Syria: What Kind of Revolution?


The Syrian uprising which erupted nearly six months ago seems to be settling into a dangerous deadlock with neither side — the regime or the opposition — willing to budge from its stated position.  The daily toll of deaths and injuries climb ever higher with no resolution in sight.  The regime seems insistent on going all the way with its crackdown, fearing that, if it concedes any city or town to the protesters, it will lead to a repeat of the Libyan scenario.  For the protesters, the regime lost all legitimacy from the moment it decided to use bullets and tanks to besiege and kill its own citizens.  Bashar Assad’s attempt to unilaterally reform his way out of the crisis has failed completely in convincing any opposition figures to come to the table.  Meanwhile, with the opposition unable to make any significant breakthroughs during the month of Ramadan, many within the movement are eyeing foreign intervention as a way out.

Unlike the Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions, the uprising in Syria has created a great deal of controversy among activists here in Lebanon.  People who stood together in support of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings found themselves on different sides of the barricades when Syria’s turn came.  One group saw no difference between what happened in Egypt and Tunisia on one hand and what is happening in Syria today on the other.  This group fully supported the Syrian revolt.  A second group, made up of longtime and staunch supporters of Damascus, took the position that the events in Syria are part of an ongoing campaign by Western powers to bring down the Assad regime.

Another, smaller group, this author included, took a difficult third position that saw the need for a complete overhaul of the current regime.  But the same group had several misgivings about the nature and politics of the Syrian uprising.  The confrontation between the first two camps became so polarized that it has been extremely difficult to articulate an independent position without being accused of hypocrisy or standing with a dictator against the people.  The regime’s brutal and hysterical reaction to the protests made it next to impossible to say anything remotely negative about the opposition.  Criticizing them was tantamount to justifying the regime’s bloody repression.

Initially, the argument centered on the role of the Syrian regime in the Arab-Israeli struggle and its credentials as a supporter of resistance movements like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.  Many of us here in Lebanon who have always counted ourselves as strong supporters of Hezbollah became concerned about the fate of the resistance if the Syrian regime were to fall.  For two decades now, Syria has been a key link in a chain connecting Iran to the resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine.  This alliance has been largely successful in confronting Israel, even defeating it militarily twice in Lebanon, and fending off US meddling in the region, as in Iraq.

The US and Europe have expended much effort to weaken this alliance in various ways — first by attempting to isolate Iran (using the nuclear issue), then by having Israel attack Hezbollah and Hamas (in 2006 and 2008) — without much success.  As a result, Washington and Paris in particular came to the conclusion that Syria may be the weak link in the chain.  Taking Damascus out of the equation would severely hobble this anti-Western alliance as it would drive Iran out of the heart of the Arab world and isolate the resistance movements in Lebanon and Palestine from their patrons in Tehran.

The pro-opposition camp responded, rather unconvincingly in my view, by belittling the role the Syrian regime played in confronting Israel and the West.  They pointed to the fact that the Assads have kept the front with Israel quiet for decades and have done little to liberate the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, not to mention that they entered into peace negotiations with the Israelis.  More astute voices within this same camp conceded that the Assad regime has in fact played an important role in supporting the Arab resistance, but that does not justify the sad state of affairs within Syria itself, nor does it make the regime immune from accountability at the hands of its own people.  Others simply said that the Syrian people have historically always been in the nationalist camp and change at the top will not affect Syria’s position in the Arab-Israeli struggle.

But events on the ground in Syria have not been so reassuring on this matter.  From the very first days of the uprising, opposition figures told the international media that Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guards were fighting alongside Syrian security forces to suppress the protests.  On at least three or four occasions, Hezbollah had to publicly reject such claims, yet these rumors continue to this day.  Then some protesters took to burning pictures of Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, the very icon of resistance for so many Arabs.  Contrast this with those in Hama who showered the US ambassador with flowers as he drove through the city’s packed main square.

Defenders of the Syrian opposition in Lebanon tried to justify this by saying that this was a natural response to the position that Nasrallah had taken in support of the regime.  But when Russia, early on in the uprising, undermined repeated attempts by the US and Europe to pass UN resolutions sanctioning the Syrian regime, the response of the opposition was to send a delegation to Moscow to get the Russians to change their minds.  To this day Russia continues to stand by the regime and I have yet to see a Russian flag set alight or hear an anti-Russian chant in the protests.

