For the casual observer, it is puzzling how a mass of only 22 million people in a geographical area of 185,180 square kilometers has stirred global dynamics. The following piece tries to unlock this puzzle, putting in perspective the more than four-year conflict in Syria and shedding off misunderstandings of one of the largest human catastrophes of our time.
A caesarian birth
Syria was formed as a country in 1946 when formal French colonization ended. The next two-dozen years were a testimony on the vibrant nature of Syrian society, as the bourgeoning economy rose under a democratic system championed by the cultured class. In 1963, the country made a sudden turn after the Arab Socialist Baath Party took power. The event represented the intersection of cultural and structural dynamics. Syria had become the hub of Arab nationalism. The newly formed state could not accommodate the restlessness of people seeing the historical land of the Levant being shredded into statelets: Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in addition to the land of Palestine. This partition was the result of the Sykes-Picot agreement between France and England in 1916. The lack of viability of the newly formed states was enough reason to let people think of something bigger — Arab unity. After all, it was the era of nationalism. Add to that the establishment of Israel that shocked Arab consciousness, considering it an extension of colonial powers and a stab in the attempt for a pan-Arab dream. This was the setting at the heels of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in 1922.
Identity and grievances
Not only did the post-Ottoman order create miniature states, the basis of the collective meanings that form Syria was under question. There was the Arab national identity trying to reconcile itself with a new nation-state. There was the Muslim identity, a deeply anchored identity to an uninterrupted historical flow of 1,400 years, iconized by the Umayyad Grand Mosque in Damascus as a reminder of the first khilafa center in Muslim history. Add to the mix a variant of socialist ideals pursued by the intelligentsia as a mark of transitioning into modernity and European “progressive” forms of nation building.
Furthermore, the post-Ottoman order awakened aspirations and grievances among the minorities of the newly formed Syria: Christians, Druze, Ismaili, the Kurds of the north, and the Alawi/Nusairi. Christians were well-integrated into society and had a European vision for Syria. Druze and Ismailis were small in number and would be content if their villages’ relative autonomy was maintained. Kurds, who are predominantly Muslim, were generally integrated and considered indigenous, but the demography of the northeast was continuously in flux receiving new Kurds from outside the newly drawn borders. Such a pattern of migration was not new to the land of Syria, which has hosted Armenians, Circassians, Albanians and other refugees. But what distinguished Kurds of the north was the development of Kurdish nationalist sentiments, feeling betrayed over not gaining a state of their own.
Minorities’ grievance-aspiration complex was also part of social class dynamics and met another set of aspirants — those of rural areas and small towns, feeling marginalized by the bourgeoisie-dominated government after independence. The 1963 military coup claiming secular nationalist socialist ideals practically brought to power a coalition of non-Muslim minorities that used the Arab Socialist Baath Party as a vehicle. And while the ideology of the party was mainly constructed by notable characters of those non-Muslim minorities, the file and rank came from wider backgrounds mainly characterized by nonurbanite culture. The army, whose core was previously formed by France, witnessed increased enlistment of minorities — especially from the Alawi/Nusairi sect, the largest minority forming around 10% of the Syrian population — seeing it as a viable economic venue and a path to power. It is worth noting that writings in English inaccurately describe the Alawi/Nusairi sect as a Shiite variation, a designation largely rejected by the Alawi/Nusairi community. Sunni and Shiite classical literature also does not consider them Muslims. One should not confuse the modern term “Alawi” in its Syrian context (which was propagated during the French colonial era) with its meaning in the Maghrib ascribed to the Sharifs of mainstream Muslims.
Culture as the enemy
Since ascendance to power, the Baath party worked hard to fight everything that the Syrian culture and life stood for. Armed with a Marxist attitude that normalizes proletariat atrocities against society, the party put in place a haphazard socialist system that destroyed the free-market bourgeoning economy of young Syria in a land that lived off entrepreneurialship and self-initiatives. The party also declared war against the population’s Muslim culture in an effort to erase the basis of “backwardness” represented by Islam. School curricula were rewritten and public culture was scrutinized not only to become disconnected from its Islamic past but also to become hostile to it too, preaching a new nationalist-leftist secular creed.
Furthermore, all kinds of freedoms were curbed and political activities banned, with the Islamic variant receiving the brunt of retaliation and imprisonment. The Baath regime systematically developed what was first introduced in the short Nasirist era: (1) redistribution of agricultural land and nationalization of industry; and (2) pressuring freedoms, using torture in prisons and reorienting the intelligence agency to spy on people. The first measure weakened the economy and did not benefit the workers and peasants in whose names “reforms” were done; instead it enriched Baath party members living on extortion and embezzlement. The second measure created a permanent rift between the government and people, who still remembered that they used to vote and shake hands with candidates. Indeed, after the Baath party captured power, the Syrian people, lifestyle and culture became the enemy.
