Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On Syria

In the corner of many Twitter avatars is a small Syrian flag. Whether pro-Assad, pro-opposition, or something else entirely, it is the same flag, the red, the white, the black, and two green stars. Because in Syria, regardless of your stance on the regime, you are a Syrian.

(Anas Qtiesh rightly points out my inaccuracy: a lot of opposition have begun to change their avatars to include the flag of the Syrian Republic rather than the current flag of Syria)

And that protectionism was at first, when the uprising began, pervasive in conversations about Syria. The opposition and pro-regime forces alike took a stance that Syria is for Syrians, and Syrian matters for Syrian discussion. Yet, slowly but surely, as the death toll rose higher and higher, the Syrian opposition (or should I say ‘oppositions’) has turned to outside help, leaving them vulnerable to a slew of accusations from the regime and its supporters, as well as the “anti-imperialist” crowd, that has joined the clarion call to delegitimize the opposition.

Before I go any further, I shall lay my cards on the table. Syria, for me, is personal. As I predict this blog post could reach farther than most, I need go no further, but suffice it to say that my connections there go deep, and are multi-faceted. Diverse, even. That said, I am no expert: My time in Syria has been minimal, and my studies of the country academic. In fact, in Damascus I sometimes found it difficult to reconcile my friends’ horror stories of abuse and torture with the beautiful calm city I fell in love with, and yet, their experiences are real, terrifying.

Therefore, when, last March, the first inklings of protest arose, I was both excited for them and wary, knowing the complexities that Syria’s diversity–as well as its place in the world–presents. I did–and do–support my friends who keep risking their lives to protest and report, take photographs and videos, and speak to the press, and I will continue to do so. There shall be no accusations of shabiha here.

So, with cards on the table, I speak. I am an observer of tragedy, and the tragedy is not only the ruthless violence against the Syrian people committed by the regime but also the polarization of commentators, media, and of course (most importantly), Syrians. And as an observer, I would like to talk about what I have observed these past few months; you might call me naive, but surely I am not more naive than the hawks who are permitted to write in respectable publications about Syria, only to compare it to Egypt or call for intervention without serious consideration. Surely I am not as silly as, say, Andrew Tabler, who in the New York Times referred to Druze as a “heterodox Shiite offshoot” or the Reuters journalist who thought it pertinent to use a Texan Christian website as a source for an article on what he called Syria’s “secretive, persecuted” Alawis. So, grant me that.

Opinions

I have spent nearly every day these past few months reading opinion pieces on Syria. The obsession started for one reason: The US media, namely the New York Times and the Washington Post, kept relying on the same two Syrians–both based outside the country–for quotes, and it was maddening. Meanwhile, global media wasn’t much better. And so, reluctant to pester my Syrian friends for opinions, I made it a point to read as many opinions as possible.

What I found is equally frustrating. From opinionators on Syria, be they Syrian or foreign, there are two dominating views: The first is the viewpoint of the Syrian National Council (SNC), or farther right. This “view area,” so to speak, ranges from the precise position of the SNC in calling for intervention, to the hawkish calls–such as this by Daniel Byman in Foreign Policy–for foreign intervention. The second dominant view comes from the anti-imperialist crowd. By and large, the anti-imperialists have largely failed to denounce the Assad regime, and those who have imply that any alternative is worse.

The first set of views is fairly easy to spot, and is indeed in line with the SNC, the public face of Syria’s opposition-in-exile. The second set is a bit more complicated, and for several reasons. First is the fact that the opposition’s legitimacy has been put in question by its opponents, for a few reasons: the SNC’s calls to the West for intervention, the inflation of death toll numbers, the acts of violence committed by opposition and the Free Syrian Army against civilians or officers. The second problem, of course, is the very real concerns about intervention, of which I will only skim the surface: concerns about imperialism are placed first and foremost (contrary to Russia’s stated concerns about the Libya intervention, the Iraqi occupation no doubt formed many’s opinions about the real motives behind intervention), followed by what I can only describe as legitimate concerns about civil war. After that comes a slew of concerns about existing interventions by foreign actors in Syria, from NDI to the CIA to the GCC, concerns which range from entirely legitimate to utterly ridiculous (not in that order).

