Syria is being re-created through its revolution. It is high time to start listening to those who are actively contributing to the future of Syria. Our three interviewees are:
Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian opposition activist and intellectual in his early fifties, who was imprisoned from 1980 to 1996 for his membership of a Communist pro-democracy group. He has been in hiding since March 2011.
Bakr Sidki, a Syrian intellectual who writes for an Arabic newspaper, and lives in Syria.
Hazem Nahar, a Syrian intellectual, translator and author. He works at Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar.
Q1. Why hasn’t Assad fallen, after 20 months of the uprising?
Yassin: The reason why is too obvious. Rather, the question which needs a clear answer is: how could the Syrian Revolution go on for twenty months in the face of a regime which, since the beginning, has never ceased its killing? How come Syrians’ determination is unbreakable after the death of 35,000 Syrians at least, in addition to the total destruction of cities, towns and districts? How can the revolution diversify its means and extend its operation sufficiently to bring to an end a regime that is regionally influential, and one of the most brutal in the world?
Nevertheless,to answer you: the regime has not collapsed to date because it has placed all its faith, since the beginning, in the area in which it has absolute supremacy; arms and the means of war. The regime has defended itself fiercely without any legal, humane or national constraints, and has been genuinely supported by influential forces, regionally and internationally.
On the other hand, Syrians who have opposed the regime adopted peaceful protest, and they later escalated it alongside an armed resistance. Yet they lacked any serious and solid support comparable to the one provided by the regime’s allies. Simply put, after months of the Syrian people’s attempts to impose themselves as a political player, applying political methods, in their country, the revolution was forced into armed resistance against a regime that is founded on warfare.
In the light of this inequality in arms, resources and organization; exhausting the regime is the final option, and it takes a long time. But I am stating the obvious.
Bakr: Let me start by supposing otherwise; that Assad had already fallen one way or another. We might realise that the “regime”, which was built up carefully and deliberately by his father Hafez Assad for three decades, is not just the president and his family. It is a complicated and hidden network of interests and relations, based upon civil loyalties that penetrate national borders on the one hand, and draw vertical borders within the national community on the other.
The Syrian regime was a cornerstone of Middle East politics during the Cold War era, and it was capable of coping with the new conditions that emerged in the early nineties: it was one of the winners in the Second Gulf War (1991), and consequently was rewarded with an extension of its custody over Lebanon and permission to pass on the presidency of the republic from Hafez to Bashar Assad. The occupation of Iraq in 2003 redirected the allegiance of the regime so that it became completely attached to the Iranian regime, while its attitude towards this occupation later led to the expulsion of the Syrian Army from Lebanon.
The Syrian Revolution has exposed the depth of influence of security in the regime’s ruling doctrine, which is entirely lacking in any kind of political approach. Instead, institutional domination, conspiracy, terrorism and propaganda formed the pillars of the regime. The regime front row consists of a few families (Assad, Makhlouf and Shalish) who are connected together with Mafioso-like, tribal and sectarian interests, in addition to its hardcore security branches where policies are ultimately determined.
National decision-making effectively moved from Damascus to Tehran at the start of the Syrian Revolution. In fact, the regime men are mere flunkies; Mouhamad Makhlouf, Bashar Assad and his brother Maher and some high ranking intelligence officers like Ali Mamlouk. These persons are not qualified to set policies for the regime in ordinary times, let alone a time of public revolution. The current ruling junta has inherited many cards up their sleeves with which to prolong the survival of the regime (like Israel, Lebanon, the Kurdish question, sectarianism and so forth) yet they keep losing their control of these.
Hazem: Every political regime worldwide is comprised of multiple overlapping levels; political, economical, ideological, legal, media and security. It appears that the regime has already fallen on many of these levels; nothing remains but the ruling family, alongside the ‘stick’ of its security department and sheer violence.
The regime has not deployed any political approaches throughout the past twenty months, whilst it has been transformed into an annihilation machine. It has broken off relations with the majority of states around the globe and has become an outcast. Economically, the Syrian lira has lost more than half of its value to date, and a severe economic crisis is pending. The Ba'ath Party’s ideology has no public credit, particularly with respect to the detachment of political practice in reality from political theory. The regime’s media profile was cheap, vulgar and persuaded no one, mainly due to their claims that the uprising is the product of a global conspiracy against Syria, and for attributing the revolution to anonymous armed terrorist groups. Militarily, the image of Syria’s national army has collapsed after its conversion into an instrument for executing Syrians. Furthermore, the security forces are seen as protecting the ruling family instead of the nation and its citizens.
Because of the unique situation in Syria and the regime’s octopus-like nature, the removal of the ruling family requires a specific set of conditions, most notably an international and regional consensus regarding the region as a whole. This final step in the regime’s collapse is related to the balance of powers in the region, the fragile situation in Iraq and Lebanon, Iranian and Russian interests in the region, the Iranian Nuclear Programme and finally the Arab-Israeli conflict. In such a context, plenty of compromises must be the order of the day.
Another condition that must be met is the need for an available and established alternative that is capable of reassuring all Syrians alongside the international community that the region will not drift into disorder. We should not overlook the fact that a part of the Syrian population is still supporting the regime or taking a neutral position, particularly minorities fearing an Islamic regime. It is a deluded fear boosted by the Syrian regime’s propaganda and sectarian practices.
These internal, regional and international complexities still prevent the regime’s last stage of collapse; that is the removal of the ruling family and the defeat of its associated security and military corps.
Q2. Who are the Islamists in Syria? And what is their role in the Syrian revolution?
Yassin: We cannot speak about Syria’s Islamists as one entity. There is the Salafi movement which was limited before the revolution and unorganized. However, today it seems to be the quickest growing, politically and militarily. There is also the Muslim Brotherhood movement whose leaders have been in exile for decades; they dominate the Syrian National Council and apparently have fighters’ groups in some areas in Northern Syria and the Hama Governorate. Roughly speaking we may say that Salafi movement represents rural political Islam whereas the Muslim Brotherhood represents urban political Islam.
In addition to this, there are diverse independent Islamists who are not organized in any particular body, and generally they are closer to the secular movements. Lastly, there are clergy who served in the government’s religion institute and left Syria after the revolution. Many of them, if not all, are looking for some public role.
All the aforementioned Islamists share a conservative social tendency, which will form a grand challenge to any post-Assad Syria.
Islamists did not have a special role in the revolution’s outbreak or its early activities. Their participation was late coming, as it was in other Arab revolutions. However they enjoy abundant resources and connections that are unavailable to the rest of the Syrian opposition groups. Throughout the twenty-month war imposed by the regime, the rebelling public’s psychology (mostly Muslim Sunni) has inclined towards the ideology of the Islamists, Salafism in particular. This inclination will have consequences in the future. Nonetheless, I do not see how it can be avoided under the conditions of war that have been forced upon Syrians.
Bakr: The current Syrian situation is a fertile soil for the flourishing of Islamic groups. As part of many other factors; the regime is based on a minority’s tribalism that summons rebellion in the name of majority religion (Sunni Islam). Nor can we overlook the international aspect of this struggle which was intended to be between a dominant Christian west and a mutinous Islamic world. The regime represents, according to this perspective, an internal extension of a fierce external dominance. The sectarian connection to the Iranian regime did not change this image; it merely added another direction to it.
Nonetheless, Syria’s revolution was not an Islamic one, but rather a national independence movement aspiring for freedom, dignity and justice. Islamists joined the revolution later, likewise the secular opposition forces. The Muslim Brotherhood group actually represents the “secular” presence within the political Islamic movement. In turn the Salafi movement, which nourishes itself on abundant factors within current Syrian conditions, is more widespread and at the same time less centralized. The Anti-Assad position of the Arab Gulf States further supported Islamic movements via sectarian funding and media. Funds were used to secure loyalties, whereas the media undertook the task of exaggerating the weight of Islamist support. Turkey as well, led by the Justice and Development Party government, played a role in exaggerating the Muslim Brotherhood’s role (their predominance within the Syrian National Council does not reflect their actual popularity in society). On the other hand, and throughout the last decade, the regime has used Jihadists and penetrated their organizations during its terrorist war in Iraq. Car bombings are a joint effort by the regime and Jihadist groups, though some of them have turned against the regime during the revolution.
The Islamists’ role is in direct proportion to the transformation of the Syrian Revolution from a non-violent resistance into an armed one. The civic secular element goes almost unheard amidst the clatter of arms. However the significant role of defected regular army officers within the Free Syrian Army retrieves some sort of balance.
Hazem: What is happening in Syria is a genuine revolution opposing a tyrannical and corrupted regime. The drives behind this revolution were present for quite a long time, both on political and economic levels. The demands of this revolution were embodied by a group of civic activists who were removed by the regime, either by killing or detention, in order to leave the revolutionary public without a clear vision.
The public was driven by its desire for freedom and dignity; they were neither calling for an Islamic state, nor moved by the will of Islamist parties and figures. For example, the public showed disrespect to some pro-regime Islamic figures like Al-Bouti and Hasoun, and raised banners expressing the Syrian people’s unbreakable unity nationwide. Blaming protesters for initiating demonstrations from mosques or for yelling “Allāhu Akbar” is not fair, since they have been driven to this recourse as a result of the regime’s violent methods, aimed at preventing them from occupying public spaces. Moreover it is not reasonable to expect those burying their martyrs to chant the music of Mozart and Beethoven!
