Five Year Reflection
The Guardian asked ten Arab writers to reflect on the revolutions five years on (or in). My piece is here below. To read the rest too (including Alaa Abdel Fattah from Egyptian prison, Ahdaf Soueif, and notable others), follow this link.
Five years ago the Guardian asked me to evaluate the effects of the Tunisian uprising on the rest of the Arab world, and specifically Syria. I recognised the country was “by no means exempt from the pan-Arab crisis of unemployment, low wages and the stifling of civil society”, but nevertheless argued that “in the short to medium term, it seems highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will face a Tunisia-style challenge.”
That was published on January 28th. On the same day a Syrian called Hassan Ali Akleh set himself alight in protest against the Assad regime in imitation of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia. Akleh’s act went largely unremarked, but on February 17th tradesmen at Hareeqa in Damascus responded to police brutality by gathering in their thousands to chant ‘The Syrian People Won’t Be Humiliated’. This was unprecedented. Soon afterwards the Deraa schoolboys were arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime graffiti. When their relatives protested on March 18th, and at least four were killed, the spiralling cycle of funerals, protests and gunfire was unleashed. Syria not only witnessed a revolution, but the most thoroughgoing revolution of all, the one that has created the most promising alternatives, and the one that has been most comprehensively attacked.
In 2011, I wrote that Assad personally was popular, and so he remained until his March 30th speech to the ill-named ‘People’s Assembly’. Very many had suspended judgment until that moment, expecting an apology for the killings and an announcement of serious reforms. Instead Assad threatened, indulged in conspiracy theories, and, worse, giggled repeatedly.
I underestimated the disastrous effects of Assad’s neo-liberal/ crony-capitalist restructuring during the previous decade. I was soon to be wrong about many other things too. In April the regime made conciliatory gestures to Islamists and Kurds. At first I thought this showed how hopelessly out of touch it was – the protest movement at this stage was pan-Syrian and non-sectarian. Then I understood its misinterpretation was deliberate. In the following years the regime would stick to reading the revolution through ethnic and sectarian lenses; and largely due to its own efforts, these eventually came to dominate the field.
“Bashaar al-Assad is the leader of the revolution,” one young Damascene told me. “Every time he kills someone, every time he tortures, he creates ten more men determined to destroy him.” At first the regime’s resort to the ‘security solution’ made me think I’d overestimated its intelligence. Then I realised I’d underestimated it. Knowing it couldn’t survive a genuine reform process, it provoked a civil war.
First the savage repression of peaceful, non-sectarian activists. Tens of thousands were rounded up, tortured, killed or disappeared. At the same time jihadists were released from prison.
Then, in response to the revolution’s inevitable militarisation, the regime applied a scorched earth policy. Soldiers burnt crops and killed livestock. Civilian neighbourhoods were blasted by artillery, fighter-jets, Scud missiles, barrel bombs and sarin gas. A string of regime-organised sectarian massacres in 2012 irretrievably hardened the mood.
The Syrian people’s supposed ‘friends’ failed to seriously arm the revolution, or to protect the people from slaughter. With Assad’s indirect aid, foreign jihadists stepped into this vacuum. Until July 2014 the regime and ISIS enjoyed an unstated non-aggression pact. Even today, when ISIS is fighting the Free Army, the regime (and Russia) bombs the Free Army.
An arsonist posing as fireman, Assad tells the world his survival is indispensable to defeating jihadism. Too many commentators agree with him, perhaps because commentary in general has tended to ignore the travails and achievements of the Syrian people in favour of the terrorism story and proxy-war chess. As a result the general public in the West seems to think Syria’s choice is between, as a man recently told me, “President Assad” and “the nutters”.
Since 2011 I have learned to distrust the grand pre-existent narratives of both left and right, to fear the dead(ly) ends of identity politics, and to focus instead on the human facts. Like the 300,000 dead and eleven million displaced (the worst refugee crisis since World War Two) – the vast majority at Assad’s hand. Plus the more positive realities, like the revolutionary local councils, usually democratically elected, which do their best to keep life going and which should be part of any settlement. Or like the revolution in culture which has produced groundbreaking music, poetry, critical radio stations and newspapers.
The people practised democracy where they could. Yet by August 2013, counter-revolution seemed to have won both regionally and globally. In Egypt that month’s Rabia massacre began the liquidation of the Muslim Brotherhood, then the repression of everyone else. In Syria, as Obama’s chemical ‘red line’ vanished, Assad killed 1400 people with chemical weapons. Assad continued to receive Russian weapons; the Egyptian army received theirs from America.
Iran and then Russia rescued the Assad regime from military collapse, although in a way it has collapsed already, subcontracting its powers to foreign states and local warlords. And it has lost four-fifths of the country. Some of ‘liberated Syria’ is held by beleaguered democratic-nationalists, Arab or Kurdish, and a lot is strangled by trans-national jihadists.
The crisis increases exponentially. The only thing sure about Russia’s invasion is that it is expanding the war in space and time.
So, a five-year accounting: Friends and relatives have lost homes, witnessed atrocities, been forced into clandestine migration. Nothing unusual – every Syrian family, from whatever side, has trauma tales to tell. Most are mourning their dead. I will never show Palmyra’s temples or Aleppo’s Umawi mosque minaret to my children – these monuments that survived earthquakes and Mongol invasions are now razed, and the complex social fabric of the country irreparably torn.
Syria has witnessed the depths of human depravity. Syrians have also demonstrated the most inspiring creativity and resilience in the most terrible of circumstances.
Change in Syria and the wider region is running at breakneck pace, and heading in contradictory directions. As to the final results, this time I’ll say it’s far, far too early to tell.