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الأقلّيات” و”الأغلبيات”: تناوب على السلطة أم تمثيل عددي؟”

الأقلّيات” و”الأغلبيات”: تناوب على السلطة أم تمثيل عددي؟”

يتّفق العلماء والمفكرون وأصحاب الرأي والجمهور العام، في كثيرٍ من الأحيان، على أن الشاغل الرئيسي والحتمي في الشرق الأوسط المعاصر هو التنوع الديني، والحاجة إلى حماية «الأقليات» الدينية، فقد أصبح تدريجياً ما يُعرفُ بالأقليات الدينية سمةً أساسية من سمات السياسة الدوَلية. وعادةً تُنَاقَش هذه «الأقليات» على أنّها كيانات غير قابلة للتغيير، وأنها متميّزة بأصول سياسية متجانسة في الشؤون الدوَلية، وأيضاً كفئات تحليلية يمكن من خلالها فهم الشرق الأوسط بشكل سريع.

وسيشيرُ التحليل التالي إلى تجاهل الميزات المصطنعة للأقليات الدينية، كما الأغلبيات، في السياسة الدوَلية المعاصرة. وستعتمد الأمثلة التاريخية التالية على مفاهيم تفسيرية شاملة، لشرح الامتيازات المدنية أو الحرمان الإجتماعي، وسيتم تسليط الضوء على الصداقة أو العداوة التي تشكّل العلاقات بين «الأقليات» الدينية المختلفة.

في محاولة استقراء ظهور مصطلح «الأقليات» في الإنتاج العِلمي، يربط المؤرّخ بينجامين وايت في 2011 تاريخَ الأقليات بتكوين الدول القومية في الشرق الأوسط. وكتب وايت أن مصطلح «الأقليات» كان قد ظهر في الثلاثينات من القرن الماضي فقط بسبب البيروقراطية الفرنسية، التي كانت لا تزال تهيمن على البلاد في ذلك الوقت، وبسبب تدخّل الدولة في حياة الناس اليومية. وفعلاً ازداد استخدام مصطلح «الأقلية» خصوصاً في الفترة الّتي أعقبت الانتداب الفرنسي لسوريا في الأربعينات. ومن ثم بدأت الدولة في الشرق الأوسط الحديث تُمثّلُ الناس بشكلٍ جماعي، كما بدأ كل عنصرٍ في المجتمع ينظر إلى نفسه بوصفه قابلاً للتصنيف، إمّا بناءاً على استياء الأقليات من حرمان أفرادها من الخدمات المجتمعية، أو على إشباع الأغلبيات نتيجةً للإشراك المجتمعي. وفي الواقع، يشيرُ تمثيل هذه الفئات الاجتماعية بذاته إلى التماسك والتجانس.

وبناءاً على ما كان يصفه العالم الاجتماعي بيير بورديو بـ «الرأسمال الإعلامي والمعرفي»، تُعزى المسميات الطائفية إلى إرادات شعبية متنوعة في جميع أنحاء الشرق الأوسط. وهكذا فإنه على سبيل المثال، يبدو من الطبيعي أن يُحكَم العراق بهيمنة نظام شيعي بعد عهد صدام حسّين، فقط لأنّ أغلبية السكان شيعة. وعلى نحو مماثل بعد أن بدأت في عام 2011 أزمة سياسية غير مسبوقة  في سوريا، فإنه لا يمكن الحكم دون اعتراض لدى الأغلبية السنية السورية كون النظام الحاكم من الأقلية العلوية. وكذلك بما أنه من السائد لدى الخبراء أنّ أكثرية الناس في البحرين شيعة، لذا فإنهم يحتاجون إلى نظام شيعي لإنهاء السخط المحلّي وتلبية المطالب بالحرّية. وأيضاً من السائد التفكيرُ أن السلطة الحاكمة في إيران مستقرّة، فقط بفضل ائتلاف شيعي حاكم على الأغلبية الشيعة الساحقة.

يستطيعُ الإنسان عن طريق فهم ماضيه أن يشعر بواجب المحافظة على الوعي الجماعي, إذ إنّ الارتباط المباشر بين الأغلبيات وفكرة الهيمنة، وبين الأقليات وفكرة التبعية، يُلقي بظلّه على مواقع السلطة المتغيرة التي تُكوّن أساس العلاقات المجتمعية. وفي هذا الصدد, تقدم الثورة السورية حالةً مثاليةً من خلال تصويرها على وسائل الإعلام الدوَلية، وبشكلٍ سابقٍ لأوانه، كحربٍ أهلية، أو عبارة عن مجموعة مطالب طائفية ومتحيزة للأغلبية السنية. ومن المضلّل القول إنّ تحرير الأغلبية السنية يؤدي إلى اضطهاد الأقليات، وبالإضافة إلى ذلك يحجب هذا الاعتقاد توزيع السلطة الواقعي في المجتمع السوري. ومع ذلك, فقد قلّل هذا التفسير للحقائق الاجتماعية في سوريا من التضامن الدوَلي مع المتظاهرين السوريين، على خلاف الثورتين المصرية والتونسية.

