SPEAKING FREELY Blinded by principles on Syria's war
By Derek Dougdale
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
All too often an emancipatory politics is substituted for idealism posturing as an emancipatory politics. Syria is a case in point. Two years ago, we were told the troops of Bashar al-Assad took to the streets of Damascus and violently crushed a peaceful, democratic protest. This, we are still told, led to a popular uprising, a revolution.
Despite serious criticism and reports the event was exaggerated - if not fabricated - even today, the alleged response to the March 2011 uprisings has formed the moral basis and unwavering belief in a principled support for the opposition. In this context, opposition groups such as Al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda are
classed as fringe actors just as detrimental to the "good" opposition as they are to the government.
There is no doubt some truth in this. In-fighting between various opposition groups has been widely reported, mainly because the opposition is deeply fractured into hundreds of militias. Yet however splintered, however chaotic, and whatever the crimes of the opposition, the government exercised violence first, therefore - the principle goes - it is morally worse. That is the belief. That is the principle.
Now, suppose for a moment the Syrian government did send troops into a crowd of peaceful protesters two years ago. Suppose the troops did exercise violence, shooting live bullets at unharmed protesters waving placards, murdering innocent men and women. Even then, there has been much talk about the way in which the Syrian government is said to have crushed those initial protests, but little talk about the why.
Following its formal independence from French colonial rule in 1946, Syria was one of the most unstable nations in the Greater Middle East and witnessed a series of coups and counter-coups. The first came in 1949 when Syrian president Shukri al-Kuwaiti was overthrown by the US-backed Husni al-Zaim, who was operating as the Chief of Army. In the same year, another coup was launched and al-Zaim was overthrown and executed. This time it was Hashem al-Atassi who gained power, only to be overthrown in the very same year in a counter-coup led by Adib al-Shishakli.
The three coups of 1949 set the precedent for the next 21 years, which saw the country suffer coup after counter-coup until Hafez al-Assad eventually consolidated his power in the Corrective Movement of 1970. Yet even then, destabilizing forces within Syria worked to overthrow the government.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Syria was rocked by a series of brutal terrorist attacks by various Islamist groups generally referred to under the umbrella term "Muslim Brotherhood". At first, Islamists targeted politicians and party members for assassination, but quickly turned their attacks on the public.
In the ensuing bloodbath, thousands were killed while the Syrian government was slow to react. This culminated in 1982 when the city of Hama came under the control of Islamists, thus endangering the future of the Syrian state. The Syrian government responded with force, shelling the city in a battle that lasted for three weeks, until Hafez al-Assad's government quashed the insurgents and finally regained control of the city.
Syria's existence was also threatened by the emergence of the State of Israel, which was established on land once known as Greater Syria in 1948. With the US shifting their imperial eyes over the region in a bid to combat Soviet influence, support for Israel - who they saw as a potential counterweight to the Russians and Nasser's Egypt - led to a geopolitical nightmare for the new Syrian state, resulting in three disastrous wars with Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973.
The context of Cold War politics, with the two main superpowers vying for control in the region, also resulted in covert support for various groups within Syria in a bid to manufacture dissent and gain political power and leverage, a policy which the US has continued up until today.
While Hafez al-Assad managed to bring stability to a country in absolute chaos and maintain a level of respect and independence in the existential battle with the US and Israel, the religious, ethnic, and political tensions in a fragile Syrian state, along with imperialist interference in Syrian affairs, continued up until Hafez al-Assad's death. In fact, it wouldn't be unfair to say the government's response two years ago to protesters was sparked by fears of the fragile Syrian state disintegrating. Two years on, and with the country looking more and more like it will be partitioned, it is clear these fears were well-grounded.
In a 2006 Wikileaks cable, the extent of US interference in pre-2011 Syrian affairs is revealed. The cable discusses extensive plans to destabilize the country, including fomenting dissent amongst Syrian Sunni groups; promoting conflict in the government's inner-circle; encouraging rumors of coup-plotting in the military; highlighting the failures of reform in the run up to the 2007 elections; and promoting a Kurdish rebellion in the country's north. In no uncertain terms, the cable also points to "the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists", and suggests there "may be actions, statements, and signals that the USG [United States government] can send that will improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising".
Despite all this, the "principled, moral" stance taken up by commentators outside of Syria has failed to take into account Syria's historical, social, and political reality. The fact the Syrian Arab Republic is just 67 years old and was carved like a chunk of flesh from the earth is ignored. Its ethnic and religious makeup, often alienated, ambivalent, or even hostile to the colonial frontiers that constitute the post-independence Syrian state is not considered, while the secular government's history of ethnic and religious toleration is hardly given a mention. In the same way, Syria's complicated process of nation-building along with the internal and external agents seeking its destruction are not positioned as part of the context of the 2011 uprisings.
The "principled, moral" stance taken up by bourgeois, liberal, and leftist commentators has instead prevailed in a vacuum: after all, it is the principle that matters, the principle. But this is a conflict that has witnessed the death of well over 100,000 civilians and created millions of homeless, exiled refugees.
It will likely see the end of the Syrian Arab Republic, which will probably be partitioned and experience a future of "liquid" war. Is it not a little disingenuous then for comfortable liberal commentators and the like to stand by an abstract principle divorced from social, historical, and political reality?
Is it not time we trace the contours of conflict - the historical roots, the roots of causation - before making uninformed, emotive decisions and building our very politics from the present? It is all too easy to stand by a principle when its consequences cannot pierce one's remote, detached, isolated comfort.
In the words of the inspirational Lebanese academic and political activist Amal-Saad Ghorayeb: "The Syrian refugees don't need our liberal humanitarianism, nor our lefty class solidarity, nor our bourgeois "tolerance" for their presence in our midst. They just need their country back."
We cannot give the exiled their country back, but we can stop conflating our comfortable idealism with the realities of Syria's pain.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Derek Dougdale is a pseudonymous writer and journalist based in Berlin, Germany. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org