Syria: the danger of false dichotomies

How one defines Syria’s troubles determines one’s prescriptions. Evidence that a silent majority did not want violent conflict and preferred a political solution leading to reform is not easily dismissible. And Syrian politics, unlike Libya under Gaddafi’s ‘personal rule’, is not about Assad.

From the initial stirrings of the Syrian uprising, I have felt that unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, or even Bahrain, it is incumbent on analysts to exercise caution, for Syria’s social structural complexity and vulnerability to external rivalries potentially exposes its people to extraordinary, protracted violence and collapse.

The elusive hope for Syria is peaceful change and democratization to preserve its unity. Many may argue that these views perilously echo the regime’s justifications for remaining in power. It does and doesn’t.

On the one hand, Syria’s geopolitical centrality historically turned it into a playground for all manner of cynical, violent, destabilizing external powers. This was true during the Cold War, and is just as true today, for Washington’s perception of its power and interests is little changed, and in fact, its hegemonic obsession with disciplining uncompliant groups and states has morphed into active militarism since the Soviet Union’s demise in 1989. The national security state exists on a steady diet of enemies. Israel and oil, the ‘challenge’ of China and Russia, Central Asia and pipelines, are central to American thinking.

Thus, the Syrian regime has it right, as one can plainly see from Lebanon’s perennial upheavals, Iraq’s precarious existence, and the organic causality between the internal Syrian situation and regional and international rivalries.

Regardless of how one interprets US and western motives in Syria -cynical and self-interested, moral and peaceful, concerned with ending the violence or fearful of Islamist take-over, advocating a negotiated settlement or regime change - the reality is that these states are deeply involved. They, and their regional Sunni allies who have a high-risk tolerance, indeed, for Syria’s destruction in their crusade to expand Sunni dominated influence. The Russian and Chinese roles are bogeys, for these two states are in fact acting in consistency with international law and, crucially, are doing little harm, if any, in Syria or the Middle East.

Distribution of aid by one of the charities.

Distribution of aid by one of the charities. Demotix/Mike Blacktoviche

On the other hand, despite regime propaganda, many Syrians have understood that one could be opposed to American diktat and Israeli occupation, support Palestine and Arab national causes while being democratic, pluralistic, tolerant, and free. In fact, as is true for all Arab states, such goals are achievable far more effectively under a democratic state unified by a legitimate socio-political system held together by a liberal social contract, than under authoritarianism of any stripe, for self-preservation is the highest form of Arab regime politics.

Syria does not require an authoritarian state to defend and preserve Syrian Arab values and interests, including the return of the Golan, pragmatism, territorial integrity, sovereignty, and autonomous economic and foreign policy. It is not logical to assume that such rivalries advance Syrian national interests. Historically they did not, and do not now.

How one defines Syria’s troubles determines their prescriptions. If it’s a civil war, suggesting a violent struggle for power between a majority and minority, or over competing visions of state and society, then a negotiated settlement representing both or more sides is inescapable. If one defines the conflict as an illegitimate dictatorial regime violently repressing its people, then, rejection of negotiations, as the opposition has consistently done, follows. Truly, the struggle for freedom and dignity from brutal authoritarian states does not require justification, and in this fundamental sense, Syria is no exception.

However, this intrinsically and morally true prima facie argument may be practically unworkable and does not in any case automatically confer legitimacy on a new or contending authority. There is no valid evidence that a vast majority opposes the regime; or that a new regime can achieve a Syrian consensus. Evidence that a silent majority did not want violent conflict and preferred a political solution leading to reform is not easily dismissible. There are major sectors of society, especially the vast majority of Alawites in the many towns and villages and those hundreds of thousands in the security services but including Christians and Druze who fear or reject political Islamist rule. (The Kurds’ calculative constant is secession.) Most importantly, the essentially Sunni-sustained, Islamist-inspired and led armed rebellion does not represent a socio-political vision that all Syrians support. Many Syrians, as in Egypt, are rightly suspicious of the smooth acceptance by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) of a democratic, pluralistic state guaranteeing individual political and civil rights while also advocating the group (Sunni Muslim) majority right to shape the state. Furthermore, the Ba’athist state based its legitimacy on its nationalism, ‘socialism’, and secularism, and many leftists and nationalists, Alawites, Christians, Druze, and other minorities, for obvious reasons demand a secular state.

The regime’s adherence to nationalism and inclusive Syrian identity is not a subterfuge, but a real sentiment and programme, for Alawite psychology, culture and identity in particular fiercely associates itself with the Syrian Arab national endeavour: a modern Syria defined by citizenship is their only guarantee of security and against religious fanaticism, and, to many, Assad represents this.

Lastly, the Ba’ath regime, having spent decades warning against the spectre of sectarian violence, disintegration, and mass disorder, especially from rural-hailing Islamists; and having so completely suffocated Syrian civil society, makes it exceedingly difficult to discern the extent of either Islamist/Salafist or secularist social bases of support. Equally difficult is making ready-made assumptions about the depth of ethnic and sectarian divides, for such loyalties not only ebb and flow with conflict, but also are always fluid and permeable and coexist with national identities, with Syrians intermixing in all major cities.