One can attribute such hostility to Hezbollah and Iran to the fact they are longtime and close allies of the Syrian regime and, in the minds of many protesters, they share responsibility for what is happening — a kind of “my enemy’s friend is also my enemy” logic.  This is similar to the anti-Palestinian sentiment expressed by many Iraqis after the fall of Saddam Hussein, leading to the expulsion of large numbers of Palestinians living in Iraq.  Because the Iraqi dictator boasted about sending money to Palestinian martyrs’ families and was supported by the Palestinian Liberation Organization after he invaded Kuwait, the Palestinians were somehow implicated in his criminal regime.

But the recent events in Syria have proven that such anti-Shia sentiments were not so innocent after all and were a reflection of a sectarian strain within the Syrian opposition that became increasingly more apparent.  The first hint came very early on as some protesters were heard chanting, “Christians to Beirut and Alawis to the grave.”  It appeared at the time that these were the views of a small minority within the protest movement and the more public figures in the opposition quickly tried to counter it with calls for unity.  Nevertheless, the uprising continued to take on a conservative Islamist tone with protests being organized around mosques and increasingly confined to the rural Sunni areas (with the obvious exception of Homs and Hama).  Syria’s minorities, including Christians, Alawites, Ismailis, and Druze (though not the Kurds, who continue to be active) began to distance themselves from the opposition.  One need only listen to the Islamist chants repeated at the protests, sometimes sprinkled with symbolic calls for national unity, to understand where the politics of the uprising are headed.

After a brief but ugly bout of sectarian violence broke out in the mixed city of Homs in mid-July, the opposition put the blame squarely on the government and refused to take any measures to counter sectarianism within the movement.  In Egypt, where the government was directly implicated in stoking Muslim-Christian violence, the activists of Tahrir Square went to great lengths to encourage Christian participation and combat all forms of sectarianism in the movement by downplaying Islamic slogans (like “Allahu Akbar” of God is Great) and making Sunday Mass part of the weekly mobilizations.  No such effort was made by the Syrian opposition, even after the Homs events.  Worse yet, they announced that, throughout the month of Ramadan, protests would be launched after tarawih prayers, an exclusively Sunni tradition.

There are other dirty secrets that the opposition is careful to keep far from the eyes and ears of the Western media for fear of alienating international support.  Among these is arguably one of the most popular figures of the Syrian uprising, someone very few outside of Syria have heard of.  Yet if you look up Shaykh Adnan al-Arour on YouTube, you can hear his name being called out in opposition demonstrations from London to Homs.  Shaykh al-Arour is a former member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who fled to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s and has become a popular satellite television preacher with a wide following in Syria.  His supporters refer to him as the godfather of the Syrian revolution.

Shaykh al-Arour made a name for himself by waging theological polemics with Shia clerics on Saudi religious channels.  One of the stations where he regularly appears, Wesal TV, specializes in anti-Shia propaganda.  They’ve even launched a Farsi-language channel to berate Iranian Shia in their own tongue.  In one of his more extreme diatribes that can be seen on YouTube, al-Arour instructs his viewers to reserve a special kind of vengeance for Alawites who stood by the regime, saying that we’ll slaughter you and feed you to the dogs.  In another short but ominous clip al-Arour is seen being mobbed and kissed by Saudi soldiers from the Peninsula Shield forces that invaded Bahrain to quell the revolt there.

All of this explains the unconstrained excitement for the Syrian uprising in the most reactionary quarters of the Arab world — the absolute monarchies of the Gulf.  In an irony of ironies, when the Saudi king recently declared his support for the Syrian revolution, Syrian expats in Saudi Arabia went out into the streets to celebrate and praise the king, forgetting that public gatherings are illegal in the kingdom.  So they were all summarily arrested.  For the Saudis and the Gulf emirates, it seems, the possibility of toppling the Iranian-backed Alawite regime of Bashar Al-Asad far outweighs their fear of revolution spreading to their shores.

My point here is not say that people cannot revolt against injustice until they have the right kind of politics.  Nor am I willing to defend the bloody actions of the long-expired Baath regime.  I am simply trying to lay out the cold hard facts as I see them and raise some uncomfortable questions about the nature of the Syrian uprising.  One can only wish that all the Arab revolutions could be as quick and tidy as the Tunisian and Egyptian ones, but I’m afraid that both the Libyan and Syrian experiences suggest that the coming upheavals will be far more messy and complicated.  They will require a far higher level of vigilance on our part to understand exactly what is happening so as not to make the mistake of blindly cheering on movements that may not be much of an improvement over the dictatorships they will replace.

Bilal El-Amine is an independent activist and writer based in Beirut, Lebanon.  This article was first published by Al-Akhbar on 8 September 2011 under a Creative Commons license.

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