Syria Comment

protest in Zabadani: "My Sect is Freedom"

The Syria Comment website is an indispensable source for news and views on Syria. Unfortunately, it now requires a health warning.

In a recent article Joshua Landis writes that the protestors “failed to provoke a confessional split in the army as happened in Lebanon. Sunni soldiers have not split from Alawis, despite all the talk about “shabbihas,” which is code for Alawis.”

This, as so often in recent weeks, is an example of Syria Comment taking leave of reality in order to slander the uprising. I’ve been following activist websites and facebook pages, and talking to Syrians of a range of backgrounds. I haven’t come across anyone who aimed to achieve a ‘confessional split’ in the army. Of course, the protestors wanted a split in the army, between patriots and the dogs of the state. They wanted Syrian soldiers to refuse to fire on unarmed Syrian people, and it seems in Dara’a they got what they wished for. Nobody wanted a confessional split.

Next ‘shabeeha’ is not code for Alawis. I’ve heard Alawis talk about the shabeeha, and they’re not talking about themselves. The ‘shabeeha’ refers to a specific thuggish militia, which ran smuggling previously and breaks people’s heads now, while trying to spark sectarian fights.

Syria Comment is dedicated to supporting the regime narrative while debunking and discrediting opposition claims. When it focusses on the supposed leaders of the uprising it offers up Ammar AbdulHamid, an expat Syrian linked to neo-conservatives, or bad-tempered Islamists. The intention is to show that the protestors are sectarian savages manipulated by the West. This approach doesn’t account for the Alawis, Ismailis and Druze opposing regime barbarity. Today the Assyrian Christian community threw its weight behind protests. I wouldn’t be surprised if SC now discovers that the Assyrian church represents the Salafi branch of Christianity.

Syria Comment has also enjoyed mocking the international media and its reliance on eye-witness accounts and internet videos. Given that the international media is forbidden from reporting on events in Syria, and that journalists who do get in have been imprisoned, mistreated and deported, this mockery is in very poor taste. I posted a link on the site to a Robert Fisk report on Syrians fleeing state violence across the Lebanese border. Syria Comment then posted the statement on its main page “Robert Fisk is wrong.” Robert Fisk is often wrong, fair enough. Syria Comment’s reason for declaring him wrong in this case, however, was that ‘Aboud’ in the comment section said he was wrong. Aboud is a nickname like ‘Jack’ or ‘Jimmy.’ This is the site, remember, mocking the media for relying on eyewitnesses.

Syria Comment has failed to report in any detail on protests, killings, arrests and sieges. Once it stated that no protests had taken place in Syria that day. A quick check of the internet showed that there had indeed been protests in several cities. But it gets worse. SC has taken to repeating regime slanders of opposition figures. Ayman AbdulNour (of the all4syria website) for instance, was accused of visiting Israel in a trip organised by the PA’s corrupt strongman Muhammad Dahlan. The story is very silly, and very low. There’s also a facebook page dedicated to calling the brave activist Suheir Attasi a Mossad agent, and calling for her execution. Fortunately SC hasn’t repeated that lie. It has however allowed hate speech and even incitement to murder on its comments pages. Quite rightly SC doesn’t allow hate speech aimed against Jews or Arabs. But when those targetted are unarmed anti-regime protestors, the rules shift.

So why has SC travelled so far from objective academic analysis? One possible answer was suggested by one of the SC crew, an expat Syrian who I had considered a friend. He emailed me accusing me of ‘flipping’ from support of the regime. Of course I haven’t flipped, because I was never committed to supporting the regime. I supported Syrian and Arab causes, and I still do. I support intelligence, which Hafez al-Asad demonstrated a great deal of. I oppose sectarianism, the eastern Arab curse. When I see the Syrian regime acting against the interests of Syrians and Arabs, acting with enormous stupidity, and doing its best to enflame sectarianism, then I oppose the regime, and in doing so I remain entirely consistent with my values. But this ex-friend by his language suggests that his loyalty always was to the regime, in a regime-right-or-wrong way if not in the payroll sense, and not to truth.