Nevertheless it is normal to observe changes, in terms of both structure and direction, within a public movement that has been active for more than year and a half. The source of these alterations may be either subjective or objective according to the relevant political circumstances on the ground. The escalation of violence to unprecedented levels from the regime’s side, besides its attempts to generate a sectarian reaction to its violence against protesters has played a role in forcing reactions among some segments of the revolutionary movement.
It is true that some parts of the public uprising have started circulating religious calls; however it is equally true that when you abandon unarmed people under fire from a merciless regime they will turn to their cultural heritage for relief and consolation. In this case people are not to blame, bearing in mind that this change is subject to alteration in many different contexts. Additionally, Syrians’ inclinations and convictions have been developed within a political-cultural environment that was under the regime’s absolute control. The regime owned Syria for half a century; states’ institutions, universities, schools, media, mosques, etc.
There are some small radical religious groups who have penetrated the public uprising recently and their influence will grow with time as long as the international community is not aiding Syrians to get rid of this regime. Unlike the underfunded existing democratic political forces, these groups enjoy solid funds and depend on their ability to offer relief to the public in order to acquire popular support.
Q3. What might happen after the fall of the regime? Do you fear that the Islamists might try to create an Islamic state and suppress minorities, particularly women?
Yassin: It depends on when the regime falls, and if the regime is going to destroy Damascus, like it has destroyed Aleppo, Homs and Der Ezzor. The longer this Assadi-War lasts, in addition to the increasing number of casualties among Syrians and a massive devastation across the country, the worse Syria’s post-regime conditions will be, which will also provide a suitable environment for the most radical Islamic groups to prosper.
In all revolutions, mass death and devastation represent an ideal setting for the rise of the extremist forces. Syria is not a special case in this regard. However, it is highly probable that extremism in Syria will take an Islamic form, because there is no political and ideological competitor, because the potential competitors are lame, unsound and unresponsive to Syria’s radicalized conditions. Besides, radical forms of Islamist devotion represent the most appropriate combat ideology for fighters within a society that has suffered severe political and cultural impoverishment.
Islamists are not short of political ambition. There is no reason to assume that Syrian Islamists will be any different from their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia in this respect, particularly due to the fact that the vast majority of the Syrian Revolution’s martyrs belong to their presumed social base, the Sunni Muslim’s majority. To me personally their model is not appealing, neither on the political nor the social level. I am already at odds with it.
Nevertheless, allow me to express my disgust for the phrase “suppress minorities, women, etc..” since it sounds like a much overused cliché that was widely employed in anti-Islamic narratives, concerning both societies and religion, in the west throughout the past twenty years. It was typically coupled with reticence over, or underestimation of, the horrific forms of oppression deployed by existing regimes, or by relating it to “Islam” with a total absence of comparison to other societies and cultures, and coupled with a refusal to approach the issue from an historical perspective. This amounted to a total lack of sympathy, verging on actual incitement and provocation.
This is not to claim that “Islam” and Islam are impeccable or untouched by various forms of discrimination. Within a different context, there is plenty to say in that regard
Bakr: Nothing stirs up fears more than the survival of the regime itself; as it represents the gravest danger to Syria’s political and social existence. We lost national sovereignty under the rule of this junta, and we are almost losing national cohesion. The regime has succeeded in boosting separatist tendencies among Alawites and Kurds, to say the least. Furthermore, the national army transformed itself into acting as an occupation force. The enormous devastation caused by artillery bombardments and air raids during the last five months, on both urban and rural areas, is an accurate reflection of the way its social fabric has been reduced to rubble. This is the greatest danger hovering over Syria.
Islamists do not arouse great concern in me: they are a political force among other forces. They have a particular vision they believe in, and working to achieve it is their right. Perhaps Syrians are fortunate to witness Islamists attaining power in Egypt and Tunisia in addition to other countries, as it will represent a real-life observatory for our future under Islamist rule, in case they will rule us. Islamists will have to deal with the administrative challenges imposed by the modern world. Syria’s Islamists will even have additional challenges to deal with due to the complex demographic structure of the country. Pressured by the prerequisites of ruling, Islamists will have to rationalize their ideology, or else they will suffer a deteriorating social influence, which is not guaranteed in the first place.
Hazem: The future state’s status will be defined by all citizens eligible to vote from both blocs, despite the fact that some voices within the public uprising turn to Islamic proclamations. The mass vote of the Syrian electorate, by a simple calculation, is in favour of a civic state.
The Syrian community includes a diversity of sects and ethnicities; religious minorities constitute around 25 percent of the total population, whereas ethnic minorities form approximately 10 percent. None of these groups are calling for the creation of a religious state, and besides, the majority of Sunni Muslims in urban areas can be considered as a part of the civic and democratic bloc. Moreover, claiming that the majority of Syrians tend towards establishing a democratic and civic state is not an exaggeration. Radical religious voices are affected and fueled by the barbaric slaughter conducted by the regime. The overall religious mood in Syria is moderate and tolerant; these traits apply as well to the dominant religious movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, who in its entirety support a state based upon equal citizenship.
