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The End of Taking the Syrian Revolution at Face Value

[Image design by author] [Image design by author]

Those interested in a revolution that would be considered a significant step forward from the existing Syrian regime, might want to take pause as they steadfastly support some of its main anchors. In particular, months after its establishment, the Syrian National Council (SNC) has failed in providing the leadership, autonomy, and consensus necessary to battle the Syrian regime. This much is no longer a controversial remark, even among some of the ranks of the SNC. But there is more that can and should be systematically discussed, not just to point out the divisiveness and counterproductive alliances associated with the SNC, but precisely to understand how might a robust opposition lead this overdue uprising against decades of tyranny.

Highlighting the role of the SNC is neither meant to reduce the revolution to it nor privilege it as the only opposition force. Rather it reflects the importance that has been placed on it by Syrians and non-Syrians alike since its inception in October 2011. It is simply a starting point. The assumption here is that, generally, the internal independent opposition on the ground and the local Coordinating Committees are the best expression of the Syrian uprising to date, notwithstanding the increasing infiltration by elements with suspect motives. But to face the Syrian regime, a lot more is needed by way of strategy, leadership, and consensus.

The fact that the SNC still has a strong constituency domestically is less a function of its representative nature and political efficacy and much more a function of a constellation of factors that leaves little choice for an embattled and isolated protest movement. More critically, some of the expressed strategies of the SNC e.g., regional/international alliances, intervention, and future plansconverge with a growing conservative and sectarian trend within the internal opposition, a trend that is growing in number and in terms of regional ties. Whether that trend is itself a desperate response to regime brutality and the shabbiha’s sectarianism or an expression of something more cynical, or both, is not the issue. The SNC has so far failed as an anti-dictatorial leadership in asserting the kind of values and strategies that build consensus and attract further support locally, regionally, and internationally. As a result, to simply assume that this uprising will triumph simply because the regime is authoritarian and is killing its own people, is no longer to be taken for granted. The internal opposition is now armed, and we are looking at a different kind of confrontation, even if the upper-hand militarily is on the regime’s side. 

By the same token, those who consider the uprising to be going astray on various levels should not abandon the goal of fighting and overthrowing dictatorship unless, of course, the question of dictatorship for them is completely trumped by other regional considerations. In that case, this camp—whatever one calls it—is the mirror image of the SNC from the other side. (I have engaged that camp elsewhere, and will be completing Part III soon).

Tough Sell in an Explosive Environment

In this atmosphere of continuous killing (overwhelmingly by the regime), pushing for reflexivity and nuance will be a tough task, and a yet tougher sell. But unless cooler and sober minds prevail, the very impetus of rising up against tyranny and social injustice will be compromised considerably. Worse, a catastrophe of much larger proportion will be lurking right around the corner in the event of an all out civil war or foreign military intervention.

This calls for a serious and frank discussion, but only among those who see the importance and absolute necessity of ending decades of dictatorship. A discussion cannot proceed from an emphasis on the status-quo ante. Going back to the pre-March 2011 formula is no longer possible or imaginable. The Syrian regime has lost its ability to govern Syria. It can only enforce its will in certain areas, and in ways that will continue to undermine whatever authority it left for itself as a result of its brutal and, in any case, routine handling of the initial Der`a incident, as well as its aftermath.

Notwithstanding the caveats, the starting point is the seemingly irreconcilable polarization one witnesses among audiences and participants in relation to the Syrian uprising. Getting a word in/out without being called a plethora of names by short-sighed or dogmatic individuals on any "other" side is impossible. Even among those who oppose the regime on principle, a discussion is hardly devoid of a slew of insults related to who is a real Marxist, a radical democrat, a genuine supporter of the people, a real regime detractor, a humanist, a better agent of resistance, or what have you. 

