Robin Yassin-Kassab

Resistance Regime?

with 19 comments

One of my favourite chants from the Syrian uprising is the powerful and cleanly apparent illi yuqtil sha‘abu kha’in, or ‘he who kills his people is a traitor.’ It’s cleanly apparent to me at least – but not to everybody. Some kneejerk ‘leftists’ (a rapidly diminishing number) still hold that the Syrian regime is a nationalist, resistance regime, a necessary bulwark against Zionism, and that therefore it must be protected from its unruly subjects; that in fact it’s the unruly subjects, rather than those who murder them, who are the traitors.

Very sadly, Shia Islamists – Lebanon’s Hizbullah, the sectarian parties in power in Baghdad, and Iran – have repeated the same argument, not because they believe it but for tedious clannish reasons. Syrians aren’t very surprised by the Iraqi or Iranian positions; it’s Hizbullah’s betrayal which sticks in the craw. After all, until Hassan Nasrallah began propagandising on behalf of the regime’s repression, Syrians of all sects supported and admired Hizbullah. During Israel’s 2006 assault they welcomed southern Lebanese refugees into their homes. Indeed, the regime’s alliance with Hizbullah can in large part be credited to the Syrian people; the alliance was one of the regime’s only real sources of popularity. The Asad clique needed Hizbullah’s resistance flag to cover its own nationalist nakedness.

Sectarianism is the old curse of the mashreq, exacerbated in modern times by Sykes-Picot, minority dictatorships, Zionist meddling, and the invasion of Iraq. Lebanon’s political system, indeed the whole idea of Lebanon, is as sectarian as can be. Lebanese Sunnis and Christians are every bit as sectarian as Lebanese Shia, and usually worse. So perhaps Nasrallah can’t help himself. But whatever his excuse he is thoroughly wrong, strategically as well as morally, and his wrongness is public and blatant. Whether or not the Syrian regime falls, Nasrallah’s current position will do more damage to Hizbullah’s ability to fight Zionism, to carry the aspirations of Arabs and Muslims, than any number of Israeli assassinations and bombing runs.

Even if Syria’s were a genuine resistance regime, it would be immoral to expect Syrians to put up with its savagery which is sometimes as bad or worse than that employed by Zionism against Palestinians. A banner displayed in Homs a few weeks ago made this point with characteristic humour: ‘Homsis request the government to use rubber bullets, as Israel does.’ Since March the regime has done its best to transform Syrian cities and villages into Gaza. It has attacked with tanks and helicopters, unleashed its shabeeha thugs to burn and loot, whipped up sectarian fears and hatreds, murdered housewives, mutilated children, and tortured thousands. It shouldn’t need to be said that Syrians have the right and the duty to liberate themselves from these immediate threats, but unfortunately it seems it is necessary to say and repeat it. A Lebanese recently told me, “No revolution is worth anything if its first aim is not the liberation of Palestine.”

So let’s examine the steps taken by Syria over the last four decades towards the liberation of Palestine. It’s certainly true that the regime’s resistance record in comparison with other Arab dictatorships has been excellent. Syria fought the 1973 war. It fought Israel directly and by proxy in Lebanon in the 1980s. Its alliance with Iran and Hizbullah led to the liberation of the Lebanese south, the first real Arab victory against Zionism. It provided political support to the elected government in Gaza while everyone else was conspiring against it. Compare the Asad record with Mubarak’s walling-in of Gaza, or with the tame obedience of the Hashemites and Sauds, and Syria’s dictatorship looks wonderful.

But that isn’t saying much, and I’ve only picked out the good bits. If we examine the bad bits too, we discover a regime whose foreign policy aims only at domestic domination.

I’ve never believed the theory, hitherto whispered and now chanted aloud, that Hafez al-Asad deliberately lost the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967, although Asad was Defence Minister at the time, and he personally gave the order to retreat before Israel had won the territory. I put these unfortunate events down to the amateurish nature of a ‘political’ and frequently purged army, and to panic. But the protestors are less charitable than I am, and they chant: ibn al-haraam/ ba’a al-jowlaan, or ‘the bastard sold the Golan.’ In other words, the regime’s perceived accomodation with Zionism is one motivator of anti-regime protest.

Since the 1973 war, when Hafez restored some of his and the army’s reputation, the occupied Golan border has been Israel’s quietest, quieter than the frontiers with Jordan and Egypt, states which have officially made peace. Not much resistance there. When Syria first entered Lebanon, in 1976, it did so to rescue the right-wing Maronite pro-Zionist forces from imminent defeat by the Palestinian-Druze-Muslim-Leftist alliance. One argument says the civil war would have been brought to a satisfactory conclusion in 76 – it wouldn’t have lasted 15 years – if Syria hadn’t sided with pro-Zionists at this early stage. As for relations with Palestinians, Hafez wanted nothing more than to seize control of their movement, and he beseiged camps and provoked factional slaughter to that end.

