Violence and democracy in Syria

Is it possible in such a situation to face the threat of foreign intervention and yet make internal democratic change with the peaceful civil movement which started from Dara’a? I repeat, and say for the umpteenth time, yes, and yes.

Haytham Manna
11 February 2013

Could political violence coexist with a democratic project? This big question has been raised for decades by the progressive democratic movement in Latin America, and we are obliged to pose it strongly in the Syrian case.  We see with our own eyes that the counter-revolution at the hands of most Islamists conjoint with some neo-liberals in this war is no longer primarily about democratic change, except in public relations and the media.

It is not possible to say that the language of non-violence and peaceful civil struggle was embedded in the political discourse in the region, although Moncef Marzouki and I have defended the idea of civil resistance as the most important weapon to overthrow dictatorship in the Arab world since the end of the ‘90s in articles and studies which sought to situate these goals in the broader political and human rights movement. See Moncef Marzouki’s books, Second Independence and Until the Nation has a Place in this Time, and my Short Universal Encyclopaedia of human rights, and my book, Civil Resistance.

The founding of the Damascus Spring Forums and the magazine Mokarabat were serious and genuine attempts to instil in our audience the concept of peaceful democratic struggle. This project was shared with pioneer Islamic writers, the constitutional reform movement of Saudi Arabia represented in the writings of Dr. Abdullah al-Hamid, as well as Jawdat Saeed whose proclamations in Damascus in the very last editions of the magazine Mokarabat, before what is known as the Arab Spring, anticipated history and geography by saying “science and reason will win” if, as Batslav Havel once put it, “science and reason are not contaminated by resorting to muscle”.

Politics, technically, is closer to mental effort rather than muscular effort, but until now we have not been able to manufacture a mental climate that allows us to reflect and reconsider, and plan new ways forward. We are still haunted by the pain of the past and the costs in terms of violence that cannot be laid solely at the door of the regime, even though the regime has been responsible for exercising the worst violence, and has exploited the situation to punish everyone. We too have to admit that we have not been able to create a clean environment for the conduct of a politics that excluded violence and the resort to military force.

Many in the opposition did not anticipate that keeping quiet about the policy of random arming would target major revolutionary values of the civil movement in Syria, long before it got around to targeting dictatorial power. They did not see how, surprisingly, peaceful principles soon shifted from being seen as high principles to being an accusation. The three no’s that were adopted by the National Coordination Body - no to violence, no to sectarianism, no to foreign intervention - were soon enough marked out as complicity and weakness in the face of dictatorial power. The most aggressive and instinctive feelings in every Syrian citizen were harnessed when they were faced by the most significant instrument of authoritarian repression in the Arab Peninsular, and pushed towards a war which would kill the project of the revolution, and smash the legitimate aspirations of the citizen to live in a democratic civil sovereign state, in broad daylight.

Despite the community retreating shattered and torn asunder by the country’s cancerous security system, and despite the widespread consequences of the decline in engagement with public affairs, either in protest or out of fear or simply out of fatigue, the banner of the democratic opposition remained the most powerful.

The civil movement

Since the opening confrontations of the Damascus Spring, the opposition has agreed unanimously that the “Assad family” would fail to achieve either of the two tasks of the modern state, even in part:

- Ensuring the equitable distribution of chances, opportunities and minimum civil rights.

- The provision of basic freedoms necessary for enrolment in the modern era.

The inclusive solution for all Syrians in the face of dictatorship lies in building a pluralist democratic civil state that respects the fundamental rights of individuals and groups. It was not hard for the civil movement in the first months of their uprising to convey these basic principles in every poem and song and slogan and logo.

Within nearly half a century, the authoritarian power in Syria has ensured that justice has been stamped out. It has killed the moral character and extinguished the peculiar quality of what it is to be a human being. However, systematic trashing of the communities’ capability has turned the region into a soft underbelly in the era of globalising martial law.

So we must ask again: is it possible in such a situation to face the threat of foreign intervention and yet make internal democratic change with the peaceful civil movement which started from Dara’a?

I repeat, and say for the umpteenth time, yes, and yes. The remains of the dictatorship is no longer a major cause out to defend the national project, because sovereignty and legitimacy were thrashed to extinction by removing the political power from the community. Therefore it is no longer possible to defend the status quo as a guarantee against the external threat, because this situation is the basic cause for creating the external threat in the first place.

A vast peaceful civilian movement has arisen despite its spontaneity and the weaknesses endemic in pushing hundreds of thousands of people overnight into public affairs. This has allowed a resurrection of the spirit of the opposition political movement to take place alongside the silent community at large, or those who are forced to refrain from public affairs.

