Deconstructing Narratives of the Syrian Revolution
By: Evelyn A. Aissa
Published Sunday, February 5, 2012
Reportage in Black and White
With a few honorable exceptions, foreign journalists reporting on the revolution in Syria generally come at it from one of two perspectives – that of the journalist on a furtive mission to uncover ‘the truth’ of the situation in a matter of hours – or in the best case scenario, a handful of weeks, or, that of the state-sanctioned reporter on something akin to an official visit to the country wherein he or she is escorted by security forces to a number of locations and presented a comparatively palatable snapshot of the situation. It is hard to blame the press for its shortcomings with regard to Syria – foreign journalists are rarely granted visas to the country, and the pervasiveness of the secret police and security forces render the work of those inside laborious at best, and perilous at worst. The outcome of all of the above tends to be reportage in black and white.
For their part, diplomats and commentators often have not been much better at shedding light on the situation. Headlines with the words civil war, time bomb, and sectarian, are more persuasive than those that allude to dynamics not readily conveyed to the average person reading a recap of a senate hearing or scanning an op-ed. Syria’s vital role in the region’s broader political dynamics and stability likewise ensures that foreign officials tend only to emphasize information of direct assistance to their broader geostrategic aims.
The dearth of measured reportage, commentary, and official statements on the situation in Syria is deeply troubling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that a generally ill-informed public is nevertheless responsible for holding elected officials to task – a duty that cannot be performed well in the absence of accurate information.
For these reasons, a number of key issues with regard to the situation in Syria must be addressed. The first issue to consider is the aims, divisions, and militant aspects of the Syrian opposition. The second, is international intervention, the potential creation of a buffer zone, and the risks associated with backing elements of the opposition. Finally, issues pertaining to the unintended consequences of any such form of foreign intervention in Syria must also be taken into account.
The three most recognized wings of the opposition are the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Free Syrian Army (FSA) (which technically falls under the umbrella of the SNC), and the National Coordination Committee (NCC). At present, the SNC has undoubtedly won the battle for attention from the international media. Its press statements suggest that the group is forming a unified strategy among its own ranks, while also consolidating its position among opposition members and activists inside Syria. However, there are a number of compelling reasons to question the veracity of its claims, as well as many of those made by opposition and activist groups more broadly.
Despite months of pressure from Syrian and foreign parties to reach out to more of the country's crucial minority groups, the SNC has thus far failed to do so. Additionally, a disconnect remains between the SNC and the numerous activist organizations operating inside Syria. While the SNC held its first plenary assembly in Tunisia in mid-December with the explicit intent of solidifying its policy goals and consolidating its position among the opposition, these issues will take months, not days or weeks, to tackle effectively.
Regarding the opposition more broadly, there are numerous dissident and activist groups operating inside Syria with no ties to the SNC or NCC. There are also countless activists working in country without any affiliation to any formal opposition group. These activists are powerful players in the protest movements in their respective areas and cannot be discounted.
Opposition groups – including the SNC, the NCC, and the FSA – all have a vital interest in conveying to local and foreign stakeholders that the Syrian government and its armed forces are splintering. The efficacy of all of these groups hinges in part on their ability to broaden their membership, which will in turn stem from compelling government supporters to switch allegiances, and the thousands who remain unconvinced by either side, to take up their cause. Though little evidence exists in support of opposition press releases pertaining to fractures within the government, such reports collectively function to paint skewed conceptions of the revolution's dynamics.
The same groups also have an interest in convincing local and foreign stakeholders that a post-Assad Syria will not result in the level of chaos, human suffering, and killing seen in post-2003 Iraq. To that end, the FSA is careful to assert that it operates primarily for the purposes of defending the unarmed. Ghalioun, for example, has noted on a number of occasions that the SNC would seek to preserve Syria's state structures and the social integrity of the country following the fall of the government.
Given the weaknesses of the Syrian opposition and activists groups at present, it is critical to avoid making the suggestion that the opposition could transform into a monolithic force in the foreseeable future. Such a belief would discount the reality of its divisions and the significance, both symbolically and practically, of debates between its members. To that end, it is also unrealistic to expect Syrian dissidents and activists in and outside of the country to develop, agree upon, and advance a plan for the overthrow of the regime and the subsequent political reconstruction of Syria, in a matter of months. Syrians have spent about four decades under the depoliticization program of the Baath Party, unable to organize or openly discuss the political future of the country. For those inside Syria, the onset of the revolution has shattered the barrier of fear keeping many from expressing their views. But it has done nothing to mitigate the reality that those attempting to organize against the government, do so under threat of violence. Even in the best of circumstances, such issues would take months and years to sort out.