Finally, what remains is the fact that no legitimate poll of Syrians in Syria exists to determine the veracity of claims that the majority still support Assad. Anecdotally, I wouldn’t doubt that a majority–or at least a very large minority–does, for one reason or another, prefer the regime to the alternative. But while I view that as unfortunate and likely caused by fear, those on the one side (such as Shadi Hamid) use the lack of statistics to imply that the SNC definitively represents the will of the Syrian people, while on the other side, pundits like Ed Husain and Sharmine Narwani use discredited polls (or in the case of Narwani, entirely unscientific ones conducted on Facebook).

In the Arabic media and the blogosphere, doubts about the SNC are more prominent, with distinction clearer between external and internal opposition.  And yet, (anecdotally), friends in Syria tell me that even some of the internal opposition has begun to lean reluctantly toward the outside for fear of no other options.  Whereas once there was trust in the regime to reform, that trust has been sidelined by its actions since.

All of this, of course, points to the fact that there is a genuine lack of understanding of the facts on the ground. Some (such as Narwani) chide the media for reporting unverifiable claims without making such demands of the state, to which the obvious response is that no proper verification can be done until the regime definitively opens its doors to a constellation of foreign observers.

A Third Way?

This all brings me to Joseph Massad’s piece yesterday in Al Jazeera, calling for a third way. Comparing Iraq of ten years ago to Syria today, Massad writes:

The Iraqi exile opposition insisted along with its US imperial sponsors and the chorus of pro-war American intellectuals that people should make one of two choices: for or against Saddam. While the US and its Iraqi partners had their way, the subsequent destruction of Iraq, the dismantling of its state structures, and the destruction of its societal cohesion is the clearest illustration of what such a choice entailed for the Iraqi people and their country.

Massad discusses the repeat of such discourse vis-a-vis Libya, with the same “with us or against us” mentality, adding:

By calling for imperial military intervention, the Syrian exile opposition invokes, without originality, the very same puerile yet insidious choices presented to anti-imperialist and pro-democracy Arabs and non-Arabs by the erstwhile bankrupt Iraqi and Libyan exile oppositions, namely, that there is only one choice to be made: for or against Assad.

I think Massad makes incredibly salient points, and I do believe, based on his track record vis-a-vis Iraq, that he is not simply paying lip service. But as Maysaloon also said yesterday in one of the best pieces on Syria I’ve read in months, Massad’s arguments seem to be out of touch with reality.

An example

Here’s the problem: In arguing for a third way, a domestic uprising without external support, Massad assumes not only that such a thing is possible, but that it would garner significant enough support. Just like Joshua Foust’s argument that Russia’s UN veto was a consequence of the Libyan intervention fails to take into account the fact that Russia has towed the Syrian state line since before a NATO intervention in Libya was on the table, Massad’s argument ignores the fact that many Syrians–long before the SNC became what it now is, and long before intervention was a serious question–failed to support the uprising. As Maysaloon writes:

 

If [anti-imperialists] were as vocal and enthusiastic in fighting for the moral and intellectual high ground in spite of the cynical attempts of oil potentates and princes to subvert the revolutions, then the miserable farce we are seeing today would never have happened. If there ever was a true third way for the anti-imperialists to follow regarding Syria, this is what Massad should have called for in his piece.

Thoughts

My opinion is not that interesting, nor does it carry any weight whatsoever. But in respect to what I’ve written above, here’s what remains:

Whatever the wrongs of the SNC or the Free Syrian Army, the fact remains that there is a homegrown and genuine uprising on the ground in Syria, regardless of what people like @LindaJuniper have to say.  Like Maysaloon, I would ask: do their wrongdoings make the Syrian revolution “any less deserving of support in light of the repression that it faces?”