This movement in turn has succeeded in being an attractive hub for a majority of the people, stretching across the geographical, sectarian and nationalist map of Syria. Perhaps the most important decisions, such as lifting the State of Emergency and the adoption of the principle of changing the Constitution, bear witness to the core meaning of the words, ‘public achievement’. The summit of power, albeit nominally, was forced to defer to them.

The family tree of the Syrian opposition

But the iron fist of the security services and octopus-type militarization of our society presented a formidable barrier to any smooth transition from an occupied authoritarian power to a transitional authority which can mobilise the rest of the state to confront its unhistoric replacement by a military security authority.

We are not disclosing a secret when we talk about the family tree of the Syrian opposition, which has based its political perceptions on three facts since 1978:

First: the need to rely financially and morally on external parties and in the case of the militant vanguard of the Muslim Brotherhood, also militarily, as was demonstrated by its alliance with the Iraqi regime and other parties in the ‘80s. After the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, moves were made to strengthen themselves through the deployment of American postures (democratic, civilized and human rights defender …) in the face of the Shiite Iran Crescent (pastoral, rural, Safavid, al-Batini, al-Ravdi..), a bullying tactic which also made them the regional representatives of US policy.

The Islamic Erdoganic movement has given this approach a cultural incubator and local policies which provide some refreshment after the staleness of the pro-Israeli stance, Islamophobia, and allied septic regimes. The ‘Justice and Development Party’ offsets European extremist parties who refused Turkey’s accession to the European Union by circuitous steps that meet in Ankara: NATO and the orientation of the neighbouring Islamic countries. With this development, it is no longer strange to appeal to NATO, and some even issue ‘Takfiri fatwas’ against those who truly reject the military intervention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Secondly: the semi-permanent confrontation between the national political project – democratic/civilian – which is a distinct recipe for toppling dictatorship on the one hand, and a thesis that talks about the necessity of having a broad front to topple the regime across political and constitutional affiliations and regardless of the different visions of tomorrow’s Syria – because only the ballot box can ultimately determine that destiny. This confrontation has played a significant negative role in addition to the purely personal problems which deprived the opposition of having a common minimum programme, capable of destabilizing the focal points of the authoritarian ruling system.

Thirdly, the reliance of a significant swathe of the movement on a tactical, Machiavellian and opportunistic concept of political and civil action, with all the consequences that this has had in terms of impact on the collective consciousness of the public, which to succeed needs great values and lofty goals and a new morality in public action. Even though these practices were understood for what they were before the outbreak of the intifada/ the revolution, they became a significant part of the counter-revolution, which did not understand that revolution is not just a change in the balance of regional, partisan, sectarian power, but a project for re-building humanity, society and the state.

Syrian society has stood fast in the face of an authoritarian brutality which expressed itself in every kind of violent act, verbally and with weapons. This has given the lie to Newton’s law that for every action there is an equal reaction, in force and opposite direction. With popular insistence on the supreme values of a revolution which rejected revenge and demanded judicial and social justice, they considered equality between Syrians in all the differences of their political approaches, the teams they allied themselves with, the variety of denominations and cells – as the basis of republican citizenship.

Opposition authoritarianism

But bleeding wounds becoming yawning wounds, and the role of the external parties and the impact of external media were inflated. Day after day, the Syrian issue was converted into regional and international strategies for power and influence. Not very far removed in all this, the political finances, media recruitment and trade of misery which is exercised by parties who have lived in exile outside the country, sometimes for three decades, made them view the Syrian state authority and its army as just another gang or sect. They see what is happening now as an opportunity to exact revenge for the past defeats, a revenge neglected by the revolutionary new generation.

It is even a chance for non-Syrian Takfiri movements to find in Syria a place for jihad against Shiites and Nusayris, and Maji. This foreign component deflected the voice of the revolution into counter-revolutionary slogans accepted by western and Gulf leaders with their five-star hotels, conferences, and the corridors of political and financial/media networks.

They made the cloning of the Libyan example acceptable to sectors of Syrian public opinion on the pretext of destroying the dictatorship and rescuing the revolution, thereby depriving the popular urban movement of the frameworks and rich energies capable of improving their performance and delivering Syria to the shore of salvation from corruption and despotism.
The political authority formed by all this showed its worst side in the first six months of the popular civil movement, achieving with its violent and repressive policy a transition process in society which replaced peaceful confrontation of the violence of the authorities, with a plunge into the quagmire of its own authoritarian domination.