Another answer has to do with sectarian prejudice. Joshua Landis married into an Alawi military family and unfortunately seems to have internalised some very ugly anti-Sunni attitudes. Years ago he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times which contains this little gem of a sentence: “For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority.” Chatham House’s Rime Allaf took Landis to task here for that article.

I have to keep reminding myself that Joshua is almost Syrian himself, by marriage and by virtue of having spent years in the country. If I thought of him as an ordinary white American I would accuse him of racism. So I think of him as a semi-Syrian unduly worried by fears of post-Assad revenge against Alawis. These fears are legitimate. Still, it’s easy to find clear-sighted Alawis who fear sectarianism but recognise the brutal stupidity of the regime and the innocence of the protestors.

Syria Comment remains a good and informative website. We link to it on PULSE, down there at bottom right. It’s a shame that it requires a health warning in these crucial times.

3 thoughts on “Syria Comment”

  1. aaaaaaaaah … You would replace “Syria Comment” with “Pulse” and “Syria” with “Iran” and then you’d have a story. Especially “Syria Comment is dedicated to supporting the regime narrative while debunking and discrediting opposition claims.”
    Hey, what goes around, come around.

  2. I disagree, Pedestrian. I remember, for example, that we published the terrible youtube video of Neda Soltan’s murder and condemned the Iranian regime for its brutality in no uncertain terms. We also condemned Press TV for its cheap attempt to pretend that Neda had been killed by her friends. We tried to take a middle position between regime apologists and Western commentators who falsely believed that the Green Movement was a mass popular uprising of the sort we are now seeing across the Arab world. The Green Movement WAS a different phenomenon. For a start, while the Arab uprisings are leaderless, the Green Movement was led by Musavi and others, big regime figures. And there was far more real foreign interference, via the tweets etc.

    Nevertheless, I have been re-examining my own approach to the Green Movement in the light of the Arab revolutions and the distressing anti-revolutionary positions taken by some leftists. The Green Movement made the mistake of protesting about elections which their candidate probably lost. And Musavi is not a particularly inspiring figure. Nevertheless, the GM contains many people who used the election controversy as a vehicle to express their general discontent with repression in Iran. And their peaceful protest was met by extreme violence – not on the scale of Syria or Libya, but bad enough. As such, I now believe I should have been more committed in my support for the Green Movement.

  3. At Joshua responded to this:


    I am sorry you object to the reporting on the revolution. I admit that I have not cataloged the demonstrations. I have copied Amnesty International reports on the murders and brutal suppression of the demonstrators.

    But it is in the comment section that readers will find a daily detailed description of each demo and videos to go with it. On occasion I have copied those lists to the main page, but if I tried to keep up with the various pages and copy their content, it would be an iposible excercise. I have tried to highlight all the main pages and activists who maintain web centers. You mention Ammar Abdalhamid, but I regularly push articles by Radwan Ziadeh, Ausama Mounajed, Najib Ghadban and most of the Western based activists who maintain the principle Facebook pages that have been so important to driving and shaping the message of this revolution from the outside.

    I know and admire Ammar, but I also admire the others, who have all played an important role in getting this revolution off the ground and have sacrificed a great deal to get it there. You accuse Ammar of being a neo-con, but he really isn’t. Most of the main activists have worked with figures from the Bush administration as well as the Obama administration. They undoubtedly believe that the revolution will need all the support of the US and Western governments to succeed. I don’t take a position on that. They have a strong argument. Whether it catches on with most Syrians, I cannot predict. Already, I suspect many are moving in that direction and welcomed Obama’s support for their cause and US sanctions on Syria. But I cannot tell.

