Monday, February 24, 2020

False Autopsies in Syria


Liberal Syrians and others increasingly favour a certain analysis of why the Syrian revolution failed.   The analysis masks the mistakes that really did contribute to that failure.  This invites future disasters.  I apologize for bringing this up; it is not my place to do so.  But trying to prevent the next failure seems reason to speak out of turn.

The 'official' liberal version, palatable to Western commentators, runs like this.  The Syrian people came out demonstrating for freedom and democracy.  Their authentic revolution was hijacked by Islamists.  These Islamists, along with Assad, ISIS, and, often, Erdogan, destroyed Syria's dream.

The extent to which this analysis departs from reality is immediately apparent in its haste to put the Islamists (never mind Erdogan) in the same category as Assad, referring to " stupid Assadists, Islamists, Erdoganists".  This stoops low indeed.  Assad killed at least 200,000 civilians.  Even ISIS, which never claimed nor was considered part of the revolution, killed about 2% of that.  In the tally offered here, "the rebels", i.e. the nice ones who aren't too Islamist, killed a bit over 4000.  The Bad Islamists, represented by Jabat al Nusra, later HTS, killed 452.  "The Coalition", incidentally, killed around 3,000.  That "the Islamists" are lumped together with the likes of ISIS and, incredibly, Assad, is good reason to question the whole liberal Syrian narrative.

That narrative is mendacious from beginning to end.  No one really knows exactly why "the Syrian people" revolted - that is to say, what proportion of those out in the streets were there for which reasons.  The horror of Assad's response left no room for thorough surveys.  But most accounts allow that, at the start, people massed around the slogan "The people want the fall of the regime."  That certainly doesn't imply democracy.  It doesn't imply freedom in the democratic liberal sense - only freedom from spectacularly monstrous repression.  And it must be said that 'the Syrian people' included and still includes some substantial proportion of régime supporters. They obviously didn't want anything remotely liberal, unless by that is meant a triumphantly secular lifestyle that aspired to Western cultural norms.  The Syrian liberals are well aware of all this.

What we do know is that resistance to the Assads, in the decades preceding the revolution, was spearheaded by Islamists - the Muslim Brotherhood.  This did not stop Syrian liberal eminences like Hassan Hassan from telling us, in Western media, that the Muslim Brotherhood had 'hijacked' the revolution as early as 2013.   His evidence?  That the Brotherhood has aspired to dominate various revolutionary committees like the Syrian National Coalition at various meetings in various hotels.  Apparently these almost forgotten administrative constructs are supposed to be a valid stand-in for 'the Syrian people' who, it seems, made the revolution.  How quickly 'the people' cede the stage, in liberal eyes, to the notable individuals who purport to represent them.

The portrayal of Islamists as hijackers or even as enemies of the Syrian revolution mirrors what has undermined resistance to Assad almost all along.  It is not that secular or non-Islamist fighting groups refused to join with Islamists.   It is that the secular, bourgeois commentariat constantly incited secularists to do just that. They cheered every attempt - for example in Kafranbel and Maraat al Numan - to resist and undermine Islamist movements.  It's as if the necessity of unity in the face of a formidable enemy never crossed their minds.  Either that, or they thought their anti-Islamist takes would win them enough favour with the Americans to become dominant in the Syrian revolution.  This was a pipe dream.  The Syrian revolution was never going to be utterly sanitized to American standards.  It was always going to have enough association with Islamists (if only in the past) that the US was never going to trust even non-Islamist Syrians with serious military resources.

We'll never know how much difference, if any, that made.  But what seems clear is that the anti-Islamist commentary is the tip of a strategic iceberg that bedeviled the revolutions in both Egypt and Syria.   It is the reluctance to make hard choices, or even to acknowledge that there were hard choices to be made.

Secularist and liberal Muslim opposition to Islamists is only to be expected.  In Syria there were and are Islamist groups far more radical than, say, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.  The radical Islamist opposition in Syria - I don't mean the crazy Islamists, like ISIS - certainly ventured into policies the secularists found abhorrent.  Radical Islamist punishments for smoking, going about unveiled, just being homosexual, were harsh, sometimes appalling.  Radical Islamist governance often involved active suppression of free speech and local democratic institutions.  This governance included educational projects that were in some cases obscurantist. 

Furthermore, given the understated prominence of Islamists in the Syrian revolution, there was reason to believe that Syria, after Assad, might come under Islamist rule.  This could happen democratically, or undemocratically.  And given such rule, there was reason to believe that, quite possibly, religious minorities would be persecuted.  There might even be massacres, especially of Christians perceived as Assad loyalists.