It could be argued that the month of Ramadan in August 2011 was the month of the transition from self-determination to a trajectory influenced by the media and foreign virtual worlds, when the pace of a social movement changed to a pace mobilised by external influences. The sectarian and militaristic calls for foreign intervention were raised in direct proportion to the no’s of the peaceful revolution which rejected these three types of intervention. We should not be surprised by the statement issued on August 10 in which the counter-revolution put forward three affirmatives in direct refutation of the three no’s of the National Coordination Body. This was the beginning of the rapid decline in demands for civil democratic change. So the slide into armed confrontation happened and demands for a Syrian Revolution to become a beacon for peoples and nations simply disappeared.

We were and we still are reliant on the independent Syrian revolutionary … those who have avoided slipping towards financial dependence and media and political subordination. The way to salvation was no longer popular and Syrian, and NATO became al-Mahdi al-Montaza or the saviour for all. From being merely a powerful support and back-up for a popular revolution, they became the commanders and only legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.

We soon realized the seriousness of this slide. From here we went early on to the Arab League and agreed with the National Coordination Body to bring all the parties closer into dialogue with the political opposition at home and abroad. After 38 days of dialogue with the Syrian National Council we achieved a great victory for the founding values of the revolution. As a basis for agreement, it was not perfect but it proved to be a useful focal point for the idea of defending the homeland, defending citizenship and refusing outside interference, for the rejection of sectarianism, and the recognition that civil resistance was the finest way to reach a peaceful transition to democracy.

Foreign powers intervene

At this important juncture, the foreign powers reacted swiftly, using their inflated influence to ensure that this agreement was not allowed to live for more than twelve hours. More than that, they succeeded in mobilizing the mob against the agreement which was depicted by them as a sort of leprosy to be avoided far and wide. After that, it was no longer surprising that the reins of Syrian political expression were taken in hand outside the country, issuing sometimes in promises of the humanitarian corridor and no fly zones and safe havens at other times.

The call went up by leaps and bounds for militarization and the Free Army, so that it became difficult for any Syrian political party using its own strength to respond to the requirements of a war that marginalized the revolution and which necessarily marginalised the vast majority of groups within it. Unfortunately, the resort to force by the foreign political elites internationalized the battle, so that armed factions were bound to replace the concept of the State and the Syrian army with the ideological notion of Assad’s army or the Nusairi army, thus erasing the differentiation between the forces of societal, political and civil change and dictatorship.

In these decisive moments of transformation, the regime brought forward its unilateral resolution which it called ‘reform’, engaging in a discussion with itself regarding the drafting of a new constitution. There is an Arabic phrase – Halima returned to old habits – as did the regime in what it called ‘elections’, issuing a number of decrees and decisions which have not been implemented because they are so obviously puny and infertile. One example would be the farcical Presidential amnesties that did not even include the most important symbolic leaders of the peaceful civil movement at that time.

Non-violence and violence

On all sides we hear the allegation that the peaceful movement did not yield results and that this was why the movement was forced to become militarised. After sixteen months of armed confrontations it is our right to stop for a moment to consider the outcome of the human and material cost of this armed path.

More than 50,000 people dead (only 20% of them before the armed confrontations), more than 250,000 injured, 35,000 missing, 32% of the health infrastructure destroyed completely, 93 villages and other areas completely destroyed, and more than 2.5 million people displaced, more than 480,000 thousand refugees … and economic losses of 160 billion dollars.

We stand today in perhaps the most difficult stage in the history of the political formation of Syria after independence. The regime can present to us daily “victories”, while others tell us about the control of 60 – 80% of Syrian territory, or that Jabhat al-Nusra is the best armed and organized force, a fact that makes some secularists defenders of its project!!!

For others this is simply the price, whatever price is necessary, for getting rid of the dictatorial regime, because of the fear of what it will cost us if it survives. One member of the opposition has said: “We must be ready for the demolition of Damascus if it is needed to get rid of Bashar al-Assad.” It is to be noted that those who speak in defence of arms and fighting, violence and power, rarely include in their rhetoric the political transition to democracy in Syria.

We cannot describe what is happening honestly without delving honestly and deeply into such phenomena as the death squads or Shabiha, functioning militias and the nature of non-government arms in Syria. These obscure the underlying problems that gave birth to the revolution, such as the economic, social and political marginalisation and political desertification project of the regime, and the systematic assassination of opportunities for a civil political community to mature and become capable of facing the tyrannical octopus of corruption in the country, not to mention the new forms of corruption that have been born from arms and money and political dependency.

So there is no surprise in the absence of the ability of large constituencies participating in this conflict both inside and outside the country, to absorb the difference between authority, the regime and the state. The poorest classes do not utter words such as construction, development and employment, and the right to work and social justice. Nothing is easier than the accusation and defamation of the democratic forces who have struggled for decades against dictatorship.