In 1970, Hafez al-Assad captured power and cemented the grip of non-Muslim minorities over politics and society. This coup in effect turned the Baath party into window dressing and put critical government positions in the hands of Alawi/Nusairi members to whom the Assad family belongs. Soon, the sectarian regime pushed its partners from other minorities out of power. Under Bashar al-Assad, the system morphed into a family dictatorship riding the global neoliberal economic wave. This system cemented power internally through the nexus of the intelligence agency and elite military units (staffed mainly from the regime’s clan), and externally through submitting to Iran.
Not a civil war
“Down with the regime,” children of a southern city wrote on a street wall in mid-March 2011. The revolution was formally announced, people say. The impetus for the revolution was always there, waiting for the right moment that always comes as a surprise. The “deep revolution” was against all kinds of oppression summarized above. The revolution was an attempt at redemption — redeeming the colorful Syrian culture with its Islamic motif, redeeming a relaxed lifestyle, and redeeming an entrepreneurial economy that is part of the Syrian character. Syrian people summarize all of that in saying that the revolution is for freedom and dignity.
Indeed, against predictions that asserted that a revolution in Syria was impossible, the people of Syria did rise. The uprising in Tunisia caught the attention of young Syrians, and that of Egypt gave them hope. But it was the Libyan uprising against a dictatorship similar in qualities to that of Syria, although more flamboyant, that really cemented the Syrian revolutionary will.
Protest appeared in most cities and towns, and its overt manifestation was conditioned by the level of atrocities it faced. From the early days, protesters faced imprisonment, possible torture, disappearance or death. Foreign commentators were surprised how quickly the young learned the tactics of civil disobedience and peaceful protest. And they were creative, adding a Syrian flavor to their demonstrations.
Therefore, calling the conflict in Syria a civil war, as if there is no clear aggressor and victim, amounts to an act of violence. Indeed, such a label is a betrayal of those who were gassed, massacred in cold blood or died in their living rooms due to barrel bombs that are still falling on cities and towns.
The technical definition of a “civil war” is misleading because it practically distorts the picture of what is happening on the ground in Syria. Until now, well into the fifth year of the revolution, there are no cities, towns or villages fighting one another on the basis of their respective backgrounds, sectarian or otherwise. Simply put, the Syrian story is about a fascist regime utilizing various state institutions to kill its own people.
Human nature and self-defense
Yes, the peaceful revolution became an armed one. After nearly a year of facing unspeakable atrocities carried out by the Syrian regime, people’s patience gave way. Holding arms was rather spontaneous, and the regime’s use of rape as a weapon made using light arms to defend the family logical in the eyes of the people. Small, armed groups formed to defend public spaces where civil activities of protest were taking place.
Then two developments took place. One was the increasing number of military personnel who defected from the army and joined the revolution. These people had military skills and know-how in addition to logistical information about military units. This helped the rebels secure significant amounts of weapons and ammunition from military depots, sometimes with the help of insiders who did not defect but clandestinely supported the revolutionary cause.
The second development was the fact that regional powers upped their involvement in Syria. While Turkey restricted itself to opening its land for the Syrian political opposition, money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar became a necessity. During the first year of the revolution, Syrians financed their own revolution. Some observers noted that self-reliance was considered the revolution’s biggest sin in the eyes of the world’s dominant powers, as it prevents them from manipulating the revolutionary momentum. But the cost of supporting the needs of the revolution became overwhelming for Syrians abroad and those secretly engaged inside the country. With the escalation of regime’s atrocities, the number of civilians displaced and needing help increased sharply, along with the mounting cost of medical supplies for underground clinics. In addition, one would expect that some money would have gone to securing ammunition. But, by now, people’s savings were dwindling and many lost their businesses due to the regime burning shops and commercial storages.
On the other side, Iran significantly increased its involvement, even though Tehran denied any meddling. In the early stages, Iran’s support of the Assad regime was on strategy and in the form of technical expertise, crowd control and spying on social media communication, which young revolutionaries effectively used beyond the skill level of the Syrian intelligence.
Over time, however, the revolution developed into a plethora of armed resistance groups with haphazard funding and lack of coordination. Attempts to centralize leadership and funding through a supreme military council connected to civilian political opposition abroad failed for doubtful reasons.
