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.
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.
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?
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.
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