I wrote this review of Bente Scheller’s book for al-Jazeera.
Syrian poet Rasha Omran once told me that Bashaar al-Assad is “not a dictator, just a gangster boss.” But really he’s not even that. What he is, is what his father looked like in all those statues – one element in the managerial class, a (dysfunctional) functionary. Syria is a dictatorship which lacks an efficient dictator.
Hafez al-Assad – the father – was an entirely different matter. Born in a dirt-floor shack, he clawed his way to the top by brute cunning, deft flexibility, and strategic intelligence. The careful manipulation of sectarian tensions in order to divide and rule was one of his key strategies, yet he was also attentive to building alliances with rural Sunnis and the urban bourgeoisie – both constituencies now alienated by his son. Bashaar’s great innovation was supposedly economic reform. In practice this meant an unpleasant marriage of neoliberalism with crony capitalism. It succeeded in making his cousin Rami Makhlouf the richest man in the country. The poor, meanwhile, became much poorer, the social infrastructure crumbled, and unemployment continued to climb.
The thesis of former German diplomat Bente Scheller’s book “The Wisdom of the Waiting Game” is that the Syrian regime’s approach to its current existential crisis follows a “narrow path consistent with previous experience,” and she focuses on foreign policy to make this point. When the regime found itself isolated on Iraq after the 2003 invasion, for instance, or then on Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the Syrian army’s precipitous withdrawal, it waited, refusing to change its policy, until conditions changed, its opponents were humbled, and it was brought in from the cold. In his book “The Fall of the House of Assad”, David Lesch points out that Bashaar al-Assad felt personally vindicated by these perceived policy victories, and grew in arrogance as a result. Today, with the West handing the Syrian file over to Russia, and seemingly coming round to Bashaar’s argument that Islamism poses a greater threat than his genocidal dictatorship, it looks (for now at least) as if the refusal to budge is again paying off.
The most interesting parts of Scheller’s book are not actually dedicated to foreign policy, but describe – accurately and with balance – the causes of the revolution and the nature of the regime’s response. The most direct link she’s able to posit between domestic and foreign policy is that, in both, the regime’s only abiding interest has been self-preservation. In Scheller’s words, “regime survival … defines what is perceived as a security threat.” This chimes well with the shabeeha graffiti gracing Syrian walls – “Either Assad or we burn the country.” In regime priorities, Assad always stood far above the people, the economy, the infrastructure, and even the integrity of the national territory.
After provoking an armed uprising by his suppression of a non-violent protest movement (using rape, torture and murder on a mass scale), Syrian dictator Bashaar al-Assad lost control of large areas of the country. He then subjected those areas to a scorched earth policy, burning crops, killing livestock, shelling with artillery, dropping barrel bombs and cluster bombs from war planes, firing cruise missiles and sarin gas. Schools, hospitals and bakeries have been particularly targeted, alongside economic infrastructure. As a result a THIRD of Syrians, over seven million people, are now displaced. The Syrian winter is as cold as the Scottish winter, and this year millions of people will not be living in their homes but in half-demolished buildings, under trees, and in tents.
What’s the connection to the strange photograph of me? Well, I have shaved off my beard (the moustache and the central part of my monobrow will go on December 3rd). Such a traumatic assault on my facial hair, my very identity… Why? In the hope that you, dear readers, whatever your take on the conflict in Syria, will sponsor me, or in plainer terms, will donate some money. You can do so here. Every twenty dollars (or equivalent) buys blanket, coat and hat for a Syrian child. (If you remember, donate to Robin/ Wassim/ Team UK). I know the organisers of this charity and can vouch that they are absolutely honest, that every single penny will go to keeping a Syrian child warm this winter. Please do donate, and please share this page. We just have a few days to raise as much as we possibly can.
While I have your attention, please sign this petition to ask the British and French governments to boycott Rosoboronexport, imperialist Russia’s primary arms supplier to Assad’s genocide.
As the world celebrates the deal between the West and Iran, it should be remembered that Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme – and the sanctions which have so damaged Iran’s economy – were provoked by Israeli concerns, and that these are not existential but strategic. Iran doesn’t need a nuclear weapon but only the ability to enrich uranium to a level where it could quickly make a nuclear weapon. At that stage, the bullying power given Israel by its own nuclear arsenal vanishes. A sensible approach to the problem would have reduced Tehran’s nuclear ambition while disarming Israel. The West, of course, did not press for this, and Iran, despite its stale ‘resistance’ rhetoric, did not hold out for it.
