Archive for October 2013
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.