There are two political-intellectual prisms through which the recurrent conflagrations of the modern Middle East are conventionally seen. One casts the region’s stubborn ills as internally caused — by the outsize role of religion in public life, the persistence of primordial identities like sect and tribe, and the centuries-long accretion of patriarchal norms. The other espies the root of all evils in external interference, from European colonialism to the creation of Israel and assorted ventures of the imperial United States.
It is possible, of course, to view the Middle East through a multi-focal lens, one that projects neither of the above caricatures. Few who know the region well would adopt either explanatory framework wholesale; most would dismiss both. But debate on the Middle East rarely admits nuance, and, in time after time of crisis, even those with empathy and expertise find themselves pulled between these two poles, compelled by the “us-versus-them” terms of conversation to choose one or the other, perhaps despairing in the knowledge that the resulting discourse merely reproduces itself while doing nothing to help the suffering peoples who cry out for solidarity.
The coarse and cold-blooded repression of the Syrian revolt of 2011 throws this dilemma into stark relief. Though the regime headed by Bashar al-Asad has largely succeeded in blacking out consistent, reliable news, every day brings fresh reason to conclude that Syria is the nightmarish opposite of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionary dream: a country where the claque of autocrats, united rather than divided, has turned the fury of its military upon a mostly unarmed citizenry, which nonetheless remains divided rather than united. The civilian death toll is well into the thousands. Whether or not, or more precisely in whatever form, the Syrian regime survives, by revolt’s end it will have dragged the country through hell.
Upon some reflection, it is not hard to see that today’s Syrian torment is neither a natural culmination of its hidebound socio-political system nor an unfortunate artifact of its international position, but a conspiracy of both. That is, the country’s pain is neither homegrown nor imposed from without, but inflicted by an insidious dialectic through which authoritarianism and regional imbalances of power not only coexist, but also feed upon one another. This malign symbiosis is not ancient — in Syria’s case, it dates to the 1950s or 1970s, depending upon one’s measure — but it has been durable indeed. It took the pan-Arab insurrectionary wave of 2011, a historic series of events by any yardstick, to push the ruling logic to its breaking point. Though the regime’s demise cannot yet be foretold, there will be no return to business as usual.
On the ground, and in part due to the spottiness of good information, the revolt is too fast-moving to assess with confidence. Clearly, however, and despite the regime’s deployment of tanks from Douma to Dayr al-Zawr, it would be foolish to bet that it can ride out the storm by simply stepping up the savagery. The regime’s key asset to date has been its coherence, not just at the very top, but also among the principal security service and Republican Guard units, which believe, rightly or wrongly, that their fate is bound to the ruling elite’s. If nothing else, having spent decades terrifying Syrians into quiescence with the specter of communal discord, the regime has come to take its own sectarian propaganda seriously.
But the Syrian reality is more complex and distinctly less comforting than that. The country’s sectarian and ethnic divides, though porous and hardly preordained, are facts of political life, ready to be sharpened and wielded as weapons by those with the predilection to do so or, perhaps, the poverty of imagination to do anything else. The Syrian regime is not, as some would have it, an “‘Alawi regime,” but it is a regime whose upper echelons, in the army and other institutions, have become dominated by ‘Alawi strongmen from the coastal mountain range since the 1970 and 1980s. The fact that the regime’s composition does not translate into “pro-‘Alawi” policies means little to social groups that have largely been excluded from formal power for more than three decades. That exclusion belies the regime’s claims about secular, plural Syria. Meanwhile, the regime and its supporters benefit from, and not so subtly propagate, the doomsday scenario that sectarian strife would engulf the country should the regime’s watchful eye and iron fist be removed.