Indeed, the discursive situation is frightening and tragic, especially when compared to the other cases of uprisings in the region. At some level, it is partly understandable: so much is at stake for so many parties as well as causes. And what is at stake relates to more than the triumph of dictatorship or the opposition: it is the whole grammar of politics in the region and beyond. It is a war of priorities and big wins versus big losses, a winner-takes-all battle in which the lives of thousands of people lost is routinely compared to the loss of tens of thousands, by way of making a point. I am personally guilty of such comparisons too, but I do admit it and I do consider this a cold-hearted though unavoidable discussion for those who are concerned about Syria and Syrians, today and in the future. Though the urgency of today must take precedence, the constellation of factors stacked against an independent and genuine uprising ultimately makes this calculation less intuitive than it appears at first glance. More specifically, we cannot content ourselves with a narrow humanitarian lens, and discount the future as a result. Given the trajectory of the external opposition, we no longer have this luxury. 

But how do you get beyond the moment without losing a part of your humanity, the same humanity that causes some to privilege the big picture and the long haul? One way to do it is to never abandon the fight against the existing dictatorship, despite one's critique of the opposition, its problematic relations, and its own use as a tool for ends that are neither solely defined by the Syrian people nor desirable in any case. Opposing the regime is more than opposing the Asad rule; it is also opposing any similar formula that might replace it, and the time to begin doing so is now.

When deep polarization is at hand, a counter-productive zero-sum game develops. Arguments and positions for or against the opposition or the question of intervention become fierce and often existential ones. Those who disagree with you are not detractors, they are “traitors,” either against the revolution or pro-imperialists. What is needed is a leadership that can subdue this state of affairs to something far more collective and dignified: one that can melt this rigidity and allow the opposition to match the regime’s guns with a true revolutionary strategy. The SNC has strayed far, and perhaps irreversibly, from this conception.

Rigid Camps Require Serious Shaking

We have two rigid camps. The first considers the revolution to have lost all legitimacy because of concerns that the uprising is, partly or wholly, manipulated. The other camp does not see any significant flaws in the revolution, or discounts the flaws as byproducts of any revolution. Neither is likely to advance the legitimate cause of the uprising in practice. And, given that the brutality of the Syrian regime is not to be excused (now and in the past), the most sober course of action is to stop taking the Syrian revolution at face value and engage in a serious critique and discussion of the various facets of the opposition, their relations, stances, and strategies. From afar, at least, that is one thing one can do.

It is difficult to address all aspects of such endeavor without a concerted effort by those who are strategically positioned to do so. Pontificating like others or I might be doing from afar can be productive only if it engages players on the ground. The problem is that many in such a pool have commitments that make them less free/available to consider such analysis. Or they may have foreclosed such critical inquiry in favor of pushing ahead against the regime regardless of exactly how. And though most of those on the ground cannot be blamed because of their circumstances, we must no longer assume that those circumstances should continue to foreclose what is possible. The stakes are becoming too high, and the opposition is becoming too diluted for us to take for granted that the “revolution” against dictatorship will triumph eventually. That era, in my view, is now behind us. The “revolution” that pits a dictatorship against wholly pro-freedom and pro-democracy protesters can no longer be taken at face value. Triumph, however conceived, must be far more deliberated, and that requires a whole other approach. Even if the regime falls tomorrow, the revolution must continue to achieve the always deeper objectives of revolution, unless the Egyptian model is the aim.

Lest one strays too far from reality, especially for those among the supporters of the big picture, it is undeniable that the Syrian regime is responsible for the state of affairs where genuine and independent (and usually secular) members of the opposition see little else other than the necessity of ending the bloodshed by seeking to remove the regime. I will not rehearse the arguments I made earlier in reference to this point--where I firmly disagreed with and warned against the call for international intervention by many members of the opposition, but submitted that I cannot impose my position on them. Rather, I shall proceed to invite productive and courageous assessment of the current opposition both inside and outside Syria.

How to Critique an Opposition from a Revolutionary Perspective

This is not a simple task, but it is not thoroughly complicated either. Its merits are monumental, as everyone besides die-hard regime supporters has an interest in a robust and effective opposition that is able to build consensus in an independent and autonomous manner. What we have today outside Syria is a weak, fragmented, and largely dependent opposition that is not likely to carry the day now or in the future. Instead, it is likely to oversee the reproduction of many of the existing state of affairs, domestically or regionally. Even those who believe that the above claims are excessive should countenance the argument based on a simple comparison between how they felt about parts of the opposition, namely the SNC, earlier on, and how they regard it today. Most, including SNC members, were far more enthusiastic about its prospects. This is no longer the case. However, unfortunately, the brutality of the Syrian regime pushes people to the lesser evil, so to speak.

