The crisis in this country has already lasted 18 months, a time during which the analyses of journalists and academics have been overtaken by events in the country.
Pablo Sapag M.
The situation is extremely complex and thus impossible to be approached using the models employed for other Arab countries.
Since the beginning, Syria has been framed in terms of the media category of the ‘Arab Spring’. The changes of regime in Tunisia and Egypt have been included under this heading. And likewise that in Libya, although it was only possible through the violent intervention of NATO.
Meanwhile in Yemen, the military route led to the resignation of President Saleh, at the cost of Al-Qaeda occupying part of the country.
In Syria all these models have failed. There were no massive demonstrations there. The protests which started in March 2011 were related to rural areas hit by drought and by the withdrawal of subsidies agreed between the government of Bachar al Assad and the IMF, in order to liberalize an economy which had been controlled by the state.
The protests never took off in the big urban areas, which were better prepared for liberalization, and even beneficiaries of it.
Only the growing militarization since the middle of 2011, on the part of the scattered opposition, together with the disproportionate repression of peaceful protests, gave resonance to a movement which had previously been limited to frontier towns where there was free movement of arms – as in the cases of Deraa and Homs – or which had a predominance of the Muslim Brotherhood – in the case of Hama.
This militarization coincided with the regime’s acceptance of mediation by Kofi Annan, now replaced by Lakhdar Brahimi. The oppositions gamble on the chance of success through use of arms explains the failure of this route.
No state gives up the use of violence if those that are fighting them do not do the same, either before or at the same time as the state.
Once the conflict was militarized the radicals of the fragmented opposition dominated the crisis. These groups coalesced around the Muslim Brotherhood, which since the beginning of the 20th Century has wanted to create a theocratic state, giving pre-eminence to Sunni Islam in preference to other faiths.
It is not the first time that this totalizing project has had recourse to arms. Between 1976 and 1982 the Brotherhood used them in an attempt to overthrow the State, which was not aligned to any faith and for the same reason guaranteed the freedom of expression of all Syrian religious communities. Communities which, to a lesser extent than in Lebanon – where religious allegiance is also political – confer social and personal identity.
This commitment to a state free from religious tutelage is due to the fact that Syria is a multi-confessional country, in which Islam was not a fragmented majority – made up of Sunnis, Chiites, Alawites, Ismailies and Druze – until well into the 17th century.
Religious diversity explains in turn the emergence and consolidation of Syrian Pan-Arab nationalism, inspired at the beginning of the 20th century by Michel Aflaq and Salah Bitar. The latter an orthodox Christian – like the recently assassinated Defence Minister – and the other a Sunni Muslim – like the deserter General Manef Tlass.
Both seek a state with Arab nationalism as its symbol of identity, rather than any religious reference such as the Brotherhood wants, committed as it is to assimilating the Arab nation to Sunni Islam.
This approach also explains Qawmismo, or Pan-Syrian nationalism, founded by another orthodox Christian, Antuun Saada. The Qawmi Suri, together with a branch of the Communist Party, forms part of the National Progressive Front. Until the elections of May 7th – through which Assad responded to opposition demands for constitutional reform – a regime dominated by the panarabist Baaz was maintained.
But in no case was it a single party in the way it has come to appear through the efforts of propaganda, or through ignorance. Baaz and Qawmi disagree on matters of doctrine and strategy for the expansion of nationalism, although tactically, as Daniel Pipes explains, they maintain a tacit agreement which makes them compatible to the benefit of the regime.
The different forms of secular nationalism in Syria are related to the territorial boundaries of the country.
In an unscripted speech in the Omeyas Square in Damascus on the 11th January, which was not reported by the Western and Islamist media, the Syrian president alluded to Bilal al Chams, a concept which some have translated badly as ‘The Levant’.
Bilal al Chams nevertheless, is more than this ambiguous geographical definition. Simplifying, Bilal al Chams is the pre-Islamic Greater Syria, which in terms of Syrian territory today would produce and ethnic-demographic proportion in which the Sunnis represented less than the 65% which they are today, which is thanks to the amputation carried out by European colonialists.
Most Syrians are aware of this. And for the same reason, there is resistance to a change of the imposed regime. This is shown by a study carried out this year by the Qatar Foundation, which is linked to the Islamist government of the Sunni emirate. In this inquiry which has just been published, a majority of Syrians reject externally imposed structures which support one of the parties to the conflict.
Among these impositions, that of Islamist and Neo-Ottoman Turkey – Jeremy Salt – which, together with Saudi Arabia and in opposition to Shiite Iran, aims at a regional homogenisation under Sunni Islam.
In pursuit of this aim it lends its territory to all kinds of armed groups operating in Syria, although it still denounces the repercussions of the conflict inside Turkey itself. For Ankara and others, faced with either Pan-Arabism or Pan-Syrianism, a Sunni Pan-Islamism is preferable.
All this goes on with the approval of a West which is unable to understand the complexity of Syria, preferring to negotiate with a single Sunni representative, rather than the many and varied which exist in the Middle East, like Iranian Shiiism or Syrian multi-religious integrationism.
The result of the old Orientalism described by the Palestinian Christian Edward Said, is today expressed in the form of simplistic alliances of civilizations, deriving from Samuel Huntington and his Shock of Civilizations, classified into Christians on one side and Muslims on the other. A reductionism which the events in Libya, Egypt and other countries reveal to be a short-term and counterproductive move for US interests. Nothing was clearer in this regard than Obama and Clinton asking themselves why their ambassador in Libya had died at the hands of the Islamists which they had so generously and irresponsibly supported.
Syria is not a Sunni Islamic country, it is multi-confessional and the majority of its people have always resisted any imposition which went against this.
As Amin Maalouf explains in the Crusades seen though Arab Eyes, Christian and Muslims defended their lands together against crusades, which as much as an attempt to overthrow Islam, also aimed at subjugating oriental Christianity to the Roman papacy.
In the same way colonialism in Syria is associated as much with the Europeans as with the Ottoman Turkish Empire which promoted Sunni hegemony. This explains many Syrian achievements since the end of colonialism, for example that civil servants , if they are Muslims have Fridays free, and if they are Christian Sundays are their day of rest.
The political, economic and social visibility of women of all faiths in Syria, easily pointed out by internal Syrian propaganda, also illustrates the difficulty of relying on simple solutions, in a Syria which is complex and more dependent on its own historical and socio-political dynamics, than on the interests of other regional or distant powers, or of those who are engaged in trying to make Syria into an exclusive and uni-religious state.
Most Syrians can also disagree with the government, and even in some cases, wish to change it, but they are not prepared to do so at the cost of having to tolerate a fundamentalist Islamic regime which would put an end to secular multi-religious society in Syria.
Out of this comes the bloody resistance to a project supported by external interests – including that of Al Qaeda, which present themselves under the attractive and mistaken label of the ‘Arab Spring’.
For many Syrians it is better called a ‘Green Spring’, the colour of militant and exclusive Sunni Islam. This is why the conflict is so drawn out and bloody for the Syrians. And so disconcerting for those who don’t understand Syrian history.
(Translated by Graham Douglas – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)