Jul 26, 2012

Syria - Understanding is Better Than Accusing

Understanding Political Reality in Syria


by Robin Edward Poulton, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

In his OpEd of June 3rd entitled The Depravity Factor, David Brooks writes emotionally about a murdered 13-year-old Syrian boy called Hamza Ali al-Khateeb. The descriptions and internet photographs of Hamza’s tortured body are horrible, but Brooks draws from this story a set of political conclusions that are unjustified by anything we know about Syria or the region we vaguely think of as the ‘Middle East’. The journalistic expression ‘Arab Spring’ is unhelpful. Libya’s bloody civil war is ‘Spring’? Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings against 80-year-old military dictators have warped our sense of reality. Syria has nothing in common with Tunisia… but it has a lot in common with Iraq next-door, teetering on the brink of civil war since the American invasion of 2003.

Syria has been a generous host to tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees. Many of these refugees are Christians, fleeing Islamic radicalization promoted by Iran, Saudi Arabia and – yes – the USA. Many more refugees are Muslim families who can no longer live in Iraq, because one spouse is Sunni and the other Shia. Iraq is a land where ‘ethnic religious cleansing’ has become a fact of life. With Sunnis living in barricaded districts on one side of town and Shias living in armed ghettos on the other side, where can a Sunni-Shia family go? Refused entry by the US and UK and French invaders who destroyed their country, they have mostly fled to the tolerant, secular, multi-religious nation of Syria.

The Syrian revolt that began in the city of Dera’a has nothing in common with Tunisia. The Dera’a street protests started with Sunni Muslims demanding that girls attending school should wear veils. The government refused, since veils are not compulsory under secular Syrian law. Unfortunately, the protests grew. Unfortunately, the police reacted badly. Unfortunately, the government gave in: girls in Dera’a are now forced to wear the veil.

Street protests spread to other towns. President Bashir al-Assad’s speech to the nation spectacularly missed a wonderful opportunity to lead the protest movement towards political reform. Bashir is not an 80-year-old army general. He is a 40-something-year-old eye surgeon from London with a beautiful wife and delightful young children. Syrians generally hoped – and believed – he was a reformer whose modernizing instincts had been stymied during his 11 years of rule by the iron conservatism of the regime he inherited from his father (who was indeed an army general). Perhaps we were all wrong; or perhaps this eye doctor simply does not have the political instincts and charisma needed to seize the leadership of a popular revolution.

The Syrian regime certainly needs improving, although American calls for ‘democracy’ sound terribly naïve to anyone watching Iraq. Historians remember that bringing democracy to Europe caused the deaths of 200 million people. The Syrian police and security services are dreadfully effective and efficient, and that is why Syria has mostly been a stable and happy place to live for the past 50 years – the place to which Iraqi Christian and Muslim refugees have fled for safety. Some Syrian police are brutal and repressive, there is no doubt. Perhaps 12-year-old Hamza was unlucky to fall into the hands of one sadistic, pedophile policeman. We don’t know, but let’s hope his killers will be found and put on trial although that seldom happens in states like Syria, where people in uniform enjoy impunity. But replacing ‘strong regimes’ is not an easy thing to engineer. No Syrian that I know wants to replace Bashir with the bloody chaos they see in Iraq next door.

There are definitely people who want Bashir to go: radical Saudi Wahhabites, Iranian Shia extremists; and the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian anti-colonial movement of the 1930s that first brought Islam into modern politics. The Muslim Brotherhood led the 1982 revolt in the Syrian city of Hama, which was crushed by Bashir’s father Hafez Al-Assad. David Brooks claims that 10,000 people (almost certainly this is an underestimate) were ‘murdered’ in Hama. Perhaps. But how would President Brooks respond to an armed declaration of independence in a major city and the imposition of Sharia religious law, if he were head of a multi-religious, secular state? Hafez responded like Abraham Lincoln: with overwhelming repression of the armed rebellion, and his political logic was irreproachable. When President Bashir Al-Assad blames the 2011 popular uprising on ‘external influences’ he is not wrong: but American consumerism, television, internet and cell phones are exerting as much influence on the hopes and dreams of unemployed young Syrians as are subversive political forces from Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States.