All in all, the fundamental issue in Syria today is not about a choice between Ba'ath and Islamic ideologies, but rather about taking the side of either the aggressor or the victim. We should never forget that the regime’s claims to be secular are false, as it essentially lacks the most important pillars of secularism; freedom, equal citizenship and the independence of state institutions.
Q4. What can the west do? What kind of help do Syrians need?
Yassin: If I were a politician I would say the following to western officials: shut up, we have had enough of your pride and arrogance! This is as well what I would like to tell them, although I am not a politician.
More than 600 days have passed during Syria’s ongoing revolution, during which at least 35,000 rebels and civilians have been killed. Meanwhile, all the world’s dominant powers’ officials have done is keep bragging about the significance of law, and ruling by its means. Throughout this period you have not lent a hand to the Syrian people on the basis of several lame justifications; once due to the absence of alternative leadership, once more due to the scattered opposition forces, and today due to the presence of Jihadist groups. Your focus is always set on the aftermath, rather than the causes.
You require a well-established alternative in a society that has been subject to an ongoing dismantling and decapitation of all independent political and cultural representatives for half a century. Afterwards, and bearing in mind your dominant position in international media, you exaggerate by emphasizing a side effect of the Assadi-War that is taking place before you: Jihadists. This strategy is implemented in order to cover up the lack of action from your side, or the minimal ones that are only sufficient to extend the Syrian crisis, which will lead Syria eventually into the abyss of endless havoc. Certainly this is highly satisfactory for your own “Jihadists”; the right-wing political groups and its media in addition to Israel’s sclerotic allies (I wonder if there are, among you, any ally who is not!)
However, and pardon me for saying, you would be stupid to imagine that you will be unaffected by the outcomes.
Bakr: In fact, the Syrian regime has always made deals with the west, particularly the United States. Hafez Assad would have neither invaded Lebanon in 1976 nor maintained his custody over it after 1991 without US approval, and he would have never eventually passed on Syria’s presidency to his son Bashar without a European-American consensus.
Moreover, the regime withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2005 following the US-French decision to expel it. Though shortly afterwards in the 2006 war, the regime regained some sort of influence (as part of the Iranian influence) utilizing US foreign affair policy shaped by the Baker & Hamilton report (which endorsed dialogue with Tehran and Damascus as an alternative to confrontation).
The United States, if willing, could have helped accelerate the collapse of the regime without waging a war against it. Unlike Iraqi opposition to the regime of Saddam Hussein, who plainly requested military intervention by the west, the Syrian opposition forces never did request that intervention. President Obama has called for Assad to step down since August 2011, yet it appeared later that his killing of innocent children was not serious enough to convince them. Yet again, if the US is willing, there is a room to stop Syrian bloodshed and speed up the collapse of the regime without a direct military intervention. The Syrian regime only comprehends power, and accordingly threatening to use power against the regime would be sufficient to prevent his ongoing destruction. Nineteen months had passed of the regime’s war against the Syrian people without a visit by Mrs. Clinton to Damascus as Mr. Powell did in 2003. Such “Engagement Policy” (to use the Baker-Hamilton expression) would have totally changed the flow of events in Syria. Engagement shall be applied through a serious and threatening deterrent rather than engagement in a dialogue over influence arrangements in the Middle East.
Still, what are the benefits that shall drive the US to exert a pressure on the regime sufficient enough to get rid of it? This is the question!
Hazem: The west has played a negative role and has not taken the situation in Syria seriously enough. To date, it has appeared to have an indifferent attitude towards Syrians’ lives. After remaining passive for twenty months (except for lame calls for the regime to step down) today the west fears Islamists in Syria. This fear is an illusion, or has been advanced to justify the west’s inaction when it comes to protecting civilians. I have observed that the west often disregards the fact that a delay in handling the crisis leads to the growth of extremism.
Protecting civilians is not necessarily associated with direct military intervention; it may be achieved via several approaches as long as there is political will in the west.
The west has to take a clear position towards the regime; do they really want it to step down? If the answer is yes, the west can set up a programme to protect civilians after taking the distinctive features of the Syrian situation into account. They can provide comprehensive relief and medical aid as part of supporting the Syrian people. This can be realized either by direct funding or by handing over the regime’s frozen financial assets worldwide to Syrian aid organizations.
Furthermore, the west can adopt programmes aiming to train and qualify citizens who will be capable of assuming the responsibilities of the state’s and the Syrian community’s future administration.
I believe that there are plenty of initiatives that could be conducted by the west. But this requires a clear political decision to take the side of Syrian people and to remove the current regime.