Syria: when push comes to shove, blood is always thicker than water

The incident of the downing of the Turkish fighter jet has demonstrated once again the unity of the Syrian people against whatever may threaten the country's security and sovereignty.

Rita from Syria
4 July 2012

In September 2007, several Israeli fighter jets penetrated Syrian airspace heading to the North East Syrian city of Deir Al-Zour; their target was al-Kibar the purported site of a secret military installation. Contradictory official accounts emerged. Israel announced that the target bombed was a nuclear reactor under development. Meanwhile, the official response from the Syrian authorities denied the validity of the Israeli statement and the incident was considered a show of force and a clear violation of Syrian sovereignty.

Despite Israel having for decades been public enemy number one, and in spite of the fact that the Syrian regime derived a large part of its "popular legitimacy" from claiming to be the standard bearer of Arab resistance against Israel, the regime allowed Israeli jets to bomb the site, violating Syrian airspace to return safely across the Syrian-Turkish border - all under the pretext of the Syrian regime's commitment to "restraint". 

This incident raised the ire of the Syrian street which was overcome with feelings of humiliation and anger directed at the Syrian regime for having forsaken the defence of their country. Even today people continue to tell jokes about the Syrian regime's so-called “resistance” which allowed Israeli fighter jets to fly over the presidential palace and wave hello to the Syrian president in his palace.

Since the beginning of the revolution, Syria has experienced great change; society seems deeply divided between those loyal to the regime and those against it. A more discerning examination reveals that a split has emerged between the supporters themselves. On the one hand is the blind loyal following often referred to as the "Mnhabbakji" (the 'we love you' crowd in reference to the slogan of the ubiquitous regime propaganda portraits of Bashar Al-Assad which blemish Syrian towns and cities) and the supporters demanding reforms on the other. Similarly, amongst the opposition one can find a division between those who advocate non-violence and those who call for an armed revolution. Amongst this latter group are those demanding foreign intervention to resolve the conflict on the ground. Yet despite all these differences, the majority of Syrian people from all sides in the conflict are unanimous in their support for the bringing down of the Turkish plane that flew into Syrian airspace on Friday, June 22 by the Syrian regime's coastal defences near the north-western Mediterranean port city of Lattakia.

Over a three day period last week I distributed a questionnaire to 209 activists across the spectrum of the Syrian opposition in Damascus and its rural districts including Zakia, Al-Kisweh and Zamalka - to ascertain their opinion on the incident of the downing of the Turkish fighter plane. Of the 209, 190 activists ( 90.9% ) responded that the shooting down of the plane was necessary to maintain national sovereignty. When questioned on the likelihood of a defensive NATO military operation under Chapter VII of the Charter of the alliance in response to the downing of the Turkish fighter jet, it was the opinion of 153 ( 73.2 % ) activists that the alliance would intervene when the circumstances and political interests required it to do so, irrespective of whether or not the plane had been shot down. 37 activists  (17.7 % ) considered NATO intervention increasingly probable following an investigation. While 19 activists ( 9.09 % )feared that the shooting down of the fighter jet would provoke a military response from NATO which will certainly lead to a greater loss in civilian life.

Regardless of official state accounts for the reasons behind the Turkish fighter plane flying into Syrian airspace and the consequences of it being shot down - all of which I will leave for political analysts to chew on - the key point of interest to note in the survey was that the reason cited by the activists who supported the shooting down of the Turkish fighter jet was maintaining respect for Syrian sovereignty over its territory and not in the hope of outside military intervention, despite the fact that most of them support the militarization of the revolution and have no qualms in demanding military assistance from abroad.

A strange paradox is invoked, in that foreign military intervention in itself is a violation of national sovereignty. This gives rise to the following questions: are activists aware of the meaning and consequences of foreign military intervention, or are they calling for it in despair of the triumph of a peaceful revolution? How do some activists reconcile their support for foreign military interference with wanting to protect national sovereignty at the same time? To answer this question I went to a stronghold of the Free Syrian army in Damascus to meet with the commander of the Al-Furqan battalion, Muhammad AlKhatib also known by his nomme du guerre Abu Jassim Clinton (in reference to his fair complexion rather than any love for all things Hillary Rodham Clinton)  

Like most opposition activists who took part in the survey, he maintained the need to defend Syrian sovereignty pushed him to support the downing of the Turkish fighter jet. He told me: "eighteen months into the revolution, the Turkish mask fell away, and it became clear to Syrian revolutionaries that Turkey was playing a political game at the expense of our people. We are not demanding support from governments or states but we ask the people to stand by our side in solidarity. We know the support of any country has a price attached to it which could threaten our national sovereignty. This actually happened when a number of Arab and international parties attempted to broker deals with the FSA which failed to consider the realities on the ground, favouring instead foreign agendas. For this reason the FSA rejected these propositions. The kind of foreign intervention which we may possibly be open to is military strikes on targets such as security headquarters and military air bases. However, such an agreement has to be fair, clear and to the satisfaction of the Syrian people. Under no circumstances would we ever accept foreign military forces to enter our territory under the pretext of liberation. "

Compare this with al-Assad's incendiary remarks given to the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet on July 3, 2012, in which he explained his unwillingness to escalate political and military tensions with Turkey. Expressing regret for the shooting down of the Turkish fighter jet, he cited a mix-up over the identity of the plane. This leads us to the question: does the Syrian regime allow some countries to infiltrate its airspace and not others?? At the same time, meanwhile, media channels backed by the regime continue to beat the drum against the opposition. The opposition is then faced with trial by a propagandist media which accuses it of bringing foreign military intervention to the country.

Has the regime finally been struck down by schizophrenia?

If, as it seems the term foreign interference is in fact a rather elastic term open to different interpretations of varying degrees, then it is also true also that it can be exploited for the purposes of political and media mobilization. However, the view of the FSA which presents itself as the military wing of the Syrian revolution does not conflict with national sovereignty, but rather it prioritizes it. The incident of the downing of the Turkish fighter jet has demonstrated once again the unity of the Syrian people against whatever may threaten the country's security and sovereignty. Whatever the decision of NATO after the meetings requested at the behest of Turkey, it seems that the Syrian people  will apply the old adage," ana wa ibn ammi al gharib"  which can be loosely translated into English as, " when push comes to shove, blood is always thicker than water".

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