Archive

Syria

 

blackstones2

Homs is famous for its iconic black stones. This is not a recent phenomenon: I remember reading a 17th century travelogue by Damascene traveler Fadl Allah al-Muhibi al-Dimashqi where he specifically mentioned how all the buildings were made of a particular type of black stone that he had never seen before. Along with Homs’s clock tower and the residents’ penchant for humor, the black stones of Homs became one of the symbols of the city.

The Homsi poet Nasib Arida wrote a tribute to his hometown titled “O Homs, O Mother of Black Stones.” Born in 1887, Arida emigrated to Brooklyn, New York in 1905 and was one of the founders of the Arab-American literary society The New York Pen League, of which Gibran Khalil Gibran would later become a member. It was during his time in New York that he wrote “O Homs, O Mother of Black Stones.” The poem is memorialized in the song below.

In 2015, to be Syrian is to be living in an absurdity. The world has not abandoned Syrians, as is often said. It has ganged up on them.

Borders that were thought to be done away with were rebuilt. The nation-state, supposedly in its dying days, has reemerged with revanchist ambitions. Old political alliances between states—remnants of the Cold War—that were thought to be dwindling have been solidified to an unprecedented historical extent, with catastrophic results. The forces of extreme Salafist reaction, weakened and without much popular appeal a mere five years ago, have set up shop in Syrian towns and cities, manifesting itself in its most brutal form to date as the Islamic State. The red line of chemical weapons —which killed hundreds in a suburb of Damascus in 2013 —has been been replaced with a green light for barrels filled with explosives, dropped from helicopters on civilian neighborhoods.

Being Syrian means being sentenced to death for being a free software developer. Being Syrian means being compared to “rabid dogs” by a US presidential candidate. It means being blamed for the attacks in Paris and having to deal with the subsequent backlash despite the fact that not a Syrian nor a refugee was involved in any of the attacks. Being Syrian means that you may be one of the thousands who have been killed by an “industrial scale” torture machine run by your government. In 2015, being Syrian means analogies can be drawn between your situation and the situation of Jewish refugees in 1938 or Japanese-Americans who were interned during WWII. Being Syrian means having to confront dictatorship, imperialism, racism, the nation-state system, and Islamist reactionaries.

Of course, we don’t all experience this. Apart from the vitriolic rhetoric against Syrians in the west, I am at a distance from all this, at least physically. I am not a refugee nor am I anywhere near the conflict. Usually, there is a benefit to being at a distance. In a letter from 1931, Walter Benjamin wrote that he was, “[l]ike one who keeps afloat on a shipwreck by climbing to the top of a mast that is already crumbling. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.” That’s how I once imagined my situation. The distance gave me the ability to find ways out that others couldn’t see, I thought. But now I see no opportunities to give any signals that lead to rescue. This quote used to bring me solace in the darkest of times. Now I can’t help but read it and remember the manner in which Benjamin himself died, and how no one came to his rescue.

The world in its entirety has declared war on Syrians—and it is conjuring up every weapon it has at its disposal to use against them.

Many media outlets would have you believe that the Assad regime’s fall is imminent. This is due to the latest opposition offensive in Idlib province whereby a coalition of rebel groups have captured Idlib city and then proceeded to capture the symbolic and strategic town of Jisr ash-Shughur. New life has apparently been breathed into the anti-ISIS, anti-Assad opposition due to increased coordination between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar.

The fall of the Syrian regime is not imminent. Assad’s forces are stretched thin and he is probably weaker than ever before in relative terms. Yet, his “core” provinces of (central) Damascus, Homs, and Latakia are, at this point, not under threat. Assad keeps a presence of troops in regions he considers peripheral in the hopes that he will one day rule all of Syria again. In al-Hasakeh province, for example, largely controlled by the Kurdish PYD party at this point, his troops retain a small presence in the main urban centers of Qamishli and al-Hasakeh city. Idlib can be viewed in a similar vein. Many of its residents are fervent opponents of the Assad regime and enthusiastically joined the uprising. Its locals put up fierce fights in villages and towns across the province in order to expel Assad forces and were largely victorious. It is for this reason that Assad’s forces mainly holed up inside Idlib city.

