Will Syria experience a civil war? There’s already a civil war of narratives, pitching the regime’s version against everyone else’s, and a social civil war, in which Syrians find themselves shocked by the responses of their friends and relatives, and find new friends and unexpected allies, realigning their perspectives and values as they do so. Many Syrians are still so scared of the unknown, and so deep in the slave mentality, that they wish to believe what the old authority tells them.
But decreasingly so. Most people have a time limit on their gullibility, or their self-deception. The lies of state TV and the ridiculous ad-Dunya channel, though they come as thick as summer flies, cannot cover the dazzlingly obvious – that the regime is torturing children to death, shooting women and old men, and randomly arresting, beating and humiliating the innocent. That Syria’s tanks and helicopter gunships should be liberating the Golan, not slaughtering Syrians. That the protestors are patriots seeking their basic rights. (I gave up having the argument about Salafis and foreign infiltrators weeks ago on the basis that anyone who wants to believe the regime version will believe it regardless of facts and logic.)
There are still diehards who point to Syria’s social and cultural ills as a reason for sticking with the regime. Give it a chance, they say. Let it reform, as it will undoubtedly do. The alternative is sectarian civil war.
Various problems arise from this argument. First, the regime has no credibility left, not for reforming or for anything else. Syrians gave Bashaar the benefit of the doubt for years. First they believed his democratic urges were obstructed by the regime’s old guard. Next they believed him when he said the regional situation – occupation and war in Iraq, neo-con targeting of Syria – did not allow for reform. Then the regional environment turned to Syria’s favour. The alliance with Turkey, the removal of Mubarak, Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the weakening of American influence all contributed to the most comfortable Syrian environment in decades. But during the revolution in Egypt Bashaar told a journalist that democratic reform in Syria would take another generation.
Even when the demonstrations started, Bashaar retained credibility with perhaps a majority of Syrians. But the responses of his family and associated thugs to the protests were so staggeringly idiotic that they brought the escalation of the uprising upon themselves. (I disagree with those who suggest Bashaar is almost as bad as his father. I would say he’s much much worse, because Hafez possessed intelligence and a good degree of strategic adaptability, and had credibility even amongst those who despised him.) Here’s what Bashaar did with his credibility: he announced on a Thursday that the State of Emergency had been lifted, and murdered 120 Syrians on Friday. Some weeks later he announced an amnesty for political detainees. Two hours after the announcement, dozens were detained in the Meydan area of Damascus. By now Bashaar’s words are irrelevant, worth less than a Lebanese lira.
Second, the regime has no legitimacy left. Syrians have heard the story – one story out of very many – of Hamza al-Khateeb, the thirteen-year-old whose corpse was returned to his parents after a month of torture. The regime shot the boy repeatedly so he would experience repeated agony but wouldn’t immediately die. The regime stubbed out cigarettes on Hamza’s skin, broke his jaw, and chopped off his penis. I could write a line or two trying to imagine the extent of terror and unbelief experienced by a child under torture by adults, but I won’t try. There would be no point. The political point is this: in any normal country such adults would be hunted down, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Yet the people who did the work on Hamza are drawing salaries for it. How Syria can begin to deal with its social and cultural ills while the authority in the land promotes the very worst and most deranged sadism, I do not know. Only the most absurd hardcore of regime supporters now envisage a successful reform process overseen by these monsters.
As for sectarian civil war, it is indeed a real possibility, becoming more real every day as the regime expands its insanity. I recently met a Syrian who launched into discussion of the crisis by saying, “I know the Alawi sect” – a statement equivalent in its overgeneralising foolishness to “I know the Muslims” or “I know the blacks.” Then he delivered a bad history lesson (it’s always a bad sign when people, Zionist-style, refer to the imagined events of centuries or millennia ago to justify their contemporary hatreds). It went like this: Alawis fought with the Crusaders against the Muslims. (This is rubbish – Alawis had an excellent record of fighting against the Crusaders.) Yet instead of killing them, we (the dangerous plural pronoun) sent shaikhs to their villages to teach them true Islam, and we built them mosques. The Alawis used the mosques to house their cattle. That’s the kind of people they are.
I didn’t bother asking him to imagine Christians forcing Muslims to build churches. I did ask him to consider Iraq. Did he think all Sunnis were accountable for Saddam Hussain’s barbarisms, given that most regime figures were Sunnis from Saddam Hussain’s neighbourhood, and that – unlike in Syria – the majority faith was repressed? That didn’t work. Like all Sunnis of his chauvinistic ilk, he wouldn’t accept that the Shia are a majority in Iraq.
