What Do Syrians Want?

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, or White Helmets (The Syria Campaign)

When the British House Foreign Affairs Committee convened hearings in September 2015 to reassess the government’s Syria policy, it invited seven witnesses to present evidence. The Committee chair, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, acknowledged “that there have been observations that none of the people who are giving us witness evidence today are actually Syrian.” But this, he explained, was because “the Committee wants to understand all the perspectives in this conflict.”

Syrians, it seems, weren’t the only ones excluded from the hearing—so was irony.

Halfway in, a committee member asked: “What is it that the Syrians want?” The chair, who had ignored public calls to include Syrian witnesses on the panel, seemed intrigued. “What do the Syrians want?” he echoed.

The committee seemed interested in Syrian opinion, but only through the prophylactic medium of a Syrian-free panel. And the composition of the panel ensured that only one type of opinion would be heard.

The star of the proceedings was Patrick Cockburn, the Irish correspondent for the Independent and author of the bestselling The Rise of Islamic State. In articles and public appearances, the controversial journalist has made a case for providing military support not to Syria’s beleaguered opposition but to its murderous regime. Cockburn reiterated the argument before dismissing Syrian civil society as “not really players” and Syrian rebels as mere “jihadi groups” indistinguishable from the Islamic State (per his book, “there is no dividing wall between them and America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies”).

The Syrian voice Cockburn was ventriloquizing might well have been a regime spokesman’s, since few others would present as a lesser evil a state that, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, is responsible for 95 percent of civilian deaths, and which the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria has indicted for “the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts.”

But the Conservative-led parliamentary committee wasn’t alone in excluding Syrian voices. Britain’s main antiwar organization, the Stop the War Coalition (StWC—led until recently by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn), has also denied platforms to Syrians (except on one occasion when, three months after the August 2013 chemical massacre, it invited a close ally of Assad to its “antiwar” conference). Indeed, at a recent conference on Syria, chaired by the radical left-wing MP Diane Abbott, organizers called the police to evict a Syrian who tried to speak from the floor (StWC denies that it called the police). StWC later argued that in supporting a no-fly zone, the Syrians had embraced a “pro-war” position, which disqualified them from an “antiwar” platform. However, at the same event, StWC chair Andrew Murray made a case for providing military support to Assad in the fight against ISIS.

If Syrians haven’t been heard, it’s not for lack of trying. There are compelling voices covering the conflict—reporting, analyzing, prescribing. All are ignored.

Syrians want self-determination, but they are thwarted by a ruthless regime backed by Russian arms and UN vetoes. Western governments are unwilling to act because they see no vital interests at stake in Syria; Western publics are leery because they see everything as a replay of Iraq; both are united in the patronizing, orientalist assumption that the stability of a state is more valuable than the rights of its people. The unfiltered Syrian story is thus an inconvenient one. It is far more comforting to treat Syria as a domestic debate in which right and wrong can be deduced from ideological principles rather than examined facts.

In spite of the erasure, Syrians have strived to ensure that the defective first draft of history does not become the final word. In images and words, they have tried to preserve an unvarnished record of the years of revolution and war. They have been aided in this by the heroic efforts of the Local Coordination Committees (a network of local groups organizing and reporting on civil society activism) and the White Helmets (a volunteer organization providing search, rescue, and medivac services), and by the painstaking record kept by the Violations Documentation Center and the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Fearless citizen journalists have filled the void left by western reporters who, with few exceptions, only return to Syria as regime embeds. (One can see the dismal results in the atrocious journalism of Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, Charles Glass, and Peter Oborne, all of whom have uncritically reproduced the claim that the regime is the main force standing in the way of ISIS.) Collectives such as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and individuals like Ruqia Hassan, Rami Jarrah, Marwan Hisham, and Naji Jerf have reported at considerable personal risk from regions under the bombs of the regime or the control of the Islamic State (Ruqia Hassan, two RBSS media activists, and Naji Jerf were assassinated by ISIS in 2015).

But if there is no dearth of reportage from Syria, the right to synthesize the data, to shape it into a narrative, and to offer prescriptions is arrogated by Western analysts largely to themselves. (Syrian journalist Hassan Hassan, co-author of the indispensable ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, is an exception, but only because his focus is mainly on the security aspect of the conflict.) Attention is also paid to Syrians as victims. But rarely are they presented as a people with agency, willing and able to reflect on their plight or to determine their own fate.

