Syria: The ‘comforting’ narratives of the conflict

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Syrians take part in the funeral of a soldier, who died during the Syrian conflict, at the Martyr's cemetery of the city of Tartus northwest of Damascus on May 18, 2014. (Photo: AFP-Joseph Eid)

By: Amer Mohsen

Published Thursday, May 22, 2014

I know that what follows will not please many people in the Syrian opposition, including the decent men and women who have proven in the past years – through their deeds and not their words – that they love their country more than they hate their foes. But the narrative criticizing the “militarization of the uprising,” which is often parroted by Syrian opposition groups, especially those who have not been involved in the armed conflict, is not an analysis rooted in reality. Rather, like most analyses coming out of Syria these days, this narrative aims at creating a version of history that is “comforting” for its proponents, and to bridge the gap between the assumptions the latter has put forward over the past few years, and historical reality as it unfolds before our very eyes.

Criticizing the militarization of the events in Syria, in short, is based on the claim that Syria had a revolution, or a revolution in the making, and that this revolution was going to be successful and was going to spread among all segments of society, before the “arms” came into play, spoiling everything. This, for the faction touting the claim, led to dependence on foreign actors, inter-sectarian antagonism, and the dominance of elites associated to foreign sponsors – and all the other “sins” that have marred the popular uprising in Syria and brought us to civil war.

I once had a tutor who, not without orientalist undertones, used to mock what he called the folk historical memory of the Arabs and Turks. He was of the view that we often envisaged our history in the context of a “fork-in-the-road” narrative. That is, we believed that our present reality is the result of fateful missed opportunities in our past; if events had played out differently, history would have been completely different (i.e. if we had won in Poitier or if Vienna had fallen, Europe would have been Muslim today).

Blaming what happened in Syria on militarization has some of the features of that what-if mentality.

On the one hand, it is not possible to identify the pivotal moment at which a decision was made to militarize the crisis and take Syria into a vicious circle of violence, though it is easier to determine who fed, financed, and allowed this to grow and spread – unless there are some who still believe that the opposition is fighting with weapons seized from the regime and defecting soldiers.

At the start of the crisis in Syria, there was a civilian political protest movement that was often confronted with violence and outright killing. At the same time, and in parallel, there were violent armed clashes in varying frequency and intensity, and any narrative that tries to conceal one side of the story at the expense of the other serves ideological biases, but not the objective truth.

On the other hand, militarization per se is not an absolute evil. Historically speaking, it was not armed conflict that killed revolutions. No, what is evil is civil war, endless conflicts, and the bid to turn Syria into a battlefield for various actors. In this context, militarization and violence were the instruments not the cause.

The real cause was the political impasse and zero-sum wagers, of which clashes and violence are two ineluctable and expected outcomes. While it is easy to say that this was the regime’s desire and policy, and that all its calls for reform and dialogue were disingenuous or unacceptable under the guns of the regime’s tanks, it is also a fact that almost all opposition groups – including the Damascus Declaration, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Local Coordination Committees – had agreed since mid-2011 on rejecting dialogue and negotiations with the regime. In effect, the Syrian National Council was established on this very basis.

The point of departure in this context was that the issue had become a matter of principle and ethics (when casualties in Syria still numbered in the dozens and the hundreds) because the regime was “murderous” and thus it “had to go.” But is it incongruous to adopt this stance and reject militarization in the same breath, because one cannot endorse a recipe for war and then renounce its instruments. Indeed, what do you think would happen in any country in the world if protests, bearing a different flag than the national flag, came out proclaiming that the entire constitutional order was illegitimate and that laws did not apply, and demanded international protection? The error here is twofold: Refusing to negotiate with the regime all the while being unable to bring it down.

Those who justify this attitude by invoking “revolutionary legitimacy” and “popular will” are no doubt conflating the historical notion of social revolution with “color revolutions” in the past two decades, where political campaigns and coups were supplemented by some popular displays (as happened in Egypt and Ukraine last year). For one thing, revolutions topple regimes, and do not make demands. For another, they are called “revolutions” because they can mobilize a clear popular majority, create a sweeping national movement, overthrow regimes unconditionally, and go on to monopolize power. If these elements had been present in Syria, we would not be having this debate right now.