In Damascus last year, I meditated in the small, stone house of St Anastasias – he was the guy sent by God in the year 34 – to the street called Straight (a Roman road crossing the middle of Damascus) – to fetch the recently-blinded Saul, baptize him as ‘Paul’ and restore his sight. This was the birthplace of Christendom. In Aleppo, the second city of Syria, I visited Ibrahim Mar Gregorius Yohanna, a well-known ecumenical peace maker who is Metropolitan of the Syriac Orthodox Church – the church into which St Paul was baptized. To find the Syriac Orthodox cathedral, I had to eliminate a bewildering range of alternatives: the Protestants (various), the Chaldeans, the Armenians, the Roman Catholics, the Maronite Catholics, the Greek Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox … Every one of these myriad religious minorities is more afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood than of keeping the current Syrian regime in place.

President Bashir Al-Assad is an Alawite, which is another minority (this time of Muslim origin, and denounced by Sunnis as ‘heretic’). The Alawites need to find a way to open their regime to more popular participation. The young men and women in the streets of Syria want change and they want jobs. Most of them do not want ‘democracy’ which is another foreign influence. They see in America and in Iraq that democracy offers only the tyranny of the majority in place of the rule of the Alawite minority. Very few Syrians want a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Brooks says he wants to see Assad’s regime toppled; but the pictures of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb have distorted his vision. International policy cannot be determined by emotional responses to one dead boy. Hillary Clinton has been far wiser and more reflective in her response to the Syrian crisis, saying that Bashir should make himself a part of the solution, or ‘get out of the way’. Hillary sees the complexities of Syria, and the mess America has made of Iraq. Hillary knows that Syria is filled with Iraqi Christian refugees. If Syria is turned over to the Muslim Brotherhood, where will the other 70 percent of Syria’s population flee to? Brook’s columns in the NYT are more fun to read than OpEd pieces by Clinton, but thank goodness we have Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and not David Brooks.
Robin Edward Poulton, PhD:
Visiting Professor in International Studies 2002-2004 at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Senior Fellow, UNIDIR-United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Geneva.

rpoulton@comcast.net - repoulton@epesmandala.com


 Syria: Foreign Interference Between Myth and Reality
 Maher Arar. Published on July 15, 2012

Deciding whether or not to oppose Syria’s rulers has been the recent dominant preoccupation of many anti-imperialist and left-leaning movements. This hesitant attitude towards the Syrian struggle for freedom is nurtured by many anti-regime actions that were recently taken by many Western and Middle-Eastern countries, whose main interest lies in isolating Syria from Iran. However, I believe a better question to ask with respect to Syria is whether the leftist movement should support, or not support, the struggle of the Syrian people.

What I find lacking in many of the analyses relating to the Syrian crisis, which I find oftentimes biased and politically motivated, is how well the interests of the Syrian people who are living inside are taken into account. Dry and unnecessarily sophisticated in nature, these analyses ignore simple facts about why the Syrian people rebelled against the regime in the first place.

A brief historical context is probably the best way to bring about some insight with respect to the events that are unfolding in front of our eyes today. Before doing so, it is important to highlight that, unlike many other Arab countries, Syria is not a religiously homogenous Middle-Eastern country. I am mentioning this because it is through religion that the majority of Arabs identified themselves for centuries. As it stands today, Syria’s population is composed 74 per cent of Sunnis (including Kurds and others), 12 per cent Alawites (including Arab Shia), 10 per cent Christians (including Armenians) and 3 per cent Druze.

Syria earned its independence from the French rule in 1946. As has always been the case with any occupying and imperial force, France worked diligently to ensure that Syrian minorities were placed in top government and military positions. The Alawites’ share of the pie was the military. By the time France left Syria, Alawites became well entrenched in this crucial government institution.

After two decades of military coups and counter-coups, it was no surprise that Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite and minister of defence at the time, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1970. Within a few years he was relatively able to bring about economic and social stability – which made him a hero in the eyes of the majority of Syrians, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

Bolstering power

A cunning politician and an experienced military officer, Assad knew that unless he solidified his rule, the time would soon come when other military officers would mount a coup against him. Over the span of few years, he made sure the top brass of the military and intelligence was filled with fellow Alawite officers who, thanks to France’s pro-minorities policy, were available in abundance.