This dominant narrative has been challenged in novelist Samar Yazbek’s vivid first-hand reporting in award-winning books such as A Woman in the Crossfire (2012) and The Crossing (2015). Her profile—a woman, a liberal, an Alawite (part of the minority sect to which Assad belongs)—is in itself a powerful rebuke to the reductive narrative of “ancient hatreds” between ethnic groups that everyone from fly-by-night journalists to the president of the United States have tried to impose on the conflict. But it is in British-Syrian writers Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al Shami’s Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War (2016) that we find a definitive people’s history of the uprising. The book (earlier drafts of which I had the privilege of reading and commenting on) explains in scrupulous detail the context of the uprising, the aims of the revolution, the regime’s brutal response, the causes of militarization, the rise of the Islamists, and the resilience of Syrian society through repression, war, and exile.

These authors show that the Syrian uprising came about through a confluence of factors. The immediate context was the wave of Arab revolutions across the region; but waters had already been roiled by years of economic privation, environmental catastrophe, and political repression. They write in Burning Country:

In 2000, the state farms were privatised, increasing intensive commercial farming and leading to a wave of peasant evictions. A private banking system was introduced, the foreign exchange regime was liberalised, private investment was encouraged, with key industrial sectors brought under private control, and subsidies—including for food and fuel, a life-line to the poor—were reduced.

But any hope of reform was stifled by “high levels of corruption, nepotism and bureaucratic inertia.” Meanwhile, a 2006 drought increased the strain by forcing masses of farmers to migrate to the cities. By 2011, youth unemployment stood at 48 percent, while 60 percent of the economy was controlled by the president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, avatar of the regime’s obscene kleptocratic cronyism.

In Syria the room for political dissent was always limited, but where an earlier generation had been cowed by the repression under Hafez Al Assad’s “kingdom of silence” (the regime massacred somewhere between 10,000–40,000 people during a 1982 uprising in Hama), in 2011, 60 percent of the Syrian population was below the age of twenty-four, with no memory of such terror. The Syrian revolution was primarily an uprising of the country’s youth. It was sparked when a group of teenagers were arrested for anti-government graffiti on a wall in Deraa. But the heavy-handed response of a brittle regime, unaccustomed to dissent, created a spiral that soon turned peaceful calls for reform into implacable demands for regime change.

Recognizing its political weakness, the regime drew the opposition into an arena where it had a distinct advantage. By militarizing the conflict, the regime hoped that it would use its superiority in arms to crush the uprising while casting its actions as a “war on terror.” The regime set about engineering this outcome in earnest. Less than three months into the uprising, Human Rights Watch reported that, according to local activists, the regime had already killed 887 protesters across Syria, and 418 in Deraa alone, where the uprising had started in March 2011. In a report that same year, Human Rights Watch concluded that the “systematic killings and torture by Syrian security forces” qualified as “crimes against humanity.” The Free Syrian Army (FSA) wasn’t established until July 2011.

The regime also tried to shape the narrative by playing on Western fear and prejudice. In a speech to the parliament on March 30, 2011—long before there were any jihadis, long before there were any armed men—Assad insisted that he was at war against foreign “conspirators.” At a time when his regime was detaining, torturing, and assassinating civil activists, it fulfilled its prophecy by releasing Islamist radicals from its prisons in a series of amnesties. It hoped that they would become the opposition it wanted by supplanting the one it had, thereby making it easier to win Western sympathy for its own “war on terror.” Under its relentless assault, the Islamist element in the opposition gradually became more dominant. Al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, was established in January 2012. Although in August 2012 the CIA could count only about 200 Al Qaeda members active in Syria, by fall, Al Nusra Front emerged as a formidable force. This followed a series of sectarian massacres perpetrated by the regime—in Houla, al Qubeir, and Darayya—where the resource-strapped FSA was unable to defend civilians. Controlling their own funding and procurement networks, and not hamstrung by fruitless associations with the West, the Islamists, by contrast, proved resilient and effective.