To those who would dare to deny the existence of that repression, I have nothing to say, except: You are blind.  To the rest, who acknowledge it but choose to turn a blind eye, I’m simply not surprised.  They remind me of those who recognize Palestinian suffering but prioritize the concerns of Israelis.  To me, it’s no different; repression is repression, whether it comes from an occupier or an occupying, sham-elected dynasty.

But on the question of intervention itself, I am less forthright. With Libya, I kept my mouth firmly shut, choosing to support Libyans in their opposition to madman Qaddafi but stopping short of supporting intervention.  With Syria, with loved ones in Damascus, Aleppo, and Swaida, it’s much more difficult to remain ambivalent.  I know that there are less-than-honest actors involved, and I know that intervention could make things worse.  I also know that whether the widely publicized number of 5,000 or a more modest one of 3,000 or so deaths is accurate, even one death at the hands of a government is too many.

Which is only to say that I don’t know what to think.  I ask my Syrian friends regularly, and find that most are reluctant in their conclusions, whatever they may be.  But ultimately, their conclusions tend to come down to what Rime Allaf concluded in her New York Times piece yesterday:

It doesn’t matter how much support Bashar al-Assad’s regime still commands, nor does it ultimately matter why his fans still cling on to the illusion of his ability to remain in power. The regime has gone on a killing, torturing and jailing spree for nearly a year, and is still unable to crush the resistance that has now begun to arm itself and to exercise self-defense. It is a matter of time, and it is unclear how the transition will be achieved, but the majority of Syrians are sure of one thing: we have reached the end of an era.

And I’m afraid that, like Allaf, I have no solutions to offer.

4 Comments

  1. Benjamin Doherty

    February 9, 2012 at 10:18 am

    What do you and others think of Daniel Serwer’s argument that “if the violence continues to spiral, the regime is going to win?” http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/02/why-the-syrian-rebels-should-put-down-their-guns/252731/ Movements can abandon violence in favor of non-violence (or a return to non-violence). This is what happened in South Africa and it’s what is hopefully happening in Palestine. Can the opposition win with violence? And if it does, would this be a good outcome for Syrians?

    • I think it’s hard to compare Syria (ruled by a native, minority autocrat) to Palestine (occupied by a foreign entity), though the South African comparison gels a bit better.

      Personally, I strongly favor nonviolent resistance, though I’ve never seen it my place to tell Syrians (or Palestinians) what’s best for their cause. Nevertheless, if we can put that aside and play neutral observer, I think nonviolence could benefit Syrians, at least in terms of getting China and Russia on board for the AL proposal (if, in fact, the proposal is agreeable to Syrians).

      There are some observers who have said that the internal opposition (excluding the SNC, but probably including historical opposition and the LCCs) would be amenable to reforms. I can’t speak to the veracity of that claim (as Allaf says, we’re past that point), but if true, I imagine that the only way reforms would actually come about is if the opposition laid down arms…but even then, would the reforms go far enough? Would the regime really move forward them? The trust simply isn’t there after what happened last summer.

      The one thing I can say is that the regime has been violent even when the opposition has not (see: Daraa). That, to me, does compare well to Palestine, though if we were to use Palestine as an example here, we can certainly say that the international community responds well to nonviolence in the face of state violence…but again, if we use Palestine as an example, we can also see that it doesn’t always result in any real change.

      As you can see, I remain highly ambivalent.

  2. Does it concern you that Rime Allaf is a fellow at Chatham House, the UK arm of the Council on Foreign Relations? Do you think it’s possible she’s got a hidden imperialist agenda?

    • Honestly? It’s not relevant to me whether she does or she doesn’t; I’m not relying solely on Allaf for facts or opinion, and the portion of her assessment that I posted here absolutely gels with what I’m hearing from Syrian friends on the ground.

      More importantly, I trust Allaf, a Syrian who has recently spent time in Syria, more than I do the spate of anti-imperialists, Syrian or otherwise, who haven’t been to the country in years or ever.

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