Syria: A Way of Suffering to Freedom, A Foray into Current History
Author: Azmi Bishara
Publisher: Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies
Publication date: 2013
Azmi Bishara’s recent book Syria: A Way of Suffering to Freedom, A Foray into Current History is the most comprehensive book to date on the Syrian Revolution. Covering the two-year period between March 2011 and March 2013, Bishara’s book is distinguished from other studies on Syria in its impartiality and thorough approach to the conflict in Syria. The book also represents a breakthrough in methodology. By using an integrated approach, or what might be called a bridging of specializations, this approach allows for a reading of events through a multi-faceted lens, examining the various social and political dynamics of the conflict, making this book a primary source for upcoming studies on Syria and the Syrian Revolution.
Bishara’s book prioritizes a socio-historical analysis over a conventional process of historicization and documentation. Such a methodology entails an openness to the fields of the social sciences and humanities, and utilizes sociology, political science, international relations, economics, demography, and other related fields in its pursuit to document the Syrian Revolution. In this sense, this book does not provide a history of revolution as much as it utilizes documentation and historicization in the analysis of the revolution’s contexts and transformations. The process of documentation enables the provision of an in-depth analysis that paves the way for the reader to seamlessly understand how the revolution moved from one stage to the other (Chapters 2 to 5). The use of a socio-historical analysis here is not meant to undermine the tools of classical schools; rather, the reliance on first-hand witness accounts is an attempt to present accurate, genuine information.
Composed of thirteen chapters, the first five chronologically document and examine the revolution over the span of two years, starting with an investigation of Bashar al-Assad and the fruits of his 10-year reign, up to the Daraa uprising. It then turns to the expansion of the uprising, the launch of a peaceful popular revolution sweeping over most Syrian provinces in 2011, and its rapid transformation to an armed revolution. The subsequent eight chapters discuss in detail the regime’s adopted strategies to quell the revolution, the sectarian element of violence, the manifestations of communal violence, the political opposition and its movements preceding and during the revolution, geostrategic interactions and international positions, and economic sanctions and their effect on the Syrian economy.
Overall, Bishara’s recent endeavor has led to a scientific and academic effort that has contributed to the preservation of the memory of the Syrian revolution, following a long vacuum in discourse—intentional or otherwise—that has now regretfully become reduced to discussions on chemical weapons and jihadists. Too often deemed an international crisis or a civil war, the notion of a revolution against tyranny, arising in the midst of the Arab Spring in 2011 has alas long faded.
The Bitter Harvest
Bishara starts his book by providing an analysis of President Bashar al-Assad’s reign preceding the revolution, focusing on the regime’s promises of reform and the wasted opportunities for Syrians to achieve democratic transformation. In 2000, Syrians, including the political and cultural elites belonging to the opposition, grudgingly accepted the process of hereditary rule, hopeful for the promises of reform and the modernization of the state. The dissipation of promises of reform and swift democratization—a clear ploy to achieve inherited rule—quickly vanished with the return to bullying via security repression and prosecution of protesters and intellectuals who were active during what was known as the Damascus Spring. Bishara explains how al-Assad’s apologetic speeches addressing his failure to create reform tried to construct a link between the presence of repressive authoritarian states and political and economic stability, and insinuates that reform was not a priority in light of external pressures.
To the author, al-Assad’s outlook is rooted in arrogance and the belief that his people are unprepared for democracy and political reform. In an interview with an Arab newspaper in 2001, al-Assad claimed that Syrian society needed to develop itself before embarking on reform. Bishara poignantly notes how “it is difficult for one to imagine a political speech that includes such spin, arrogance, vanity, and paternalism toward people, akin to the level of an elementary school teacher and his students” (p. 50). Such arrogance, argues Bishara, exhibiting conceited behavior that typically looks down upon others and makes little use of logic or competence, was clearly echoed at the start of the revolution when al-Assad was quick to refer to the protestors as contaminators, inferior factions, and germs that need to be crushed (p. 102).