Syrian populism

Many populists have fallen into the illusion of “Syria is beautiful no matter what”, and so did not work to bring the revolutionary compass into being, and did not emphasise the main goals and tasks which are not yet achieved. Instead, the means to protect civil peace in a revolutionary situation has been disparaged. A state of national nihilism was reinforced amongst liberal, political and religious circles abroad especially in relation to the negotiations on the Golan Heights and outside military intervention, and a very negative picture of the opposition was presented to Arab public opinion, which does not distinguish between independence and dependence in political decision-making.

Calls for support for increased military and foreign intervention were boosted precisely to weaken the consciousness and ability of the revolutionaries to disengage from mechanisms to kill the revolution. There is no doubt that the responsibility lies with the “sovereign” political leadership in both the regime and the opposition. The deliberate prevailing ambiguity about the meaning and building of international protection, adolescent assessments of a humanitarian corridor, the ease of handling the opposition’s propaganda with Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations and its consequences, thanks to the blur of deliberate interventions since the founding of NATO, and last but not least, the tragic situation of the victims of the repression and brutality of the security and military made many hostile to the very parties that will help them survive.

We can say on the outskirts of the second anniversary of March 18, 2011 that the Syrian leadership failed in its military security choice. It did not provide the necessary reform, safety and security in Syria and failed to provide the minimum ability for more than a quarter of the population to have a life, and has shrouded in conspiracy and terrorism the justification for this catastrophic failure.

We can also say that those who supported armed opposition have failed:

1 – to make the politicians leaders of the military

2 – to liberate the factions of unilateral sects

3 – in unifying vision and action strategies.

Therefore they have encouraged into existence the worst examples of those who calculate that violence is a means of salvation.

Syria today

Syria today lives in its state of torn social fabric and deep identity crisis as a result of the authoritarian propaganda that classifies as a betrayer, terrorist and conspirator all those opposing the dictatorship, and the violent propaganda that labels all those who do not support the war to liberate Syria from the gangs and the Assadi army and Shabiha in the same terms - as betrayers. As I mentioned before, we were under the hammer of weakening national sentiment, and now we have to contend with the anvil of weakening revolutionary sentiment every time we voice a criticism, or talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the political and armed tools against the political dictatorship.

How can we prepare for the culture and practices of democratic institutions in the prevailing conditions we have of exclusion and eradication?

In modern history, no example exists of a state where gnarled violence gave rise to a democratic system … and we do not have a single case of a military victory in a similar situation that did not carry viruses of the spectrum of extremism, eradication and revenge. We have warned and continue to warn of the repercussions of violence on social cohesion and civil peace, and the unity of Syria. It is clearly visible that the project of political violence does not represent an expression of class status, or national demands or democratic aspirations. Political violence in Syria is pushing a thoughtful and deliberate social mobility towards sectarianism and factionalism and extremism as the custodians of death, murder and revenge.

So do not kill the civic, democratic dream in broad daylight. The first condition for the restoration of the country’s political and civil cohesion from our point of view, lies in the agreement of all parties on reducing the violence and addressing the military solution as an end in itself and for itself.

The fighting cannot replace a political solution. The dominance of violence in the country today is not only an additional contributory factor to the breakdown of the social, economic, environmental and humanitarian capabilities remaining to the country. It is in direct confrontation with the civil democratic project for a Syria of tomorrow. Sad to say, it is no longer a local and Syrian issue, now that a significant number of the parties to the conflict have been transformed into regional instruments. From here on, it is necessary for the permanent members of the Security Council to reach a historic settlement, and through an international conference for Syria, to then impose a transition programme towards a democratic state upon the parties who currently believe in the possibility of a military victory in the regime and in the opposition.

We as Syrians today desperately need broad meetings for anyone who wants to get out of this dirty war, and alliances that achieve minimum coordination between the components of civil resistance and democratic forces for change in the country. We need this to defend the rights of marginalized human beings and a threatened homeland, in our plight of a defiled security and the absence of citizenship.

From here we insist on gatherings whenever there is an opportunity to piece together voices in serious constructive dialogue on every initiative we have. The world does not stop for those who launch a cry and wait for watery skies, but for those who lay the foundations tomorrow in wise and calm steps to enhance democratic, collective, inclusive dialogue in transparency, honesty and a concern for human dignity, the homeland and this earth.


This is an edited version of a speech given at the Syrian International Conference for Democratic Syria and Civilian State in Geneva on 28th and 29th January 2013.

Many thanks to Sheila Mosley and Khalaf Dahowd for their translation from the Arabic original.

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