The convenience of amnesia among the powerful

The Syrian regime’s disregard for historical and contextual applicability to its predicament explains its violence.

syrian protester with Bashar al assad backdrop
Powerful regimes, such as Syria’s, deal with the protests as though they are cut off from history and context [EPA]

Omission is usually a luxury of the powerful.

Just as the United States and Israel conveniently omit the structural violence their policies directly or indirectly produce in the region, so do the dictators and their advocates.

For they too tend to forget or overlook the structural violence to which they subject their population prior to the eruption of new hostilities.

They proceed to pontificate, hurl accusations and judge based on the “other’s” actions that they decide to suspend from context and history.

Political regimes address the protests as though they mysteriously erupted, or are solely caused by some external conspiracy. As if these “plots” or “infiltrators” were absent, all would be well for the majority of the people.

This neglect of history, or perhaps even amnesia, is nothing new, though it is quite duplicitous when it is exercised by a regime that built a significant part of its nationalist credentials on a legitimate critique of the unprincipled regional policy of the United States and Israel.

Narratives of the powerful

The classic example here is drawn from Israel’s policies and its advocates, and has become nauseatingly familiar: Israel calls on Palestinians to stop the violence (or stop launching rockets, or what have you) in order for negotiations or talks or peace to resume, as if the Palestinians heeded this advice, “both sides” would then be proceeding from a clean state.

This mantra is repeated pathetically by US officials who call on “both sides” to stop the violence. Suppose Palestinians did respond (and they have, as have the protesters in Syria at one point early on), the collectively structural violence of Israel’s military occupation and its underwriters will continue to destroy life on an hourly basis.

By adopting similar tactics, the Syrian regime makes a farce out of its deployment of anti-imperialist nationalist credentials, whether or not people took them fully to heart in the first place.

When Syrian authorities or their supporters get fixated exclusively on micro-level events on the ground (eg, who shot whom first in this or that instance, and how some officers were injured or killed), they replicate the mantra of US or Israeli officials towards similar micro-level events in the region while ignoring the deplorable structural violence they unleashed on populations of the region over a period of several decades, directly or by proxy.

It is the same with dictatorships, except it is even worse in these latter cases – because foreign states are not expected to prioritise the welfare of other populations, while rulers are obligated to protect their own people.

The mantras of foreign infiltrators, foreign hands, foreign money/arms, and foreign plots may work if nothing in the prior decades might cause an organic uprising.

But there is ample evidence that the majority of the population in countries such as Syria would like an end to arbitrary rule, one party rule, and heavy-handed violence/silencing as means to conflict management and governing (I’m allergic to the word “governance”, for now).

Any observer of Syria (or Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, or Yemen for that matter) during the past few decades can point to numerous instances and institutions that symbolise suppression, exclusion, and silencing.

The fact that there have been problematic designs by the United States and Israel against the Syrian regime’s confrontational stance in the region does not absolve the Syrian regime from protecting its citizens nor from ending exclusionary practises.

Rationalising violence

All manner of nationalist credentials, whether observers consider them exaggerated or underappreciated, are lost by definition when the state kills its own people in open view.

The retort about this being the work of infiltrators does not account for the overwhelming majority of the killings.

It’s a diversion, but one that has been adopted and believed by many, inside and outside Syria, because it gives natural supporters of the status quo (not to say the regime) a seemingly rational basis for their stance.

Hence, claims by regimes and their supporters that emphasise external factors as a significant cause of the uprisings are disingenuous at best or simply insignificant to the larger picture because the structural factor of state violence is dominant, and is always the reference point for most who struggle under its very real weight.

The proper response to such claims is not to deny them, for they well may be true in part, but the putative proportion of their effect to the tragedy unfolding in Syria is negligible.

It is best to acknowledge the possibility and move on to affirm the overwhelming causes for discontent over the past few decades as the principle and inevitable reason for mass uprisings.

Delusions of control

The fact that many Syrians have stayed home has much more to do with fear of chaos and the unknown, which privileges the status quo, and much less to do with active support for the regime.

Even if the regime’s narrative carries more weight than critics claim, it is still the responsibility of the Syrian government to enhance the protection of its civilians under conditions of insecurity, not to compromise it by participating in the mayhem and killing.

Furthermore, we are no longer living in an age where mass atrocities can be isolated from the larger public, local or global.

Claims of this or that party can be easily confirmed or dismissed by the myriad of videos and documented accounts of events that are ubiquitously available either in real time or minutes after their occurrence.

One wonders to what extent the tools of surveillance and control in Syria are out of step with the times.

Syria’s state-run media epitomises this state of affairs, often reporting events that befit a satirical show more than a news outfit, surpassing the farce one encounters on Fox News in the United States.

Add that to the behaviour and tactics of the security forces, and we have a grim picture of any future in Syria in which these institutions of information and coercion persist.

One wonders, is this how the Syrian regime is planning to restore Arab land (Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian) stolen by Israel?

No wonder Israeli officials (and press) were more terrified by Egypt’s democratic revolt than the persistence of autocratic regimes in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world.

But there is good news: in due time, the uprisings across the Arab world will surely reverse the amnesia of the powerful in the region, whether they are dictatorial or apartheid states, or even super-powers.

Bassam Haddad is director of the Middle East Studies Programme and assistant professor in the department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University. He is also co-editor of Jadaliyya.  

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