It is all about geopolitics
Initially, international powers paid little attention to the Syrian revolution, betting that it would be crushed by the ruthless regime in Damascus. But by the end of 2012, the success of the revolutionary forces was astounding. A rare opportunity arose. The Levant had the chance to get rid of its last rogue state and the Syrian revolution needed formal international recognition. This was a time when Tunisia, Egypt and Libya got rid of their dictators. Such a situation should have been very opportune, especially for Europe, as it shares with those countries the waters of the Mediterranean.
But instead of lending support at a critical juncture, the U.S. and its European allies turned their backs and decided otherwise. A new concern floated in the international discourse: terrorism. This was prompted by developments in the environment. In response to the Syrian regime shelling historical mosques and bringing minarets down, soldiers desecrating the Quran and intelligence forces distributing video recordings of torturing activists and trying to force them to curse Allah and say “Assad is my god,” in response to such symbolic violence, sentiments became more open to sectarian messages. Media messages by preachers from Iran and the Gulf countries made the argument of a Shia-Sunni conflict more palatable. Small radical Islamist groups that did not share the opposition’s vision for a civil and democratic future gained more ground. According to some U.S. analysts, this fact should have necessitated immediate support for the revolution before things got out of control. The Syrian political opposition consistently warned that should support be withheld from the revolution, radical forces would descend onto the Levant. After all, Syria is at the heart of the Bilad al-Sham, which enjoys significant status in the Muslim religious imagination.
Why the United States and Europe did not exploit the excellent geopolitical chance of Syria returning to the fold is still under question. Some analysts attribute that to the early Obama administration’s obsessive aversion, prioritizing military disengagements as well as Obama’s wish to leave a legacy of achievements at the national front. Others blame Israel’s fear of becoming surrounded by democracies whose populations consider it a historical enemy. Yet, others attribute the lack of support to standard American foreign behavior, where priorities of different agencies and departments lead to failure in developing a coherent viable plan. We learned later that the American administration had been working out a new formula for the balance of power in the Middle East.
The Bush administration spoke of affecting a “new world order,” the Obama administration attempted to achieve similar objectives with a slightly nuanced approach of “leading from behind.” The plan appears now to have been as follows: (1) let the Syrian conflict simmer and use it as a bargaining chip in international affairs; (2) bleed Iran, which is hugely invested in the conflict, and negotiate a nuclear deal; (3) prevent rising Turkey from becoming a regional power with minimum external dependency; (4) pressure Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are involved in the conflict and increasingly charting independent policies; and (5) turn Syria into a trap for Islamist militant forces to finish each other off (Iranian-backed militias — the Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shiite Iraqi groups — were allowed to enter Syria to defend the regime, giving the impetus for ISIS to grow). None of these five objectives were reached. May we say that God does not bless immoral plans, and that in such a case, His wrath, channeled through objective conditions, inflicts all parties.
Survival and democracy from below
This conflict has displaced half the population, with most losing their homes, wealth, jobs and community. Mere survival has become the order of the day, with areas not under the regime’s control subject to indiscriminate shelling by regime forces. In areas under regime control, survival takes the form of hypocrisy and avoiding checkpoints, extortion and bribes, and praying not to be randomly picked up and thrown into prison for unknown periods of time, a journey that might end with starvation and death. Western media reports claiming that Damascus and other major cities are loyal to the regime fail to understand the attitude of these populations and the thick psychological layers of human reaction in perilous situations.
As for liberated areas, people enjoy a sense of freedom despite harsh living conditions and lack of services. The challenge for these people is to avoid getting hit by a barrel bomb or missile that the regime continues to fire with impunity and an international community that has turned a blind eye.
Meanwhile, a prototype of democratic administration has formed in some regions. For example, the liberated areas of Aleppo were divided into districts, each of which elected its local administration council. Those local councils formed the council for the city as a whole. The same story exists in the southern city of Daraa and around 500 other localities. The LACs, with significant variations depending on local conditions, try to manage services, distribute aid and interface with Sharia courts as well as armed groups.
Obviously, the setting is not perfect, but the phenomenon is encouraging as people argue on how to run mundane affairs. All this functions alongside an informal economy, bribes to Assad forces that have formed a siege around towns, a dire need for basic necessities, a lack of food, fuel and medical supplies, and amazing stories of ingenuity and survival.
De Facto Regionalization
Syria has disintegrated into pockets controlled by armed factions and influenced by international actors. The northwest hosts contiguous liberated areas and is considered Turkey’s sphere of influence. The northeast is controlled by the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Kurdish militia that mirrors the Turkish PKK (deemed a terrorist organization). The PYD and its armed wings coordinate with Damascus (the sponsor of terrorism), and lately with the U.S., assumingly to help in the fight against terrorism. To the east, a large swath of land of mostly uninhabited desert is under ISIS control, where Syrian borders have melted and connected this area with western Iraq. The south is under the control of Free Syrian Army units and other groups and is considered a Saudi Arabian sphere of influence channeled through Jordanian authorities.
