Syria: To oppose, or not to oppose?

The opposition movement inside and outside the country must walk a fine line between independence and intervention.

Clashes between rebel fighters and government forces have wrought great destruction [Reuters]

Deciding whether or not to oppose Syria’s rulers has been the recent dominant preoccupation of many anti-imperialist and left-leaning movements. This hesitant attitude towards the Syrian struggle for freedom is nurtured by many anti-regime actions that were recently taken by many Western and Middle-Eastern countries, whose main interest lies in isolating Syria from Iran. However, I believe a better question to ask with respect to Syria is whether the leftist movement should support, or not support, the struggle of the Syrian people.

What I find lacking in many of the analyses relating to the Syrian crisis, which I find oftentimes biased and politically motivated, is how well the interests of the Syrian people who are living inside are taken into account. Dry and unnecessarily sophisticated in nature, these analyses ignore simple facts about why the Syrian people rebelled against the regime in the first place.

A brief historical context is probably the best way to bring about some insight with respect to the events that are unfolding in front of our eyes today. Before doing so, it is important to highlight that, unlike many other Arab countries, Syria is not a religiously homogenous Middle-Eastern country. I am mentioning this because it is through religion that the majority of Arabs identified themselves for centuries. As it stands today, Syria’s population is composed 74 per cent of Sunnis (including Kurds and others), 12 per cent Alawites (including Arab Shia), ten per cent Christians (including Armenians) and three per cent Druze.undefined

Syria earned its independence from the French in 1946. As has always been the case with any occupying and imperial force, France worked diligently to ensure that Syrian minorities were placed in top government and military positions.  The Alawites’ share of the pie was the military. By the time France left Syria, Alawites became well entrenched in this crucial government institution.

After two decades of military coups and counter-coups, it was no surprise that Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite and minister of defence at the time, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1970. Within a few years he was relatively able to bring about economic and social stability – which made him a hero in the eyes of the majority of Syrians, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

Bolstering power

A cunning politician and an experienced military officer, Assad knew that unless he solidified his rule, the time would soon come when other military officers would mount a coup against him. Over the span of few years, he made sure the top brass of the military and intelligence was filled with fellow Alawite officers who, thanks to France’s pro-minorities policy, were available in abundance.

These Alawite officers were also less likely to mount a coup against a fellow countryman. To deprive the mukhabarat [“intelligence service”] of the opportunity to be able to mount a serious coup against him, Assad created 13 different intelligence agencies – completely independent of each other.

When I was detained at the Sednaya prison in 2003, a 60-year-old man told me of a conversation between him and a general in the political security directorate. The old man was trying to have a rational dialogue with the general during the interrogation, by advising the him that the regime must treat people like human beings if it wanted to rightly earn the respect of the Syrian people.

To deprive the mukhabarat of the opportunity to be able to mount a serious coup against him, Assad created 13 different intelligence agencies – completely independent of each other.

The general responded: “We want to rule people by our shoes.” This is a famous Syrian expression akin to: “We want to rule people with an iron fist, humiliating them.” This example sheds some light on the type of mentality that dominates the inner circles of the Assad regime even today. Understanding this point in particular is crucial to understanding the violent response that the regime showed towards the protesters since day one.

Crushing dissent

Those who still buy Assad’s anti-imperial rhetoric should know that the old man whose story is mentioned above was imprisoned simply because he and other fellow citizens organised a small rally to denounce the illegal US invasion of Iraq.

In fact, it is not uncommon to find prisoners – including some of those I met in Sednaya prison – whose only “crime” was to help Palestinian groups. How could a regime that claims to be anti-Israel not even dare to protect itself against the frequent Israeli air incursions throughout the past decade?

I remember vividly the day I was released, when Israeli warplanes bombarded a site inside Syria under the pretext that it was being used to train Palestinian fighters. Syria’s response on that day was mute – as had always been the case.  Finally, it is no secret that Syria, like many other Arab countries, cooperated closely with the US in the so-called “war on terror”. I am only one of few living examples of this covert cooperation.

I hope this brief historical context and the few stories mentioned above contain enough information which can now help us analyse the current situation. Contrary to the conspiracy theory type of analysis, which accuses the US and its allies of starting the unrest in Syria, it is now an established fact that spontaneous and peaceful demonstrations erupted after the government refused to hold to account those who tortured those teenagers who sprayed anti-regime graffiti on school walls.

Captured Syrian soldier defects to opposition

In fact, the initial demands of the protesters were very simple, and did not contain a single slogan which demanded the downfall of the regime.

