The Arabs of the Levant and Iraq love talking politics. This is one of the more rewarding things about spending time with them. In Syria, for instance, instead of enduring conversations about cars, house prices or football, you can immerse yourself in big issues: God and death, revolution and gender, secularism and resistance.
But because normal political life in Syria – organising parties, holding meetings and rallies, writing articles critical of the government – is criminalised, most people have no defined political affiliation. And it is of course impossible to accurately research political opinion, so any pronouncements on the views of Syrians are inevitably based on anecdotal evidence.
With that reservation, here are some pronouncements on the political views of Syrians. I base them on conversations with my Syrian relatives, my wife’s family, and many friends and colleagues from three years residence in the country and several long visits.
Syrians don’t enjoy living in a police state. This is perhaps the single most unpleasant factor in daily life in Syria, and it has poisoned society. People don’t trust each other. It’s well known that taxi drivers and the keepers of the shops that open early and close late are often mukhabarat. But who else? The neighbour? The man at the next desk in the office? The fear of listening ears is the reason why Syrians often talk government propaganda when their children are in the room. Things are not as bad as they were in the 80s, when mukhabarat would go into schools to ask children what their parents thought of the president, but things are still very bad.
Syrians are sick of the economic situation. Very many Syrians work long hours six days a week for less than $200 a month. Very many Syrians juggle two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. They can’t afford to marry until they’re in their thirties, they live in cramped accommodation, and they don’t even dream of such luxuries as a foreign holiday. This situation is partly caused by population explosion and the country’s location in a war zone, but is made much worse by official corruption, bureaucracy and economic mismanagement.
Syrians are nationalists, anti-Zionists and anti-imperialists. They feel strongly about Israeli occupation of the Golan and Palestine, and about the American dismantling of Iraq. They support resistance in these places, as well as often idolising Hizbullah’s resistance in Lebanon. The Syrian regime has used nationalist stands to bolster its position with the people and to justify its endless ‘state of emergency.’ Syrian nationalist feeling, however, predates the Baath and will survive it. Syrians are seldom fooled by the regime using ‘the struggle’ as a propaganda tool. They feel that the country would be better able to realise its nationalist aims if it were more democratic, if the people had more rights.
Syrians are worried by sectarianism, despite often being sectarians themselves. This is something that helps keep the government in power, especially after the bad example of Iraq: if the regime fell and left chaos in its absence, there could be a sectarian war. Of course most Syrians wouldn’t want one (just as most Iraqis profess no hostility to members of other sects), but they fear that a minority could get one started. Sadly, just under the polite surface, many Syrian Sunnis blame the ‘backward’ Alawis for the brutality of the regime, and Alawis, Druze and Ismailis fear being branded heretics by the Sunni majority, and Christians see Muslims as uncivilised, and so on. That’s not the whole story, but sectarianism in Syria is deeply rooted, and dates back at least to the last half century of the Ottoman Empire.
That’s the people. But who is the opposition in terms of organised groups?
The most important opposition to the Baath has traditionally been the Muslim Brotherhood, based in urban Sunni communities. In the late 70s and early 80s the Brothers decided that dictatorship could only be toppled by violence, and they launched a campaign of bomb attacks and assassinations against regime targets. Sometimes they attacked Alawis who were not connected to the regime, for purely sectarian reasons. The regime responded with a reign of terror. There were mass arrests and disappearances. Then, in 1982, the Brothers took control of the city of Hama, where they executed Alawis and Baathists. There was no easy solution to the situation. Secularists and religious minorities were terrified of a countrywide Brotherhood victory. In any case, the Brothers couldn’t win a clear victory. Even if they’d been able to take the big cities, they wouldn’t have been able to take the army. Negotiations and concessions were needed. But both sides saw it as a life or death struggle, and death is what they got. The president’s brother Rifaat led planes, tanks and footsoldiers against Hama. Tens of thousands were killed, and the historical heart of the city destroyed. Chemical weapons were probably used. Details are sketchy because journalists were unable to enter the city. A real Falluja situation.
The Brotherhood was routed in Syria. Those brothers who were not killed or imprisoned left for Europe, Jordan or the Gulf. Its leadership in London has recently made common cause with ex-Vice President Khaddam after his break with the regime. This was not a popular move in Syria, and the Brotherhood now has questionable levels of support, although its right wing traditionalist ideology remains widespread.
A younger and more extreme brand of Islamism, Salafi nihilism represents a tiny minority of Syrians, but one which seems to be growing. Their belief that not only Alawis and secularists but also mainstream Sunnis are kuffar, and that democracy is a kaffir system, will make it impossible for them to participate in Syrian politics in the future. They could, however, given the right chaotic circumstances (see Iraq), cause a lot of trouble.
There are Kurdish groups, some of which campaign for greater cultural and political freedoms for Syria’s Kurds (tens of thousands of whom do not hold full citizenship), and some of which would like to achieve autonomy or even independence.
There are still some independent Marxists (as opposed to those who’ve been co-opted by the government’s Progressive National Front), and disgruntled anti-regime Baathists.
There are independent liberals like (former) parliamentarians Riyadh Saif and Mamoun Homsi who face harassment and imprisonment for combating corruption and speaking out against human rights abuses. Such figures address issues which concern all Syrians, and their discourse excludes nobody.
Then there are West-based people. Some, like Farid Ghadry, have no support in Syria and are creations of foreign lobbies. Much more credible are people like Ammar Abdul Hamid, who campaigns for a liberal democratic future and the rights of minorities. In my view, Ammar’s ‘camp’ tends at times to be idealistically pro-American and fails to recognise that a more democratic Syria will support armed resistance to America and Israel more, not less.
Whether I agree with all these people or not, I’m sure that a happier future requires that they be allowed to freely express their views in Syria. The government may have a point when it says that sectarian groups threaten social peace and the stability of the country, but if or when, and how, to silence these groups are issues that the whole of society needs to debate openly. On Syrian TV, when the word ‘church’ is mentioned in a foreign film, the subtitles translate it not as ‘church’ but ‘place of worship.’ The same patronising censorship is applied to all issues of sect and politics inside the country, and it doesn’t work. Not allowing people to talk about sect just allows the venom to build up. As for liberal democrats like the currently imprisoned Kamal Labwani and Michel Kilo, people who’ve never attacked anyone for ethnic or religious reasons, the ‘undermining social stability’ argument is a sorry excuse for suppressing legitimate peaceful dissent.
More information about the political situation inside Syria can be found on Joshua Landis’s Syriacomment: