No Revolution in Syria: An Interview with Camille Otrakji

Camille Otrakji is a Syrian political blogger based in Montreal.  Although he tends to keep a low profile, Otrakji has been, for the past several years, at the forefront of many of the most interesting and influential online initiatives relating to Syrian politics.  He is one of the authors and moderators at Joshua Landis’s Syria Comment, and the founder of Creative Syria, a constellation of websites including Mideast Image (a vast collection of original old photographs of Middle Eastern subjects) and Syrian Think Tank (an online debate site hosting many of Syria’s top analysts).  Last year, Otrakji courted controversy with a new initiative devoted to the subject of Syrian-Israeli peace, entitled  He agreed to speak with me about the latest events in Syria, and I’m sure that his views will generate plenty of discussion.

You were recently quoted in the New York Times, arguing that the current situation in Syria is “all being manipulated,” and that the activists are deceiving the Syrian public and the world.  Could you elaborate on this?

Camille Otrakji: I believe that a clear majority of Syrians support many of the demands of the peaceful protesters.  On the other hand, only a minority of Syrians are willing to risk destabilizing their country in order to try to achieve full regime change after a painful drawn-out conflict.

You might disagree with me if your impression of the state of the protests movement is the product of Aljazeera and BBC Arabic endlessly looping some bloody clip of the day and creating an impression that victory is near for “the Syrian people” who are demonstrating against their despised tyrant.  In the early days of the Libyan revolt, Aljazeera created the same “victory-is-easy” impression for the Libyan people and they believed it, and until today they are killing each other and destroying their country.

Despite weekly calls from opposition figures for millions to demonstrate, based on the numbers of people we have seen in the streets of Syria thus far, it is clear that less than 1.0% of the country (about 150,000 Syrians) has joined the protests.  This is not Egypt or Yemen, where you had hundreds of thousands or even millions of people protesting every day.  In Syria we’ve seen a few thousands here, a few hundred there, mostly on Fridays.  And yet western governments, the Syrian opposition, and the media covering Syria are all enthusiastically and casually using the term “the Syrian people” from the first day a few young men demonstrated in the Ummayad mosque.  This implies they have the support of the entire Syrian population, which is a very serious distortion of the facts.  How do you think the pro-stability Syrians feel when everyone, from Western officials to journalists, implies that they are automatically on the side of regime change?  No one reported that for weeks Syrians were demonstrating each night in many cities supporting their President.  These daily demonstrations, festive and loud, stopped only when interior ministry told the supporters to stop showing their support because they were too noisy.  The only time millions demonstrated in Syria was the day Assad’s supporters went to the street in most of Syria’s large cities.  It was bizarre that most of the media decided that all these Syrians were chanting and dancing in the streets because they were afraid of the regime, simply because schools and some government offices were given the day off on that day.  Ironically, some of the same journalists were also making the point the revolution is bound to succeed because “the barrier of fear has been shattered.”

In addition to distorting the true size of the protests movements, everyone seems to overlook the fact that unlike Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Syria’s protestors have mostly been men.  “The Syrian people” include women too, as you can see from the pro-Assad demonstrations.  Why didn’t any of those Western financed women rights organizations express any concern after seeing tens of all-male demonstrations so far?

While most protests were genuinely peaceful, many were confrontational and violent.  Syria’s police and security personnel are not used to such challenges and sadly in some cases some of them probably reacted with unnecessary violence.  But out of an estimated 150,000 protesters so far up to 500 died according to opposition figures.  Government claims 78 died, and I believe the real figure is in between, closer to opposition figures.  The government claims that many died in armed confrontations.  Given that 80 soldiers and policemen also died, it is only logical that non-peaceful armed men were among the hundreds of “civilian” casualties.  In other words, not all civilian casualties were peaceful protestors.

Many others probably died through excessive security personnel violence.  We need to keep in mind that despite the bitter feeling all of us today have after hundreds died, an investigation of what happened should be conducted.

None of us has access to the truth, but I think it is fair to conclude for now that the numbers imply that it is not true that there is an official policy of shooting randomly at any demonstrator.  Many fatal mistakes took place, but many others died while they were taking part in non-peaceful confrontations with the army or police.  Those who compare Syria’s casualties figures to Egypt’s need to keep in mind that in Egypt protesters were not engaging the army in battles.  The 850 who died there were all non-armed.

But surely there is public discontent with Bashar al-Assad, or else people would not be risking their lives to demonstrate against the regime.

Otrakji: The revolt started out as a legitimate one, when it was based in Dar’aa.  The people there were genuinely fed up with the local head of security, who was a relative of the president, and so at first they protested against his abuse of power and his corruption.  But this took place against the backdrop of the events in Egypt and Tunisia, so certain groups decided to try and capitalize on this act of protest in Dar’aa and turn it into a nationwide revolt.

Which groups?

Otrakji: There are many groups who are trying to destabilize the regime.  You have the regime change activists overseas, who are financed by various American programs that the Obama administration continued to finance despite seeking better relations with Syria.  And you have American technologies that allow you to manipulate anything online.  For example, you can help generate virtual members among some of the 150,000 that the Syrian revolution 2011 page on Facebook is proud of.

Then there are many Salafists around the country, guided by Syrian, Saudi, or Egyptian religious leaders.  And it is possible that some of the four anti-regime billionaires might be trying to stir the pot for their own, different, reasons; Abdul-Halim Khaddam [former vice president of Syria, currently in exile in Paris], Ribal al-Assad [Bashar’s cousin, and son of Rifaat al-Assad], Saad al-Hariri [current caretaker Prime Minister of Lebanon and son of the slain Rafiq], and Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud [former Saudi ambassador to the US, among other things].

So this is all the work of these outside groups?

Otrakji: No, of course not.  As I said, the revolt had a legitimate spark.  And there is no doubt that many Syrians are dissatisfied with many aspects of the current regime.  But most Syrians would much rather see some meaningful reforms undertaken in a peaceful fashion over the next five years under the current regime, instead of trying to sweep the regime away and dealing with the prospect of sectarian civil war.  If Bashar were to sign several laws: (1) permitting the formation of political parties; (2) lifting the tight censorship in the press; (3) and modernizing and limiting the role of the mukhabarat (intelligence services), I believe that 80% of the Syrian people would be fully on board with that.  They would say to the opposition: “Thank you very much for your courage.  You did a valuable service by giving the regime a ‘cold shower.’  But now we’ve had enough of the protests and we want to go back to work.  We will give Bashar the benefit of the doubt, until the next presidential election.”

Elias Muhanna is a PhD candidate in Arabic and Islamic studies at Harvard University.  The text above is a short excerpt from a long interview published under the title “Talking about a Revolution: An Interview with Camille Otrakji” in Qifa Nabki on 2 May 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.  Click here to read the rest of the interview.

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