Syrian revolutionaries have survived the Assad regime, Russia and Iran. They have also made several mistakes over the last seven years. But the main reason the revolution has failed is because the world has repeatedly failed Syrians.
It will no doubt be regarded in years to come as a contradiction of history that despite its eventual deterioration into genocidal brutality, Syria’s uprising was more peaceful in its manner – and more moderate in its aims – than the other theatres of revolution in the so-called Arab Spring.
When one looks at the mass slaughter that seems to never stop unfolding in Syria, from Homs to Aleppo to Ghouta, one might be forgiven for wondering whether it was really all worth it.
But such a question misses the fact that revolutions occur more out of necessity than choice.
It’s a particularly bitter irony that though Bashar al Assad would eventually perpetrate genocide, buoyed by massive foreign intervention from Iran and Russia, to hang on to power, the Syrian revolutionaries did not even initially demand that he should lose power per se.
Though the familiar chants of ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam (‘the people demand the fall of the regime’) could be heard among the protestors in March 2011, the initial demands of the revolutionaries were for democratic reforms overseen by Assad.
It wasn’t until 13-year-old Hamza al Khateeb was abducted, tortured, murdered and mutilated by the regime for spray-painting that slogan on a wall in Daraa that things began to change.
After news of this brutal murder by Assad spread, protestors gathered in Daraa, widely regarded as ground zero for the revolution. The regime met these swelling protests with violence, opening fire on them. This was repeated around the country. It wasn’t long before mostly Sunni members of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) refused to fire on civilians – for which many were reportedly executed – or started defecting to protect civilians; that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was born.
Shifting the goalposts
This was the beginning of the armed phase of the revolution that spiralled into a civil war. It was the ultimate symbol of the collapse of his legitimacy – the armed opposition signified the fact that it was now a battle of survival between the revolutionaries, armed or not, and Assad. The goal was now to overthrow Assad by force.
In 2014, when trying to justify his abandonment of the Syrian opposition and decision to focus solely on fighting Daesh and arm and provide air support to the YPG exclusively, Obama claimed they were never a legitimate fighting force but were rather ‘farmers and pharmacists’ who ‘didn’t have a lot of experience fighting’.
While Obama was wrong about them not being a legitimate fighting force (as their continued endurance against Assad, Iran, Russia and Daesh, as well as Turkey’s successful alliance with them against Daesh and the YPG would prove), he wasn’t entirely wrong about the composition of the forces.
While many of the forces that comprised the FSA were former SAA recruits and officers, Assad caught on to the fact that a majority Sunni Army being forced to massacre a majority Sunni population would lead to more and more defections.
Therefore, he demobilised two-thirds of the SAA, which was mostly comprised of conscripts (Syrians on national service), while relying more on sectarian Shabiha death squads and elite Alawite and often family-run units of the SAA, comprised of professional soldiers.
But this of course meant that the opposition would need to ‘recruit’ among the Syrian population, meaning that while there remained a core of trained soldiers and officers among the opposition force, a significant amount of those taking up arms had no battle experience. This, in turn, meant that other forces with battle experience could make a name for themselves.
And now we come to perhaps the most over-emphasised and controversial aspects of Syria’s revolution, namely the role of ‘Islamism’ within the anti-Assad forces.
It’s not an unimportant question, but it has been without a doubt the single most obscured and propagandised element of the revolt since the uprising began. General discourse has it that either ‘Islamism’ (or jihadists or Islamic extremists) is all that makes up the Syrian opposition now, or that it’s all there ever was to begin with.
Salafi-jihadism, the form of ‘Islamism’ that is directly tyrannical and counter-revolutionary, grew in Syria during and even within the revolution for a myriad of interrelated reasons.
It’s true that Assad and Iran fomented a sectarian dynamic. While they used sectarian forces to attack the mostly Sunni pro-revolution civilians and forces (thus cultivating the idea among Alawites, Shia across the region, and Sunnis that it was a sectarian fight), Assad also released a relatively small but significant amount of jihadist prisoners.
Many Syrian observers saw this as a direct attempt to sow division among the revolutionaries and convince Syrians (of all creeds, but particularly Assad’s Alawite base) that those attacking Assad were not Syrians who wanted to live in dignity and liberty against a genocidal tyrant, but were themselves genocidal theocrats.
But the most significant part of this from a rebel perspective was that the opposition – due to their own lack of resources and inexperience – in the beginning had to rely on Salafi-jihadist forces. Many of theses had been Syrian veterans of the ‘jihad’ during the Iraq war, or experienced and relatively well armed fighters of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ (formerly called ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’) who had, sensing an opportunity, drifted over the border and fought alongside opposition against Assad, often leading the charge, with their suicide tactics and battlefield experience.
They formed the force that came to be known as Jabhat al-Nusra. While many of its recruits were local Syrians who wanted to fight Assad, others were intent on using the rebellion to create their own Islamic State out of rebel-held territory. Thus, the plan was to embed within the rebellion only to usurp the non-Salafi-jihadi rebels.
This group obviously became Daesh and would spend most of the war fighting rebels more than it did Assad – often, as was the case in places like Deir Ezzor and Aleppo among many others, in conjunction with Assad.
It was a huge blow to the revolution.
This was a dream come true for Assad and his allies. It bolstered in new ways the existent – but false – narrative that the opposition was just Al Qaeda and Salafi-jihadists, while it shifted the world’s attention away from Assad’s far more severe crimes, to the crimes and potential terror threat of Daesh.
Outside of Salafi-jihadism, the use of the word ‘Islamism’ has now lost all meaning. It has become, in some quarters, synonymous with ‘Muslim’. And even among those who support the revolution, the presence of ‘Islamism’ is seen as alien, and somehow contrary to the civil phase of the revolution, which is conceived as some utopian left-liberal moment before men with beards and guns came and spoiled it for everyone. These ‘Islamists’ are often considered to be just as bad as Assad.
The truth is that this attitude relies more on mythology determined by the social class of many expat Syrians than any reasonable reading of the procession of the Syrian revolution. The left-liberal revolutionary forces in Syria were always extremely marginal.
Don’t get me wrong, certain individuals had a huge impact in their own way on the revolution, and many of them were instrumental in setting up the Local Coordination Committees that would allow Syrians to organise independent of Assad, but the reality is that the first point of orientation for Syrians, like Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans, was not in any form of leftism or any cohesive ideology in general, but rather their faith.
Syrians are bearded men and hijab-wearing women who are prone to saying Allahu Akbar – these people too, despite being poor and not exposed to western education, also want to live in freedom and with dignity.
Most of the armed revolutionaries reflect this cultural dynamic because they themselves come from it – unlike Assad’s forces, 80 percent of which are foreign and led by Iran, or Daesh’s foreign recruits, the Syrian opposition is overwhelmingly Syrian. The rebels defending Ghouta are almost all from Ghouta. The same was true in Aleppo, Homs and in almost all theatres of war.
Outside of Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra, the journey of actual “Islamists”, such as Ahrar al Sham, arguably the single largest militant group, has been one that Syrians should rejoice in. This force went from being directly sectarian in its rhetoric, as well as being very close to Al Qaeda’s then affiliate in Syria, to embracing a more inclusive form of Islamism.
Islamism akin to that of Hamas that, yes, still embraces an Islamic state, but concedes that such a state cannot be imposed on Syrians and that any post-Assad state must be one that represents all Syrians, regardless of creed.
Moreover, it was, along with the FSA, the first force to take up arms against Daesh in 2014, while it continues to fight alongside the FSA against pro-Al Qaeda forces and Assad in Idlib.
The ‘Islamist’ dimension of the Syrian revolution, while of course important, has always been blown out of proportion and used more as a weapon than as a genuine point of analysis. ‘Islamism’ has not been the greatest impediment to a Free Syria – the biggest devil on the back has been the machinations of foreign actors, particularly the US and the so-called ‘Friends of Syria’ that tantalised the Syrian opposition with the offer of meaningful support, only to then abandon them.
It’s perfectly understandable why the exiled opposition tried so very hard to gain outside support – whether intervention or arms supplies – from external forces, namely the US. The rebels, while having a manpower advantage over Assad, struggled to match the intervention he received from Iran and Russia. But the problem with external forces is that they will always seek to represent their own interests first.
This is true whether it was Saudi refusing to arm certain forces who it perceived as a threat to the Kingdom, or whether it’s the US blockading the rebels from receiving precious MANPADS to protect themselves and civilians from Assad and Russia’s warplanes (they’re mainly worried that such weapons will one day be used against its ally Israel).
It’s why, at this moment, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, controlled as it is by the now indifferent Saudis, as well as Jordan and the US, sits and does nothing to aid rebels fighting Assad. It focuses only on fighting Daesh, while those within it that have tried to engage Assad’s forces have been threatened by the US of being cut off.
Syria’s opposition and people have perhaps endured more than any other ad hoc combat force on earth. As well as having death gas, napalm, barrel bombs, thermobaric missiles, white phosphorous fired upon them, they’ve had to endure vast ethnic cleansing, death camps and the invasion of their country by a foreign force.
They’ve had to survive the rise of Daesh, looking on as a coalition comprised of their so-called ‘friends’ shares the same airspace with the air forces of those who are annihilating them.
When you fully comprehend this, the question of whether it was worth it ought to acquire an almost absurd quality.
When Syrians rose up peacefully, Assad shot them dead. When Syrians fought back, Iran and Russia tried to stamp them out. When Syrians tried desperately to draw attention to the threat of Daesh and how it has grown out of Assad’s sectarianised slaughter, the world – as it does now while a genocidal war plays out for a 7th year running – looked on with ultimate indifference.
The onus was never on Syrians. They are the ones who have been failed.
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