The popular nonviolent movement for self-determination was slowly driven underground by the attrition of the regime’s tactics of bombings, assassinations, starvation, detention, and torture. But after the August 2013 chemical massacre, even the nationalist element of the insurgency went into eclipse. The regime called Barack Obama’s bluff and deliberately crossed his “red line,” and, as the regime predicted, Obama’s will was found wanting. Syrian civilians felt abandoned and vulnerable; and the groups tainted by their association with the West were discredited. The regime took Western indifference as license to intensify its violence, including further uses of chemical weapons. It used rape systematically as policy; and a report by a team of war crimes investigators documented “industrial scale killing,” with up to 11,000 killed “systematically” in detention. Beginning with the siege of the Yarmouk refugee camp, it also started using starvation systematically as a weapon of war.

A month before the August 2013 chemical attack, the UN had estimated around 100,000 deaths in Syria’s war. It ceased counting four months later, but in August 2015 it produced a revised estimate of 250,000. The Syrian Center for Policy Research, however, estimates that by 2015 the fatalities had reached 470,000. The chemical attack was a turning point. A month after it, the flood of refugees also surged into a tsunami that hasn’t abated since.

It was into this void that the Islamic State descended. With the rebel forces committed to fighting on the frontlines, the Islamic State entered the liberated zones under the guise of proselytizing missionaries, gradually gaining control. After August 2013, it flexed its muscle and started directly targeting anti-Assad rebels. In 2014, it avoided the regime in all but 13 percent of its confrontations. The regime in turn spared it in 94 percent of its attacks. But to the regime’s backers, such distinctions were academic. If the United States was supplying MREs, night-vision goggles, and the occasional TOW (anti-tank missile) to its putative allies, Russia was sending Mi-24 gunships, T-90 tanks, Sukhoi jets, SA-22 missiles, and armed drones. The regime was also receiving support in manpower: Hezbollah militants, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops, international sectarian volunteers, and, since September 2015, the Russian Army and Air Force.

The upbeat story of an Arab Spring had given way to a wintry tale of senseless violence. The Syrian revolution was long since pronounced dead. Western media only focused on the more spectacular aspects of the Islamic State’s brutality. And as the security logic became dominant, some openly started speaking of preserving Assad as the lesser of two evils. Little mention was made of the fact that in January 2014, Syrian rebels had united to drive out the Islamic State from Idlib, Deir al Zour, Aleppo, and around Damascus. And if they had failed to entirely defeat IS, it was because they were constantly being bombed, initially by the regime’s planes and later by the Russian Air Force; and, after the Islamic State seized large caches of arms from the U.S.-supplied Iraqi army in 2014, they were outgunned.

Survival, however, is more than a matter of not dying. And in Syria, society has shown remarkable resilience, despite the constant attrition of barrel bombs, starvation sieges, mass detention, torture, and rape. In liberated areas across the country (and, secretly, in regime and Islamic State–controlled areas) close to 400 local councils have been established, appointed through a form of direct democracy, functioning in practical, non-ideological terms, catering to basic needs such as water, electricity, waste disposal, and healthcare. The latter is no mean feat, since the regime has systematically targeted doctors in a bid to break the recalcitrant population’s will. In March this year, when a sniper killed seventy-year-old Mohammed Khous, the last remaining doctor in the besieged town of Zabadani, and, on April 27, when an airstrike killed Muhammad Wassem Maaz, the last remaining paediatrician in Aleppo, the regime was merely completing a process it had started five years earlier. The UN Commission of Inquiry has accused the regime of the “deliberate destruction of health care infrastructure.” Médecins Sans Frontières has reported 94 strikes on 63 of its medical facilities in 2015 and, according to Physicians for Human Rights, the regime and its allies were responsible for 326 of the 358 attacks on medical facilities and 688 of the 726 medical personnel killed between 2011 and 2016 as of February this year.

None of this was brought up at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. To acknowledge this reality would be to admit the monstrous expedience of a proposed settlement that keeps the author of all these injustices in place. Facts would have also proved fatal to the panel’s smug conclusion that supporting Assad would resolve the refugee crisis. A survey of refugees by the Berlin Social Science Center has shown that the regime’s violence is the primary cause for their flight.