Characterizing the Syrian regime in its dealing with its people, argues the author, is a form of internal colonialism; a regime that views itself as an occupying force that manages the affairs of “a nation of slaves” rather than “people.” Slaves do not rebel, for if they do, they are killed. Equally, their demands are not met because rebellion signifies a “sedition” that targets the nation rather than the regime, its policies, or its individuals. Al-Assad explained this very clearly in a speech delivered to Syrians on March 30, 2011. At the time, demands were limited to the granting of basic liberties, and did not target the system as a whole or the president; al-Assad, however, chose the hardline approach, claiming that “nipping sedition in the bud” is a national and ethical duty, and that those involved in the revolution intentionally or unintentionally “work towards the death of their nation.”
Protests leading up to the revolution are classified by Bishara in two categories. The first, he argues, were propelled by Syrian demands, and were incited by the repercussions of the liberalization process of Syria’s economy, the economic agreements with Turkey regarding Syrian industries, land acquisition, drought, and the government’s drive to neglect agriculture, leading to agricultural ruin and waves of rural emigration, in addition to other governmental measures, such as raising the price of fuel and imposing taxes. The most prominent protests were the bus drivers’ strike in 2008 and the wheat and sugar beet farmers’ refusal to sell their crop to the state in 2009.
Bishara, however, distinguishes the above forms of protests from actual political protests. Political protests in Syria, he notes, coincided with the revolutions of the Arab Spring, and occurred under the new revolutionary climate. The incident of el-Harika on February 17, 2011, which the author describes as “a form of volcanic eruption,” likening it to the Bouazizi incident in Tunisia and the Libyan embassy protest in February 2011, was one of the most significant events.
The Spark and the Flame: A Peaceful Popular Revolution
More than one hundred pages are devoted to the peaceful stages of the revolution. Bishara starts by describing the notorious graffiti incident in Daraa that prompted the arrest of the children involved in the incident and the arbitrary arrest of activists. The spark thus started with Atef Najib’s refusal to release those arrested, choosing instead to humiliate them. Prior to the Arab revolutions, incidents of humiliation, torture, and murder committed by the security forces were often worse than the plight of the children of Daraa, but they never led to a popular uprising, or to any local solidarity movements similar to those that occurred in Daraa.
Bishara carefully examines the regime’s use of excessive violence, the storming of the Al-Omari Mosque, and the resulting local solidarity that manifested in a popular uprising that was politically framed and spread to the masses of the Hauran plains and other Syrian provinces (p. 85). Here, the author examines the “calls” contained in the politicized slogans chanted from el-Harika and in front of the Libyan Embassy, including “The Syrian People Will Not Be Humiliated” and “Only Traitors Kill Their People,” which became icons among the protestors’ chants not only in Daraa but throughout Syria.
Bishara rejects hasty conclusions that the Syrian Revolution is “an uprising of the peasants and the poor” in light of its failure to initially affect the larger cities. He notes that poverty might be the engine of protest, but it does not produce revolutions that champion political slogans. He clarifies that poverty and marginalization were not the primary motivations for the revolution, and that the countryside was not its source. The revolution was extolled in centers for parties that are marginalized in the face of an economically strong center (Aleppo and Damascus), and the revolution erupted from middle-class, educated provincial capitals that are politically aware and equipped with a sense of injustice. These are the parties who led and enfranchised protests before the Syrian countryside caught up (p. 93).
The author notes how, in its infancy, the revolution’s path resembled that of the Tunisian revolution, except “the revolution of the Syrian people is composed of religious, sectarian, and ethnic backgrounds, thus hindering the crystallization of a collective national identity that separates society from the regime, and consequently the regime from the state” (p. 31).
Bishara dwells in detail upon two central events, the Homs Protest of April 18, 2011 and the Great Friday of April 22, 2011. These events transformed the local protest into a larger national context, for the Homs Protest was the Syrian version of Tahrir Square in Egypt, and the Great Friday saw an attempt to export the revolution to the capital to protest in the Abbasid Square. These attempts were violently quelled by the regime through its use of open gunfire to break up the protest and suppress the protestors. The increasing numbers of protestors and recruitment of university students, doctors, and lawyers, and the joining of new provinces, such as Hama, Deir ez-Zor, and the Kurdish provinces, represented a turning point in the revolution’s path. The crux of these developments was embodied in raising slogans to “overthrow the regime,” which over time became a collective slogan for protestors (p. 130).
