Syria: To oppose, or not to oppose?

Maher Arar, who was sent by the Bush administration to be tortured in Syria in 2002, writes: Deciding whether or not to oppose Syria’s rulers has been the recent dominant preoccupation of many anti-imperialist and left-leaning movements. This hesitant attitude towards the Syrian struggle for freedom is nurtured by many anti-regime actions that were recently taken by many Western and Middle-Eastern countries, whose main interest lies in isolating Syria from Iran. However, I believe a better question to ask with respect to Syria is whether the leftist movement should support, or not support, the struggle of the Syrian people.

What I find lacking in many of the analyses relating to the Syrian crisis, which I find oftentimes biased and politically motivated, is how well the interests of the Syrian people who are living inside are taken into account. Dry and unnecessarily sophisticated in nature, these analyses ignore simple facts about why the Syrian people rebelled against the regime in the first place.

A brief historical context is probably the best way to bring about some insight with respect to the events that are unfolding in front of our eyes today. Before doing so, it is important to highlight that, unlike many other Arab countries, Syria is not a religiously homogenous Middle-Eastern country. I am mentioning this because it is through religion that the majority of Arabs identified themselves for centuries. As it stands today, Syria’s population is composed 74 per cent of Sunnis (including Kurds and others), 12 per cent Alawites (including Arab Shia), ten per cent Christians (including Armenians) and three per cent Druze.

Syria earned its independence from the French in 1946. As has always been the case with any occupying and imperial force, France worked diligently to ensure that Syrian minorities were placed in top government and military positions. The Alawites’ share of the pie was the military. By the time France left Syria, Alawites became well entrenched in this crucial government institution.

After two decades of military coups and counter-coups, it was no surprise that Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite and minister of defence at the time, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1970. Within a few years he was relatively able to bring about economic and social stability – which made him a hero in the eyes of the majority of Syrians, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

A cunning politician and an experienced military officer, Assad knew that unless he solidified his rule, the time would soon come when other military officers would mount a coup against him. Over the span of few years, he made sure the top brass of the military and intelligence was filled with fellow Alawite officers who, thanks to France’s pro-minorities policy, were available in abundance.

These Alawite officers were also less likely to mount a coup against a fellow countryman. To deprive the mukhabarat [“intelligence service”] of the opportunity to be able to mount a serious coup against him, Assad created 13 different intelligence agencies – completely independent of each other.

When I was detained at the Sednaya prison in 2003, a 60-year-old man told me of a conversation between him and a general in the political security directorate. The old man was trying to have a rational dialogue with the general during the interrogation, by advising the him that the regime must treat people like human beings if it wanted to rightly earn the respect of the Syrian people.

The general responded: “We want to rule people by our shoes.” This is a famous Syrian expression akin to: “We want to rule people with an iron fist, humiliating them.” This example sheds some light on the type of mentality that dominates the inner circles of the Assad regime even today. Understanding this point in particular is crucial to understanding the violent response that the regime showed towards the protesters since day one. [Continue reading…]

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6 thoughts on “Syria: To oppose, or not to oppose?

  1. Colm O' Toole

    Ahh good old Al Jaazera, the Qatar monarchies mouthpiece to the world. I’ve been reading alot of Qatar in the last few days, including this dialogue between Kofi Annan and Bashar Al Assad after a meeting wrapped up on Monday evening.

    Annan: How long do you think the crisis will continue?
    Assad: As long as the (redacted)… regime continues to fund it.
    Annan: Do you think they are behind all the funding?
    Assad: They are behind many things that happen in our region. They believe they will be able to lead the whole Arab world today and in the future.
    Annan: But it seems to me that they lack the population needed for such an ambition. (room fills with laughter).


    Of course no one can doubt the regime in question is tiny and oil rich Qatar. As for the writer in question, Maher Arar “who was sent by the Bush administration to Syria to be tortured in 2002”. Firstly you have to note the irony that he is now on the same side as the government that shipped him off in the first place. Secondly of course anyone tortured by a government will not support that government in its time of need. Asking a man who was tortured by Assad what he thinks of the current situation in Syria you will an emotional response not an impartial, reasoned response.

