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Larbi Sadiki
Larbi Sadiki
Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter.
In Syria, the government is the real rebel
The increasing violence in Syria is transforming the country into a Hobbesian state.
Last Modified: 31 Jul 2011 14:30
Mass protests have roiled Hama, where Bashar Assad's father Hafez crushed an Islamist uprising in 1982, killing more than 20,000 [REUTERS]

There have been many setbacks during the "Arab Spring". None, however, are more flagrantly obvious than in Syria. This leads to one question across the Middle East: Who is the rebel?

The protesters who peacefully demand civil, political and economic rights from monarchical republics and deligitimised ruling elites? Or the states which, such as in Libya and Syria, find themselves literally in a "state of nature", rendering life for the citizen dangerous?

The Assads' 'Leviathan'

Hobbes comes to mind so naturally. More than any other, this English philosopher grasped the ins and outs of human passions and failings, which drive human beings to become their own worst enemies.

Right now, the Assads are in a similar state of affairs. And these affairs disqualify them from ruling over a state and a people, which they are butchering. If only Bashar Assad, who has now bared his political canines to all, had widened his search outside optometry to see the contractual world constructed by Hobbes. Had he done so, he would have learned that strong government does not mean flexing martial muscle.

The excessive use of force against Hama is not an expression of strong and rational government. It is illegal coercion that could one day land the ruling Assads and the top brass of their coercive apparatus in the International Criminal Court.

Hobbes' political theory focuses on the disorder and civil strife caused by unruly human passions, as he knew well from his study of the English Civil War.

Maher Assad's tanks are sinking an entire nation in a "state of nature", and that, for Hobbes, results in a "war of all against all". This is the risk facing the "Arab Spring" in Libya, Yemen, and of course, in our case here, Syria.

Syria: a regime in rebellion

Nearly 30 years after Hafez Assad, aided by his brother Rifa'at Assad (the butcher of Hama) who now enjoys asylum in the West, the younger Assad generation is tempting political fate by killing in the name of a "regime in rebellion". 

The killing they are engaging in makes the state the rebel, the outlaw, the lawless, and the illegal side in this messy uprising, which from the onset, like in Libya, the Assads sought to militarise through hundreds of killings.

Throughout the "Arab Spring", the millions of protesters - no matter the dialects, geography, political specificity, or forms of protest - have been resoundingly declaring to the world they share with billions of fellow human beings one thing: "The regime is the rebel". 

That is some declaration - the "mother of all declarations". Such a declaration claims the legitimacy of resisting the regime, persisting in such resistance, and if need be, as in Libya, bearing arms against it.

The Assads' "leviathan" has rendered life for the ordinary citizens living under a rebellious regime, to go back to the words of the brilliant Hobbes, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

In fact, the rule of the Assads, who may now be left with little or no recourse to protection against the rage which will be spewed at them in the crowded mosques and public squares during the holy month of Ramadan, is in deep crisis. The Assad dynasty is finished and Bashar is its last "prince". Whatever legitimacy the Assads have so far derived from anti-Israeli resistance by proxy via Hizbullah and Hamas is also no more.

The killing campaign being waged at the moment against many cities and towns all over Syria, such as Hama and Deir ez-Zor, is meant to quell the protests before Ramadan. Ramadan draws crowds to mosques even more than the weekly Friday sermon, and at a time of uprisings, the last thing Maher Assad wants is for such space to become platforms for greater mobilisation against the dynasty.

Luckily for Syrians, the Assads cannot whimsically amend the lunar calendar (like they did to the constitution to hand over power from father to son in 2000) to postpone Ramadan.

Hama 'out of control'?

The sudden military escalation against Hama serves three objectives: to kill the momentum of the protests before Ramadan; to send a not-so-thinly-veiled threat to other cities about the consequences of endless protest; and to reclaim state control over cities, including in Kurdish areas such as Qamishli.

Some of these areas have been in full defiance for weeks, often under a state of siege, with the army guarding all entry points to them.

Hama remains a festering sore in state-society relations: this is the city where an Islamist uprising was quashed violently in the 1982, killing more than 20,000 people. This is the kind of material Hobbes marshals as evidence of how nasty life can be during civil war.

Hama's stand must be seen in this context: it, more anywhere else in Syria, declares the regime to be the rebel, not the peaceful civilian protesters. The marches are not calling only for the dismissal of the Assads, but calling to account an entire regime that nearly 30 years ago victimised almost every family in that city.

Maybe the Assads do not wish to be reminded. Bashar has had all of the time in the world to copy King Mohamed VI's path, and hold his own truth and reconciliation process.

No one was ever punished for Hama, but the regime blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for bearing arms and being the root cause of such a rebellion, leading to prosecution, persecution and exile. Hama is still licking its wounds from 1982, and today's killings add insult to injury. But it also adds to the wide sentiment of defiance for self-preservation.

Four layers of power share the blame for what happened in Hama: the Assads and the Ba'ath Party; the police and the military bureaucracies; the state bourgeoisie and the media; and the client clergy. They are also responsible for the counter-revolutionary dynamic throwing a spanner into the pistons of the human trains carrying millions all over Syria. These millions are protesting against exclusion, state violence, marginalisation, and dynastic and nepotistic practices.

The role of the economic elite in the counter-revolutionary trajectory observed of late is more subtle and thus more dangerous. It is a social stratum that remains the repository of political conservatism, and acts expediently. They live by bureaucratic authoritarianism, and should it die, they face an uncertain future where more rigorous audits and accounting for state wealth is undertaken.

The gentrification of the 'country bumpkins'

The coups of the 1950s and 1960s ruralised the Arab Middle East, bringing into the state officers largely of rural background. They promised republicanism, socialism, pan-Arabism, social welfare, and the liberation of Palestine. They have failed on all accounts.

Instead, the "country bumpkins", who occupied the state in putschist ways, have after 50 years or so in power become the new gentry. Power has been "gentrified". The soldiers of yesteryear have booked a seat in the business class. So today, power comes out of the barrel of a gun only when the new gentry's interests become jeopardised by protest and resistance.  

In Syria, a story like this has unfolded. The state has been turned into a milking cow for the new gentry, whose power derives from the billions the state apportions to it. The gentrified officers and partners in power will defend those interests fiercely, and to the bitter end.

Back to Hobbes

Is it back to the "state of nature" for Syria? Not a good trajectory to follow for either Bashar or Syria.

For someone so adamant to retain the presidency, Bashar must consider what Hobbes has to say about the absence of legal and contractual political community under a state of nature: "... no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death”.

A regime cannot purge a society. That is the golden lesson of Egypt and Tunisia. Coercion will not do it.

This is one of numerous questions for President Bashar to ponder. If felicity is to be for the Syrian people to have and to hold, then Bashar can begin by purging his brother Maher, the top brass now implicated in more than 1,500 deaths, and by enabling civil society to flourish, which will help build a genuine democracy.

In Syria, regardless of how long the Assads stay in power, whether months or years, the future is no longer what it used to be.

Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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