The book also sheds light on the major Syrian squares of Hama, Deir ez-Zor, and Idlib, each of which held hundreds of thousands of Syrian protesters, contesting the regime’s claim of the inconsequence of protests, proving that most Syrians side with the revolution. Bishara specifies the social and political conditions of each respective city that set the modus operandi of their participation in the revolution. The people of Hama, he notes, were not keen on participating in protests at first. Having had a history of repression during the 1980s, it cautiously monitored the comprehensiveness and reach of the revolution. When the city’s people realized the potential of this revolution, crowds of protestors flooded Al-Assi Square from Children’s Freedom Friday on June 3, 2011 until the beginning of August 2011 when the army stormed the city. The tribal factor is given importance in the case of Deir ez-Zor, as it initially contributed to the city’s isolation from the protest movement following the tribal elders’ loyalty to the regime and their preventing their people from participating. The city’s youth, who originated outside of traditional social structures, succeeded in gaining new factions, allowing protests to gradually expand. The regime came down upon them with open gunfire, violating their pledge to the tribal elders, leading to popular resentment in the city toward the regime, thus forcing the elders to join the revolution.
Lastly, Bishara discusses Damascus and Aleppo, and explains the reasons that hindered or delayed them from joining the revolution, among them: the regime’s eagerness to isolate the cities, its use of excessive force to repress any attempt at revolutionizing the cities, and its alliance with the bourgeoisie and capital in the two cities.
Militarization not a Choice
For months on end, the Syrian people held their ground without resorting to arms, emulating the model of Egypt and Tunisia. However, al-Assad’s repressive approach and the involvement of the entire army at an early stage forced some factions to pick up arms in response. The first use of arms is seen in the vengeful Jisr al-Shughour incident, in which Bishara critiques the media for covering up this massacre and accusing the army of killing its own soldiers. He cites this particular example as the reason for being unable to rationally observe the revolution, since the extent of denial and distortion of reality manifested in that incident has turned debate on the revolution into the verification of facts rather than an evaluation of them and an assessment of their harm to the revolution (p. 195).
Bishara then turns to the Zabdani incident in early 2012, which cemented militarization as a primary choice in the revolution. The agreement stating that the army would withdraw to the outskirts of the city, given a pact from the armed rebels to not target its roadblocks, enticed other cities, such as Douma and the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs, to do the same. Militarization increased because many protestors felt that peaceful protests were futile in overthrowing the regime, in addition to the Syrian opposition’s hope to replicate the Libyan model and its ability to quickly topple the regime.
Bishara concludes that the choice to militarize was spontaneous, and that within that spontaneity lies the quandary. Spontaneous armament took place according to the needs and circumstances of particular regions instead of an adherence to a strategy backed by organized political forces. The lack of organization, coordination, and planning proved a disaster for the revolution. The cities and towns entered by the rebels were destroyed and abandoned by most of their inhabitants. The behavior of some of the revolutionary battalions, and their involvement in acts of theft and looting and the resulting chaos, alienated a number of revolutionary factions and benefitted Jihadi organizations, such as Jabhat al-Nasra. Restraining themselves from such behavior, they instead filled a void and provided aid to the people, promoting a good image for themselves even if they do not stand for the values of the revolution and its goals.
In the absence of military action and its fragmentation, the Syrian Revolution has not seen a process of political configuration or training of the Syrian revolutionary factions bearing arms (p. 191). This has increased the state of social disruption and the proliferation of battalions, and prevented the development of a strategy for armed resistance.
Bishara holds the political opposition responsible for the state of fragmentation and divisiveness that has been reached. He maintains that in their pursuit to overthrow the regime, the opposition must develop a unified military strategy and provide for its components, build institutions, develop management plans for liberated areas, absorb professional military and civilian dissidents in service of the revolution, and create a diplomatic and media discourse addressed to the West to counter the discourse of the regime (p. 416).
