Thomas Pierret on the Syrian Revolution

May 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

a scene from the sectarian massacre in al-Bayda, May 2013

a scene from the sectarian massacre in al-Bayda, May 2013

I hate to link to the Angry Arab for various reasons. This is the man who, on the one hand, was only able to mention Juliano Mer Khamis, the martyred Palestinian founder of Balata refugee camp’s Freedom Theatre, in the context of slandering his mother’s ethnicity (yes, she was an Israeli Jew, but one who chose to marry a Palestinian – and Juliano was a man who could have used his mother’s identity to live between the bars and beaches of Tel Aviv, but chose to live and work in occupied Nablus instead). On the other hand he slanders serious scholars like Mearsheimer and Walt, men who have done such important work on exposing the machinations of the Israel Lobby in the US, by accusing them of anti-semitism. (I wonder why he, an American-based academic, has had so much less trouble with people like Campus Watch than real intellectuals like Edward Said and Norman Finkelstein, who made much less dramatic anti-Israel statements). His coverage of the Syrian Revolution has been appalling. He has relied on informants such as ‘an American friend’ to inform his readership that the revolutionary suburbs of Damascus are ‘like Kandahar’ (usually he is overquick to accuse Western commentators of Islamophobia). He has consistently exaggerated the barbarism and sectarianism of elements of the Syrian resistance while consistently underestimating or ignoring the sectarianism and barbarism of the Syrian regime. The questions he poses in this interview with Syria expert Thomas Pierret expose his sectarian bias, but Pierret’s responses are so clear and well-informed that the post deserves reposting here.

“1) You and I have disagreed on Syria, do you think that Syria experts have been wrong in the last years especially with the regular and constant predictions of the imminent fall of the regime?

The generalisation is problematic. Such predictions were rather made by journalists, who have the good excuse of not being Syria experts, and Western officials, who often did so for a bad reason, i.e. in order to justify their inaction: if Asad is about to fall, then there is no need to do anything to stop him.
 
“Experts” did not collectively agree upon the imminent fall of the regime. In early April 2011, I published an op-ed in the French newspaper Le Monde. The last sentence said this: “Nothing guarantees the success of the Syrian revolution, and if it happens at all, it will certainly be long, and painful” . I was not the only one to think that way. I clearly remember a conversation I had at the same time with Steven Heydemann, who was even more pessimistic than I was: he predicted that the regime would use its full military might against the opposition, and that none would act to stop it.
 
I must admit that later developments made me over-optimistic at times, but overall, I do not think I have seriously under-estimated the solidity of the regime.
 
2) What accounts for the resilience of the admittedly repressive regime? Has it been difficult for the supporters of the opposition to acknowledge this resilience?

I do not speak in the name of the “supporters of the opposition”. As far as I am concerned, it has not been difficult for me to acknowledge something I had anticipated from day one.

 
The only independent variable you need to understand the resilience of the Syrian regime is the kin-based and sectarian (Alawite) nature of its military. All other purported factors are in fact dependent variables.
 
The kin-based/sectarian nature of the military is what allows the regime to be not merely “repressive”, but to be able to wage a full-fledged war against its own population. Not against a neighboring state, an occupied people or a separatist minority, but against the majority of the population, including the inhabitants of the metropolitan area (i.e. Damascus and its suburbs). There are very few of such cases in modern history. Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi are the closest examples in the region, but the West proved much less tolerant with them.
 
The regime’s resilience is in no way a reflection of its legitimacy: on the contrary, the legitimacy of this regime is inversely proportional to the level of violence it needs to use to ensure its survival; in other words, this is a highly illegitimate regime in the eyes of most Syrians.
 

Kinship has been key to securing the loyalty of the upper echelons of the military in order to avoid the fate of Ben Ali and Mubarak. The latter did not have the chance to have a large number of relatives among the top military/security hierarchy, contrary to Bashar al-Asad, whose own brother Maher is the actual no. 1 in the military (other relatives in top military/security positions include Hafez Makhluf, Dhu al-Himma Shalish, Atef Najib and Asef Shawkat, among many others). In such a situation, generals cannot seriously think about sacrificing the president in order to save the system: contrary to their Egyptian or Tunisian counterparts, they are not in a position to claim that they are in fact good guys who have nothing to do with the awful incumbent dictator. They stay with Asad, or they fall with him. Beyond kin ties, the loyalty of the military hierarchy has been secured through sectarianism, since it is likely that a majority of the officers belong to the Alawite community.