Idlib province is important in that it is adjacent to strategically important areas (such as Latakia and Hamah). Indeed, the capture of Jisr ash-Shughur brings the opposition much closer to Latakia. But Idlib province is not itself of intrinsic strategic value to the regime. I do not believe that Syria is imminently or even inevitably headed for partition. But, if it were, hypothetically, Idlib would not be one of the provinces that the regime would fight for. An Assad statelet would be comprised of Damascus, Homs, Tartus, Latakia, and probably Hamah. If any of these places were under threat, that would be cause for the regime to sound the alarm. The capture of Idlib city and Jisr ash-Shughur can possibly be read as a step towards that, yet, we need not overstate it as a leap. It is a small step. Defeating the regime in one of the areas it considers peripheral is very different than defeating it in one of its core provinces.

However, whereas the capture of Idlib can be read as largely symbolic, this symbolism should not be written off. While it may not be the greatest threat to the regime, opposition control of Idlib—particularly the city—can have great strategic value if the opposition makes use of the opportunity to show that they can effectively and inclusively govern. Thus far, the opposition has largely failed at attempts at self-governance. This failure is in no small part due to the difficulty of political organizing under aerial bombardment. But political vacuums left by the regime have been filled either by the chaos of rule by competing militias, or the austere tyranny  of ISIL. Thus, both tropes used by the regime to refer to the opposition—“armed gangs” and “Takfiri militants”—have largely become self-fulfilling prophecies. We should not underestimate the rhetorical and symbolic value this has for the regime and its effect on everyday Syrians’ views towards the rebellion.

Jabhat al-Nusra participated in the latest military operation in Idlib. The Islamist battalions were generally dominant in the battle. This obviously should be cause for concern. But more than this, militia rule in Idlib, no matter the political bent, would be a failure. Even the most secular of brigades can be chauvinistic and corrupt political rulers. The fear regarding political governance of opposition areas is not only the prospect of Islamicization, but also the prospect of rule-by-militias generally.

Perhaps the residents of Idlib will succeed in preventing this. The fact that many of the participants in the Idlibi battles are natives to Idlib, particularly members of Ahrar al-Sham and other smaller, local Idlibi groups, is a sign that Idlib may not inevitably be headed towards governance by militias. A spokesman for Ahrar told The Wall Street Journal that while cooperation with Nusra would continue, matters of governance “would be turned over to the city’s residents eventually.” While this does not sound very promising, this is an indication that there may be some pressure—from below as well as from outside—to hand over political control to civilian residents.

The prospects seem bleak given the nature of the groups involved and the persistence of aerial bombardment from Assad’s air force, but a civilian and locally governed Idlib would indeed be a strategic blow to the regime in terms of what the alternatives to its rule are. While it may be naive to think that civilian residents can wrestle political power away from battle-hardened militias, the embeddedness of some of the militants in local society suggests that it may not be as unlikely as it has been in other areas, as fighters may be more responsive to local concerns and demands.

In theory, I am with the Rojava autonomy project, although I think the evidence is not there yet over what that project looks like in practice. I get the sense that there is some tension between the old guard, still clinging to the authoritarian tendencies of the old PKK, and the newer generation, trying to implement a radically democratic politics. But in any case, Rojava and the Kurdish militias deserve all the solidarity they can get against the gangs of Baghdadi, and in the implementation of their political project, which is certainly more progressive than anything else we’ve seen in the region lately.

But when I think about this, I also think about all the others who have been fighting ISIS who weren’t able to implement any political vision. They didn’t have the same space to operate: the Syrian Army largely withdrew from Rojava in 2012 (in a “we’ll deal with you later” move). This gave the PYD the opportunity to fill a political vacuum. So now, when they repel ISIS, they do so with a coherent political vision. But there are hundreds of other Syrians who have died fighting ISIS who didn’t have an implemented political project. They didn’t have one because they didn’t have that space Rojava had, they had to deal with barrel bombs from the sky and ISIS on the ground. It’s not because they are apolitical: it is power that didn’t let them build a new politics, and we should not penalize them for that. They are just as deserving of solidarity, even if they don’t have a radical political project.

A Geneva 2 that will benefit Syrians will be a Geneva 2 that puts in place ceasefires, opens humanitarian corridors, and lifts sieges off of besieged areas such as Homs and Yarmouk camp. It is time to let Syrians breathe again. Those issues—and not the imposition of a political solution—should be the first priority.

