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.


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

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

    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.

  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.

  3. Michael, My own take on the opposition failure is that the principal reason for its failure was the lack of unity. Certainly, the rapid radicalization of the Islamist currents alienated Western support, but the lack of unity was crippling. There were over 1,500 militias by 2012, according to the CIA. With such fragmentation, no accountable leadership existed. External powers could depend on no one. The emergence of Nusra and ISIS spooked them.

    No one knew who or what the opposition was or stood for other than the destruction of the Assad regime, as you argue. Had the opposition been able to coalesce around a knowable leadership, the West & Gulf states would very likely have pushed it to victory. Most of the world was opposed to Assad and his regime. Obama, Biden and others were quick to conclude that the Syrian opposition could not be trusted with anti-air missiles. This lack of trust doomed the Syrian opposition. But not only foreign supporters were skeptical, many Syrians, who deeply disliked the Assad regime, turned away from the opposition. Many feared something worse. Others simply feared the crumbling of central authority.

  4. Perhaps that's consistent with my view. Disunity was inevitable given that, unlike many historical revolts (e.g. French Revolution), the unrest emerged from multiple geographic, ethnic and political locations. It could not succeed without the Islamists, in some areas the major force. But unification from these disparate origins would happen only if some group or authority provided enough resources to make unity attractive: rebels consistently gravitated to those who could provide that. (Note, e.g., the many who joined Nusra simply because of their salaries and arms.)
    Only Turkey could really provide that, because the Gulf States couldn't supply what was essential: direct air support. (MANPADS would never have done the trick.) When Turkey was sidelined, failure became unavoidable. Yet Turkey, unlike the West, would also have been sufficiently inclusive of Islamists for real unity to be a live option.

  5. Why don't you comment about Palestine any more? I really liked your writings on Palestine. I even bought a copy of "The Case Against Israel". I'm not sure what the consequences of this sudden surge in Palestine solidarity will be in the long term and wonder what your thoughts are on the issue.

  6. Thanks for your question. For brevity's sake, I'll make claims argued elsewhere, but not here.

    I've always wanted to write only when I had some tiny hope of having some tiny effect. Maybe around 2006, I came to think only outside intervention could save the Palestinians, and don't see that materializing.

    In 2011, I wrote about Egypt, then Syria, because the situations there seemed more fluid. Real change there would help the Palestinians. And it seemed worth insisting that if people thought there was a solution to the region's problems that excluded Islamists, they lived in dreamland.

    Today, I'd once again see relevance in the posts on humanitarianism optimism and international law. Some themes of the past I couldn't update now, because the laws governing speech have become more restrictive.

    I did write this soon after October 7th:

    Since then, I've been impressed by the demonstrations, some international efforts, and especially the esims for Gaza project ( I maybe should have been less firmly pessimistic. But for years now, I've been convinced that only Turkey holds substantial hope for the region, including Palestine. The pro-Palestinian surge looks great, but I still don't see governments bending. And others are saying anything else I might want to say.

    There's one old post that I've put on twitter recently, because it addresses an argument that's resurfacing.

    Above all, we're now seeing a catastrophe and a great evil. I see no effective response to this in the short term. We can only look for opportunities, not to scold or vent emotions, but to seize any emerging political opportunity. That said, I can't blame people thinking that somehow, their voice matters.