 
Sectarianism is a powerful instrument to make sure that you can use the army’s full military might against the population. No military that is reasonably representative of the population could do what the Syrian army did over the last two years, i.e. destroying most of the country’s major cities, including large parts of the capital. You need a sectarian or ethnic divide that separates the core of the military from the target population. Algeria went through a nasty civil war in the 1990s, and Algerian generals are ruthless people, but I do not think that the Algerian military ever used heavy artillery against one of the country’s large cities. The fact that the best units in the Syrian military are largely manned with Alawite soldiers (in addition to members of some loyal Bedouin clans) has been key to explaining the level of violence we have seen over the last two years. Of course, the majority of Syrian soldiers are Sunnis, but it is striking that Asad did only use a minority of the army’s available units: according to some observers, only one third of the army was entrusted with combat missions since the start uprising. Seen from that angle, the purported “cohesion” of the Syrian army becomes much less puzzling: the risk of defections significantly decreases when two-third of the soldiers are in fact locked up in their barracks, or at least kept away from the battlefield.
 
Once the military hierachy is loyal, and once you can use a significant proportion of the army to unleash unlimited violence upon the population, the rest follows. The regime keeps control of major population centers thanks to its much superior firepower and ability to use it, thus it keeps the families of many of its soldiers as de facto hostages. For instance, a friend of mine just defected from the army after his family (which had moved from one of Damascus’ suburbs to downtown in order to escape the regime’s air raids) eventually managed to leave for Egypt.
 
The regime’s military force also keeps much of the businessmen and middle-class loyal because although they often hate the regime, they know that changing it means civil war, and they do not have enough to loose to take that risk. And actually, even when businessmen cease to actively support the regime (an enormous proportion of them have moved with their assets to Turkey and Egypt over the last year), the regime is still standing, because it still controls the military. Then you have the diplomats who also remain loyal, often because they know that the regime is firmly in control of Damascus, which means that it can kill their relatives and burn their house if they defect. On the contrary, massive defections of Libyan diplomats occurred in 2011 because they had calculated that the regime would fall quickly, not because they had become liberal democrats overnight. It is all about calculation, not about some belief in the legitimacy of the regime.
 
Support from religious minorities has also been frequently mentioned as a cause for the resilience of the regime. But except for the very peculiar case of the Alawites, minorities do in fact weigh very little in the balance: even if all Christians were supporting Asad (which of course is not the case, neither for Christians nor for any other sect), we would still be speaking of a mere 5% of the population with very little influence over the state and the military. Other religious minorities are much, much smaller, they do not make a difference.
 
In fact, many of the factors that have been frequently invoked to account for the resilience of the Syrian regime where also present in Mubarak’s Egypt: crony businessmen and a wealthy middle-class that has benefitted from economic liberalization (in fact much more so in Egypt than in Syria); a non-Muslim population that is anxious at the possible rise of the Islamists after the revolution; a sizeable bureaucracy and a hegemonic party with considerable patronage capacities (in 2011 Mubarak’s NDP was probably stronger than the long-neglected Ba’th party). Yet, none of these factors had any positive impact upon the resilience of Mubarak, which means that the cause for Asad’s resilience should be looked for elsewhere: it is the kin-based/sectarian character of the military.
 
Then you have external, i.e. Iranian and Russian, support. It has been important, but it only came because the Syrian regime first demonstrated that it was solid enough to be worth spending a few billion dollars on financial and military aid.
 
There is one last factor that has been commonly evoked among the left in the Arab world and the west, i.e. Asad’s purported “nationalist legitimacy”. My aim here is not to assess Asad’s nationalist credentials, a debate which I find only moderately interesting. My point is that none in Syria decided to side with or against the regime on the basis of its foreign policy, or on the basis of some “nationalist” sentiment. Making a decision based upon foreign policy issues is a luxury none can afford when a revolutionary process puts your own individual fate at stake: what people have in mind in such circumstances are issues like freedom, dignity, equality, fear, sectarianism, and interest, not “resistance” or “sympathy/antipathy for the west”. People chose their side, then they rationalised it ex post by making Asad a beacon of nationalism, or on the contrary, a traitor. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why formerly pro-Western bourgeois suddently discovered that they were staunch anti-imperialists, whereas hardline Islamists who had volunteered to fight US troops in Iraq a few years before claimed that they would not mind if NATO was providing them with air support.
 