Endorsing Lies as a Measure of Loyalty
A section of the book deals with the regime’s propaganda and the manner in which it addresses the international community. The regime has clung to the notion that external forces are targeting Syria, in an attempt to portray the revolution to its Arab public as a foreign conspiracy targeting the regime. In its publicity addressing the West, the regime accentuates Islamist terrorism. Internally, however, the regime cares little as to whether its population endorses its propaganda inasmuch as “it is concerned with the people pretending to endorse it.” For Bishara, the regime’s goals or its propaganda can be categorized as the endorsement of lies even if it is a contrived endorsement, for this is a sign of loyalty and fear of the regime (p. 237).
The goal of propaganda is not truth, but for truth to become murky. The goal of lying is not to convince the people of the narrative’s truth, but to make them doubt other narratives. Moreover, in the regime’s diligent attempts to use excessive violence to deal with the revolution, the author sees a deliberate attempt to drag people to arms, feeding the construct of the revolution as an armed rebellion that is nothing but tension, resembling the events in the 1980s during its struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood. Inherent to this fabrication is the suggestion that the alternative to the regime is the loss of security, sectarian strife, and Islamic militancy (p. 244).
Politically, the regime has dealt with its people as motley sects, factions, and social groups rather than a unified people. Al-Assad has received delegations from different regions only to propose a solution to some of their local needs and demands. In this context, the book illustrates how the regime coaxes factions and social strata to fight with it under the title of the Popular Committees or the so-called Shabiha. Here, Bishara dispels claims people have made about the term Shabiha and its association with Alawites, noting that the term can be traced back to the Latakia protests, when it was used to refer to an apparatus supervised by security services that includes hired men, criminals, and party members from various sects and ethnic groups. He also highlighted the fact that the Shabiha’s function has changed since mid-2012, when, in facing an armed revolution, the regime resorted to institutionalizing the Shabiha under the name of the Army of National Defense.
Sectarianization, Sectarianism, and the Aftermath of Violence
Bishara devotes three chapters (7, 8, and 9) of the book to a discussion of sectarianism in an attempt to analyze the backgrounds of sectarian discourse and violence. He does so by offering an insight into Syria’s recent history, especially after the Baath Party took power in 1963, resulting in the ruralization of the party and the sectarianization of the army. Bishara notes how the process of sectarianizing the army went through four phases (p. 303):
- The creation of the Army of the East based on the pillars of (minority) sects and ethnicities established during French occupation
- The exclusion practiced by the Baath Committee (1954-1963) after the March 1963 coup against Christians and officers from Al-Sham, inviting other sects and recruiting them on sectarian bases (p. 285).
- Hafez al-Assad’s time of rule and the emergence of an ideological army with an Alawite majority.
- The rebuilding the Republican Guard as a private army for the president’s family during Bashar al-Assad’s reign.
The book addresses the ‘ruralization’ of the state’s administrative apparatus, up until changing the social norms of the Baathists in the 1990s. The rural Baathists shifted from party leaders and military personnel to staff members that became the new bourgeoisie alongside the bourgeoisie of Aleppo and Damascus, whose interests al-Assad ensured in exchange for their loyalty (p. 300). Accordingly, al-Assad inherited these social norms in times of change. The presence of old social norms declined (peasants, laborers, and staff) in favor of the new bourgeoisie classes, which were riddled with corruption and tyranny, classes the author calls “the class of young wolves.”
In this book, the sectarian strife argument is seen as part of the regime’s discourse, promoting the notion that only an authoritarian state can prevent discord and division. The author presents other factors contributing to the charged sectarian situation, such as the discourse of some of the opposition and religious incitement. The author offers a detailed explanation of the sectarian massacres committed by the Shabiha militias, and analyzes the mentality of minority militias, which rely on deterrence and physical cruelty to deter the majority. Bishara also focuses on aspects of social violence, and differentiates between political and social violence, which exists outside the parameters of the revolution such as criminal and jihadist violence. The author classifies the Salafi movements as global jihadism similar to al-Qaeda.
