Resistance Belongs to People not Regimes
By: Antoun Issa
Published Monday, June 18, 2012
The notion of resistance in the Arab world has had a strong cultural resonance over the past century. Citing a continuum of Arab struggles, firstly against Ottoman rule, to European mandates, and US and Israeli occupations, the concept of resistance has come to form the backbone of contemporary Arab identity.
The tragedy of Palestine in particular has played a pivotal role in establishing an Arab identity that encapsulates collective injustices suffered by the Arab people, while reinforcing resistance as a means of defiance and hope.
The creation of Israel in the heart of the Arab world is the symbol, at least for many Arabs, of Western hegemony in the Middle East. Given the non-existence of any truly representative Arab nation that reflects social, economic and cultural interests, the modern Arab identity has instead tied itself to the struggle against the powers that deny this region its full expression. True self-determination for Arab peoples is the removal of the hegemonic order that has kept the Arabs subordinate in their own region.
Resisting Western hegemony in practice equates to struggling against largely US-backed Arab dictators, as witnessed in the “Arab Spring,” and supporting the Palestinian cause without question. It is a mantle contested for by nearly all political persuasions in the Arab world. Islamists, leftists and nationalists all compete for the resistance stamp, and part of that competition is to discredit the others as addendums of US hegemony.
It's also a card the Syrian regime has played for decades, promoting itself as the only Arab state actively resisting US and Israeli interests in the region in a bid to gain legitimacy. Its supporters highlight the regime's support for Hezbollah and other Lebanese factions during Israel's 22-year occupation of South Lebanon, as well as its hosting armed Palestinian factions, including Hamas, as examples of the regime's commitment to resistance.
It is why when popular Arab protests emerged in North Africa, Syrian President Bashar Assad dismissed the chance of the unrest reaching Syria, praising his regime as being “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.” By “beliefs,” Assad is referring to the strong public attachment amongst Syrians, and Arabs in general, to Palestine, reinforcing Syria's image as the Arab state of resistance.
But to claim the Assad regime is truly committed to resistance is contradictory to the fundamental understanding of what constitutes collective Arab suffering. If resistance – as a cornerstone of modern Arab identity – is a public expression of frustration at the sorry state of the Arab world, then an authoritarian regime by nature cannot claim to represent such an expression for it is part of the order that perpetuates such suffering.
An autocratic regime is by definition self-centered, with its primary interests being its survival and, when possible, extending its power. Sovereignty, for dictatorships, is the regime itself, and it rises above all national considerations, including the welfare of the state's citizens and development of the country's economic interests. While the Syrian regime might claim to carry the flag of resistance against US imperialism, its very existence as a denier of the Syrian people's right to self-determination fits entirely with the “imperialist” design for the Arab world.
The behaviour of the Syrian regime over the course of the current crisis has mimicked the predictable actions of an autocratic leadership. It has responded with overwhelming force and brutality, detaining tens of thousands arbitrarily, while refusing to budge on an inch of its power. Authoritarian regimes rule by the gun, and it is the only pillar of power that ensures the continuation of their authority while the masses are subdued. A compromise solution would have spared Syria a bloodbath and the impending likelihood of full-scale civil war, thus adhering to Syria's national interests. Indeed, the Syrian regime had a plethora of opportunities to deal with willing internal opposition groups that equally reject foreign interference and prefer a Syrian-led democratic transition through dialogue. The regime rejected such opportunities, instead detaining and harassing opposition intellectuals and activists working tirelessly to prevent their country from imploding.
Syria's national interests do not factor when the regime's survival is questioned, let alone Palestine or any other cause considered dear to the collective Arab heart. Nor is the regime's selfish behaviour new. Rather, an accurate trace of Baath rule over the past four decades shows that it has only ever been concerned with the preservation of its survival, often at the expense of Syria's national interests, Lebanon and Palestine.
Its dubious actions during Lebanon's 15-year civil war are evidence of the true character of the Assad regime, turning on the Palestinian, leftist and nationalist camps when it suited them best. Assad's forces originally entered Lebanon in 1976 to crush this coalition with tacit US and Israeli approval, and again in the 1980s orchestrated a war on Palestinian refugee camps that left thousands dead.
The Assad regime and its supporters insist, however, it is battling a Western-led effort to destroy Syria and weaken its position in the region. There is no disputing that Western interests would like to see an influential adversary in Syria weakened. But in pursuing the military option against the revolt, and refusing to compromise on power, Assad has only invited foreign interference by granting them the opportunity to engage in its internal dispute. A political solution with willing opposition groups in Syria would have nullified the armed elements and their foreign backers, and brought in disenchanted Syrians in an inclusive process towards transition.
But the regime turned its back on a Syrian solution, and allowed for the internationalization of the crisis through its unrelenting use of force. For a negotiated solution within Syria would have led to the inconceivable for the regime: the transfer of Syria's sovereignty from a regime of political and business elites to the Syrian people. Thus, it is prepared to fight a war as it is the only means it has available to ensure its own survival. Western and Gulf Arab backing for its opponents conveniently gives the impression that the regime is resisting imperialism, once again reinforcing – in the eyes of some – its flawed stature as a legitimate Arab resistance force fighting for Arab interests.
Supporters of Assad are correct when they argue that the battle for Syria is crucial to the future of Palestine, as well as the future of Lebanon, Iraq and the region at large. But it is Assad who has endangered the future of Bilad al-Sham by refusing to adhere to Syria's national interests, as expected of an autocratic leader, and instead embarking on a path toward civil war as an attempt to ensure the survival of his regime.
Truly adhering to the Arab concept of resistance is to remain committed to its purpose. The current map of the Middle East – authoritarianism divided by 21 artificial Arab states plus Israel – was specifically designed by Western powers to keep the Arabs subordinate, weak, divided and voiceless. If Arab resistance is a rejection of this order, and a bid to reclaim Arab sovereignty for the people, then the removal of all Arab dictatorships, including Assad’s regime, is the resistance's natural course.
Antoun Issa is the News and Opinion Editor at Al-Akhbar English.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.