The essential point of the preceding analysis is that the ‘opposition’ falsely assumes the majority of Syrians supports it, ignoring the ideological, institutional, social, and communal basis of the regime, including millions of Ba’ath party members. These Syrians’ interests, views, and needs aren’t ignorable, and certainly cannot be excluded from a transitional political arrangement. One must resist facile dichotomies and premature conclusions. Because a large plurality if not majority of Syrians desires reform and a political solution, does not mean they accept the authoritarian system. They do not, as virtually no Arab society does. It only means that a great many people, minorities and urban Sunnis dread the instability, fragmentation, and disorder of violently removing the regime, conditions already unfolding.

In this, a context of foreign involvement, extreme militarization, and exponentially growing Alawite fear, one is hard-pressed to locate something resembling a way out of the Syrian conundrum. There seems to be no alternative, little to nothing in between. Each side does not see a solution except through total defeat of the other, each holding fast to vehemently conflicting positions over Assad’s fate, suggesting that ultimately the battlefield will determine the political outcome. Widespread defections in the military, crucially among the Sunni officers and majority Sunni rank-and-file, and discontent in the security services, including high-level military defections from the regime’s core, are prerequisites for shattering the politico-military stalemate.

An internal coup is unlikely, unless the perpetual stress, inter-communal polarization, and steady economic collapse lead to divisions in the top ranks, including among Alawites, who may recognize that their future, including the well-being of their families, clans, and towns, is interwoven with the Syrian people’s fate, not the regime’s.

The Ba’ath party, nationalists, and the military may yet decide to end the stalemate and prevent Damascus’ destruction, for their overriding, legitimate concern is preserving Syria’s sovereignty. On this basis, it may well turn out that Assad is removed. 

Backing away from the brink

If there is any chance of avoiding Syria’s continuing torment, pulling it from the inter-communal and sectarian brink, several things must immediately begin to happen in which the opposition inside Syria, mainly the SMB’s social base, has a crucial role to play if it is to win over the majority of Syrians and prevent Syria’s anarchy.

First, it must calm the Alawite community’s great fear of collective retribution; commit itself to Alawite safety, security, and livelihood. Given the perception of Alawi apostasy, arrogance, foreignness - and, reciprocally, Alawi sense of themselves as a separate, non-Muslim community - and association with a repressive state, protecting and safeguarding the Alawite community, as hard as this is for a typical Sunni to understand, has to take top priority.

Second, the SMB’s role urgently starts with the armed opposition achieving a central politico-military command, under the Free Syrian Army, to restrain, if not altogether rein in the many Islamist battalions, including Salafist-state jihadis, aligned under the Syrian Islamic Front, and the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra. This is also a great challenge, as the Islamists are more principled than the many abusive, self-enriching FSA ‘nationalists’. What the SMB does or does not do has great implications for the success of an inclusive provisional government, for, regardless of Washington’s reshuffling of the outside Syrian leadership, the SMB remains the largest constituent. If, through provisions of money and arms it cannot assert ideological and military leadership over the rebels, and control the radical Islamist groups funded by other sources, then it cannot really capture territorial ground to bolster the National Coalition’s transformation into a provisional government. Instead, the radical Islamists groups will be the only ones to make battlefield advances, however temporary or tactical in nature, and they have taken to providing public services and imposing (Libyan type, fundamentalist) order in the ‘liberated’ areas.

Third, it means a clear statement of post-Assad reconciliation and lawful justice, even forgiveness, the rejection of the outside control of Syrian affairs, strategic readiness to end militarization, and dropping the precondition of Assad’s departure. His exit underwrites neither a negotiated settlement nor genuine reforms. Syrian politics, unlike Libya under Gaddafi’s ‘personal rule’, is not about Assad. Rejecting external control need not imply defeat and Damascus’ political diktat. It does not require cutting off alliances, but freedom to make principled decisions in Syria’s national interest.

Allies need the Coalition as much as it needs them. Rather than using its sponsors to overthrow Assad, the Coalition must energetically lead them towards the goal of symmetrical negotiations and genuine reform. Therefore there must be a true international political and diplomatic consensus, supported by the Coalition, that includes the US and Russia in the context of the UN; that forcefully advances mediation and neutrality, based on the June 2012 Geneva Accord, a transition that restructures, reforms and leads to interim government, elections, etc. This includes maintaining the armed forces, security services, and civil service to stabilize a transition. The powers must also exert great pressure on regional states responsible for Syria’s militarization to broker a political settlement. Such an international effort affords teeth and tangibility to what is essentially an enormously elusive and unclear transitional process.

Fourth, the Sunni Muslims, the uprising’s core constituency represented by the SMB, must, with all other opposition constituencies, lead the internal opposition and the National Coalition towards a clearly articulated and developed political programme for Syria, one that unequivocally accepts a legitimate social contract rooted in democratic pluralism, freedom, the rule of law, and citizenship and individual equality. The make-or-break issue in Syria is the unsettled question of legitimacy. It can’t be attained by violent or even popular change of regime, or by a presumed SMB majority in elections. There has to be a societal consensus, including opposition and loyalists.

About the author

Issa Khalaf, a Palestinian-American, has a D. Phil. in Politics and Middle East Studies from Oxford University