The 1982 massacre in Hama, characterized by Bashar’s father Hafiz as a war against the Muslim Brothers, has left a bitter legacy for the majority Sunni Muslim population. It is easy for the regime to convince minorities, including affluent Sunni and Christian urbanites, to fear the majority’s retribution — the countryside’s revenge upon the city, piety’s resurgence at the expense of hyper-secularism, the rabble’s assertion of chaos over order. That no one knows how deep runs the support of Islamist or salafi trends in Syria makes it impossible to affirm or dispel these anxieties. Such is the lot of countries whose rulers have virtually suspended ordinary civic activity — and meted out jail sentences to those who would try to learn about their society for themselves.
The crux of the matter, however, is that exclusion and repression are directed against all regime critics, irrespective of communal origin or any other marker of difference.
A corollary bottom line, as the pseudonymous Amal Hanano writes in Jadaliyya, is the vague fear of one’s fellow citizen that the Syrian regime has inculcated over decades and that, depressingly, lives on amidst open rebellion. The regime’s spies really could be anywhere, so strangers are not to be trusted with innocuous gossip, let alone unvarnished political opinion or searching discussion of contemporary affairs. In the absence of freedom, the safest views are those that assign blame for instability and unrest to a nameless “them,” in the case of Syria, anyone but Bashar al-Asad and his immediate entourage. And it is not just fear that impels this response, Hanano continues. In an autocracy, particularly one like the Asads’ Syria, where the regime has clumsily but effectively promoted a cult of benign leadership, it is psychologically less discomfiting to accept the regime’s simulated certainties than to face the unknown. As Hanano writes of Bashar: “Only his image remains, the unsoiled image, the omnipresent image…and we love the image.”
These factors, on the other hand, make the courage of the protesters in Syria all the more amazing. No rustic jacquerie, the Syrian revolt has leaped from town to town, from the south to the central provinces to the east, alighting in Ladhiqiyya at the foot of the ‘Alawis’ mountain redoubt and in Jisr al-Shughour near the Turkish border. The latter town is now synonymous with another massacre, of mid-ranking army officers and ordinary soldiers by senior commanders. Reports of dissent among junior officers are mounting; should the cracks in the army widen, the writing would be on the wall for the regime.
Increasingly, the uprising is ably represented in the press and cyberspace by courageous and democratically constituted local coordinating committees reflecting the energy and frustration, first and foremost, of young Syrians. These committees are expressly non-sectarian: Not only do they emphatically denounce sectarian ways of thinking, but they also summon into being a dramatically different polity, one that transcends tolerance of difference to enshrine pluralism as essential to the health of a future Syria. The uprising therefore highlights not just the perils of communal difference, but also the possibilities. The resolutely cross-sectarian tenor of most protests stands as a running rebuttal of the regime’s dark insinuations of coming mayhem.
The coordinating committees also reject violence and, crucially, foreign intervention. On this last point, they diverge from the perspective of several Syrian exiles and Western commentators, whether the liberal editors of the New York Times, who demand “every possible diplomatic and economic pressure” upon Syria, or the likes of Farid al-Ghadri and Elliott Abrams, who would countenance more “kinetic” options. The youthful and diverse coordinating committees are the Syrian voices that the international community should listen to.
Some in the Arab world and on the international left, alas, make excuses for the regime’s brutality on the grounds that it belongs to the “resistance axis” arrayed against the US and Israel. Because it has been a conduit for arms used to drive Israel out of Lebanon, for instance, the regime is to be granted leeway in battling its opponents, no matter who they are or what they seek. Such is the opportunistic position of Hizballah in Lebanon, as it defies its own stated principles of resistance to injustice in favor of keeping secure the flow of arms and logistical support through the Syrian channel. In so doing, Hizballah demonstrates that it is like any other self-interested political party, tarnishing its cherished reputation for nobler motivations.