Not taking the revolution at face value does not only mean we should be skeptical about some of its elements. More practically, it means that a more robust opposition is necessary. The failure of the SNC in particular to leverage the regional and international fronts on position of principle left it with alliances that hold little promise, or legitimacy. It’s inability to bring more Syrians to its side by explicitly and comprehensively denouncing sectarian behavior no matter against whom it was directed reduced its ability to create unity. Its rush to reverse its decision and support military intervention of all sorts ultimately compromised its nationalist credentials and placed it in camps that have long been hostile to Syria and the Syrian people. Most importantly, its increasingly narrow approach has prevented it from serving as an umbrella to smaller opposition groups like the National Body for the Coordinating Committees.

The lynchpin for these deficiencies is the loss of its autonomy from external actors that it may deem necessary politically and/or financially. This “any price” instrumentalism may work when one is receiving support from principled players that believe the cause of revolution and when one believes that it will indeed work. History will be kinder to such instrumentalism. But after the Libyan model that produced death and destruction by the very forces that the SNC clings to, and after the solid veto against condemning the regime at the United Nations, opposition strategies should have shifted in the direction of more internal solidarity. Instead, we witness more exclusion, lack of transparency, and further dependence on external factors by the SNC. Worst of all, we observe sectarian, obscurantist, and politically suspect voices rise from within the internal and external opposition without any sort of firm reprisal from the putatively dominant opposition force, the SNC. The tragedy is that the SNC will continue to survive because its bloodline is the blood that is being spilled by the regime. But it will remain increasingly incapable of achieving the aims of those whose blood is being spilled on Syrian streets.

Significantly, many among the opposition undermine their cause by excluding their potential allies. It is not only counter-productive, but also wrong, to dismiss the concerns of those who are skeptical about the uprising but from a pro-revolutionary perspective. Such orthodox stances will reproduce the atmosphere of intolerance and repression that most are fighting to end in the first place. This latter concern relates to opposition members who are excommunicating their potential allies who simply have a different take on how to confront and battle the regime. Ironically, this type of thinking among parts of the opposition is similar to that of the rigid left that condemn their natural allies unless they produce precisely the same discourse and, indeed, level of animosity towards various actors and processes. Both are pitiful because they reproduce their ineffectiveness and, in case of the left, isolation and weakness.

The Syrian opposition must be systematically critiqued and, if/when possible, engaged and confronted for the sake of revolution itself. To do this right is to hold it to standards higher than those many of us have initially accepted simply because it was small, isolated, and brutally crushed by the Syrian regime. Otherwise, little will come of it and of the uprising beyond the fall of one brutal dictatorship. The Syrian people suffered for decades. They deserve much more than what the SNC has in store.

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5 comments for "The End of Taking the Syrian Revolution at Face Value"


If the SNC is not the representative of the people in the streets, why do we bother to analyze the revolution through it? The more representative the opposition, the less revolutionary/radical its demands would be. Look for instane at the Islamists in other countries in the region. They command a large popular support and are the least revolutionary in terms of their demands because they also know how the system works. In Syria, the opposition has been uprooted under the rule of Assad and those opposition in exile have almost lost all kinds of connection with the street. Thereforefore, I think that we should not reduce the rising opposition of the Syrian community to the opposition in exile.  If we want to help the people in Syria, I think that we should not focus on the opposition in exile but on the evolution of the opposition on the ground. 

Housam wrote on March 01, 2012 at 04:25 AM

Thanks for your (much needed) analysis Bassam. There are many on the so-called "Left" who rigidly claim that one must defend the regime at all costs from the imperial plans which are undoubtedly being prepared, via NATO-style intervention or through covert forms that will lead to a much bloodier civil war (which of course creates lucrative opportunities for the imperialists and the architects of the '7 countries in 5 years' plan).