A political solution should not be decided at such a venue. The regime is obviously only interested in preserving its power and prolonging the rule of Bashar al-Assad. The National Coalition has no legitimacy on the ground. State-backers of each side only differ on whether they want Assadism with Assad or Assadism without Assad. A real political solution should reflect the interests of Syrians on the ground, and any agreement reached at Geneva 2 on a transitional government will certainly not reflect them.

But even in practice, the formation of a transitional government would be totally unsuccessful without first creating conditions on the ground amenable to the return of politics. What is needed then is good-faith measures that allow Syrians to decide their future for themselves. As it stands now, most Syrians in conflict areas are focused on survival. Before forming a transitional government, the focus should be placed on allowing those Syrians to return to a normal life. And Geneva 2 does have the power to do this. The question is, do the parties and their backers have the will to do so? Russia can—if it wants to—restrain the regime by threatening to cut off aid and support should it not abide by ceasefires. The various state backers of the opposition can also do this. Even militias not taking part in the negotiations would be scorned by local residents for not abiding by ceasefires and jeopardizing a return to normalcy.

Many have said that Geneva 2 is an attempt to derail the Syrian revolution and, thus, have written it off completely. I agree that an arbitrary political solution from above would be a move against Syrian self-determination, and thus, not achieve the original goals of the Syrian revolution. But that is no excuse to write it off completely when it could possibly lead to measures that will make residents’ lives better, at least in the short run. Let politics be decided in the streets of Damascus, the quarters of Homs, and the shores of Lattakia, but first, let politics return to Syria. The vast majority of Syrians want freedom, dignity, and social justice. They will not attain those things in the midst of a brutal civil war that has empowered the enemies of those things. Thus, enough dealing absolutes and refusing to compromise. If anything, it is our responsibility as Syrians outside of Syria to insist upon and support any initiative that will make the lives of Syrians inside Syria better. We can reject the imposition of a political solution while still calling for the implementation of measures that reduce suffering inside Syria and require negotiation between the regime and the opposition. We can insist on attaining justice for past crimes, but first, we need to stop future ones from being committed.

Journalist Asa Winstanley has written an article titled “Syria: the revolution that never was,” for Middle East Monitor. The following is a critique to a few of the claims Winstanley makes in the article. I decided to respond to this article in particular because I believe it contains many erroneous assertions that are frequently used to disparage the Syrian uprising, and thus this is a response and critique of those assertions and the substance of the article in general.

“To say Syria is now a disaster is a massive understatement. This is a sectarian civil war which could continue for a decade if the regime’s enemies, led by the brutal Saudi tyranny, continue to wage their proxy war on the country.

What is being implied in this statement is that if the people engaging in armed struggle against the regime were to put down their weapons, the “sectarian civil war” would cease. I’m not sure how Winstanley concludes this, but it seems to be based on an optimistic view of the regime and to place the responsibility of the war almost totally on the “regime’s enemies.” I firmly believe that intervention by reactionary forces on the side of the opposition (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) has done great harm to Syria and the Syrian uprising in general, but nevertheless, to state that the onus is entirely on them to end this war is to imply that the regime is somewhat innocent, which I believe is ludicrous.

“But what a difference in Syria. Yes, the regime is dictatorial and ruthless. But from the beginning of the uprising, which initially only demanded “reform,” Syria was split. Along with large anti-Assad demonstrations, there were equally huge pro-Assad demonstrations. When demonstrations supporting a brutal tyrant are attended on such a massive scale, you shouldn’t fool yourself with the farcical BBC theory that tens of thousands of people were “forced” onto the streets.”

I want to dwell on this point because I believe it is a particularly insidious claim that is oft-repeated. Let’s forget for a second that the claim that the pro-Assad protests were “equally huge” is completely unsubstantiated. First of all, those pro-Assad protests were completely centered in Damascus and took place a few times. How can you compare protests in the political center of the regime to widespread protests occurring all over Syria, from Deraa in the south to Idlib in the North, over the course of several months? The protest movement in Syria at the beginning of the uprising was scattered throughout Syria, not only from city to city, but even within cities they were scattered from neighborhood to neighborhood. How is the political capital from a few pro-Assad protests in Damascus at all comparable to people taking to the streets all over Syria everyday for weeks, even after being shot at? How are we even to compare numbers given that the Syrian anti-regime protests were scattered (and even though they were scattered they still had impressive numbers even after a year of protests and subsequent repression).