Being critical of Western intervention, or even supporting resistance to it, does not require a stance of support for the Damascene cusp of the “axis,” either ethically or logically. The struggles of activists against US hegemony or against Israeli occupation of Palestine will not be harmed by the fall of the Syrian regime, which has mostly “resisted” civil rights and a decent life for ordinary Syrians (and, for 35 years, full Lebanese sovereignty). If anything, the “resistance” rhetoric of Damascus and Tehran has besmirched the name of activists for peace and justice by association, even if that association is usually unwanted and, therefore, unfair.
Indeed, the role that the Syrian regime has chosen in world affairs has paradoxically become one of the main props of its continued rule, even as Arab ambassadors withdraw and the chorus of international criticism grows louder. Syria’s neighbor to the north, Turkey, has restricted itself to periodic scolding and lately a visit by the foreign minister as the tank assaults proceed. Given its proximity to Syria, extensive trade relations with Syrian businessmen and revived aspirations to Middle Eastern leadership, not to speak of its shared interest in keeping a lid on the Kurdish question, Turkey is leery of regime change or protracted disequilibrium to the south. Those Arab states, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, that prize “stability” above all else are determined that the successes of the Arab revolts stop in Tunisia, Egypt and, perhaps, Libya. These states are apprehensive about the possible spread of destabilizing ideas — not only democracy and accountability for deposed dictators, but also brands of political Islam and strains of sectarianism that they have not sponsored. At the same time, they are desirous of weakening Damascus’ entente with Tehran. The result is not support for the protesters but risible trust in the regime to enact “quick and comprehensive reforms.”
And it is curious, to say the least, that the United States and Israel, the very objects of the Syrian regime’s complaints about “foreign hands,” have thus far been the least categorical in their condemnations. Washington and Tel Aviv, too, have preferred to see the regime “reform” rather than retire, out of worry that the “resistance” of a successor government on the questions of Palestine and the Golan Heights might be more than rhetorical. The words, “Asad must go,” have yet to pass a White House spokesperson’s lips, and the pathetic UN Security Council presidential statement of August 4, calling on “all sides to act with utmost restraint,” signaled that the Western powers were willing to sit and watch the bloodletting of the ensuing week. On August 9, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration “is preparing to explicitly demand the departure” of Bashar al-Asad and impose new unilateral sanctions. If these measures are indeed taken, they will be in keeping with the administration’s extreme reluctance to abandon autocrats as the ferment in the Arab world has spread.
What is beginning in Syria? It remains difficult to say. One can stipulate, however, that the season of Arab revolt, including its Syrian phase, marks the end of an era. It is surely not authoritarianism per se that is disappearing in the Arab world, considering the Saudi quashing of the Bahraini rebellion, for example, or the worrisome signs coming from Egypt under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces there. But no longer is mass social mobilization against injustice absent from the regional stage. No longer can the will of the people be so blithely ignored. There will be no more hereditary transfers of presidential power in republics, and the notion of uncontested executive authority has been shaken to its core. Even monarchies now want to appear to be on the side of the people, as the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Bahraini royal families clearly do when they recall their envoys to Damascus (their ulterior motives notwithstanding). In Syria, no matter what the outcome of the uprising, there will be new checks and balances on the regime and its coercive apparatus, not because regime insiders will have become democrats, but because they will now fear the street. Unbridled crony capitalism is also gone forever. The allocation of resources will become more just, not because the rulers will have become socialists, but because they will now wish to avoid a recrudescence of protest. Politics, in short, has returned to the Arab world.
As this politics makes itself heard, it will more and more expose the hoary lies that Arabs, because of religion, sub-national loyalty or patron-client ties, cannot be democrats and that Arabs, because of the colonial past or the conflict with Israel, cannot be genuine internationalists. The 2011 revolts have exposed the links between “social” and “national” issues that the despots and their Western enablers of right, left and center have worked so long to efface. So no longer will it be credible to interpret Middle Eastern events exclusively through the optic of internal causes or its external-causes rival. The Syrian pro-democracy protesters, like their Tunisian, Egyptian and other Arab counterparts, have lit up these analytical dead ends — and led the way out of them.