3) Regarding your study of Syrian `Ulama’, is it fair to say that the `ulama’ who joined the revolt tend to be more reactionary and more conservative than those like Buti and Hassun who stuck with the regime? (I am not merely talking about reformism in terms of rituals following Qaradawi but in terms of views of women and minorities and role of religion in society and body politic?
First of all, I cannot think of a more reactionary stance than supporting Asad’s fascistic and homicidal regime. This is what really matters if we speak of “conservatism” and “reformism”.
 
For the rest, no, it is not fair to say such a thing. There is no general pattern here. First of all, al-Buti and Hassun are hardly comparable figures. Supporting the regime is probably the only thing they ever agreed upon. Hassun holds fairly non-conformist views, he has spoken positively of secularism and inter-faith dialogue. An arch-conservative, al-Buti despised all of this. His alliance with the regime was not based on any kind of sympathy for the regime’s ideology, which he execrated, but instead on pragmatism and on a medieval, quietist approach to Sunni political theology. Al-Buti simply never expressed a single reformist opinion during his life. By comparison with him, Mouaz al-Khatib is a very liberal and open-minded figure. On women, for instance, there is a very telling anecdote that happened in 2007: al-Buti lobbied for months in order to obtain that two feminist associations be banned by the authorities, which eventually happened; the only religious figure who openly criticised that initiative was Mouaz al-Khatib, who argued that “Islamists should never think in terms of repression”. On minorities, regardless of the text on Sunni-Shiite relations he published in early 2007 (which in my view was misinterpreted and not properly contextualised), al-Khatib has made very clear public statements about inter-faith unity. I think in particular of his April 2011 speech at a funeral in Duma, in which he said the following:
All of us are one same body. I say to you: the Alawites are much closer to me than many people. I know their villages, their impoverished villages where they live under oppression and toil. We speak for the freedom of every human being in this country, for every Sunni, every Alawite, every Ismailite, every Christian, every Arab and every member of the great Kurdish nation.
 
All his further statements on minorities and in particular on the Alawites have been absolutely unambiguous.
 
Much of that could also be said of Imad al-Din al-Rashid, the former vice-dean of the faculty of sharia, who was one of the first Muslim scholars to go into exile in 2011. For years, al-Rashid has talked and written much about the compatibility between Islam and the concept of citizenship.
 
You can add Muhammad Habash, a former ally of the regime, whose very liberal positions on interfaith relations where branded as “heretic” by al-Buti.
 
Of course, most of the oppositional ulama are more conservative. They share many of the ideas of al-Buti, except (and it is not a detail) that they have refused to legitimise Asad’s regime.
 
4) what kind of islam is likel to prevail following the fall of the regime?
This will be contested. Salafi interpretations of Islam (there are several of them) are on the rise for various reasons, but a backlash is not to be excluded if some Salafi groups show too forceful in imposing their views upon the population. Some people may turn (back) to proponents of more flexible approaches like the Muslim Brothers and the traditional ulama. Reformist approaches are likely to remain in the backseat, but they were not in good shape before the revolution either. Under the Asads, proponents of Islamic reform were either silenced, or delegitimized through cooptation.
5) Are you pleased with the state of Western academic consensus on Syria, where few are comfortable to speak out against the opposition? I know that because I often receive private communications from colleagues (in our academic email list) who don’t feel comfortable in publicly criticizing the opposition?
I do not think that there is a clear “consensus” among Western academics about Syria, but if a majority of Western scholars support the revolution, I am totally pleased with that. As for academics being afraid of publicly criticizing the opposition, well, I can tell you that, conversely I received private communications from colleagues in our academic email list who did not feel comfortable in publicly supporting the opposition. The fact is simply that many of our colleagues do not like to speak up in general.
6) Why was the news and reality of Islamist involvement in the early uprising and revolt in Syria covered up—in my opinion—in Western media and even academic narrative? Looking back, was the story of Suhayr Al-Atasi leading the uprising one of many lies spread by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters to camouflage their involvement?