Given all this, did the secular and liberal Muslim opposition really even have a hard choice?  It would be polite to say this, but untrue.  There was no choice.  To avoid unending mass torture and slaughter, the liberals would have to accept Islamists as allies, perhaps as leaders.  Given the absolute necessity of stopping Assad, no other course of action was even worth considering.

In the first place, Assad's determination and brutality, unprecedented in a region which has seen much brutality, was underwritten by a sizable professional army, an air force against which the rebels had no defence, and virtually unlimited supplies of manpower from Iran's proxies, as well as virtually unlimited resupply of equipment from Russia.  The very thought that the rebels could overcome this without full cooperation with Islamists, was absurd.  And a failed revolt meant more than defeat; it meant unlimited and unending slaughter, for decades.  So even if it meant submission to Islamists, there was no viable alternative.

In the second place, the anti-Islamists mislead when they put radical Islamists in the same category as extremists like ISIS, much less extreme monsters like Assad.  Many Islamists might be called extreme in their social or cultural doctrines, but that doesn't translate into extreme savagery.  While Islamists factions certainly have committed atrocities in the civil war, so have all the other participants, including 'The Coalition'.  It's the scale that counts, and by that criterion even the most 'extreme' Islamists are very moderate, despite what some consider their immoderate domestic agenda.

In the third place, the mere possibility of future atrocities carries no weight against the ongoing absolute certainty of present atrocities.  What the Islamists might do in power, what might be done to prevent atrocities, and by whom, are all purely speculative.  Taking the dangers seriously doesn't justify preferring possibility to reality.  There was no stopping the deaths of hundreds of thousands without full-fledged support for the Islamists - though even that might not have been enough.

This might be considered crying over spilt milk.  But what of the future?  Non-Islamists cling to fantasies about 'their' revolution.  It wasn't hijacked by Islamists.  There will never be a successful revolution in the Middle East without Islamists, because the oppressors are overwhelmingly anti-Islamist and because the small minority of nice anti-Islamists cannot muster enough strength to overcome cruel, well-equipped militaries.  In short, until nice people abandon their dreams and accept an Islamist future, there is no hope.

3 comments:

  1. Don't you need to define 'Islamist' first?

    It can be an inclusive definition which isn't just designed to demonise and dehumanise.

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    1. If you're referring to the last sentence: in my opinion, liberals have no choice but to accept even an Islamist future that many Islamists would deplore. Sure, there are many forms of political Islam that liberals might find congenial. But to hold out for that sort of Islamist rule spells disaster. Worth noting that all the most extensive massacres in recent MENA history - Lebanon 1975, Algeria in the 1990s, Syria today - have been at the hands of secularists. The problem isn't to give some form of political Islam a good name, but to convince liberals that their image of political Islam really doesn't matter. What matters is to remove secularist tyrants. Only after that is some form of opposition to Islamist rule, of any sort, an option.

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  2. Michael - I think this is a useful attempt to move away from unthoughtful demonisation of "Islamist" political currents and unhelpful Islamist/secular binaries. It is certainly the case that the relationship between Islamist forces and Liberal secularists has dogged the political history of Arab states - the recent history of Egypt being the most dramatic (and depressing) example, where the "liberals bear much of the responsibility for the return to military rule.
    But Kester is right - there is a lack of clarity in your own conceptual terms which obscure the issues.
    I think its generally established that the Sunni majority in Syria is on the whole devout and relatively conservative in their views - they very likely would want to see Islam playing some sort of role in a future political order - but of course course it already nominally does so in Syria. But that doesn't make them "Islamist. Its also not helpful to equate "islamist" with the Muslim Brotherhood. In my view Hassan Hassan's critique of the Syrian Ikhwan is valid - not because they are "Islamist" but because they are powerseeking factionalists who did much to disrupt the formation of the Syrian political opposition and discredited it among revolutionary activists.
    I also think we have to draw a clear line between Islam-inspired currents that are anti-democratic and sectarian in their outlook (which unfortunately includes the main armed groups in Syria today) and those which have (or could be persuaded to accept) an inclusive and democratc framework for Syria's future. its not just that replacing secular tyrants with theocratic ones is likely to be a hollow victory, but that no one will be able to forge the sort of social and political alliances necessary to undermine a regime like Assad's without a clear democratic vision.

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