Geostrategic Enmeshment is an Enemy to the Revolution
Much of Bishara’s book is devoted to reviewing the initiatives for a political solution and their lapses, and to an explanation of the geostrategic interactions of international and regional forces that have, according to the author, transformed into “[an] ally of the regime against its own people.” The revolution emerged at a time of great change, when America’s concept of national security had shifted after George Bush’s intervention policies, and during a period in which Russia finds itself attempting to restore its position as a global superpower. The book then moves into a comprehensive assessment of involved nations and their policies on Syria.
Internationally, Bishara notes how the US was not an ally of the revolution, but focused instead on issues pertaining to its national security alone, primarily Israel’s position in the equation, especially regarding chemical weapons and Islamic extremism. The US also preferred to deal with the revolution as an international crisis that could be solved in collaboration with Russia. Russia, on the other hand, demonstrated itself as an ally of the regime and staunchly supported it, using its right of veto against three resolutions in the Security Council. The author explains how the Russians view the prevailing of the regime as geostrategic leverage in the Middle East through which Russia can maximize its interest and national security in accordance with Russia’s new strategic vision put forward in the early 1990s, which is based on what is called “The New Eurasia” (p. 483).
Regionally, Turkey came out as a strong ally of the revolution after its bets on the regime failed, leading to the failure of all of its initiatives and efforts. It presented several points of pressure, such as supporting the Syrian political opposition, facilitating the transfer of weaponry, and creating relief and refugee efforts. Turkish pressure, however, came to a freeze and did not reach the point of military intervention. Turkey is after all a modern national state with a strong military organization that remains conservative about the idea of solo intervention and opposing public opinion, in addition to other complications such as the Kurdish and Alawite issues. At the other end of the spectrum, Iran has been supportive of the regime, and without Iran and its financial and military backing, the regime’s survival is inconceivable. Through the Syrian Revolution, Iran has been able to delegate its role at a regional level. If the regime were to be overthrown, Iran would have grave concerns regarding future governments as they will be—according to Iranian leaders—closer to Turkey and the moderate Arab states, leaving little room for Iran’s influence and its future role. Based on this, Iran has turned a blind eye to the regime’s brutality.
Israel’s wish for the revolution to stall, and its hope for an extended suppression campaign is clear for a number of reasons. The current regime is comfortable for Israel, and better than any proposed alternative. Hezbollah’s involvement also suits Israel as it will drain Hezbollah and keep it away from conflict with Israel. Though armed chaos poses a security risk, a new regime would likely take a hostile attitude due to the need for internal legitimacy; as it is today, the current regime needs external legitimacy, and will be forced to soften its stance toward Israel (p. 584).
Turning his attention to the role of Arab states, the author explains the gravitation of the Saudi position from providing aid to the regime at the beginning of the revolution to demands for reform, and thereafter their support for the military opposition through links in Istanbul and Jordan. Bishara notes how Qatar, a former ally, has urged the regime to reform, and encouraged it to grasp this opportunity. Bishara explains how initially the state of Qatar prevented Al-Jazeera from comprehensively covering the ongoing protests so that the regime would not accuse Qatar of supporting the revolution. This occurred at a time when the Syrian regime claimed that Al-Jazeera was fabricating and embellishing protests. Bishara explains how Qatar shifted, following the regime’s intransigence, turning to the Arab League in an attempt to develop a political settlement that would avoid exposing Syria and its people to catastrophe and foreign intervention. However, the regime’s failure to abide by these initiatives and its tyranny toward the people under a Russian cover in global institutions compelled Qatar to change its strategy in an attempt to isolate the regime within the Arab world and enforce sanctions, while supporting and arming the revolution.
In Bishara’s view, the Syrian revolution represents a unique and exceptional case, as reflected in the complexity of its conditions and the factors influencing it. These factors, in turn, can lead to catastrophic results if a political settlement is not reached. In his opinion, a settlement would not be a peaceful one because the course of the revolution and the ongoing fighting have transcended this. Rather, it would be a political settlement stipulating the regime’s departure and the retention of the state apparatus to pave the way for a gradual democratic transition. Finally, Bishara sees that the alternative to a settlement would entail a deepening of the conflict, with further complications and the transformation into a sectarian and ethnic conflict. The author calls for the revolutionary sources to centralize around a political and national program that adopts the principles of the revolution as a national revolution against tyranny.