The policy of Asad senior, though sometimes seriously flawed and often ruthlessly brutal, was always, however, canny and intelligent. Love him or hate him, Hafez was so clever, a man of such power, that he even ruled eleven years from the grave. Junior and team, on the other hand, have proved in recent months to be very, very, stupid. The current repression implements the instructions of a corpse. If Hafez were alive he’d have noticed that this is not 1982, that the opposition is not only the Muslim Brotherhood, that the dissent cannot be contained in one locale. Hafez was a strategic thinker, and for that reason he might have survived this challenge. Not so his sons, who are too stupid to rule Syria, and certainly too stupid to be a strong link in an anti-Zionist axis.

Recently (before the uprising) a teenage girl called Tal al-Malouhi was imprisoned for blogging. She blogged mainly on the Palestinian cause, and sometimes she was critical of the Syrian regime too. She was put in jail. To be a political prisoner in Syria is a body and soul-destroying experience for a middle-aged man, let alone for a teenage girl. There are millions of Tals, millions of Syrians who want to write about Palestine, organise for Palestine, collect money for Palestine, fight for Palestine. These people are threatened, silenced, tortured, caged and raped.

Despite my disappointment with Hizbullah’s leadership, I still of course respect and admire their victories against Zionism. Look at this organisation, the first Arab organisation to confront and defeat the occupier: it succeeds because it is of its people, it fights for justice for its people, it arms its people. None of these things can be said for the Syrian regime, which arms against the people, and fears the people – which is why the Syrian regime will never confront and defeat the occupier.

It is entirely true that in a period of violent transition, with numerous internal and external actors plotting, nobody can know what kind of regime may rise after the Asads. One thing is certain, however: if the next system is to any extent democratic or representative, it will oppose Zionism, demand the return of the occupied Golan Heights, and struggle for the rights of the Palestinian people. The history of Syria (in struggle with Zionism since before the modern states of Syria or Israel were established) and the sentiments of 23 million Syrians attest to that.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 6, 2011 at 10:40 am

Posted in Lebanon, Syria

Tagged with ,

19 Responses

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  1. Good work, as usual — I most agree with and applaud the apt mention of ‘rule from the grave.’ The ossified structure built to rule by dead man was further extende/misused and is now is presided over by stupid tacticians.

    The failure at the top is monumental, and the contemplated fall so deadly to its components that the innate procedural security personality of the regime itself directs and controls the show, not the titular presiding personality. The use of force is programmed response, prescribed by the SOPs, and Bashar is deluding himself if he things he can perform the least deviation from the script his family-built machine has handed him.

    What choice does he have but to pretend to be President, and what chance has the system given him to independently assess the situation? Who is in control of the intelligence delivered to him, of the news briefs submitted to him, of the official summaries of events presented to him? Who commands access to him, his viewing, his schedule of events, his schedule of decrees?

    I think perhaps the weakness and isolation of the President is almost complete. I figure he now performs as a kind of life-size doll/symbol, wheeled out for photos and controlled discussions (with guests chosen not by Bashar but by minders/security filters), wheeled out for weak and awkward posturing in a hospital, suited up and told to sign the documents and decrees, ushered to his next appointment with delusionary supporters . . . given his lunch, given papers to sign, walked to a room for photos, sat down to receive phone calls, sent back to his cell/palace.

    The insane structure of repression, the machinery itself is what probably rules Syria — the operators, the Clan, the Interests, have built into the Security system procedures and operations that completely constrain even the putative Commander.

    I would say Bashar commands nothing these days, not even his valet or his driver. The many-headed dragon of structural repression has constricted all its coils in an attempt to survive the germs . . .

    Bill Scherk

    August 6, 2011 at 6:17 pm

  2. Excellent article Robin.

    Maysaloon (@Maysaloon)

    August 6, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    • I believe Hezbollah made the correct assumption that a Syria ruled by the majority sunni population would be beholden to Saudi/Gulf financing in order to successfully run a potential post-Assad Syria.

      It is a fact of life that long before the uprising in Syria, every single sunni led government worked to undermine hezbollah during the Israel-Lebanon war.


      August 7, 2011 at 9:06 am

      • including the elected Hamas government?

        I repeat: the Syrian people did not undermine Hizbullah. but Hizbullah is undermining the Syrian people.

