One of my favourite chants from the Syrian uprising is the powerful and cleanly apparent illi yuqtil sha‘abu kha’in, or ‘he who kills his people is a traitor.’ It’s cleanly apparent to me at least – but not to everybody. Some kneejerk ‘leftists’ (a rapidly diminishing number) still hold that the Syrian regime is a nationalist, resistance regime, a necessary bulwark against Zionism, and that therefore it must be protected from its unruly subjects; that in fact it’s the unruly subjects, rather than those who murder them, who are the traitors.
Very sadly, Shia Islamists – Lebanon’s Hizbullah, the sectarian parties in power in Baghdad, and Iran – have repeated the same argument, not because they believe it but for tedious clannish reasons. Syrians aren’t very surprised by the Iraqi or Iranian positions; it’s Hizbullah’s betrayal which sticks in the craw. After all, until Hassan Nasrallah began propagandising on behalf of the regime’s repression, Syrians of all sects supported and admired Hizbullah. During Israel’s 2006 assault they welcomed southern Lebanese refugees into their homes. Indeed, the regime’s alliance with Hizbullah can in large part be credited to the Syrian people; the alliance was one of the regime’s only real sources of popularity. The Asad clique needed Hizbullah’s resistance flag to cover its own nationalist nakedness.
Sectarianism is the old curse of the mashreq, exacerbated in modern times by Sykes-Picot, minority dictatorships, Zionist meddling, and the invasion of Iraq. Lebanon’s political system, indeed the whole idea of Lebanon, is as sectarian as can be. Lebanese Sunnis and Christians are every bit as sectarian as Lebanese Shia, and usually worse. So perhaps Nasrallah can’t help himself. But whatever his excuse he is thoroughly wrong, strategically as well as morally, and his wrongness is public and blatant. Whether or not the Syrian regime falls, Nasrallah’s current position will do more damage to Hizbullah’s ability to fight Zionism, to carry the aspirations of Arabs and Muslims, than any number of Israeli assassinations and bombing runs.
Even if Syria’s were a genuine resistance regime, it would be immoral to expect Syrians to put up with its savagery which is sometimes as bad or worse than that employed by Zionism against Palestinians. A banner displayed in Homs a few weeks ago made this point with characteristic humour: ‘Homsis request the government to use rubber bullets, as Israel does.’ Since March the regime has done its best to transform Syrian cities and villages into Gaza. It has attacked with tanks and helicopters, unleashed its shabeeha thugs to burn and loot, whipped up sectarian fears and hatreds, murdered housewives, mutilated children, and tortured thousands. It shouldn’t need to be said that Syrians have the right and the duty to liberate themselves from these immediate threats, but unfortunately it seems it is necessary to say and repeat it. A Lebanese recently told me, “No revolution is worth anything if its first aim is not the liberation of Palestine.”
So let’s examine the steps taken by Syria over the last four decades towards the liberation of Palestine. It’s certainly true that the regime’s resistance record in comparison with other Arab dictatorships has been excellent. Syria fought the 1973 war. It fought Israel directly and by proxy in Lebanon in the 1980s. Its alliance with Iran and Hizbullah led to the liberation of the Lebanese south, the first real Arab victory against Zionism. It provided political support to the elected government in Gaza while everyone else was conspiring against it. Compare the Asad record with Mubarak’s walling-in of Gaza, or with the tame obedience of the Hashemites and Sauds, and Syria’s dictatorship looks wonderful.
But that isn’t saying much, and I’ve only picked out the good bits. If we examine the bad bits too, we discover a regime whose foreign policy aims only at domestic domination.
I’ve never believed the theory, hitherto whispered and now chanted aloud, that Hafez al-Asad deliberately lost the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967, although Asad was Defence Minister at the time, and he personally gave the order to retreat before Israel had won the territory. I put these unfortunate events down to the amateurish nature of a ‘political’ and frequently purged army, and to panic. But the protestors are less charitable than I am, and they chant: ibn al-haraam/ ba’a al-jowlaan, or ‘the bastard sold the Golan.’ In other words, the regime’s perceived accomodation with Zionism is one motivator of anti-regime protest.
Since the 1973 war, when Hafez restored some of his and the army’s reputation, the occupied Golan border has been Israel’s quietest, quieter than the frontiers with Jordan and Egypt, states which have officially made peace. Not much resistance there. When Syria first entered Lebanon, in 1976, it did so to rescue the right-wing Maronite pro-Zionist forces from imminent defeat by the Palestinian-Druze-Muslim-Leftist alliance. One argument says the civil war would have been brought to a satisfactory conclusion in 76 – it wouldn’t have lasted 15 years – if Syria hadn’t sided with pro-Zionists at this early stage. As for relations with Palestinians, Hafez wanted nothing more than to seize control of their movement, and he beseiged camps and provoked factional slaughter to that end.
The policy of Asad senior, though sometimes seriously flawed and often ruthlessly brutal, was always, however, canny and intelligent. Love him or hate him, Hafez was so clever, a man of such power, that he even ruled eleven years from the grave. Junior and team, on the other hand, have proved in recent months to be very, very, stupid. The current repression implements the instructions of a corpse. If Hafez were alive he’d have noticed that this is not 1982, that the opposition is not only the Muslim Brotherhood, that the dissent cannot be contained in one locale. Hafez was a strategic thinker, and for that reason he might have survived this challenge. Not so his sons, who are too stupid to rule Syria, and certainly too stupid to be a strong link in an anti-Zionist axis.
Recently (before the uprising) a teenage girl called Tal al-Malouhi was imprisoned for blogging. She blogged mainly on the Palestinian cause, and sometimes she was critical of the Syrian regime too. She was put in jail. To be a political prisoner in Syria is a body and soul-destroying experience for a middle-aged man, let alone for a teenage girl. There are millions of Tals, millions of Syrians who want to write about Palestine, organise for Palestine, collect money for Palestine, fight for Palestine. These people are threatened, silenced, tortured, caged and raped.
Despite my disappointment with Hizbullah’s leadership, I still of course respect and admire their victories against Zionism. Look at this organisation, the first Arab organisation to confront and defeat the occupier: it succeeds because it is of its people, it fights for justice for its people, it arms its people. None of these things can be said for the Syrian regime, which arms against the people, and fears the people – which is why the Syrian regime will never confront and defeat the occupier.
It is entirely true that in a period of violent transition, with numerous internal and external actors plotting, nobody can know what kind of regime may rise after the Asads. One thing is certain, however: if the next system is to any extent democratic or representative, it will oppose Zionism, demand the return of the occupied Golan Heights, and struggle for the rights of the Palestinian people. The history of Syria (in struggle with Zionism since before the modern states of Syria or Israel were established) and the sentiments of 23 million Syrians attest to that.