On saying what we don’t want to hear

In principle, and within the limits of logic and reason, the most an opposition can demand from an authoritarian regime is to be allowed to engage in political activity and contend freely in elections, without persecution or harassment by the regime. But to ask a regime to willingly “make way” for the opposition to assume power and embrace democracy, or to demand that the country implement the criteria of Freedom House, allowing opposition parties to return and engage in politics, in order for the opposition not to collaborate with the country’s enemies, then this is outside the realm of politics.

It is important to mention here that in the best of circumstances, even if the regime were to provide guarantees and make pledges in this direction, this process would still be fraught with risks. First, the regime may not hold fair and free elections, and may use its dominance over the state to manipulate the political process. Second, even if the regime were to show leniency to its opponents, as Hosni Mubarak did for years, this does not mean that it would automatically accept a real rotation of power at any level.

Furthermore, the regime – like Saddam Hussein had done in the late 1970s – may make an about-face and decide to detain and torture dissidents even after giving them safety. In other words, this is a dangerous path that has no guarantees; but, whether we like it or not, it is the sole avenue for those who want peaceful democratic change.

For example, in the few days before the conference in Geneva, a Syrian dissident wrote an editorial in Al-Hayat [newspaper] defending the opposition’s decision to engage in dialogue with the regime, something that was unthinkable just weeks before the conference, and would have been described by all the main opposition factions as treason. He wrote, “The regime is aware that it, not the Syrian opposition, will be the one compelled to offer concessions. The opposition itself has no real weight…and therefore cannot offer what it doesn’t have, while the regime will have to do so being…at the head of a “legitimate” government that has signed international agreements with the United Nations. It will have no choice but to offer concrete concessions….”

The main thesis of the article argues that as long as the opposition has nothing that it can concede in negotiations, while the regime has nothing but concessions, then negotiations are most certainly in the interest of the opposition, if not a duty thereon. This sounds valid and well argued, but it was also equally valid and well argued in May 2012 and May 2011, that is before Syria was burned to the ground and its people scattered in all directions.

It is easy to focus on a tally of the regime’s crimes, suppression of protests, and various acts throughout the civil war, and to assume that the regime alone bears all the responsibility for what happened in Syria. This is a comforting narrative and is ideologically worthwhile, but it is a poor analysis that assumes the existence of a world where only the regime has agency, but not the Syrian opposition (both its elites and popular base). As a result, all the latter’s actions are seen as mechanical and natural reactions to the choices made by the regime.

We are talking here about actual history, about decisions that were made, positions that were declared, wagers that were built upon, and alliance that were held, and also about many choices and possibilities that were dismissed and excluded. Politics, in any sense, operates in this domain.

But the most insidious self-exonerating narrative advanced by political actors today revolves around the claim that their choices were ultimately not their own, and that they were only following in the footsteps of the people. This entails a double ideological denial of agency: the “people” (who always speak through these actors) are used to legitimize their choices and policies, but when the going gets tough, these choices are policies are attributed to the people by way of disclaiming them.

People have the right to complain about the course of history, but they do not have the right to object to simple logic. Yet such is the case of those who cheered armed opposition raids on Syrian conurbations, and then months later, were outraged when cities and towns became ruins and warzones. When you support, for instance, a political movement dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a group with a history of sectarian violence which, only two years before the war (not to mention their long history before that), had been officially allied to the Bush administration through the National Salvation Front seeking to liberate Syria, Iraqi style, then are you really entitled to be shocked when the revolution takes on a sectarian turn and follows the Libyan scenario?

The same applies to those who “love” the Syrian people in the Arab region. It was quite natural for the Lebanese factions to have the attitudes they ended up having over the conflict (and this applies to all sides). Groups like the Future Movement, the Lebanese Forces, and others, were encouraged when the crisis afflicted their arch-nemesis: the regime which, in the Lebanese Forces’ case at least, had fought them, humiliated them, killed their members, and jailed their leaders.

It was only natural for these Lebanese factions to desire the complete radicalization of the protest movement in Syria, precluding any solution or de-escalation, and for things to descend into armed conflict (the first documented armed appearance in Syria, in Homs in April 2011, according to testimonies by Syrian dissidents, had something to do with the Future Movement in Lebanon). It was also natural for these factions to desire a clash between the Syrian uprising and Hezbollah (at the first week of the protests, Maamoun al-Homsi, a Syrian dissident close to the Future Movement, claimed that Hezbollah was behind the crackdown on protesters in Daraa). This is all logical and to be expected, but the point here is that all this has absolutely nothing to do with the interests and future of the Syrian people.