Without the amplification of such fora, however, Syrian voices have proved evanescent. Their pleas, their suffering, and their victories keep running up against a more powerful narrative: the narrative of the “war on terror.” This narrative, conservative and counter-revolutionary, has already become the basis of an “anti-terror” alliance overtly with Russia and covertly with Iran. It was given a boost recently when the regime was reported to have recaptured Palmyra from the Islamic State. Beyond the cover story, however, the force that captured Palmyra comprised mainly of Russian planes, Afghan mercenaries, and Iraqi militias. All the same: Assad was hailed as a liberator not just by Vladimir Putin and Robert Fisk, but by the British Conservative politician (and outgoing London mayor) Boris Johnson. Little mention was made of the fact that the regime had ceded Palmyra to the Islamic State on the advice of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander General Qassem Suleimani to focus its resources on the anti-Assad insurgency instead. By contrast, the response to rebels’ recent advances against the Islamic State, including the capture of the strategic town of Al Rai, has been muted. The daily protests in Maarat al Numan against Al Nusra Front have also received little attention despite going on for over a month.

Not so in Syria. The regime resents such victories, and the protesters subvert its preferred narrative of a secular bulwark holding Islamist hordes at bay. The regime and Russia have resumed bombing rebels and civilians in Aleppo and Idlib. Putin, who had earlier withdrawn his fighter jets with much fanfare, has been silently reinforcing his troops with more helicopter gunships. Iran is sending in special forces to reinforce the regime’s dwindling numbers.

But there is one development that is likely to be far more consequential than any of these. Over a century after Kipling exhorted the White Man to pick up his Burden, a hundred years after Sykes-Picot’s disastrous attempt at imperial cartography, a decade after the clumsy foray into political engineering in Iraq, the pallid patriarchs of the United States and Russia are once again conspiring to force an undesired solution on a recalcitrant people. The United States and Russia are drafting a new constitution for Syria, in consultation with the regime, without the consent of the Syrian people. With this, the U.S. government has put itself firmly on the side of counterrevolution.

But if Western states have failed, has Western society fared any better?

Since the partial cessation of hostilities in February, thousands of Syrians in liberated areas have once again been pouring into the streets to demand an end to the regime’s oppressive rule. But having defied the regime, they appear no more willing to submit to Islamist tyranny, fearlessly confronting the radicals of Al Nusra Front. Despite the regime’s savage violence, the revolution appears unvanquished. But where it could surge with the tide of the Arab Spring in 2011, today the revolution stands marooned. At the birth of the uprising, through years of slaughter, and at the moment of resurrection, there has been little civic mobilization in the West in solidarity or in sympathy with the Syrian people. (By contrast, the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Bahrain received considerable support.) In the United States and in Britain, the only marches and public rallies in relation to Syria were organized in September 2013 and November 2015—to protest possible retaliation against the regime for the August 2013 chemical attack and against the Islamic State for the November 2015 terrorist attack on Paris. On neither occasion was Syrian opinion sought; in the former case, many on the mainstream left tried to pin the blame for the atrocity on the regime’s opponents, and few protested the crime itself.

Western civil society wasn’t stirred into action until the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore. The sympathy that was denied to Syrians as citizens fighting tyranny seemed more forthcoming as depoliticized victims seeking refuge. For four years most progressives had actively embraced, or tacitly internalized, the regime’s portrayal of all its opponents as Islamist terrorists, yet they were suddenly indignant when far-right xenophobes borrowed the same tropes to malign refugees. But in the middle of all this, as Putin intervened in Syria, generating new waves of refugees, many progressives saw no contradiction between their sympathy for refugees and their support (overt or unspoken) for Russia’s intervention.

Syrians have died overwhelmingly at the hands of the regime; they have been detained and tortured en masse by the regime; they have fled primarily because of the regime (the crimes are being better documented than “anywhere since Nuremberg,” according to American lawyer Stephen Rapp). To them, the regime is the root of Syria’s evil. But if, in spite of the facts, the dubious logic of lesser evilism has prevailed, it is because most Syrian people have been written out of their own story. Journalists, activists, intellectuals, politicians, and diplomats have participated in this erasure. Even the sympathetic ones have reported Syria mostly as a tableau of horrors. The horrors are undeniable, but what the story lacks is a chronicle of resistance—resistance against impossible odds, with grace, without hope, and through constant betrayal. Samar Yazbek, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila Al Shami, and others have ensured that the answer to “What do Syrians want?” is no longer a mystery.


Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling. He is writing a book on the war of narratives over Syria. He co-edits Pulsemedia.org.

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