    You are correct for chastising me for not monitoring the comment section more closely. I have let it get away. Many of the comments have contained insults and abuse. It has been from both sides. I banned the most vicious government supporter in the hope that it would set an example, I have censured and edited over 20 comments in the last week. But, please forgive me. I have not been able to spend a lot of time on it or read all comments this past two months. Some 200,000 readers came to SC last month. Daily posts were often getting 200 comments. I could not keep up and I abandoned my task as censure. Syrians are angry and frightened. Many have lost their cool and have been saying regretable things to each other. I try to maintain civility. I have often failed. I hope you will not blame that on me.

    Your main gripe has to do with my take on sectarianism. It is a common complaint. I beleive that Syria is a deeply sectarian society that is destined to become much more overtly conscious of the sectarian aspects of its society and polics.

    This regime, as we are discovering, is highly sectarian. It has tried to conceal it, but it is the reality.

    I will write about the Shabbiha and their origins in a post, hopefully shortly. There is no shabbiha milita. These are state malitias that have nothing to do with the shabbiha, who were mafia style groups connected to the president’s family under Hafiz al-Assad. The opposition has called them shabbiha, but they are technically not the same thing. They are part of the state and are Alawite. It is part of the sectarian strategy of the state.

    To overthrow this regime, the opposition will have to split the Sunnis from the Alawites, I suspect. The initial strategy, as you say, was to get the entire military structure to turn against the Assad family, as happened in Tunisia and Egypt. This has not happened and is unlikely to happen because of the sectarian strategy of the regime. I don’t think the Alawites are likely to split on this issue.

    The Sunnis may eventually split from the Alawites. If this revolution is to eventually be successful, my suspicion is that the opposition will have to use secarianism much more forcefully than it does today. I think that strategy will emerge soon enough, if it is not part of the unspoken subtext already. A subtext that sees Shabbiha as the main problem.

    I am preparing to write a post on sectarianism in Syria and how it is likely to become the main topic in the coming months, as it did in Iraq and Lebanon, once they began to move toward real conflict. During the first months of war in both Lebanon and Iraq, people did not talk much about sectarianism, but after 4 or 5 months, it was all anyone talked about.

    This is alreay beginning to happen in Syria. It is not the fault of the opposition. I am sorry if I suggested that. The regime is deeply sectarian. It uses the Alawite community and other traditional loyalties as a primary source of regime stability. If the opposition intends to break those loyalties, it will have to use them to its own advantage, which means ….., Well, we all know what it means.

    I do recognize the brutality of the regime. I also recognize the innocence of the vast majority of the protestors. Unfortunately, they will have to lose their innocence if they want to win. There will be much more brutality before we are through. That is my prediction. I do not welcome it.

    We are seeing the end of a post-colonial order in the Middle East. In the Levant that means overthrowing minority rule. The French and the British helped minorities to power in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Since the beginning of the Lebanese Civil war, we have seen that order challanged by calls for democracy – in Lebanon when Kamal Jumblat demanded “one man, one vote” in 1975. In Iraq, when the US insisted on bringing democracy to Saddam’s world in 2003, and today in Syria, with the call of “Isqat al-nitham, hurriya, and demokratiya.” Each effort has involved a powerful undercurrent of sectarianism. They have been about overthrowing the minority religious community that has held the lion’s share of power for decades and more. The are intimately connected.

    joshua landis

    May 21, 2011 at 1:12 am Edit

    About Talkalakh and Fisk. I would not have posted Aboud’s critique of Fisk if I had not had them corroborated by a US official, who has access to reports on the subject. Several people had pointed out to me in emails, that Fisk was wrong about a number of things in his first article.

    As for “the massacre in Talbesi where 11 people were gunned down at a funeral,” I wrote that I did not know who had gunned down the people, because I was finishing my post on the days events at 1:00 am in the morning in Oklahoma. I saw the first indications of the story. I wanted to include them in the post and did so but could say more. The next day, it became clear that the military had killed the 11. I did not know this when I published before going to sleep. When people read it the next day, some were angry, as was Aboud, that I had not nailed the government for the killing. At the time, I didn’t know.

