To be successful, rebels and revolutionaries need their own diplomats. A look back at the Battle of Algiers tells us why. It also helps us imagine what might be required to win the Battle of Damascus.
Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers covers only half the story. It chronicles the action in Algiers itself, as the insurgents of the National Liberation Front (FLN) battled French colonialists for the first nine months of 1957.
Equally important was the Battle of New York, as Matthew Connelly tells us in his book on the Algerian War, A Diplomatic Revolution. The FLN began a general strike in Algiers in order to influence a debate in the United Nations. The ultimate object was to turn world opinion against France. The FLN wanted to internationalise a conflict that France insisted was a domestic matter.
As one FLN representative in New York told a journalist for Life magazine, “You must realise that every time a bomb explodes in Algiers, we are taken more seriously here.”
At home and abroad
The Battle of Algiers was simultaneously a military and a political offensive for the FLN. In the short term they were defeated in both Algiers and New York. But France paid a heavy price. The FLN had demonstrated its mass support among Algerians, while France became associated with torture and jack-booted, leopard-striped paratroopers.
French diplomats could no longer talk of their “civilising mission” in Algeria with a straight face.
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In their wars against France and the US, the Vietnamese communists also were able to deftly combine insurgency and diplomacy. The Algerians and the Vietnamese could accomplish these feats because they had a coherent political organisation that functioned both inside and outside their countries.
In fact, the FLN declared independent statehood when it did not control a single square kilometre of Algerian territory. Arab and other Third World states quickly afforded the FLN’s provisional government diplomatic recognition in 1958 when the war still had four years to run. Independent Algeria was like “a state turned inside out”, as Connelly comments. It had more presence internationally than it did on Algerian soil.
Especially for the Algerians, there were always tensions between the insurgent commanders inside Algeria and their representatives abroad. However, this friction was nothing like the yawning gap today between those fighting in Syria and the champagne revolutionaries outside it, who make up the moribund Syrian National Council. Similarly, during their fight against Gaddafi, the Libyan rebels lacked anything approaching a coherent international political operation.
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently commented of Syria that the international community should do more to “shape the opposition”. An observer said of the Syrian exiles that everyone is “waiting for Mr Obama”. Some perhaps are waiting for the Emir of Qatar or the Saudi King instead.
No voice for the voiceless
The so-called Friends of Syria who support the rebellion against the Assad regime – Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the US, France – have all fostered different exile and rebel groups. The result is a divided Syrian opposition inside and outside Syria.
Neither the Vietnamese nor the Algerians would have ever left questions of organisation – much less the fate of their revolutions – in the hands of foreigners.
What explains this difference between the earlier wars of decolonisation and the contemporary revolts in Libya and Syria?
A very significant factor is the absence of a revolutionary party with long experience and more or less tight discipline. The Algerian and Vietnamese organisations that would lead their peoples to victory and independence dated from before World War II. They were schooled in hard struggles against colonial regimes capable of extreme violence.
A second factor is the rise of the “international community” with its legions of NGOs and its ubiquitous news media. To a degree, the FLN was able to control its own message. Its struggle began when the UN was just a decade old. Human rights organisations had not taken on their self-appointed mission to judge other people’s wars.
In making its voice heard, the FLN obliged Western news reports to present the FLN position in the interests of “objectivity”. This was a considerable advance. Previously, French sources could simply represent events as they chose, while maintaining strict controls on reporting from Algeria itself.
With the FLN’s international propaganda offensive in full swing, French diplomats and spokespersons found themselves facing off against FLN representatives in news studios.
Nowadays, it is more likely that someone from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or the International Crisis Group would be asked to offer their views about events in Libya, Syria or elsewhere. With no credible, single voice from the Syrian revolution, the debate is between foreign powers, representatives of the international community, and the Assad regime’s official line.
Rather than speak as a people in revolt, the Syrians are left providing video clips and tragic quotes about their suffering, a cacophony of war rather than a carefully judged message.
Many will say this is the Syrians’ own fault, for the Syrians are divided, both at home and abroad. This is so, ethnically, religiously, politically, and economically. Yet the Algerians had their divisions, as did the Vietnamese. Both faced enemies expert at dividing and ruling. Revolutions are made by many diverse parties and groups who eventually manage to coalesce into an effective organisation if they are to succeed.
The divisions of the Syrians reflect a very different international environment than that of the earlier wars of decolonisation. Then, the problem was getting heard. Now, there are too many voices being heard.
The power of hope
There is one more major difference between then and now. World opinion swung behind the FLN and the Vietnamese communists because it was still possible to believe that their revolutions promised a better world. There was hope that when the long, dark night of empire ended, humanity would be whole. Oppressed minorities in the West saw common cause with Vietnamese guerrillas, as when Martin Luther King spoke out passionately against his country’s war in Vietnam.
Today, we have lost hope for a better future.
Rather than founding socialist utopias, Algeria and Vietnam descended into violent dictatorship. With eyes jaded by these experiences and others, we assumed from the start that Gaddafi would be replaced by civil war or worse. In Syria, the international community is already talking of another Somalia or another Afghanistan.
Despite the fates that befell them, the FLN and the Vietnamese communists performed an essential political function. They imagined a future worth living, a vision that could unite their struggling peoples with all those around the world who shared their hopes.
Today, the international community tots up the human rights violations of both sides in Syria on a kind of grim scorecard. That is nearly the sum total of their political contribution.
Meanwhile, the war in Syria grinds on. Even the Syrians are beginning to lose hope that their revolt will bring about a better future. That is a far more serious matter for the fate of Syria than rebel human rights violations or the presence of some jihadis.
It is politics and diplomacy, and not only fighting, which will ultimately bring about a free Syria. The Syrians had better make sure it is their politics and their diplomacy, or they will find their future defined by others.
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.