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By lara keller (last updated 14th April 2017)

The Way Ahead : Why the Syrian Revolution Can Win (5.1)

Can only justify the use of such a pompous verbose title because what needs to be done is so obvious. The maze of political rhetoric that obscures the Syrian Revolution is much more complicated than the reality.

No real discussion of Syria can be started without acknowledging an honest regional historical overview. The shorthand of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region) stretches from Iran to Morocco.

The power of the dominate Ottoman Empire started to decline after the independence of Greece in the early nineteenth century. In Iran the power of the Qajar dynasty declined due to Russian and British rivalry in the late nineteenth century. In both cases the First World War was the terminal event.

Subsequently overlapping waves of political upheaval have swept the MENA region. There was the wave of European colonialists and Western backed monarchies. Essentially Israel and Saudi Arabia were enabled by Western imperialism in the 1920s and 30s. This was followed by Cold War Soviet backed Left-wing Arab Nationalism (Free Officers of Nasser and Gaddafi, Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party of Aflaq and al-Bitar). There was the rise of modern political Islamism from the late 1960s onwards (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979).

To global elites the MENA region has historically had oil, geographical strategic importance (on the way to somewhere else) and some potential as colonial land (especially Zionists, British and French). The region has been the target of intense colonialism and neo-colonialism (indirect rule by enabling dependent local dictators). A strong regional elite has also evolved to preserve dictatorships, in a malign partnership with global elites. If by magic “imperialism” (by the West, Russia and China) were to disappear tomorrow, the self-reinforcing system of rule by dictatorship would continue in the MENA region.

The latest wave of political upheaval is essentially different to previous waves. It consists of democratic uprisings for representative government against authoritarianism (2011 Arab Democratic Spring, 2009 Iranian Green Movement). This is a long awaited desperate mass reaction by people in the region who are well aware of the reality of rampant self-serving self-reinforcing dictatorships. The reaction of the West has been sanctimonious and mean.

The MENA region has been enslaved by three techniques that are common to colonialism.

Fragmentation: The creation of divisions between communities where they did not previously exist.

Containment: Encouraging and enabling communities to struggle and fight against each other.

Extremism: Promoting the worst more violent authoritarian and egocentric among opponent insurgent groups.

The division of the Ottoman Empire into new nation states (and the creation of Israel), encouraged the emergence of competing factions based on religious or ethnic identities who could then dominate each other within the confines of absolute borders. These fragmentary countries could also enclose oil resources, which made them dependent on the protection of global powers. It is easy then to encourage conflicts between these fragments (switching allegiances as necessary) to ensure they remain weak, and so that their elites are given a justification to oppress their citizens. If the elites of a country were threatened with political upheaval, then the covert support for the worst of the insurgent groups, means there are more resources available to defeat them or they are easier to corrupt into preserving a modified version of the same dictatorship (Algerian Civil War 1990s).

The apparent unique complication of Middle Eastern politics, is a facet of seeing it at face value, rather than acknowledging the inner mechanisms of colonial, neo-colonial and regional elitist manipulations. Viewed from this point the Middle East is an exaggerated example of what happens elsewhere. It is wrong to explain Middle Eastern politics in the orientalist terms of cultural clashes or imagined historical stagnation; not for moral reasons of multicultural correctness, but because it is not true and not pragmatically progressive.

These colonial techniques work between countries, and within countries. The regime Hafez Assad setup after a coup in Syria in 1970, was based on the predominant principle that it should be coup-proof. There were multiple separated large security forces, who were used to systematically terrorise the population, and could be used on each other if necessary. Divisions within smaller communities were encouraged by giving resources to select elites within minority groups, in return for policing them by exposing dissent. Communities based on religion, ethnicity or even employment (ie army officers) were housed in separate areas within cities. Communities were then encouraged to bully and dominate each other, by giving rights to resources in return for ensuring other communities remained loyal to the regime.

The Assad regime murdered its moderate opponents, but imprisoned its extremist opponents. In 2011 Bashar Assad had thousands of extremist Islamists released from Syrian prisons, so they could assist the expansion of the so called Islamic State’s caliphate in the Sunni border region between Syria and Iraq. This allowed Assad to claim he was fighting Islamic terrorism, rather than the rights of Syrian people to a genuinely representative government. The regime fought the moderate armed rebels and left the Islamic State alone. In the same way Assad has encouraged ultra-Kurdish nationalism in Syria.

At the same time in Syria (and Libya) the counter-revolution is being vigorously encouraged by regional authoritarian regimes. There are the numerous Iranian backed Shia militias fighting for the so called Syrian Arab Army. On the opposition side there is a minority of well-funded fundamentalist Islamic groups which are needed to avoid military defeat in the short term, due to lack of Western support, but ironically justify lack of support in the long term, by allowing the armed opposition to be wrongly smeared as dominated by extremists.

So the essential problem in Syria is getting rid of the Assad regime and replacing it with representative government. Clearly this is not “regime change”. It is the death of a brutal oppressive regime and the birth of a genuine government.

This means creating an effective armed opposition; establishing physical, food, health and shelter security for the Syrian people both as individuals and groups; achieving stability; establishing a representative government; negotiating a peace settlement between Syrian communities; creating an agreed set of principles for governance that balances societal progress with individual and community protection.

The human rights violations of the Assad regime since its creation, let alone since 2011, screams of a deficit of good will. It is insane to rely on the humane instincts of the regime. Nothing will be achieved unless the regime is militarily threatened. Pacifism requires a minimum of decency that the Assad regime has contemptuously failed. The “whataboutism” that compares the Assad regime to the crimes of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Western Imperialism and then concludes that not supporting the Syrian Revolution is “progressive”, lacks any moral substance. These are not competing issues, but the same issue of the gross misrule by elites. This is where the experience of people in the MENA region differs sharply from the insulated rhetoric of the Western hard-left groups.

There are no reasons why the Syrian Revolution cannot win as the enemy is the gross misrule of national, regional and global elites. These elites can be challenged.

[Next Part 5.2] See:


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