    All I will say is remember 2002 in the run up to Iraq. They published similar pieces by Iraqi torture victims. Countless horror stories of Uday Hussein’s sadistic crimes, Saddams rampages of the Shiites-Kurds. It’s all emotional stuff… designed to yank at the heart strings, but it is no academic analysis of the implications of regime change.

  2. dickerson3870

    RE: “Syria: To oppose, or not to oppose?”

    SEE: Switzerland suspends arms shipments to UAE, Press TV (Iran), 7/05/12

    Switzerland has decided to suspend arms shipments to the UAE following a report that Swiss-made hand grenades are being used by armed gangs in Syria. The measure was taken on Wednesday after the Sonntagszeitung newspaper published a photograph taken of one such device in possession of anti-Damascus forces in the town of Marea, north of Aleppo, at the end of June, AFP reported. Preliminary inquiries into the photo showed the grenade in question was made by the Bern-based arms manufacturer RUAG, and was part of a shipment made by the company to the UAE in 2003. . .
    . . . Antje Baertschi, a spokeswoman for the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) said as a “provisional” measure, Switzerland immediately moved to “freeze all arms export permits to the UAE.”
    “We took this matter seriously because something similar happened last year when a journalist covering Libya found crates of Swiss munitions in Libya,” she said. . .


  3. Paul Woodward

    Colm — As usual you have more interest in grinding your own anti-imperial axe rather than rise to the challenge Arar posed: should you support, or not support, the struggle of the Syrian people?

    Of course you can’t answer that question when the Syrian people are peripheral to your polemic. Instead, it’s back to the-end-of-the-world-is-nigh drumbeat.

    2012 is 2002 and the US invasion and occupation of Syria is just around the corner.

    The UK has a draft resolution at the Security Council that surely has Assad quaking in his boots. It concludes by saying that the American-controlled international war-authorizing body “Decides to remain seized of the matter.” I’m surprised they didn’t add a message to the Syrian people: “We’re with you and we feel your pain.”

    What’s curious about the 2002 parallel is that at that time Iraq was relatively tranquil. I guess the authors of Regime Change in Syria 201? realized that the script needed re-writing and this time an invasion would have to be preceded by a pseudo-uprising.

    Mind you, having engineered that so successfully, it seems like the inteventionists are being amazingly slow to take vantage of the momentum they’ve created. The siege of Hama took place a year ago and since then there have been multiple sieges and massacres and even a Turkish jet shot down and yet still the West keeps its powder dry. Never have we seen such steely patience displayed by compulsive war-makers.

  4. Paul Woodward

    Nice of Press TV to include this useful clarification at the end of the report: “Damascus also says that the chaos is being orchestrated from outside the country and the security forces have been given clear instructions not to harm civilians.” I guess the civilians who have been harmed deserve little sympathy when they were so foolish as to take refuge in their own homes. How can the Syrian army be expected to anticipate that there might be ordinary people inside the apartments they shell?

  5. Joe

    Paul, respectfully, I will say, that it is incredibly difficult to support a ‘rebel’ uprising, when it seems very likely backed by the most reactionary of Gulf Arab states, the worst of people, in concert with the very worst of Western military and business forces.

    I have no doubt that the people of Syria are suffering — but I’d speculate that alleviating that suffering and listening to genuine reformist voices amongst the population is pretty low on the priority list of money minded Gulf funders and it is surely not on the mind of those paid mercenaries and Salafi fighters and Western business interests.

    It is very difficult to know how to support the ordinary Syrian people (who surely are suffering ) because the ordinary onlookers ( like me ) do not know how to separate them ( the good ones) from the vile Salafi jihadis and mercenaries and business speculators, all of whom want nothing more than total chaos and more suffering and more division for their own ends, namely, business profit, or atavistic religious desire,or plain old self seeking greed to be new tyrants and exploiters.

    And all of the above will be violent and they will torture and kill.

    I honestly can’t see who I should support.

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