As peaceful demonstrations widened, and spread from one city to the next, Assad’s security forces naively thought that by using lethal force to crush these growing protests, the barrier of fear that was starting to collapse would be immediately restored. Contrary to their wishes, however, the more lethal the force they used, the more Syrians became determined to overthrow the regime – by then most had lost hope that their simple demands were going to be met.

When it became clear that there was no genuine commitment that security forces and affiliated shabiha gangs were going to refrain from using force to crush the demonstrations, people felt the need to defend themselves against the excessive aggression and atrocities committed by state agents – some of whom had reportedly gone totally rogue.

Emergence of the opposition

It is amid this atmosphere that political and armed opposition groups started to galvanise, resulting in the emergence of opposition coalitions – the largest of which was the Syrian National Council (SNC), mainly comprised of Syrians living abroad. The composition of the SNC came back to haunt it later, as dissidents living inside Syria accused the SNC of being detached from the true demands of the people on the ground. 

For instance, the main point of contention between a newly spun group led by longtime dissident Haitham al-Maleh and the SNC was the issue of how best to respond to the regime’s growing brutality. Al-Maleh believed that the priority was to arm what is called the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group that was mostly formed, reportedly, from army defectors. It seems that al-Maleh was responding to the popular will of the people inside Syria who had lost hope in peaceful means to bring down the regime. It also seems that revolutionaries inside Syria had also lost hope that sanctions, which the SNC heavily lobbied Western countries for, would have any meaningful effect on the regime.

People also came to realise that outside military intervention would never happen. It is worth highlighting that, despite its name, the FSA is composed of hundreds of independent groups. Their emergence is a miracle, considering that the regime has become known for taking revenge upon the families of deserters. It is also worth highlighting that Syrian conscripts are usually assigned to detachments that are hundreds of miles away from their home town (another regime tactic which makes it more likely that soldiers will obey orders to kill.)

The FSA’s disorganised nature, in the sense that it does not have a single command structure, is – in my opinion – a strength and not a weakness, at least given the circumstances with respect to the excessive brutality of the regime, and the fact that the regime has a huge network of informants. Because of a lack of any other viable alternative, many Syrians see the “FSA” as their last hope.

Al Jazeera’s James Bays on Syrian defections

Exaggeration of ‘outside influence’

Now to claim that there is no outside, foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs is to deny the obvious. But in my opinion this “interference” has been exaggerated (the analyses I’ve read with respect to this issue are based on speculations that are not supported by facts on the ground). Yes, there are countries who have always had a strong desire to see the Syrian-Iranian marriage fall apart. But to what extent these countries are influencing events on the ground is far from certain. For instance, the efforts reportedly led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to equip the rebels with heavy arms have not yet borne fruits, and it seems the FSA is mostly using light to medium weapons.

Most of these weapons have either been bought from corrupt army officers, or are acquired by raiding weapons caches. Qatar and Saudi Arabia reportedly would want to make sure that weaponry would only be distributed to those groups that would pledge allegiance to them. While some groups may accept the deal, it is far from certain that all groups would accept any preconditions – as recently reported by Time magazine.

While the CIA may be present near the Syrian-Turkish border, all evidence points to the fact that the US is not very keen to arm the rebels, out of fear the arms would eventually fall in the hands of al-Qaeda and like-minded groups. In fact, Washington, despite the anti-Assad rhetoric we read about in media headlines, is not very keen on replacing the Assad regime with one whose allegiance to the US would be uncertain.

This explains why the US has so far reportedly refused to supply weapons to Syria’s armed opposition. The latest discussions that took place in Geneva demonstrate that the US still prefers “a political solution” (whatever that means).

The fact that Syrian revolutionaries are not receiving the help they need to win the battle against the Syrian regime will certainly prolong the conflict. While many Syrians are disappointed by this indifference, I believe it is better for the future of Syria and its independence.

Syrians have already demonstrated mind-boggling courage and determination. They have made sizeable gains over the past year and they will certainly continue to make more. The signs are clear: the murderous Assad army, the regime’s iron first, is disintegrating, albeit slowly. While it is no reason to celebrate, it is the Syrians’ last hope, and if I were living inside Syria, I would hope the same.

Maher Arar is a human rights activist, and the publisher of Prism Magazine, who first came to public attention after he was rendered by US authorities to Syria, his native country. A public inquiry in Canada later cleared his name. His commentary has appeared in publications such as The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, The Huffington Post among others.

Follow him on Twitter: @ArarMaher