        Robin Yassin-Kassab

        August 12, 2011 at 11:38 am

  3. I doubt even the most diehard of Assad’s loyalists have ever thought of
    the regime as a resistance against Zionism. Most seem to regard the
    regimes distaste towards the Palestinians as an astute maneuver.

    Although I am not in any way pro-regime, they may have a point. Why
    would any political system in Syria use up any resources in fighting
    Zionism? What use would that be to a Syrian? We have our own problems,
    jumping into the Palestinian cause will not help resolve them in any

    It’s very easy for us to sit on our Ivory Towers and praise the
    Hezballah victory over Israel but what good was that snowball effect war
    to anyone? What was the final result? Thousands dead and dismembered for
    nothing but Ideology and inflated pride.

    The Assad regime is well aware of the futility of fighting the Zionists,
    it occasionally offers a lip-service that resembles a resistance
    mentality but it follows with no significant action. The Syrian-Hezballah
    relationship is about controlling lebanon and nothing else, it’s
    anti-zionist stance is an added advantage.

    I think the Palestinians and the Jolan are seperate in the minds of most
    Syrians. The Palestinian cause is a battle for liberal westerners. In my
    experience, the Syrian people are apathetic towards the
    Israeli/Palestinian disaster but are fiercely patriotic when it comes to
    the Jolan. The regime seems aware of this line of thought and uses it to
    its advantage.

    The Jolan is an interesting problem, i cannot see any way for a
    post-Assad regime to retrieve the Jolan without giving up on the
    palestinians. The international community is toothless (and pressure is
    useless) and any military campaign would lead us into diaster.
    Paradoxically, the Assad regime will never be able to retrieve the
    Jolan precicely because it has turned it’s back on the palestinians. It
    has given away it’s cards without asking for anything in return and
    obviously It can never admit it due to the domesitic problems it would

    I sincerly doubt that the post-Assad political system will be in any
    position to change things in regards to Israel. Practically speaking what
    influence would the new Syria have over the Zionists?

    This turned out much longer than i thought. I like your work.


    August 7, 2011 at 10:43 am

    • ‘The Palestinian cause is a battle for liberal westerners.’ This is an astounding statement. I can only say that I totally disagree with you. You are not talking about a Syria, or an Arab world, that I recognise. And the consequences of the 2006 war are significant for all the Arab neighbours of Israel.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      August 12, 2011 at 11:43 am

  4. Hafez cried when Bassel died!

    I am sure he cried because he lost a son. But I clearly remember thinking that his despair at the time must have reflected the fact that he realised that the end is near. He knew that neither Bashar nor Maher can keep his legacy if any. He saw them as the two foolish kids that were destined to live in the shadow of Bassel! He must have realised that the Assad’s would not have anymore one hundred years of solitude!!

    He made his biggest mistake and gambled on of his foolish sons; he chose Bashar for no reason except that he was elder than Maher. It is proven to be a bad gamble indeed!

    At that time, Hafez should have looked around. That is only if he cared about Alawiis or Syrians as a whole. But he didn’t. He proved then that he is a greedy man indeed!!

    I am sorry, I am Alawii and I am not going to support Bashar existence. I know the price I will pay with my family is high. I am worried and scared but I hope that my kids will enjoy better Syria.


    August 8, 2011 at 8:29 am

  5. Qunfuz wrote:

    Lebanese Sunnis and Christians are every bit as sectarian as Lebanese Shia, and usually worse. So perhaps Nasrallah can’t help himself.

    This is a very peculiar argument. Nasrallah’s calculations having nothing to do with some sort of inborn sectarianism, which all Lebanese — especially the Sunnis and Christians, if we are to believe your assessment — are powerless to resist. It has everything to do with the cold logic of geopolitical interests. If the Assad regime falls, Hizbullah loses one of its major sponsors. Case closed. Hypocrisy is a small price to pay for military and logistical support.

    What I don’t understand is why it has taken a revolution and 2000 dead Syrians to awaken people to the fact that Hizbullah’s calculations and alliances are no less cynical than any other party’s. Was the Assad regime any less authoritarian and brutal in character before the uprising began?


    Qifa Nabki

    August 8, 2011 at 5:08 pm

  6. that was quite powerful note… ruling us from the grave..no wonder why tweets are full with cursing his soul not his sons’.


    August 8, 2011 at 8:35 pm

  7. QN – I didn’t mean to suggest the sectarianism is inborn; it’s the result of history and the lebanese political system. I should have said lebanese sunni and christian parties. of course not every lebanese is sectarian and very many lebanese ‘belong’ to more than one sect anyway.

    i think nasrallah has made a strategic blunder. if he felt that speaking out would have cost him his weapons transit etc he should have kept quiet. if the regime survives it will be a poor ally, very weak and reviled in the arab and international arena. and the regime may not survive. nasrallah’s motivations were not only sectarian, you’re right, but we can say that his vocal support for the regime’s narrative has offered a gift to sectarian thinkers in the region.

    i’ll try to respond to other points later.