Second of all, Winstanley seems to accord some equivalence between these two, as if they are not only morally but practically equivalent. Let us assume for a moment that his claim that no one was forced into the streets for pro-Assad rallies is true. That doesn’t change the fact that these protests were regime-sanctioned protests. These were not spontaneous eruptions of popular support for the regime. These were pro-regime rallies, organized by the regime, and under the protection of the regime. Do these really deserve to be compared to the thousands who took to the streets in Homs in November 2011 at the Clock Sit-In to protest for the martyrs that were killed by regime bullets in previous protests? (Regime forces also opened fire on that protest in what is now known as the Homs Clock Massacre). Anti-regime protests were under constant threat of regime repression, and yet they still managed to have, according to Winstanley, “equally huge demonstrations.” On a practical level, the anti-regime protesters braved bullets, imprisonment and a high likelihood of death, but still had huge numbers and were ubiquitous. The regime protests did not. They are in no way equivalent.

By now, there are no demonstrations of significance on either side…

In his article, Asa frequently mocks people for believing mainstream media narratives on Syria, yet it seems that this claim itself is based on the mainstream media narrative that is hyper-focused on the armed groups. Many areas in Syria still have anti-regime demonstrations, and many also have anti-ISIS demonstrations. Here is one in Yarmouk Camp in October, here is one from Aleppo in October, here is one that took place today in Idlib, and here is one in Raqqa city against ISIS in September. I’m not sure if Winstanley is unaware that they exist, or if he is aware of their existence but is stating that they are insignificant (to which I’d respond: why?).

And herein lies the second key to the mystery of Assad’s continued support base (polarised as it is): the alternative is considered by many normal people in Syria and in the region as a whole, to be far worse.

Here Winstanley assumes that Assad has a continued support base due to the fact that jihadis dominate the armed opposition. First of all, can we please dispel any illusions that the Assad regime is still in power because it still has a support base? This is a regime that is totally insulated from any popular support it still has. Any areas it still controls it does by militarization and force, that is, setting up several checkpoints and controlling movement of people. Thus, it owes its continued survival to regime cohesion, intervention by its allies, and military might, not some ‘mandate’ from its support base. Furthermore, if you follow the moves Assad took in the initial months of the uprising, you will see that Assad indeed made calculated moves in order to posit himself as a lesser evil. For example, in late 2011, Assad released 1400 political prisoners from prison in what was seen as a concession to the revolutionary movement. These 1400 prisoners turned out to be mostly Salafist activists, many of whom had fought in Iraq previously. The Islamist military leadership is filled with people who were released from prison in that amnesty. Are they Assadist agents? I don’t believe so. But was releasing them a calculated move by Assad? Definitely. Those prisoners he released have come to dominate the armed opposition, most notably Zahran Alloush, who is now the leader of the newly-formed Army of Islam. Which brings up another point:

As this sectarian hatred shows, they were never moderate anyway. Which explains why so many “FSA” units have now joined groups pledging allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawarhari (formerly Osama bin Laden’s number two).

This actually isn’t the case. In fact many of the Islamist units have been distancing themselves from ISIS. The Army of Islam was formed as a counter-weight to ISIS, with many of the biggest Islamist factions joining it. While accurate numbers are hard to obtain, word on the (Syrian) street is that most Syrians have left ISIS and ISIS is now mostly composed of foreigners. In fact today, an even bigger anti-ISIS Islamist coalition was formed, the Islamic Front. I am in no way implying that these are the revolutionary forces in Syria or the progressive sectors of the armed struggle. Yet the nuances are important: these are Islamist reactionary forces, but they are not allied with al-Qaida or al-Zawahiri, and they are against ISIS. Simply painting al-Qaida and ISIS on one side and the Assad regime on the other is inaccurate.

Winstanley prefaces a list of crimes committed by the Islamist opposition armed groups with:

Armed takfiri fanatics, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, now control large parts of the Syrian countryside, even as the regime’s forces are making steady gains. The only “revolution” with any current prospect of succeeding is an al-Qaida revolution. And of course that is no revolution at all.

