in magnitude and importance. It is only one aspect of the Syrian situation. This rhetoric is also dishonestly used as propaganda to dismiss or marginalise Syrian’s struggle for freedom, and the multifarious forms that struggle takes. Those who dismissively proclaim ‘Syria is complicated’, or ‘All sides are committing crimes’, are not merely being intellectually lazy, but they are also simplifying a situation in a country that can only be morally looked at from the reality that it is and the impact that it has on the human beings living there. It is also an excuse to justify an on-going apathy and snide cynicism that appears to have its roots in distance, economic privilege, and personal detachment. These are understandable traits among outside observers, however unacceptable. It becomes slightly harder to fathom, though, when such views are espoused from people who have close ties to Syrians and the land itself. If one truly cares about honestly condemning human rights abuses and crimes where-ever they occur in Syria, and regardless of who is responsible, one must also fairly and accurately apportion the blame based on who is perpetrating the crimes, and truthfully outline the history of how Syria got to that point. This is just as important to bear in mind when highlighting abuses inflicted by those in the FSA and others allied to the Syrian opposition as well as those committed by the regime, its army and militias.