The Syrian war did not take place?

Prior to and during the 1991 Gulf War, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote an often-misunderstood collection of essays titled “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.” What Baudrillard meant was all those who were not experiencing war directly, but remotely, such as the global audience, were not experiencing the war actually taking place, but a “representation” of it created by the media and by ideology.

This representation, according to the writer whose works inspired the Matrix film series, did not involve conveying and relaying what was happening on the ground, as much as it was a parallel reality that had a life of its own, separate from real life, and one that had its own preset narrative, in isolation from actual events (e.g. a criminal dictator occupies a safe country, forcing the Free World to come to the rescue and uphold justice). Any event that does not fit into this narrative was not to be presented to the audience.

From this angle, the war in Syria did not take place either. On the one hand, the Syrian conflict is one of the most documented wars in history: Syria is full of professional and volunteer reporters, and footage is constantly reaching us straight from the battlefield. But at the same time, the Syrian conflict is one of the most mysterious with a complete lack of reliable information.

We do not even know the exact number or the identity of the casualties of the war. The figures cited by the press, such as those of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, are not taken seriously by most credible entities, except as being “estimates.” What is worse is that the most important aspect of the conflict, i.e. the covert war taking place behind the scenes and the plots hatched in capitals far from Damascus, will remain secret to most of us for decades to come, until secret archives are opened and the facts no longer have any value.

Because the Syrian regime and the social alliance it represents appear to be the winning camp in the war these days, and because the romanticized narratives about the triumph of the democratic revolution are now hard to defend, those who cheered or denied civil war are today producing a huge amount of “comforting” narratives. Some of those writers and commentators have even declared that in light of the turn the events have taken in Syria, they have simply decided to “retreat” and avoid commenting on the war. In other words, the “cause” is no longer profitable or worthwhile, and it is now more apt for them to move on to the next cause and offer their “services” to other Arab peoples.

While this attitude may seem morally questionable, it remains sounder than the attitude of those who insist on comparing who is better between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic Front (i.e. Wahhabi Salafism opposed to Gulf regimes versus Wahhabi Salafism affiliated to them) – or between these groups and even worse outfits such as the faction led by Jamal Maarouf, who recently told a British newspaper, “Whatever they (foreign sponsors) tell us to do, we do it.” Imagine what happens when the fate and interests of the Syrian people are entrusted to the likes of these people.

Ultimately, the solution is neither “retreat” nor involvement in the wagers related to the civil war. In my belief, the solution begins with showing humility and understanding our rhetorical position as observers and the limits of our role, and to realize that our views do not influence the course of events, i.e. that we eventually “write” precisely because we “cannot do.”

Conclusion: Victory narratives

Each ideological narrative is inevitably based on misrepresenting real life, and reducing events into simple, dualist platitudes, for example as a battle between good and evil. A person’s ideological biases may reach such an extent as to make him or her project emotional and romanticized views onto the elements and protagonists in the narrative, and ends up seeing reality as he or she wants to see it.

Some, for example, have decided that Syrian opposition fighters who belong to impoverished segments, rural areas, and peripheries – just like the soldiers of the Syrian army by the way – are “marginal” in Syria today. However, armed groups are not at all marginal. Major world powers and their intelligence services have focused their attention on these groups, spending billions to create and recreate them. No, it is the seven million Syrians who have been dispossessed by the war and whose lives have been ruined by it who are really “marginal.”

No one has asked these people about their opinions, neither before nor after the “revolution.” They have had no voice and no representation, though everyone speaks on their behalf, while they alone pay the price.

Incidentally here, the biggest part of the plight of the Syrian refugees can be resolved if only the Gulf countries allow the refugees escaping the war to come in and work, and live in dignity until the conflict ends. But most of the Gulf governments instructed their embassies to freeze all visas to Syrians since the start of the crisis, displaying “brotherhood” in the purest form.

This is the time for comforting narratives. If the regime prevails in Syria, it too will have its narrative for victory (e.g. a “national war,” “repelling foreign aggression,” etc.) If this narrative ends up being effective and well constructed, then it may help mend the country and reunite it after the war. But it, like all rival narratives, will be based on avoiding and concealing one simple yet terrifying fact: the Syrians, for years, have massacred each other and destroyed their country with their own hands.

Amer Mohsen is a doctoral candidate in Political Science, University of California - Berkeley.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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