These Alawite officers were also less likely to mount a coup against a fellow countryman. To deprive the mukhabarat ["intelligence service"] of the opportunity to be able to mount a serious coup against him, Assad created 13 different intelligence agencies – completely independent of each other. Assad also made sure that the most powerful agency was the Air Force Intelligence which he could trust blindly as he himself, a pilot, was a graduate of that particular school (that explains why this particular branch is the most ruthless and the most loyal to the regime).

Over the years the Mukhabarat earned a well-deserved reputation of notoriety within the circles of Syria’s civil life, mainly because on their payroll were hundreds of thousands of informants who regularly filled reports with respect to the slightest activity that in their judgment was deemed a threat to the security of the state. People were arrested and tortured for offenses as simple as seeing and relating a dream in which Syria was portrayed as a kingdom instead of a republic (I heard direct testimony regarding this ‘crime’ from many fellow detainees.) If anything, this almost-surreal example shows that the Syrian regime has never tolerated, and would never tolerate, any form of peaceful dissent.

When I was detained at the Sednaya prison in 2003, a 60-year-old man told me of a conversation that took place between him and a general in the Political Security Directorate. The old man was trying to have a rational dialogue with the general during the interrogation, by advising the him that the regime must treat people like human beings if it wanted to rightly earn the respect of the Syrian people.

The general responded: “We want to rule people by our shoes.” This is a famous Syrian expression akin to: “We want to rule people with an iron fist, humiliating them.” This example sheds some light on the type of mentality that dominates the inner circles of the Assad regime even today. Understanding this point in particular is crucial to understanding the violent response that the regime showed towards the protesters since day one.

Another important factor that explains why the regime reacted violently to peaceful dissent is that pillars of the regime had never imagined that the ‘subjects’ they used to humiliate would one day challenge their authority. Assad’s deniability with respect to this matter was apparent during the interview he afforded to the Wall Street Journal only six weeks before the uprising in Daraa erupted.

Crushing dissent

Those who still buy Assad’s anti-imperial rhetoric should know that the old man whose story is mentioned above was imprisoned simply because he and other fellow citizens organised a small rally to denounce the illegal US invasion of Iraq.

In fact, it is not uncommon to find prisoners – including some of those I met in Sednaya prison – whose only “crime” was to help Palestinian groups. Also, how could a regime that claims to be anti-Israel not even dare to protect itself against the frequent Israeli air incursions throughout the past decade?

I remember vividly the day I was released, when Israeli warplanes bombarded a site inside Syria under the pretext that it was being used to train Palestinian fighters. Syria’s response on that day was mute – as had always been the case. Finally, it is no secret that Syria, like many other Arab countries, cooperated closely with the US in the so-called “war on terror”. I am only one of few living examples of this covert cooperation.

I hope this brief historical context and the few stories mentioned above contain enough information which can now help us analyse the current situation. Contrary to the conspiracy theory type of analysis, which accuses the US and its allies of starting the unrest in Syria, it is now an established fact that spontaneous and peaceful demonstrations erupted after the government refused to hold to account those who tortured those teenagers who sprayed anti-regime graffiti on school walls.

In fact, the initial demands of the protesters were very simple, and did not contain a single slogan which demanded the downfall of the regime. To add insult to injury, when the families of the teens inquired about the fate of their loved ones they were told that they “should forget about them.” When the families persisted in their demands they were humiliated and were told to “go make other children and if you don’t know how to do it bring us your women and we will show how to do it.” How more humiliating could this be?

CBC Video: Maher Arar talks about Syria crisis

As peaceful demonstrations widened, and spread from one city to the next, Assad’s security forces naively thought that by using lethal force to crush these growing protests, the barrier of fear that was starting to collapse would be immediately restored. Contrary to their wishes, however, the more lethal the force they used, the more Syrians became determined to overthrow the regime – by then most had lost hope that their simple demands were going to be met.