وفي الواقع، تتراوح درجة تعاطف المجتمع الدوَلي مع قضايا سياسية معينة, حيث يقوم بالتدخل العسكري في الشرق الأوسط على أساس الاحتياج المضلّل إلى حماية الأقليات الأساسية المقيمة في الإقليم. وفي هذا السياق، يتم التلميح لازدواجية المعرفة بالأغلبيات والأقليات. على سبيل المثال، إنّ وصف الأكراد بالأقلّية في العراق وإيران وسوريا وتركيا كونهم «مظلومين» اجتماعياً، هو وصفٌ مخادعٌ إذا أردنا تفسير سبب سوء أوضاعهم المعيشية، أو التركيز على الجوهر السياسي لمفهوم «الأقلية».

وفعلاً، «الأقلّية» الكردية تتألّف من حوالي 30 مليون شخص، ولكن إلى اليوم لا يزال فكر الدولة القومية يسبّب وصفهم بالأقلية. وبالمثل، اعتمد تدخّل الدولة في الحياة اليومية في الشرق الأوسط، وعموماً الكيانات «اللوثيانية»، على إستراتيجية «فرّق تسُد» الّتي شجّعت الحركات الانفصالية والاستقلال السياسي للمجتمعات المختلفة، كوسيلةٍ وحيدة لقبول هويتها.

وكانت أعمال العنف التي يرتكبها «تنظيم الدولة» ضدّ عناصر المجتمع الموجودة في بلاد ما بين النهرين، تعزّز الاقتناع بأهمية «حماية الأقليات الدينية»، وبالتالي تكرّس استخدام الدين كأداة لإنتاج المعرفة الحصريّة.

أمّا حالياً، يقوم التنظيم بالاعتداء يومياً على المسلمين والمسيحيين بنحو مماثل، وغالباً يقتل الأشخاص الذين يرفضون سلطته بشكل مباشر، أو يعارضون «الخلافة» بأشكالٍ عديدة, ولكن فقط بفضل أعدادهم نصفهم بالمظلومين، لكي نعبّر عن مخاوفنا ونوايانا السياسية.

ومفهومُ التحليل العلمي «للدين» على أنّه خانةٌ فارغة، نستطيع ملأها بأي معنى، هو مفهومٌ مغلوط، ولكنّه لا يزال قادراً على صياغة الأحداث، وعلى رفع المشاعر الجماعية على نطاقٍ واسع. وفي الأمثلة التي قدّمتها سابقاً، في فهم تاريخ الشرق الأوسط، يعتمدُ فكر الهويات المتجانسة على أساليب معرفية مضلّلة، كما لو أنّها كيانات موضوعية ومعبّرة عن مبادئ سياسية ثابتة. وبعبارة أخرى، يتم اعتبار عناصر المجتمع الدينية والعرقية في حال طمحت إلى وطن مستقلّ وانتِماء فطري إلى أراضيها، على أساس هويتها فقط. ومثلاً لماذا لا يُعدّ المسيحيون الخاضعون لسلطة «تنظيم الدولة»، ولا الأكراد أيضاً، معارضين لسلطة الدولة المطلقة أو لأي كيانٍ أخر؟

يلجأ المجتمع الدولي، وليس السياسيون فقط، إلى لغة «حماية الأقليات» واستراتيجيتها على نحوٍ متزايد، فالحماية الاستعمارية للأقليات في الشرق الأوسط حوّلت المجموعات المتدينة غير المتجانسة، إلى كيانات متماسكة منفصلة. وعلى ضوء ذلك تتعرّض «الأقلّيات» أيضاً لخطر المجازر، أو التمييز بالحقوق المدنية، كلما تطلّبت ذلك المصالح السياسية أو ظروفٌ مادية معينة، ومن المفارقات أن يأتي حُرّاس الأقلّيات الأجانب لإنقاذها في السياق التاريخي الذي ترعرعت فيه.

وعلاوةً على ذلك, حسب الرأي السائد في الخارج وفي الشرق الأوسط، تتصادم هذه المقومات الدينية بشكلٍ دائم. وإذا نظرنا إلى الجذور التاريخية للعداوات الإقليمية المزمنة، فقد خدمت حماية الأقليات عبر التاريخ نفوذ السلطات الغربية في المنطقة, مثل الحماية الفرنسية للمسيحيين في سوريا، والحماية الفرنسية للموارنة في جبل لبنان، وخصوصاً أثناء الاقتتال مع الدروز، الذين كانوا تحت رعاية البريطانيين في القرن التاسع عشر.

