Oh God, Not Syria Again

On Thursday I went to a conference at the LSE called Inside Syria: 18 Months On.  There were four panels on different subjects (the regime, the opposition, Syrian identity, and the economic situation) and a closing speaker (none other than Burhan Ghalioun).  Something that particularly struck me was that practically every opposition activist who spoke – as opposed to the academics – mentioned the prospect of international intervention in a positive light.  They also stressed that although the uprising’s development into a civil war was not desirable, now that it has happened we have to deal with it on those terms and encourage a military resolution.  (Ex-)Brigadier General Aqil Hashim, in particular, provided full information about the development of the Syrian military under the Ba’th Party, illustrating how the number of battalions has increased, but then called repeated for international military intervention in Syria seemingly just because it was militarily feasible.  Even if it is feasible (which is open to questioning) it should be conducted with thought to what comes next, and this is the stage that has been forgotten.

I feel that much of the conversation about the Syrian uprising has lost sight of its original goal: the establishment of a democratic and pluralistic Syria.  Now, I would not argue that the presence of the Ba’thist government is particularly conducive to a democratic and pluralistic Syria – that’s not in dispute.  But the focus has shifted from toppling the government as a way of achieving a better Syria to simply toppling the government.  The end of Assad’s government has become a sort of panacaea for all ills, a magical solution after which all ethnic and religious issues will miraculously disappear (similar to the treatment given to concerns of sexist, racism, and so on by some of the more resistible branches of communism).  Certainly, deposing the Ba’th party is a way towards that goal, but it is not a goal in itself.  Relatively few people are thinking seriously about what sort of Syrian state is likely to result from this mess.

And that prospect does bear thinking about.  Syria is rapidly descending into a situation reminiscent of Somalia during the early 90s.  The FSA battalions, each one with a different leader and a slightly different message, only require a few changes to turn into what would be effectively warlords.  Already, parts of northern Syria are de facto independent and have set up their own local infrastructure where the situation is stable enough to allow it.  As for whatever happens in a post-Ba’thist Syria, the ramifications of attempting to defeat the government militarily with hundreds of dedicated but contradictory armed brigades have been mentioned quite enough – which still doesn’t mean that anyone is actually thinking about them.

And then there’s the Kurdish segment of Syria, which seems to have been left to its own devices by both the Ba’th party and the opposition, and which brings in a second round of foreign meddling separate from the Saudi-Iran/Russia-USA axis and which no-one really seems to understand.  The Turks, the PKK, the PPK, and Massoud Barzani are all involved somehow, but it seems not to be a priority for the West.  The independence of Syrian Kurdistan – with or without anyone’s permission – would open a new front in the conflict and could feasibly lead to a thorough restructuring of the boundaries of the Levant.

One of the lessons I took from the conference was that nearly every Syrian group is more complex than it is conventionally portrayed, even by the opposition.  The various loyalties of particular ethnic, regional, and religious groups (a) are not fixed or uniform and (b) interact with and cancel out each other on a such a wide scale that generalisations about the Alawites, the Christians, people living in Deraa, or any grouping of Syrian society – even with the warning that they are generalisations – are so unhelpful and counterproductive that it should be physically impossible.  The business community, traditionally a group considered to have little sympathy for the opposition, also has varying allegiances depending on the religious, ethnic, and geographical factors mentioned above.  The same is true of other classes and socioeconomic groups.  The uprising in Syria did not spring up simply because Tunisia and Egypt got a bit twitchy.  There has been a history of economic, military, and social mismanagement in Syria since Bashar’s accession in 2000, and understanding the process which led to the crisis, rather than simply resorting to the secular liberal version of ‘God’s will’, is important for understanding the ways that these identities interact.

The opposition, of course, is also fragmented and multifarious, a characteristic which worked in its favour initially but now simply prevents other people from interacting with it effectively.  On the other hand, unifying it would be virtually impossible, given how many battalions there are and how little they are monitoried.  True, dozens of them have signed up to a code of conduct, but there are hundreds (which we know about) which have no intention of doing so.  The chasm between the opposition in exile and the opposition in Syria is widening, no matter what the SNC may pretend.  Even Riyad al-As’ad, the head of the FSA, is losing support.  The religious fighters which nearly everyone is determined to be worried about don’t have a single identity either: some are global jihadis, some are local jihadis, some aren’t jihadis but publicly draw strength from their own religious convictions.  As Dr Pierret said, “Does it make any sense to talk about jihadis in a situation where everyone has a gun?”

But what is the point of emphasising all this complexity? If you go too far you simply end up saying that ‘everybody is an individual’, which is totally useless for the purposes of understanding political trends.  But somewhere between propaganda and self-help manual lies the territory of balance.  Clearly, some groups offer more support to the opposition and some offer more to the government.  But the argument is that these groups are far more specific than just “Alawites” or “people in Hama”.  It tends to be intersections of many characteristics: “Sunni merchants in Aleppo” or “Kurdish peasants in Hasake province”.  Demonstrating and understanding the complexity of support networks is crucial for two reasons.  Firstly, by looking at the groups which, conventionally, we would expect to support the opposition but in which there is more fragmentation than is convenient, opposition activists (and academics) can explore the reasons for their ambivalence.  Often the question is not so much how to win groups over from the government side as how to win them over from neutrality.  This is particularly true of those communities in Damascene and Aleppan suburbs which have been occupied by the FSA and subsequently destroyed.  By assuming that everyone is on one of the two sides, much opposition discourse about the stunning lack of popular support for their actions in these areas boils down to “We’re saving you; obey us”.  The inhabitants of these areas understand full well that the government, not opposition groups, destroyed their homes.  However, they do – and arguably should – blame the FSA for bringing that destructive government power into their homes in the first place.  By ignoring this process, the opposition is disregarding the allegiance of large numbers of people, many of whom should be natural oppositionists.

The black-and-white narrative of blame encouraged by powerful wings of both sides of the conflict feeds into the second reason why we need to understand the complexities of personal opinion.  If you combine attributing blame to certain groups with a relentless generalisation of who constitutes those groups, you arrive quite rapidly at a situation where the dominant conceptual framework for the war is basically ‘Alawites and Christians vs. Sunnis’.  Already, with the militarisation of the uprising, the militias are beginning to think this way – after all, they can hardly stop each individual citizen and inquire what their views are before deciding how to treat them.  The result is that whenever all this is over (laughter) the new Syrian government will have to contend not only with rebuilding the nation but also with bands of religiously-motivated militias tracking down and killing Alawis.

Part of the reason that toppling the government has become the goal – rather than achieving democracy by toppling the government – is that it is the only thing which truly unites the opposition, and as soon as a conversation about Syria’s actual future begins certain people are going to be shut out.  But the discomfort of agreeing on the shape of the new state cannot be ignored unless the opposition is devoted to the prospect of an eternal stalemate.  Sooner or later they are going to suffer the consequences.


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