All this is to say nothing of the millions who remain either supportive of the current government, or unconvinced by either side. With regard to the former, the violence, instability, and economic woes unleashed by the revolution have undoubtedly destroyed a significant portion of Assad's support base. What is left, however, is a core group of backers still numbering in the millions, some of whom border on the fanatical. If they have not shifted allegiances at this point, it is reasonable to assume most will never do so.
Finally, there are countless others who withhold their support for both the government and the opposition. For the opposition to succeed, it will have to address the interests, concerns, and uncomfortable reality of each of these groups – at present as well as in a post-Assad Syria.
As the crimes of the regime intensify, so too does debate with regard to the need for and possibility of international intervention. While key regional and international players have ruled out the possibility of intervention in Syria since the start of the revolution, history demonstrates that such declarations should never be taken at face value. The UK, the US, France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, for example, all have serious stakes in seeing regime change in Damascus. There are a growing number of calls for foreign intervention for the protection of Syrian civilians, particularly from exiled members of the opposition. These calls fuel anger and sympathy from the domestic constituencies of foreign officials, therein opening up a space for presumed changes in policy.
The concept of a "buffer zone" has been thrown around quite extensively in recent weeks with members of the SNC and the FSA increasingly calling for a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution to pave the way for its establishment. The concept has also received varying levels of interest from both Turkey and France, though it should be noted that the former passed up an opportunity to push for such an area back in mid-June when an estimated 10,000 Syrian refugees from Jisr al-Shughour fled across its border.
In theory, a buffer zone would allow for the following: the creation of a safe zone in which Syrian civilians could take refuge from security forces, the distribution of food and medical aid to civilians by international forces, the establishment of a base from which the opposition could operate, and the boosting of the opposition's morale which is an essential component of efforts to expand its membership.
The most plausible place for such a zone would be in Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province. The area is known to be strongly pro-opposition, is in close proximity to both the Mediterranean coast and the Turkish border. This region also has the natural advantage of resting in a valley that stretches southward into Syria and northward in the direction of Turkey, while also being surrounded by mountainous terrain to both its east and west. This means that any ground offensive launched by the regime would be limited in its approach, which indeed is why Syrian armed forces felt compelled to use air power to attack the region last June.
However, while the humanitarian merits of a buffer zone are repeated often, it should be understood that any such effort would first require international forces to launch a preemptive air campaign to neutralize the government's air-defense systems. This would require bombing key military installations in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Lattakia – all densely populated areas. Indeed, the vast majority of Syrian military assets are located in close proximity to urban settings. While many hearken back to NATO's recent air campaign in Libya, which indeed succeeded in allowing Libyan rebels to gain a needed foothold to defeat Gaddafi, Syria is by no means comparable to Libya.
To that end, there are a number of statistics worth bearing in mind: the total populations of Syria and Libya are 22.5 million and 6.5 million, respectively. The population densities of Syria and Libya are 110 people per square kilometer and 4 people per square kilometer, respectively. The active armed forces of Syria and Libya are made up of 295,000 people and 76,000 people, respectively. Finally, the reserve armed forces of Syria and Libya total 314,000 people and 40,000 people, respectively. Indeed, the bombing required to neutralize Syrian military assets for the purposes of establishing a buffer zone would likely result in casualties commensurate with or in excess of those already incurred by Syrian civilians and security forces since the start of the revolution.
Of course, the same issues must be factored into any international move to establish a no-fly zone in Syria. Given the limited use of air power by Syrian armed forces against civilians, the benefits of such a campaign remain unclear. Regardless, the establishment of a no-fly zone constitutes aggressive military action which would result in an unavoidably high number of casualties.
There is likewise the issue of foreign governments channeling monetary support and weapons into Syria in support of the revolution. Though more subtle in nature, this approach is also fraught with risks, including the possibility that such efforts could provide the resources and means necessary to drive the country into full-blown civil war. In addition, such support could fortify insurgent forces operating independently from the opposition, back armed elements of the opposition with sectarian leanings, and fortify elements of the opposition not broadly representative of the Syrian people, therein undermining the very aims of the revolution itself.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
By virtue of the country's arguable role as the linchpin of the Middle East, the primary driver of international intervention in Syria will not be compassion for the Syrian people, nor will it be concern for their best interests. Regime change in Damascus would deal a harsh blow to Iran and Hezbollah. While the media will speak of crimes in Syria at a heart-wrenching pitch, foreign officials will respond to international outrage with coordinated efforts to advance their respective geostrategic interests. This will likely involve backing a manifestation of the opposition (most likely the SNC) that foreign governments see as most able to advance their own agendas. Of course, this would not come as a surprise. By way of caution, however, a number of additional issues should be considered.