    And I responded to his response:

    Dear Joshua

    Thanks for responding. I agree with OTW – you are much more reasonable here than on SC. The divergence is puzzling.

    First, about the ‘leadership’ of the uprising and the Western-based activists. I would suggest that these people are far less important than they or you would have us believe. Remember they tried to pull off a day of rage via Facebook and it fell completely flat. The first demonstration in Syria was in Hareeqa, Damascus, in response to police brutality. I wouldn’t be surprised if no-one in that crowd had heard of Ammar, Osama and the rest. The people in Daraa demonstrated when their children were arrested and beaten. And so on. The uprising was externally catalysed to the extent that Syria is an Arab country and Syrians were inspired by Arabs in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, but the dynamics of the uprising have been internal. Therefore I would be much more interested in reading (on SC) interviews with representatives of the local coordination committees, or with activists on the inside such as Suheir Attasi or Razan Zaitouneh. I think these people are far more relevant.

    I agree that Syria is deeply sectarian, but I think that’s only half the story. Syria oscillates between sectarianism and a deep cosmopolitan civility which is millenia-old. The tension between the two trends determines the course of Syrian history. Your posts give the impression that the protest movement belongs entirely to the first trend. This is deeply unfair. The movement is much closer to the second trend. It also shows a development in Syrian nationalism. The overwhelming majority of slogans have been anti-sectarian. Kurds and Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Alawis, Ismailis and Druze have been involved in protests.

    The fact that violence and regime propaganda risks pulling Syria towards the first trend, and to civil war, makes the regime all the more culpable. Not only are they killing Syrians now, they are putting future generations at risk. The situation requires a clear apportioning of the blame. The best service we can do to Syria is to show honestly where the sectarian threat arises, and to show that it’s a power game, a trap the people should be aware of.

    When people refer to shabeeha they mean unofficial regime militias or thugs, the equivalent of Egypt’s baltagiyyeh. Most of them are Alawi, but as OTW’s comment shows, not necessarily. Your statement that shabeeha is code for Alawis distorts reality by suggesting that anyone who speaks of them has a sectarian agenda.

    I completely disagree that the uprising will have to become more sectarian to succeed. It may well become more sectarian as people become more embittered and despair of peaceful methods, but it will be less successful the more sectarian it becomes. A sectarian fight means civil war, not fredom. It means that Alawi intellectuals and Christian protestors will have to absent themselves from the uprising.

    Comparisons with Lebanon and Iraq are valid but should not be overemphasised. Shia were systematically discriminated against in Saddam’s Iraq in a way that Sunnis weren’t in Syria. Saddam was able to characterise the 91 uprising as Shia because the uprising – unlike Syria’s – was geograaphically limited. The people in the south saw Iraqi soldiers returning from Kuwait barefoot and semi-naked. People further north didn’t. Then the American dismantlement of the state opened the way for gangs and militias. This could happen in Syria if the regime decides that the entire state machinery must fall with it. Next, the final catalyst for civil war in Iraq was the contradictory responses of Sunni and Shia to foreign occupation. There isn’t going to be a foreign occupation in Syria.

    Lebanon’s war was always sectarian. At first it was a left/right thing, but the Muslims tended to be left and the Maronites tended to be right. Lebanon inherited a sectarian electoral system from the French, which poisoned everything.

    I agree with the final paragraph of your first comment. As for Telkalakh and Aboud, perhaps you should have mentioned, anonymously, your American source.

    You haven’t explained why SC repeated the slander against Ayman Abdel Nour.

    Several SC stalwarts have commented here in agreement with my piece. I hope it gives you pause for thought.

    Thank you again for your response.

    in friendship


    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    May 21, 2011 at 12:26 pm Edit

    An Alawi friend of mine who supports the uprising emphasises how important it is that the protests remain peaceful and non-sectarian. He says that every day more Christians and Alawis are realising that they are not threatened by the uprising. If people start becoming more blatantly sectarian, minorities and secularists who are currently uncommitted will throw in their lot with the regime.

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