George Sabra has been elected new head of the Syrian National Council. He seems like a good man and his first interviews suggest he’s an effective talker. But his election comes as the SNC loses the last of its relevance. Despite the gravity of its historic responsibility, the Council failed to connect properly with revolutionaries on the ground, it failed to do enough to reassure minorities, or to aid refugees, it put all its eggs in the basket of a foreign military intervention which was never going to happen, it overrepresented the Muslim Brotherhood, it was bedevilled by factional and ego-based conflict, and its self-renewal process ended up with no women in the leadership. Foreign governments have lost interest in it. Crucially the grassroots Local Coordination Committes say the SNC no longer represents them. Other opposition bodies and individuals outside the SNC (some of them doubtless secretly backed by the regime) have added to the sniping and backstabbing.
Today the news is that a new, broader body has been formed to coordinate the fight against Asad, to implement law in liberated areas, and to oversee the post-Asad transition. It’s called the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary Forces and the Opposition, or the Syrian National Coalition. Perhaps this initiative will be more successful than others; we’ll see. Very sadly, it took Qatari and American badgering and perhaps promises of better weaponry (at this late stage with the country in flames and the resistance finally capturing heavy weaponry for itself) to force the ‘opposition’ to coalesce. You’d think Syria’s elite politicians would have been self-motivated to compromise and act by the destruction and mass slaughter in their homeland, by the urgency of the tragedy, by the vacuum allowing nihilists and potential warlords to call shots. But no. While Syria’s grassroots revolutionaries are unparalleled heroes, seemingly capable of endless self-sacrifice, Syrian political elites have failed their people massively.
The ability to put aside personal and factional interests for the sake of a common goal, to adapt, to accomodate the other’s point of view, requires a background level of trust in the national community and its institutions, and long experience in democratic collaboration. Syria, unfortunately, has been a cast-iron dictatorship for four decades, so these ideal conditions do not apply. But is that enough to explain the generalised failure of Syria’s political elites?
This is also a class and a generational issue. Syria is a country in which people are very conscious of class – another reason why the regime’s socialist pretensions are parodic – a country in which the arrogance of the old elites is matched only by the the arrogance of the new. Of the latter, some have risen from poverty, from illiterate or semi-literate homes, and risen ruthlessly, doing psychological self-harm as they’ve progressed, believing the narratives they’ve created to justify their ruthlessness. They often develop a disdain for the poor and an exaggerated love of the self. And maybe this was necessary, maybe without the absolute faith in their own righteousness they wouldn’t have been able to make such huge life strides. This is a megalomaniac type best illustrated by Hafez al-Asad but present in gentler or different forms in many upwardly-mobile men and women of that generation and younger, not only Ba’athists and security people.
I don’t want to say that the inability to compromise is inherent in the Syrian character because I don’t believe in such essentialist explanations. Equally, I don’t believe Syrians are born with sectarian hatred flowing through their veins. Behaviours and attitudes are conditioned by social reality and political manipulation. But still, the phenomenon which curses the SNC goes back at least to 1958, when Shukri al-Quwatli handed leadership of Syria over to the president of the United Arab Republic. “You will find Syria difficult to govern,” al-Quwatli told Jamal Abdul Nasser. “Fifty percent of Syrians consider themselves leaders, twenty-five percent think they are prophets, and ten percent imagine they are gods.”
If by ‘Syrians’ Quwatli meant those from the social elites, I agree with him entirely.
(I should stress at the end that the political elites contain some intelligent and principled people, better people than me. But as a generalisation on the politician class, i think my criticism is fair.)