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    August 8, 2011 at 9:02 pm

  8. QN: “What I don’t understand is why it has taken a revolution and 2000 dead Syrians to awaken people to the fact that Hizbullah’s calculations and alliances are no less cynical than any other party’s. Was the Assad regime any less authoritarian and brutal in character before the uprising began?”

    politics is the art of the possible. possibility depends on context. before this uprising started you could almost have called me a supporter of the syrian regime, its foreign policy at least. in the context of an arab world full of dictatorships, the asad one was the best. but the context has changed. next, the syrian people had not collectively stood up before march. when the people inside (or large sections of them) go into opposition, then the situation is ripe for change. when history enters a new stage, intelligent people adapt. nasrallah wasn’t intelligent here.

    yes, of course we all knew the syrian regime was brutal. butt it had never been so stupid before, nor brutal to this extent. the 80s was a long time agao, and in the 80s the regime really was fighting sectarian armed gangs.

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    August 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm

  9. Qunfuz

    By what measure was the Asad dictatorship the best of all the Arab regimes? I challenge you to make the case that Syria had a better record on basic civil rights than even Egypt or Morocco. In those countries, one could still find opposition parties, critics of the regime, and some degree of press freedom. In Syria, there was no opposition and no press freedom because the Assad clan made sure of that, and tried to impose its zero tolerance writ on Lebanon in the 1990s as wel.

    The sad fact is that this regime derived its legitimacy for years from, among other things, well-meaning but blinkered commentators who gave it a pass on all of its abuses just because it paid lip service to the Palestinian cause.

    It may be true that intelligent people should adapt when “history enters a stage.” But I also believe that intelligent people should not sacrifice their ethical and rational principles when change remains a remote possibility.

    Qifa Nabki

    August 9, 2011 at 2:12 pm

  10. QN – I agree with you on civil rights. But there was less class polarisation in syria than in egypt or morocco. at first the syrians did build a basic health and education system for all, unlike in other places. i liked the secularism (until they were pushed into a corner). I think Hafez was a good strategist. I think he was right not to support saddam hussain against iran, for instance.

    regime also got its legitimacy from internal stability and security, until their thuggish miscalculations when the uprising started.

    i don’t know what you mean by your last sentence. You think the regime will survive so nasrallah is doing the right thing? but that reading doesn’t explain the word ‘ethical’.

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    August 9, 2011 at 3:23 pm

  11. Re my last sentence, I wasn’t talking about Nasrallah, but about everyone who gave the regime a pass just because they thought it was good for the Palestinian cause.

    Qifa Nabki

    August 9, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    • (You may not be referring to me, but..) I didn’t give the regime a pass only for that reason, but I did give it a pass (although not in my novel, not at all). The events of this year have made me question my earlier pragmatism, as well as my stance on the green movement in Iran. Neither did I choose to write anything about Tal al-Malouhi until all this started (perhaps also because I didn’t want to ‘burn my bridges’ with Syria). Having said all that, I was genuinely shocked by certain reversals. I had thought that the regime was in some important ways a guarantor of secularism and minority success, while I was at the same time aware that the stagnation of dictatorship means that no social problem can be really resolved. When I heard about the regime trying to start sectarian fights in lattakkia my judgement, obviously, shifted. I had thought that there was some genuine care for the country and its cohesion mixed in with the brutal thuggishness of the regime, even that the care might have had the upper hand. Once I’ve seen the regime under pressure I’ve learnt that I was too optimistic. I am by no means alone in this process of disillusionment.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      August 10, 2011 at 4:14 am

  12. Just want to share this interesting lecture which about the current arab uprising. do please watch:

    It is a long video but it is worth the time http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4h5Kgi0qGNc&feature=related


    August 13, 2011 at 1:17 am

  13. I’m sorry Hassan, but this strikes me as rubbish, and I don’t see how it’s helpful at all. The idea that Israel – as a state – with its five million Jews is going to expand its territory and rule the world in place of America is rubbish. This bloke claims to read this stuff in the quran and old ahadeeth. In America there are a million loons who ‘read’ in the Book of Revelations that the Muslims are evil, that the rapture is around the corner, etc. We should all get over this. It seems like an insult to religion as well as an insult to common sense.

    Robin Yassin-Kassab

    August 13, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    • Just wait and see


      August 13, 2011 at 2:56 pm

      • I will, Hassan. No hard feelings!

        Robin Yassin-Kassab

        August 13, 2011 at 3:12 pm

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