Opinions are divided on the Syrian crisis between those who view it as a revolution, and those who view it as a civil war. We believe that there is no fundamental contradiction between civil conflict and revolution. Revolution inevitably bears elements of civil conflict; moreover, there is an aspect of civil conflict that must not be overlooked in all revolutions.
There is a tragic fact about the Syrian case which is undeniable; that there are Syrians fighting and killing other Syrians on Syrian soil. Obviously, denying or ignoring these facts on the ground will harm the revolution. Rather, what is required is to pose the following questions; what is the nature of the civil conflict in Syria? What is the relationship between the revolution and civil conflict? And does this conflict overshadow the revolution?
On the nature of the civil conflict in Syria
The civil conflict taking place in Syria is not a purely sectarian one. The international community and media (in particular the western media) exaggerate the extent to which the conflict can be so described. An arrogant Orientalist set of views refuses to understand Syrians, or Arabs in general, In terms other than those of their sectarian identities. According to this reading, sectarian war is the inevitable destiny of Syrians. Furthermore, according to this reading, sectarian identities are essentialist and static, lying outside history and Independent of any socio-economic context. We reject this reading.
Not every civil conflict is necessarily sectarian or religious. The Spanish Civil War was a conflict between the supporters of the Republic and the fascist followers of Franco. The Russian Civil War erupted in the context of the revolution against the Tsar. To a certain degree, the aforementioned applies as well to both Libyan and Yemeni Revolutions.
The situation in Syria is closer to the previous examples than to a fully-fledged sectarian civil war. Contrary to the Orientalist view, the Middle East does not bear a special characteristic that makes it vulnerable to a purely sectarian conflict. One of the most significant reasons behind civil conflict in Syria is the uprising of Syrians against a new feudal class that had enslaved them entirely. For instance, the majority of Muslim Sunni rebels are driven by an inclination towards social justice and revenge against these feudalists, rather than exclusively by a sense of Sunni sectarianism. On the other hand, the feudal ruling class includes different sects; the ruling family and its retinues who belong to the Alawite sect enjoy the largest share of wealth and influence. This overlap between the socio-economic on one hand and the sectarian on the other hand demands in-depth study.
In Syria, Syrians are fighting for different political projects, and not for sectarian projects disguised as political ones. Certainly some parties have religion-oriented political projects, and some others have sectarian ones. Also there is sectarian “rhetoric” from both ends of the conflict. Nevertheless, the civil conflict cannot be reduced to a sectarian one. These conflicts have multiple dimensions such as internal sectarian, religious, ethnic, territorial, class-related tensions and so forth, in addition to external factors, such as regional and international political demands.
Nevertheless, sectarian tension should be acknowledged; particularly Sunni-Alawite hostilities. Also, there are indicators of a longterm civil conflict.
Between the revolution and the “absurd” civil war?
The term “civil war” had been adopted by western media to refer to the situation in Syria. It is also frequently used by the United Nations, the UN Security Council and international organizations, as well as in the statements, which are aiming to put an end to the violence, of Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN peace envoy to Syria. The term is also used by some Arabs and Syrians.
If we examine the descriptions of the Syrian conflict as a ‘civil war’, a particular picture of events emerges: it paints the Syrian conflict as an even battle between two sides, with each trying to achieve power through violence. These two sides are represented as receiving support from regional and international powers, which in turn have different interests of their own. It is thus a proxy warfare on Syria’s land, where Syrians are used as pawns in a cold war between these powers, and where innocent people are paying the price.
On the other hand, the Syrian factions are waging a sectarian war; radical Sunnis opposed to other sects. It is often admitted that the ruling regime, which represents Alawites and other sects (including some ethnic minorities according to some accounts) is horrible and barbaric. Yet, it is only as barbaric as Assad’s opponents who represent the Sunni radicalism and Jihadi Groups through to Al-Qaeda. The international community (including powers that support or oppose the regime) fears that the radical Sunnis will oppress, if not annihilate, the other sects if they succeed in toppling Assad’s regime.
This, then, is the “civil war” with all its viciousness. According to this view, the Syrian state will be entirely destroyed unless the parties of the conflict reach an agreement. There is no winner of a civil war but devastation, and the only solution in Syria is negotiations.
We will call this portrayal: the ‘absurd civil war’. In contradistinction to this narrative, what we believe is really happening in Syria is a popular revolution against a tyrannical regime. Therefore, we object to the aforementioned description for the following reasons:
Firstly, it Implies equality between the executioner and the victim, and this leads to the disappearance of any ethical significance of this struggle. Additionally, it ignores the historical genesis of the conflict and their sequence; from the Daraa children’s incident, to the peaceful demonstrations that had spread gradually gathering hundreds of thousands in the cities of Hama & Der Ezzor, to the sit-ins of Douma, Omari mosque in Daraa and the Clock Square in Homs; besides dozens of people tortured to death in arbitrary detention, and hundreds of incidents that proved the regime’s unwillingness, or inability, to change its conduct. Furthermore, it generally overlooks the modern history of Syria since the coup of 8 March 1963, through the “Corrective Movement”, the bequeathing of power to Bashar Al-Assad, and the rejection of political partnership with any Syrian constituency by the Baath Party and the ruling family.
Besides this, we believe that the Syrian Revolution cannot be viewed apart from the other revolutions of the Arab Spring. The Syrian Revolution is part of a public movement that spread over the region in pursuit of liberation from tyrannical and corrupted regimes. It requires that we disregard this, and focus only on the ongoing battles between the regular army and the Free Syrian Army, to be able to exclusively label the situation in Syria a civil war.
Secondly, with regard to these battles and the nature of the conflict, it is important to remember that, up to this moment at least, there is no war in Syria in the traditional sense that we would understand “war”. There are armed groups fighting a regular state’s army which is equipped with military aircrafts, tanks, armored vehicles, ballistic missiles and chemical weapons. The regime used most of these arms in targeting both unarmed civilians and armed rebels alike, and without differentiation whatsoever. The battle in Syria is not even close to a battle between two equivalent arsenals. With this in mind, we have repeatedly stated that it is inaccurate to label the armed rebels as a “Free Syrian Army”. The term “Armed Popular Resistance” corresponds more accurately to the Syrian case.
Thirdly, and despite the recent dominance of the military aspect of the Syrian Revolution, the exclusive portrayal of the situation in Syria as a civil war means also ignoring the forms of civic and non-violent movement which still represent a fundamental component of the public movement against the regime. In addition to the demonstrations that are still taking place nationwide when possible, there are various forms of civic activities in the fields of relief, media and political organization. In the areas that are still controlled by the regime these activities are conducted undercover, whereas they are better organized and taking place publicly in the areas administrated by the rebels. Hundreds of networks and youth groups are active in the field of documentation and relief; some of them are active in the legal and political fields as well, in addition to contributing to the dozens of newspapers and publications that are edited and distributed inside Syria. Most of these Syrians do not consider themselves involved in an absurd war, but rather as advocates of a democratic political project.
What is happening in Syria was and continues to be a popular revolution against an oppressive totalitarian regime. If it is a revolution, the solution lies in ending the dictatorship. If it is purely a civil war, the solution then lies in negotiations between two equal sides, and maybe leaning towards a political-sectarian quota system!
In most revolutions, there are some people who stand by repression or take a neutral position, for different reasons. There are no pure revolutions within which all people are fully unified, suddenly and without struggle, to get rid of the ruling regime. Some revolutions are easier than others for many different reasons. But there are no revolutions without forms of civil conflict, without losers, without opportunists, without passive people, and without martyrs.
Rebels must not, under any pretext, deny the signs of civil conflict and the distortions created by sectarian alignments. This will only make things worse. No one should feel the need to show a brighter image of what is occurring, because what is happening in Syria is not an “absurd” civil war, but rather a prolonged revolution in various phases of struggle. It is the longest and harshest road to the restoration of freedom.
As for what is called the ‘proxy war’, the term is misleading, and encourages analysts to focus on the interests of external powers in Syria, and judge what is going on according to the complexities of these interests. We, on the other hand, recommend that we must start our discussion with an internal approach. The external elements, in principle are secondary, in the sense that if you care about the future of Syria, you need to start from what Syrians want.
We need to understand what the Syrians want, fear, believe, and why they act in the way they do. It is not an easy task. But it is the only way if you really hold that the future of Syria must be in the hands of the Syrian people and not in the hands of external powers. Even if we can’t change the attitudes of external powers (Russia, America, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc.), we need to make it clear that what is at stake, from a moral point of view, is the aspirations of the Syrians.
We don’t claim in this article to present a geopolitical analysis of the so called ‘proxy war’ in Syria. That analysis is beyond the scope of this article. But we claim that if you look at what is going on inside Syria you find that the use of the term ‘civil war’ is problematic. We would argue that the internal approach shows that the term ‘absurd proxy war’ is problematic too. However, this needs more discussion, as there are more presumptions involved in the use of this term than the ones we tackled here.
An Arabic version of this article was published on The republic website on 24 February 2013.