When it became clear that there was no genuine commitment that security forces and affiliated Shabiha gangs were going to refrain from using force to crush the demonstrations, people felt the need to defend themselves against the excessive aggression and atrocities committed by state agents – some of whom had reportedly gone totally rogue.

Emergence of the opposition

It is amid this atmosphere that political and armed opposition groups started to galvanise, resulting in the emergence of opposition coalitions – the largest of which was the Syrian National Council (SNC), mainly comprised of Syrians living abroad. The composition of the SNC came back to haunt it later, as dissidents living inside Syria accused the SNC of being detached from the true demands of the people on the ground.

TRNN Video: Maher Arar on Syrian Conflict

For instance, the main point of contention between a newly spun group led by longtime dissident Haitham al-Maleh and the SNC was the issue of how best to respond to the regime’s growing brutality. Al-Maleh believed that the priority was to arm what is called the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group that was mostly formed, reportedly, from army defectors. It seems that al-Maleh was responding to the popular will of the people inside Syria who had lost hope in peaceful means to bring down the regime. It also seems that revolutionaries inside Syria had also lost hope that sanctions, which the SNC heavily lobbied Western countries for, would have any meaningful effect on the regime. People also came to realise that outside military intervention would never happen.

It is worth highlighting that, despite its name, the FSA is composed of hundreds of independent groups. Their emergence is a miracle, considering that the regime has become known for taking revenge upon the families of defectors. It is also worth mentioning that Syrian conscripts are usually assigned to detachments that are hundreds of miles away from their home town (another regime tactic which makes it more likely that soldiers will obey orders to kill.)

The FSA’s disorganised nature, in the sense that it does not have a single command structure, is – in my opinion – a strength and not a weakness, at least given the circumstances with respect to the excessive brutality of the regime, and the fact that the regime has a huge network of informants. Because of a lack of any other viable alternative, many Syrians see the “FSA” as their last hope.

Exaggeration of ‘outside influence’

Now to claim that there is no outside, foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs is to deny the obvious. But in my opinion this “interference” has been exaggerated (the analyses I’ve read with respect to this issue are based on speculations that are not supported by facts on the ground). Yes, there are countries who have always had a strong desire to see the Syrian-Iranian marriage fall apart. But to what extent these countries are influencing events on the ground is far from certain. For instance, the efforts reportedly led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to equip the rebels with heavy arms have not yet borne fruits, and it seems the FSA is mostly using light to medium weapons.

Most of these weapons have either been bought from corrupt army officers, or have been acquired by raiding weapons caches. Qatar and Saudi Arabia reportedly would want to make sure that weaponry would only be distributed to those groups that would pledge allegiance to them. While some groups may accept the deal, it is far from certain that all groups would accept any preconditions – as recently reported by Time magazine.

While the CIA may be present near the Syrian-Turkish border, all evidence points to the fact that the US is not very keen to arm the rebels, out of fear the arms would eventually fall in the hands of al-Qaeda and like-minded groups. In fact, Washington, despite the anti-Assad rhetoric we read about in media headlines, is not very keen on replacing the Assad regime with one whose allegiance to the US would be uncertain.

The two reasons just mentioned explain why the US has so far refused to supply weapons to Syria’s armed opposition. The latest discussions that took place in Geneva demonstrate that the US still prefers “a political solution” (whatever that means).

The fact that Syrian revolutionaries are not receiving the help they need to win the battle against the Syrian regime will certainly prolong the conflict. While many Syrians are disappointed by this indifference, I believe it is better for the future of Syria and its independence.

Syrians have already demonstrated mind-boggling courage and determination. They have made sizeable gains over the past year and they will certainly continue to make more. The signs are clear: the murderous Assad army, the regime’s iron first, is disintegrating, albeit slowly. While it is no reason to celebrate, it is the Syrians’ last hope, and if I were living inside Syria, I would hope the same.

A shorter version of this article appeared on the al-Jazeera English website.
 Maher Arar
Maher Arar
Maher Arar is an award-winning human rights activist and is a frequent speaker at national security related events. In 2010, Maher founded Prism, an online not-for-profit magazine that focuses on the in-depth coverage and analysis of national security related issues. Show full bio

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