First, disunity between members of the opposition would make for a messy execution and aftermath of international intervention or assistance to the opposition. At present, the leading element of the opposition, the SNC, tackles key issues with regard to consolidating its ranks and constructing a plan for the country's political future with varying levels of ineptitude.
The SNC, as well as the FSA, are also seen by some to be courting Western powers as well as Turkey, which for many inside Syria seriously undermines the organizations' credibility. This also provides fodder for the regime's claim that the opposition is subject to outside forces.
Second, providing weapons and resources to the opposition before it has firmly taken minorities into its ranks and developed a credible plan for the protection of their rights in the future, would undoubtedly drive sectarian tensions higher. The most organized elements of the opposition have yet to effectively reach out to the country's increasingly fearful minorities. This, combined with the regime's menacing efforts to plant the seeds of sectarianism as it responds to the revolution, has only served to fuel anxieties. Underlying this assertion is the troublesome assumption that foreign governments are informed enough to decide which elements of the opposition to back. Further, the elements of the opposition that present the best face to the outside world, are by no means guaranteed to be accurate representatives of the Syrian people.
Third, while a number of analysts have stated that Syrian security and armed forces form a hollow vessel that will crumble under the weight of a collapsing regime, any such notion borders on farcical. As stated above, active members of the Syrian armed forces total about 295,000. Some 175,000 of those are conscripts with varying levels of training and commitment. However, the army also includes a number of highly trained and capable units, including the Republican Guard Division and the 4th Mechanized Division, totaling in number between 25,000 and 35,000. These units are under the command of Maher Assad, brother of Assad. Further, there are an additional 100,000 paramilitary forces linked directly to the ruling Baath Party. There is also the internal security apparatus which includes police forces linked to Syrian Military Intelligence, the National Security Bureau, the Political Security Directorate, Air Force Intelligence, and finally the General Intelligence Directorate. The latter division alone is comprised of about 25,000 men and is directly linked to the highest levels of the government. Finally, there are the Shabbiha. There are believed to be about 10,000 members of this civilian pro-government militia.
Military analysts have noted that the command structure and overall discipline of the Syrian armed forces are lacking. With regard to the ability of the armed forces to carry out operations against an invading force, this is undoubtedly true. However, recent events demonstrate high levels of coordination and cooperation between members of the security and military forces. To that end, for the regime to succeed in systematically detaining and torturing thousands of civilians through coordinated efforts between such forces – many of whom appear proud of their efforts and are willing to document both their commitment and pleasure while carrying them out – it is reasonable to assume that it has maintained a firm hold over those who carry out its directives. These same individuals do not have a bright future in a post-Assad Syria and few will be eager to throw their support behind an opposition seeking to usher in this reality. This in turn suggests that protracted conflict will be the outcome of international intervention (in most any form) in Syria, just as it has been the outcome of the revolution itself.
Fourth, civil wars tend always to last longer and cause more human and material destruction than anticipated. This would most certainly be the case in Syria for the three reasons stated above. Further, any such conflict in Syria is naturally positioned to evolve into a proxy war between regional and international powers. This issue has been written about quite extensively elsewhere. Suffice it to say here that the maneuverings and actions of Iran, Lebanon, Hamas, Hezbollah, Israel, Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the US and the EU, Russia, and China, are inherently rife with the possibility of setting in motion a series of events that could dismantle any remaining semblance of security or stability in the region.
Paying Heed to the Struggle
The dynamics of the Syrian revolution and the regime's efforts to suppress it do not lend themselves to simple narratives. Any efforts to reduce them as such creates both the space and the incentive for outside forces to intervene in a crisis already fraught with the potential of becoming a devastating, protracted and possibly interstate, conflict.
At the core of the Syrian revolution is a struggle for basic rights, for freedom, and for life free from humiliation and degradation at the hands of the state. Thus far, well over 5,000 people have died in this struggle, while thousands of others have suffered under detention and torture. While the pressure will mount on the international community to intervene on behalf of the Syrian people, it is important to recall that any such foreign powers have no true credibility in the struggle to bring respect for human rights and democracy to Syria. Indeed, the Baath Party itself assumed its position at the helm of the country through a series of misguided efforts by the US government to bring democracy to Syria beginning in 1947. This bit of history is lost on few people who live in Syria.
While elements of the opposition might succeed in winning the propaganda war overseas, if such success comes at the expense of efforts to understand, effectively represent, and protect the actual interests and concerns of ordinary Syrians, it would serve as a profound injustice to the revolution.
Evelyn A. Aissa is a writer and photographer formerly based in Syria and currently living in the United States.