I do not understand what you are talking about. The Muslim Brothers were involved in early attempts at organizing the opposition abroad, but they played no major role on the ground during the early, peaceful phase of the revolution, neither did any other Islamist movement. The peaceful phase of the revolution was a spontaneous, grassroots movement that involved various components of the Syrian society. It happens that this society comprises a large number of conservative, religious-minded people, but that does not make the uprising an Islamist one. I never heard the claim that Suhayr Al-Atasi was leading the uprising. Her stance was courageous and she certainly was an important symbol, but no particular group or figure was leading that largely de-centralized uprising.

 
Islamist involvement on the ground started to become significant with the militarisation of the revolution from late 2011 on (I distinguish between the emergence of the first armed organizations during the summer, and the militarisation of the revolution as a whole at the end of the year). It was hardly covered up by the Western media, who have probably released more reports on Jabhat al-Nusra than on any other aspect of the Syrian revolution.
7) Do you think that conditions of women in Syria will not deteriorate no matter what?
Conditions of women can only improve because they cannot be worse than under a regime that has displaced, shelled, killed, injured, raped, arrested, tortured, widowed, and orphaned millions of Syrian women.
8) Is it possible that justice in the future can be meted without sectarian revenge?
Do you mean “will Sunnis kill Alawites once they are in power?” I cannot care about it at this stage. My present concern is that Asad’s sectarian army is committing mass atrocities against the Sunni population. It is not a risk for the future, it is something that is happening right now. The problem is that many people do not even recognize the sectarian character of these atrocities, claiming that repression targets opponents from all sects, including Alawites. In fact ordinary repression does target opponents from all sects, but collective punishments (large-scale massacres, destruction of entire cities) are reserved for Sunnis, just like they were reserved for Iraqi Shiites and Kurds under Saddam Hussein.
 
I do not deny the fact that some groups among the armed opposition have been involved in sectarian crimes, but differences in means, scale and political responsibility simply make any comparison irrelevant.
 
To sum up: let’s stop the regime’s mass crimes against the Sunnis, then we can speak of the risk of sectarian revenge.
9) If a growing number of Syrians feel disenchanted from the regime and from the opposition, what will that mean?
The regime and the opposition are essentially different realities, so I do not think that you can feel disenchanted from both in the same way. The regime has an address, a leader, it is unified and it has a clear pattern of action, that is, mass killing and destruction. The opposition is a very diverse reality that ranges from exiled proponents of non-violence to local civilian committees and councils on the ground, mainstream Islamists like the Muslim Brothers, mainstream armed groups like the “FSA” (whatever that means), and radical Salafi Jihadis. Many Syrians certainly dislike one or several of these components, but at least the “opposition” offers them a broad spectrum of political options. The regime does not.
10) was it embarrassing for Western supporters of the Syrian armed opposition that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar were the early and later sponsors?
Not at all. The question is not whether or not the Syrian opposition should accept Saudi and Qatari support (Turkey does not provide any tangible aid, it merely facilitates), it is whether the Syrian opposition wants to keep on fighting, or surrender (I do not believe in a third way, i.e. peaceful revolution and/or negotiations; it cannot work with that regime). If the opposition wants to keep on fighting, it cannot survive without external logistical support, and none is willing to provide it except for Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
 
My only concern is the half-heartedness and inefficiency of these countries’ military support. For various reasons, these states want to weaken Asad, but they are not eager to see him replaced, hence the limits of their support. The outdated Croatian weapons provided to the rebels over the last months are better than nothing, but these states could do much more. Arms deliveries they have paid for compare very poorly, for instance, with the top-notch weaponry provided to Hezbollah by Iran and Syria.”
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§ 2 Responses to Thomas Pierret on the Syrian Revolution

  • Sarah Irving says:

    Just FYI, Juliano lived and worked in occupied Jenin, not Nablus.

  • Robin Yassin-Kassab says:

    Thanks, Sarah. I thought it was Nablus because the Freedom Theatre was in the Balata Camp outside nablus (unless that was another branch of the theatre?). I stand corrected. From my time in Nablus I remember the great esteem in which Juliano was held by the Palestinian activists there.

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