Of course it is in no way morally defensible to support/”defend” the regime, even when these threats are real. There is a genuine uprising by Syrians who rightly oppose the continuation of Assad's repressive (and now murderous) dictatorship, and anyone with any morality or humanity should be unequivocal in recognizing this and in opposing the regime.

On the other hand, there are too many on the Left who swing to the other rigid extreme, that is to denounce anyone else on their side who raises complex questions over some of the dubious internal players who are trying to hijack the revolution, and who are beginning to succeed. I don't just speak of the SNC but also of some of the "rebel" groups on the ground, such as the FSA, Al-Qaeda fighters, and other mercenary groups that have been accused of civilian slaughter. Their aims are not the same as those of ordinary Syrians who seek freedom.

There is also a legitimate question to be asked (in the very spirit of supporting the real revolution but opposing the drive by some towards sectarian civil war, from within and without), and that is over the issue of arming the rebels. Not only is there a desire on the part of Saudi Arabia and, despite the obfuscation in Washington, on the part of the United States, to arm the "opposition", but it has clearly been underway for many months already.

So while I would never reproduce the empty praise for the Assad regime in so far as its “glorious” role in regional resistance to Israel, there is something urgent to be understood from why Syria has been at the top of the 'hit list' of the United States (and still is). And this is not to blindly or selfishly prioritize "regional considerations" at the expense of Syrians being killed, but rather to understand the greater catastrophe that awaits the Syrian people and Arabs in neighboring countries if these plans go ahead and we on the left remain silent over them, simply out of fear of being labeled an 'apologist' for Bashar.

The reason why Syria has been on the top of this list (the list of 7 countries to be “taken out” in 5 years, according to US General Welsley Clark) is precisely because of its (albeit contradictory) role in the alliance axis of resistance to Israel, namely Hisballah and Iran. To laugh this off is also gravely irresponsible.

As you say the situation in Syria is increasingly murky and complex and there are no clean and easy answers, tragically. But it would be a start if the rigid polarization that has developed

You write the following paragraph from your earlier article on Religion/Morality, Syria/Resistance: For Syria, What is “Left”? (Part 2 of 3):

“[…] even in the name of shielding Syria (whose “Syria?”) from an “international conspiracy” or from an attempt at undermining the axis of resistance that Syria enables and/or buttresses. What is wrong with condemning both sides (i.e., most external actors involved as well as the Syrian regime) and leaving the increasingly organized, expanding, and militant opposition to its own devices?”

I agree that there is nothing principally wrong with condemning both sides, but the problem is now that the ‘increasingly organized, expanding, and militant opposition’ you speak of, is now increasingly fragmented, sectarian and weak, and so cannot easily be left to its own devices without the growing risk of further disintegration and the hellish descent into all out civil war. It is exactly this chaos that the imperialists have been sowing, and sadly, it leaves us with even more difficult questions that don't have easy answers...

May wrote on March 01, 2012 at 05:46 AM

Very thorough and needed, Bassam. I hope in a future column you will say more about the role and status of the Local Coordinating Committees. From what I hear they are still open and independent enough to be a key arena of struggle to build the kind of independent opposition you rightly call for. And although the statements by the national LCC leadership are too vague to be able to tell much about their politics, if the individual LCCs remain open to everyday Syrians at the neighborhood and workplace level, they can be the key in developing a national leadership which takes up the challenges you address.

Andrew Pollack wrote on March 01, 2012 at 09:20 AM

To say that SNC "failed in providing the leadership, autonomy, and consensus necessary to battle the Syrian regime" is like say that NATO occupation of Afghanistan (Iraq) "failed" to establish a democracy. One CANNOT fail in something one has NOT intended to do. SNC intended to help NATO/GCC turn Syria into Libya-2. They, apparently, failed, but ONLY in this.

All in all, a VERY lame article. The author is still NOT going to face the reality -i.e. that SNC is a NATO/GCC tool, and LCC are nor much different.

lidia wrote on March 02, 2012 at 12:05 PM

Moon of Alabama has an analysis of video coming out of Syria. Given that this is all unverified, what do you make of this? How may this contradict what lcc's say and post?

Matt Graber wrote on March 04, 2012 at 12:32 AM

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