The revolution, counter-revolutions and wars in Syria are terribly misunderstood, particularly in the English-speaking West, by policy makers and publics alike. There are many shining exceptions, but in general poor media coverage, ideological blinkers and orientalist assumptions have produced a discourse which focuses on symptoms rather than causes, and which is usually unencumbered by grassroots Syrian voices or any information at all on Syrian political and cultural achievements under fire.
The consequent incomprehension is disastrous for two reasons – one negative, one positive.
First, the exponentially escalating crisis in Syria is a danger to everybody – Syrians and their neighbours first, but Europe immediately after. Russia’s terror-bombing is creating hundreds of thousands of new refugees. Meanwhile there’s good reason to believe President Putin is funding far-right anti-immigrant parties across Europe. It is very possible that this year’s flood of refugees will re-establish Europe’s internal borders, destroying the ‘Schengen’ free movement area, seen by some as Europe’s key political achievement since World War Two. With eleven million homeless, traumatised people on the eastern Mediterranean, terrorism is sure to increase. And the long-term geopolitical consequences of allowing, even facilitating, Russia, Iran and Assad to crush the last hopes of democracy and self-determination in Syria will create a still more dangerous world for our children. Yet European heads are being buried in the sand. Some still imagine a peace process is underfoot.
And the positive reason. Amidst the depravities of war, Syrians are organising themselves in brave and creative ways. The country now boasts over 400 local councils, most democratically elected, as well as tens of free newspapers, radio stations, women’s centres, and an explosion in artistic production. We shouldn’t just be feeling sorry for Syrians, but learning from them too. Their democratic experiments are currently under full-scale international military assault. They may be stamped out before most non-Syrians have even heard of them.
Here’s a brief extract from my essay on Syria’s Alawi community, its history and doctrines and its political fortunes under Assadist rule and during the revolution, written for the Sects issue of the Critical Muslim. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe, and encourage your library or college to do so. The next issue will be a Syria special.
Syria’s CIA-backed military coup in 1949 was the first in the Arab world. Although there was a later parliamentary interval, the coup brought the army (and therefore rural minority groups) into the centre of Syrian political life, and a pattern of coup and countercoup set in, only brought to an end when Hafez al-Assad, an Alawi air force officer, rose to absolute power in the 1970 ‘Correctionist Movement’, achieving stability through totalitarian control.
From one perspective, Assad’s early years were golden years for the Alawis, as they and other hitherto marginalised sects (Druze and Ismailis) as well as rural Sunnis moved into the cities and entered state elites. (“Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Notables, and their Politics” by Palestinian Marxist Hanna Batatu is a wonderfully comprehensive, wonderfully written study of the mechanics and personalities of this movement). The regime settled Alawis (often low-ranking soldiers and their families) in strategic suburbs on the approaches to Damascus. In these early years too, the Ba‘ath demonstrated loyalty to its rural base and its proclaimed socialist values by building schools, clinics and roads for the villages.
For the first time there is proof of a large-scale massacre of Alawis – the heterodox Shia offshoot sect to which Bashaar al-Assad belongs – by Islamist extremists among Syrian opposition forces. In its context, this disaster is hardly surprising. It follows a string of sectarian massacres of Sunni civilians (in Houla, Tremseh, Bayda and Banyas, and elsewhere), the sectarian ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from areas of Homs province, and an assault on Sunni sacred sites such as the Khaled ibn al-Waleed mosque in Homs, the Umawi mosque in Aleppo, and the Omari mosque in Dera’a. It follows two and a half years of rape, torture and murder carried out on an enormous scale by a ‘Syrian’ army commanded by Alawi officers and backed by sectarian Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, and by Alawi irregular militias. Assad and his backers have deliberately instrumentalised sectarian hatred more effectively than the Americans did in Iraq, and they must bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the dissolution of Syria’s social mosaic. Next, the counter-revolutionary forces in the West (chief among them the United States) must be blamed for obstructing the flow of arms to the Free Syrian Army, a policy which has inevitably strengthened the most extreme and sectarian jihadist groups (some of whom, such as the foreign-commanded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, are actively fighting the Free Army). Human Rights Watch’s important report on the massacre of Alawi villagers is summed up in the video below. Sadly, HRW fails to adequately distinguish between Syrian and foreign, and moderate and extremist anti-Assad militias. The excellent EAWorldview critiques the report here. Its conclusion:
The HRW report illustrates the dangers of conflating the various factions of the insurgency under the heading “armed opposition groups”.
Coincidentally, that conflation is a tactic of the regime who seeks to portray the insurgency as extremist-led, largely foreign fighters rather than an extension of the indigenous protest movement that took up arms after Assad’s forces used violence to quash it from March 2011.
By this conflation, HRW (a fine organisation which has done great work in uncovering the truth of the Syrian conflict) veers dangerously close to the orientalist/racist stereotyping of the Syrian people’s struggle now dominant in both the rightist and liberal/leftist Western media.
It goes without saying that the crimes committed against Alawi civilians in northern Lattakia province are grotesque and idiotic, and constitute another strategic blow against the revolution and the survival of the Syrian state.
Novelist, screenwriter and journalist Samar Yazbeck in interview: “The regime has indeed destroyed the Alawite religion, a peaceful religion, as it engaged in things foreign to the faith, leading some to become its Alawite thugs. But many of us are opponents, in jail, in exile, or banned from travel. The regime is playing with sectarianism to terrify “its” minority and get support. A game that will end, but first, I fear, there will be clashes between the communities. ”
In this interview an Alawite member of the Syrian Revolution General Council based in Homs argues, “We need to break down the myth that the regime is the defender of Alawites and other minorities. It is just defending itself, and using us for its own ends.”
And in this interview actress Fadwa Sulaiman explains why she’s thrown her lot in with revolutionaries in a besieged area of Homs (she’s currently on hunger strike): – “I just wanted to go just to say we Syrians are one people. I wanted to contradict the narrative of the regime.“
From the start of the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime’s media have portrayed the overwhelmingly peaceful grassroots protest movement as a foreign-backed military assault. Its preferred catchall term to describe the tens of thousands of patriots it has kidnapped and tortured, as well as the thousands it has murdered, is “armed gangs.” Despite a series of televised “confessions,” the regime has not provided any serious proof of the supposed American-French-Qaeda-Israeli-Saudi-Qatari plot against the homeland. Nor has it explained the evident contradictions between its narrative and the thousands of YouTube videos and eyewitness accounts of security forces shooting rifles and artillery straight into unarmed crowds.
Of course it hasn’t. Yet its propaganda is taken seriously by Russian and Chinese state media, certain infantile leftists, and a vaguely prominent American academic.
Tragically, the propaganda is also taken seriously by members of Syria’s minority sects — not by all of them by any stretch, but perhaps by a majority. It’s tragic because perceived minority support for this sadistic regime will inevitably tarnish intersectarian relations in Syria in the future.
Those Sunni Syrians who are (understandably) enraged by the minorities’ siding with the dictatorship should remember first that many Alawis and Christians, as well as many more Druze and Ismailis, have joined the revolution and that many have paid the price. Second, Sunnis should remember that Alawis and Christians have good reason to fear change, if not to believe the propaganda.