The calm coastal area that hosts large numbers of Alawi/Nusairi clan members is in a state of critical balance — loyalty to the regime and its major recruitment base on one hand, and losing the trust that the regime can prevail in the conflict. The other half of the population there that are pro-revolution have to commit to silence. Lastly, the Damascus-Homs important corridor is also an area under the control of the regime and Iranian militias. Through massacres and targeted shelling, Homs witnessed significant Muslim depopulation. Damascus, the capital, is naturally the place of residence of many state functionaries who came from all parts of Syria. Those in top positions expediently support the regime, beside large segments of Alawi/Nusairi communities formed of military generals and intelligent officers who enriched themselves, along with poor foot soldiers and low-ranking members living in slums close to the presidential palace. However, the general population of Damascus is not loyal to the regime; people live under very tight control and are too aware of the cost of being suspected as revolution sympathizer.
Nobody controls all of Syria today, and nobody is capable of that in the near future. As long as the regime controls Damascus, which lives under a veneer of normality, it can claim legitimacy. However, such legitimacy is holding only because of the reluctance of international diplomacy to puncture it. And practically, the regime controls no more than a 20-kilometer radius of Damascus, which is surrounded by rebel groups. Furthermore, the regime has long privatized military and intelligence units, assigning them to areas for control and plunder. The regime used to be responsible for tactical decisions while Iran makes larger strategic decisions; now, Iran is the master at both levels of decision-making. That is why many Syrians feel they are occupied by the forces of a foreign power.
Saying there is de facto regionalization does not mean that Syrians have given up on their country, at least among its 70% Arab Sunni majority. This attitude connects to the general Arab attitude that fragmentation is the big enemy and the tool of colonial powers. Even federalism and decentralization is a suspect.
Diplomats often parade their assertion that there exists no military solution to the conflict of Syria, and that only a political one exists. Keen observers know that any political solution is only achieved through more military pressure against the externally dependent regime of Damascus. The problem is that world powers are still interested in using Syria as leverage in international competition and regional realignment. Meanwhile, the dynamics in Ukraine and the Russian periphery also affects international behavior toward Syria. Furthermore, the U.S. now seeks to return Iran to the American fold. The issue is no longer about containing Iran and settling its nuclear issue; rather, it is about the new balance of power in the region. Perhaps, it is worth noting that many people in the area are increasingly convinced that the “free world” is not really interested in a democratic Middle East.
At the micro level, donor agencies did not miss the opportunity to politicize the LACs in Syria. Instead of funding them through the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which is the only body recognized as the representative of the Syrian people, funding often came directly to LACs or through an independent body called the Assistance Coordination Unit. In this way, the international community, under the guise of neutrality, is actively hindering the dynamics that lead to the consolidation of power in the hands of a political civilian body.
The Syrian revolution in the center of the Levant upset the regional balance and triggered external dynamics, which prevent the conflict from coming to an end. The situation can be described as a “dual-bind”: the forces of the revolution cannot overcome external meddling nor can external powers bypass the deep-seated thrust of the revolution. Another torque in the theater is the existence of ISIS on one side and the Iranian-sponsored militia on the other —whether the Lebanese Hezbollah, its Iraqi counterpart, or South Asian Shiite mercenaries. The rise of ISIS is commonly attributed to Russian atrocities in Chechnya, failed U.S. policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with Iraqi government sectarian behavior, all of which compounded with the Wahhabi ideology that was promoted to block mainstream Islamist movements from gaining social and political power. ISIS will eventually wither away once state players finish manipulating it, shrinking to a pure criminal group. Pursuing the right policies would also bankrupt another extremist Islamist group, the al-Nusra Front. Extremism has no hospitable environment in Syria, and the strongest antidote is recovering Syria’s colorful civilian life.
The revolution in Syria, at the heart of Bilad al-Sham, is unique in that it has to resolve contradictions in the whole Levant. Among these contradictions is the Israeli obsession with safety, the larger Kurdish issue, the growing pains of the Arabian Gulf culture reconciling itself with modernity, the foolish actions of the Egyptian military junta torpedoing stability in the larger region, and Iranian imperial ambitions.
The lack of political will among major world powers and their quest to clone a Middle East not in sync with its historical mode obviates reaching a prompt end to the conflict in Syria. And when a new balance of power is sought on the skulls of children, this does not bode well for all of humanity. Eventually, the people of Syria will prevail, asserting their cultural uniqueness and rebuilding their lives in a decentralized political setting.