The rulers of Syria form a gang, not a sect. This was lost on my interlocutor. He wanted a clause added to the constitution to the effect that no minority sect would ever rule again. He appeared to be ready for the approaching civil war, and almost seemed to look forward to it, even when I reminded him of Iraq’s war, where explosions and death squads killed members of all communities, where there were no winners. He saw war as a necessary stage, and gave it another couple of months until it kicks off properly.
Of course there are very many wiser heads in Syria, despite the regime’s traditional crushing of natural authorities. So long as the initiative lies with wise, thinking Syrians, the foolishness of men like the one I met would be restrained and managed. But if significant numbers of protestors are forced by state violence to abandon their ‘selmiyyeh’ slogan and peaceful strategy, the initiative will be seized by new militias and armed gangs, real ones this time, not the fantasy phantoms of state TV. If conditions are wrong enough, it requires only a tiny minority to kick off civil slaughter.
Last week for the first time anti-regime activists reported that some people (in Rastan and Talbeeseh) were defending themselves by force of arms. A mukhabarat man was hanged by a grieving crowd in Hama. From a distance, armed resistance looks like a bad idea. It may be what the regime wants to provoke. At close quarters it probably looks very different. If I lived in Rastan, if Hamza al-Khateeb was one of my relatives, I would want a gun.
So I don’t deny the dangers of sectarianism. Nor do I suggest that sectarian hatreds were invented by the present regime (although sectarianism has in some respects worsened over the last half century of dictatorship). What I am arguing is that the most vicious exploiter of sectarianism in Syria at the present moment is the regime itself, which sent its shabeeha thugs into Lattakia to try to provoke a sectarian conflict, which has armed Alawi villages overlooking Sunni coastal towns, which has slandered Sunni culture in its propaganda. The regime is driving people to violence by attacking civilians and besieging civilian areas. It is enflaming people’s angriest emotions by humiliating and torturing them at every turn. As such, the regime constitutes an immediate danger to the Syrian social fabric. It’s playing a similar role to the one played by the Americans in Iraq in the run-up to the civil war there.
Very sadly, Lebanon’s Hizbullah has helped reinforce the sectarian narrative. Hassan Nasrallah, who supported the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, supports the Syrian regime against its own people. I understand why – Syria is Hizbullah’s main arms conduit and its only Arab state ally – yet to many Nasrallah’s position looks like sectarian prejudice: Shia Hizbullah and Shia Iran are backing the Alawi regime against the Sunni Syrians. In any case, Nasrallah has made an uncharacteristic blunder, and a huge one. Hizbullah was formerly wildly popular amongst Syrians of all sects and backgrounds because it was perceived as an organisation that defended the weak from tyranny. Now it’s defending tyranny from the weak. When the Syrian regime finally falls there will be repercussions for the Lebanese resistance movement.
Except in the obvious sense of the regime killing the people, we’re still a long way from civil war. If the regime falls tomorrow the chances of civil war will be close to zero. The crowds on the streets are still chanting slogans of national unity. Hizbullah flags are being burnt at protests, but this is not necessarily an expression of anti-Shia hatred. Russian and Chinese flags are also being burnt, to express disapproval of any power that offers succour to the murderers of Syrians.
Nobody is safe in Syria, no man, woman or child, whether they demonstrate or stay at home. State violence is escalating. Over seventy unarmed protestors were machine gunned to death in Hama on Friday. Helicopter gunships killed civilians in Jisr ash-Shughoor on Saturday. And the uprising is escalating too. Crowds now are reaching enormous sizes, 50 to 100,000 in Hama and Maaret an-Numan, despite the risk of death. There are reports of confrontations between loyal and mutinous soldiers in the Homs countryside.
The regime will never again enjoy the confidence or even the submission of the people, yet it’s as difficult as ever to see how it could actually fall. The economy could do it. The point at which the regime is unable to pay salaries and pensions may be the critical moment. However it plays out, it’s to be hoped that the regime falls sooner rather than later. Each day it remains in power the chances of sectarian civil war and social collapse grow. For this reason, minorities and secularists should be working hardest of all to deny these thugs any succour. Our words and deeds must serve the democratic aspirations of the people, not their tormentors.