In general, it’s good to see tension reduced between Iran and the West. The great shame is that while a deal is done over the nuclear programme, something that was never much of a threat, Iran has not been called to account for its pernicious intervention in Syria, a far greater threat to regional and international security. Iran’s intervention is on a far greater scale than any Saudi or Qatari interference. The Islamic Republic’s ‘revolutionary’ legitimacy is of course destroyed by its siding with a tyrant against a revolutionary people, and its Shia legitimacy will also be destroyed in the eyes of any thinking human being, for it has joined Yazeed in a war against a struggling Hussain. After Assad’s employment of sectarian death squads, ‘Shia’ Iran’s deployment of racist occupation forces to direct the tyrant’s fightback has been the single biggest factor amplifying the sectarian nature of the conflict. It has already dragged Lebanon back to the brink of civil war. Some argue that peacable relations between the US and Iran will defang Iran’s hardliners. That may happen eventually, but it will be far too late for usurped and shattered Syria.
I used to argue that the West and the Arabs should work with Iran. I used to repeat the line about Iran not having attacked another country in three centuries. (I made allowances for its pernicious role in keeping Iraq divided and sectarian; Iraq had after all attacked Iran in the past.) Unfortunately this is no longer true. The Arabs are now absolutely right to regard Iran as an aggressive, expansionist threat. This deal has by no means secured peace in the region.
This review of Annick Cojean’s book was published at NOW.
“Today is the beginning of the end of the era of harems and slaves and the beginning of women’s liberation within the Arab nation.” Muammar Qaddafi. September 1981.
The Arab world is still crammed full of tyrannies self-labelling with terms such as ‘popular’ and ‘democratic’, sectarian regimes pretending to be secular, reactionary regimes describing themselves as progressive, and ‘resistance’ regimes which resist nothing but their subjects’ life and freedom.
The current post-revolutionary chaos in Libya provokes two orientalist responses: the crude (statist-leftist) version, that the uprising was a foreign conspiracy; and the subtler (because it’s never quite made explicit), that the Libyans made a terrible mistake by rising, because their fractious ‘tribal’ society can only be held together by a strong man of Qaddafi’s calibre. After him, goes the implicit argument, the inevitable deluge.
“Gaddafi’s Harem” by French journalist Annick Cojean provides a fact-based corrective to those fooled by Qaddafi’s illusions, specifically those impressed by the radical feminist image evoked by his once highly visible – and sexily transgressive – corps of ‘Amazon’ body guards. It will change the minds too of those who saw the dictator from a distance as a lovable buffoon.
His regime was capricious, yes, at times even darkly comedic, but it was based on undiluted sadism. The cramping stagnation it imposed for 42 years, and the fact that it refused to budge except by force of arms, are the prime causes of today’s anarchy. The means of domination it employed – psycho-social as much as physical – tell us a great deal about the universal megalomaniac personality, as well as certain cultural weaknesses in the Arab world and beyond.
For a long time it’s been too late for a happy ending in Syria. The longer this process continues, the less we can hope for.
How do you fight a monster without becoming a monster? How, particularly when the monster’s chief strategy is to make a monster of you? How, when the world’s most powerful storytellers depict you as a monster? How, when monsters hiding behind human facades walk by blindly as you are tortured, raped, humiliated, maimed, murdered?
I don’t really know. I’d welcome a reading list, if anyone has one.
I know this monster must be fought, even if we become monsters while fighting it. I know we must fight both internally and externally. I know the greater and lesser jihads must be fought simultaneously.
At some point, somehow, this stage will be replaced by another. Most probably that stage like this one will be bumbled through blindly. Human beings seldom or never achieve control over their larger social movements. Still, it’s pleasant to imagine that Syrians will be able to defuse the sectarian tensions which have existed at least since ibn Taymiyyeh, which were immeasurably exacerbated by Sykes-Picot and the French occupation’s construction of an ‘army of minorities’, and then set afire by Assad’s gang and its allies. It’s good to hope too that a new constitution will guard against any party, clique or ideological police imposing its straitjacket on the plural people.
Beyond religion and politics, environmental factors should also be taken into account.
It’s interesting to note that Jared Diamond’s three factors of civilisational collapse (deforestation, soil erosion, water management problems) have been present in Syria since late Ottoman times, and rampant in the last couple of decades. People my age who grew up in Damascus remember that in their childhoods the Ghouta still consisted of orchards and streams, that summer temperatures almost never climbed above the mid to high thirties. You don’t have to be my age to remember the Barada as an actual river, rather than a layer of concrete and a few stinking pools. Wasn’t Damascus the city the Prophet refused to enter, fearing to sin by imagining himself prematurely in paradise? The dicatorship’s corruption (anyone with connections or money could build in the green zone) put paid to that. Stupidly grand development schemes repeated the pattern all over the country (Lake Assad, like Lake Nasser, was an environmental and social disaster – see Omar Amiralay’s film A Flood in Ba‘ath Land – a wonderful exercise in quiet irony). People’s lack of control over the public space meant they were alienated from it, and threw black plastic bags all over it (this explains the discrepancy between people’s spotlessly clean homes and the filth in the streets outside). Over the decade before the revolution erupted, a million climate change refugees, according to the UN, left the desertifying north east for the impoverished outskirts of Dera’a, Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. This, combined with the effects of Bashaar’s crony capitalism, provides the backdrop to the uprising. The revolutions to the west, and the monster’s extreme violence, provided the spark.
For the first time there is proof of a large-scale massacre of Alawis – the heterodox Shia offshoot sect to which Bashaar al-Assad belongs – by Islamist extremists among Syrian opposition forces. In its context, this disaster is hardly surprising. It follows a string of sectarian massacres of Sunni civilians (in Houla, Tremseh, Bayda and Banyas, and elsewhere), the sectarian ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from areas of Homs province, and an assault on Sunni sacred sites such as the Khaled ibn al-Waleed mosque in Homs, the Umawi mosque in Aleppo, and the Omari mosque in Dera’a. It follows two and a half years of rape, torture and murder carried out on an enormous scale by a ‘Syrian’ army commanded by Alawi officers and backed by sectarian Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, and by Alawi irregular militias. Assad and his backers have deliberately instrumentalised sectarian hatred more effectively than the Americans did in Iraq, and they must bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the dissolution of Syria’s social mosaic. Next, the counter-revolutionary forces in the West (chief among them the United States) must be blamed for obstructing the flow of arms to the Free Syrian Army, a policy which has inevitably strengthened the most extreme and sectarian jihadist groups (some of whom, such as the foreign-commanded Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, are actively fighting the Free Army). Human Rights Watch’s important report on the massacre of Alawi villagers is summed up in the video below. Sadly, HRW fails to adequately distinguish between Syrian and foreign, and moderate and extremist anti-Assad militias. The excellent EAWorldview critiques the report here. Its conclusion:
The HRW report illustrates the dangers of conflating the various factions of the insurgency under the heading “armed opposition groups”.
Coincidentally, that conflation is a tactic of the regime who seeks to portray the insurgency as extremist-led, largely foreign fighters rather than an extension of the indigenous protest movement that took up arms after Assad’s forces used violence to quash it from March 2011.
By this conflation, HRW (a fine organisation which has done great work in uncovering the truth of the Syrian conflict) veers dangerously close to the orientalist/racist stereotyping of the Syrian people’s struggle now dominant in both the rightist and liberal/leftist Western media.
It goes without saying that the crimes committed against Alawi civilians in northern Lattakia province are grotesque and idiotic, and constitute another strategic blow against the revolution and the survival of the Syrian state.
I wrote to the editor of the London Review of Books concerning their Syria (and Libya) coverage. There’s been no reply, so I’m posting the letter here.
Watching the representation of the tragedy in the media has been almost as depressing as watching Syria burn. As someone with strong leftist and anti-imperialist leanings, it’s been particularly galling to find that ‘leftist’ commentary on Syria has often been the worst of all. Large sections of the left have wholeheartedly embraced the very discourse that they resisted during the War on Terror years – that of ‘terrorists’ and al-Qa’ida conspiracies explaining all. Leftist journalists have paid little or no attention to the regime’s blatant and deliberate instrumentalisation of sectarian hatreds, but have focussed on, and exaggerated, the backlash. Robert Fisk has gone so far as to embed himself with the regime army, and to (grotesquely) interview survivors of the Darayya massacre in the presence of the perpetrators of the massacre. Many leftists have convinced themselves, against all the evidence, that the American-led empire has been conspiring against the Syrian regime since the start of the revolution, that this is a re-run of Iraq. Tariq Ali even appeared on Russia Today (near the start) to explain that America was trying to take over Syria but Russia was protecting the country. Russia – the imperialist power which is arming and funding the regime as it commits genocide.
I subscribe to the London Review of Books because it’s by far the best written, most incisive, most reflective, and bravest British publication. Publishing Walt and Mearsheimer was a great move. On the middle east, Adam Shatz is always excellent, well-informed, interested in teasing out a complex truth. Much of the coverage of the revolutions has been eurocentric and orientalist, however. I agreed with novelist Hisham Matar when he called ‘shame’ on Hugh Roberts’s very long Libyan piece which at no point attempted to see things from a Libyan perspective. Rather, it cast the Libyans as passive agents, pawns in the hands of the devilishly clever white man. And on Syria, commentary has been statist-leftist, as if this were an amusing chess game between regional and super powers rather than a struggle for freedom and a genocide, with only one side receiving sustained imperialist aid. I wrote in brief about Patrick Cockburn’s orientalism here.