Is Syria a mess today? Certainly. The most reactionary armed groups seem to have the most resources and the most weapons (thanks to Gulf donors). Many Syrians in the “liberated” areas feel trapped between regime airstrikes and scuds, and jihadi rule. Yet when you view the Syrian conflict through this dichotomous prism of jihadis vs Assad, of course you are going to conclude that there is “no longer a revolution,” although Winstanley goes further by claiming there “never was a revolution.” I agree with Winstanley that none of the revolutions have been successful yet, but I disagree that this means that there is no longer a revolutionary process or revolutionary forces. Revolutions are a long-term process, and there is a long-term revolutionary process in Syria. They consist of mostly unarmed activists, but many armed groups as well, and they are still working all over Syria today (I have spoken about the grassroots revolutionary movements in Syria previously here, and you can read more about them here on Tahrir-ICN and here on the Syria Freedom Forever blog).

The real revolutionaries of Syria, to be frank, probably will not emerge victorious out of this latest conflict as they are pushed to the sidelines and left without resources. Yet they exist, and their existence deserves to be acknowledged. The revolutions in the Arab world have not been fully successful yet, but it is not our place on the outside to despair and write obituaries for the revolutions, but to support a long-term revolutionary struggle. And the first step to supporting that is to acknowledge and identify it, not to write it off and claim that ‘there is no revolution in Syria, there is only Assad and ISIS,’ just because the most powerful forces in Syria today are counter-revolutionary forces.

I agree that the short-term political future of Syria seems bleak. I also can agree that perhaps Syria would really benefit from a ceasefire, giving the Syrian people a chance to breathe and also perhaps the Syrian revolutionaries a chance to regroup and flourish. Yet, I don’t understand why this view needs to be paired with the “there never was a revolution” claim. I believe in a Syrian revolutionary process, and I believe that the short-term political future of Syria won’t necessarily fulfill that process, but I also have long-term optimism for Syria as I know that so many Syrians have been radicalized by that revolutionary process, and those Syrians and that process won’t go away once the dust settles and the war is over.

I’ve always been a fan of Banksy’s work. One of the images on the right side of this blog is an image of a Banksy work. But I’m honestly just baffled by this latest video that’s supposed to be a comment on Syria. It seems devoid of any kind of substance. Either that, or all of us are missing something.

But what is clear is the imagery Banksy uses is offensive, no matter the intent. The imagery is, on the one hand, Orientalist: the buffoon-ish Arabs, savagely celebrating killing a poor animal, while one jumps atop of it and the other is kicked in the shin by a child, amidst screams of “Allahu Akbar.” On the other hand, the context of the video given the imagery is offensive as well. The audio was pulled from this video, a video of a rebel attack on a Syrian warplane in Mennegh air base, near Aleppo. In the Banksy video, you can clearly discern the words “Governorate of Aleppo” being uttered at around the 15 second mark. Mennegh air base was a base that the Syrian regime used to launch airstrikes on Aleppo, causing immense destruction and ravaging the city. So what exactly is the message? That the Syrian regime warplanes are analogous to poor flying elephants? That the rebels in Syria are a bunch of ragtag buffoons going around trying to kill even the poorest creatures?

Perhaps this wasn’t his intent. Perhaps the video is an exercise in “art for art’s sake.” But that is hard to believe given Banksy’s penchant for social commentary in his works. He’s obviously trying to say something, and unfortunately, if there’s a deeper message that we are all missing, if it does happen to be about the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn or whatever, it is overshadowed by the very superficial picture painted on the surface.

Banksy’s previous works that focused on the Middle East weren’t as baffling. On the apartheid wall in Palestine, he drew pictures of “paradises” beyond the wall, and one of a little girl patting down an Israeli soldier. These were celebrated as witty, daring works. He even paired these works with anecdotes, such as this conversation he had with a Palestinian man while painting the wall:

Old man: You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful.
Banksy: Thanks
Old man: We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home.

That’s why this latest video is so confusing to me. The video just seems to be a desperate attempt to weigh in on something for the sake of weighing in on it, and by doing so, led to this analysis that at best is ambiguous, and at worst, victimizes the Syrian regime by analogizing it to a poor cartoon animal.