Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Was armed resistance a good idea?

What initially started in Syria as a simple and strong popular call for democracy has degenerated tragically into a chaotic conflict that is inches short of civil war, writes Hamza Al-Mustafa

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Syrian revolution began as a subsidiary of the larger phenomenon called the Arab Spring. Like the Tunisians and the Egyptians, the Syrians dreamt of freedom and dignity and wished to replace despotic rule with a democratic alternative.
This is how things began, but it’s not how they continued. Syria is more ethnically and religiously diverse than both Egypt and Tunisia. This diversity proved to be a weakness once the conflict turned bloody. It twisted the political scene, led to the isolation of some parts of society, allowed the regime to drive a wedge between various communities and generally opened the door for sectarian turmoil.
Also, the revolution changed course as time went by. What began as a peaceful movement ended up in being a bloody and confusing scene of confrontation, turmoil and intrigue.
At first, protesters marched peacefully to press for democracy. The regime fired back with accusations of conspiracy and sectarian sedition, and then with guns. The regime also played the ethnic card, claiming that if the central authority relaxed its hold on the country, chaos would ensue. As it turned out, this was a self-fulfilling threat.
In the early months of the revolution, the protesters stuck to their peaceful agenda. But the regime kept sowing doubt into the hearts of religious minorities, telling them that the opposition is all about Sunnis and jihadists out to get them.
The first Sunni-Alawite clash took place in September 2011, when the regime hired irregular combatants, known locally as shabbiha, to fire at protesters. This created the impression that the conflict in Syria is not just against despotism but also against the monopoly of power by a sectarian minority.
From then on, it has been a slippery slope. Instead of debunking the sectarian interpretation of the conflict, the revolutionaries took the bait. They abandoned the ecumenical call for democracy, which they managed to maintain during the first months of the revolution, and began embracing some of the regime’s ethnic claims.
Why did the revolutionaries walk into that trap? The answer lies in the recent history of Syria and the composition of its security services.
Since the 1982 massacre in Hama, when the regime killed thousands of the city’s inhabitants to punish the Muslim Brotherhood, the regime has been hiring more than a fair share of Alawite servicemen in the army. At present, the Alawites constitute nearly 60 per cent of army officers. So, every time the army is sent to quell protests, the Alawites take the blame.
Pro-regime young Alawites have also been blamed for the sectarian massacres reported in Homs and the western suburbs of Hama. News of such massacres deepened the factional mistrust in the country.
The well-off classes of Damascus and Aleppo, who initially sided with the regime, turned against it after the Houla massacre of 29 May 2012. Without their support, the regime lost its claim to be acting on behalf of all Syrians.
Gulf-based television made things worse. Salafi channels, including Safa and Wesal, have been portraying the conflict as one between the Sunnis and the pro-regime Noseiri sect. Television preachers such as Sheikh Adnan Al-Arur kept driving home the message that the Syrian conflict is basically a sectarian struggle.
All of the above wouldn’t have mattered had the Syrian opposition kept its call for freedom and democracy intact. Instead, the Syrian opposition lost its focus and played into the hands of those who have a vested interest in sectarianism.
To the credit of most Syrians, the nation as a whole has shown enough prudence to avoid a civil war. The fighting has so far been between the government and its opponents of various persuasions. And despite the scattered moments of sectarian zeal, the main message of the revolution remains nationalist and inclusive.
Sadly, the once peaceful uprising has mutated into a bloody and chaotic conflict. When you think of the opposition today you don’t think of peaceful protesters marching with banners, although there is no shortage of those, but of gun-toting men in paramilitary garb.
The main reason the revolution turned into armed resistance was that army turned its guns on the protesters. By August 2011, the army managed to pacify the major squares inside the cities and was chasing revolutionaries in rural areas.
Revolutionaries responded, initially by taking up arms in a limited way and for defensive purposes, and later on by turning themselves into a fighting force.
The point of no return came in June 2011 with the Jisr Al-Shoghour confrontation. It was then that the revolutionaries took up arms with a retaliatory intent for the first time. Their attack on the security forces in Jisr Al-Shoghour was meant to avenge the killing of 38 civilians during the funeral of Basel Al-Masri.
Since then, the trend to bear arms became irreversible. Soon army personnel began to defect and joined the resistance, thus amplifying the trend.
At first, the regime tolerated the emergence of armed resistance, hoping that it would validate its claim that the revolution was the work of squads of militants. Then things got serious.
The birth of the Free Syrian Army, in July 2011, was another turning point. It wasn’t long before the resistance managed to liberate entire areas, such as Al-Zabdani, Douma and Baba Amr. As the weeks and months went by, armed conflict became the norm and civilians across the country were caught in the crossfire.
The militarisation of the revolution was an unfortunate development in more than one way. Take, for example, the cases of political abduction and how it degenerated into kidnappings for ransom. Other forms of violence, formerly alien to the country, began to crop up.
The armed factions of the resistance remain divided to this day. Instead of uniting to topple the government, they often fight among themselves. And their very presence constitutes an open invitation for jihadist groups who were eager to join the ranks of the revolution although they have no interest in its ideals of democracy and modernity.
The growing role of jihadist groups has alarmed many Syrians, who cringe at the sight of the black flags of Al-Qaeda, the occasional imposition of Islamic laws, and the news that jihadists were trying to form an Islamic state in the north.
The bearing of arms may have been a necessity, but now it is hard to keep track of the anti-regime militia in operation. It is hard to identify the combatants, their sources of income, and their ideology.
The situation is heading towards the scenes of chaos that followed the Libyan revolution, when the transitional government had trouble controlling tribal militiamen or forcing them to put down their arms.
It is possible to argue that the revolution happened too suddenly for the country’s political opposition. In general, the Syrian opposition failed to unite or to offer a cohesive framework for action.
The formation of the Syrian National Council on 2 October 2011 was the first attempt to unify the opposition, for it brought the Muslims Brotherhood together with national action groups, independent opposition figures, and the local coordination committees.
The opposition is often at cross-purposes. Part of the opposition, including the National Coordination Committee and some leftists feel a need to hold dialogue with the regime, something with which many ordinary Syrians disagree. Another part of the resistance, including the Syrian National Council, seems to wish for foreign intervention, a prospect about which the international community is less than enthusiastic.
The mixed reaction of foreign powers to the revolution adds to the political uncertainty.
Iran remains loyal to the Syrian regime, although it had supported every single Arab revolution before that. Turkey tried to talk sense into the regime, then gave up and took the side of the opposition. Russia and China opposed any international action against Syria, with a consistency resonant with Cold War politics.
The conflicting reactions of the above powers have all added complexity to the course of the revolution. What was once a popular revolt against despotism is beginning to play into the hands of powerful outsiders.
In conclusion, the ethnic makeup of Syria, the weakness of the political opposition, the fragmentation of armed resistance, and the diverse intentions of outside players do not bode well for the Syrians.
Had Syria been endowed with a powerful opposition from the beginning, a lot of chaos and uncertainty could have been avoided. But as things stand, external pressures and internal chaos pose serious hurdles for any future regime.

The writer is a researcher at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Doha.

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