وبالتالي، التلاعبُ السياسي في مفاهيم الأقليات والأغلبيات في إنتاج معرفة الشرق الأوسط، هو غالباً عملٌ أيديولوجي لا يزال يُصبَغ بمواريث استعمارية، وبالتأكيد ليس سيناريو الشرق الأوسط استثنائياً في هذا الإطار، لأنّ بعض المجموعات الاجتماعية أصغر من ما يسمّى «الأغلبيات» العرقية أو الدينية التي تعيش في الدولة القومية نفسها، ولكنّها لم تطور الإحساس الذاتي بأنّها «أقليات». على سبيل المثال، تُمثَّل الجاليات الآسيوية في تشيلي كمجتمعاتِ مهاجرين في الأخبار وفي الأدب المتعلق بهم، وعلى النقيض من ذلك، يُسمّى المغتربون من بوليفيا وبيرو في تشيلي «بالأقليات»، لأنهم هاجروا من دوَل جارة حاربت تشيلي في حرب إقليمية في القرن التاسع عشر، وذلك يؤكد استخدام الاستقطاب الثنائي السياسي لمفاهيم الأغلبية والأقلية.

ينتهجُ الحُكّام والجمهور والعلماء التصنيف الديني كإشارةٍ إلى قُربٍ أو بُعدٍ سياسي، وعلى نحو مماثل كان المسيحيون الأرثوذكسيون اليونانيون أكثر استعداداً لقبول الأمة العربية السورية في الثلاثينات من المذاهب المسيحية الأخرى، وكان يسمّى هذا المجموع «بقرابة الإسلام» في ظلّ وجود أغلبية مسلمة في الحركة القومية السورية، وعامّةً تحُثّ القضايا السياسية المشتركة المسلمين على البحث عن تسميات معبّرة عن قُربٍ ديني من المسيحيين الأرثوذكسيين. وطبعاً العامل السياسي هو مكوِّنٌ واحدٌ لمفهوم الدين القديم والمتعدّد، الذي يُستعمل إلى حدّ كبير في العلوم السياسية والاجتماعية. والنظرة التحليلية لمفهوم الدين، هي وسيلة مصطنعة تحتوي على عادات ومبادئ وعقائد وأخلاق معنوية، وسلوكيات بشرية متناقضة.

تؤدّي فرضية «استثنائية الشرق الأوسط»، إلى تصوّر انقسام الإقليم بشكل فطريٍ ومُبرَم، إلى أقليات دينية وعرقية متجانسة ومطواعة لسياسات الهوية, ومن مسؤوليتنا مواجهةُ سوء الفهم والقصور الفكري الأهلي والدوَلي، والعمل على تحسين أساليب معرفية وإدراكية في النقاش حول الشرق الأوسط.

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Dr. Tim “Asad” Anderson: the abuse of academia to spread out propaganda

SYRIA-CONFLICT-AUSTRALIA

 

Part I

 

My name is Andrea Glioti, I’m the journalist who intervened at Dr. Tim Anderson’s talk at Sydney UNI “Why I went to Syria” on March 6 (2014), an event promoting a blatant apology of the Syrian regime under the pretext of “counter-information”. A professor of political economy, Tim Anderson (https://www.facebook.com/timand2037?fref=ts) has been part of a delegation led by the Wikileaks Party and the Asadist activist group “Hands Off Syria”, which paid its homage to the Syrian regime during a visit of solidarity in December 2013. This is a response to some of the absurdities I heard about the Syrian conflict and, apart from the single case of Anderson, it addresses several points continuously raised by the so-called “anti-imperialist left”. It would be actually fair to rename this ideological stubbornness on Syria as a Stalinist-Soviet approach, if we were between the 1950s the 1960s, Anderson and his likes would be probably denying the Hungarian and Czech revolts ever took place. If we were in the Spanish Civil War, they would probably defend the Soviet decision to crush the anarchists. As long as a government sits in the anti-American camp (no matter the hypocrisy of Syrian foreign policies in this regard), it doesn’t really matter if it tortures leftists in its own prisons. Dr Anderson and his likes claim to hold the truth on what’s going on in Syria, this truth could be sum up in a Western-backed plot denying any sort of agency to the Syrians who took the streets in 2011. In their eyes, they’re only puppets, they would have never risen up after more 40 years of authoritarianism , they needed the Zionist-Salafi-American trust to give them a green light.
I’m an Arabic speaking Middle Eastern politics graduate, who has been covering Syria from inside the country for 10 months between 2011 and 2013 and I spent the rest of the time between Turkey and Lebanon, mainly in the border regions, where most of the Syrian refugees are located. I’ve worked with a wide range of media including “corporate” and “leftist” magazines (The New Internationalist, the German TAZ, the Swiss-German WOZ fall in the second category), being a freelancer, therefore I don’t even fit into the category of mainstream corporate media. Having said this, the sources Dr Anderson relied upon during his presentation could hardly be considered “independent” sources of information, despite his efforts to present them as such: Russia Today, in the words of Putin, reflects the views of the Kremlin, just like the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reflects the views of the pro-Syrian (regime) 8 March coalition. Among the sources quoted there was also Mother Agnès de la Croix, a Palestinian-Lebanese nun closely related to the Asad regime (http://pulsemedia.org/2012/08/21/dead-journalists-and-sister-agnes-mariam/) and the French far-right (http://vicinoriente.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/la-monaca-di-assad/). Anderson’s talk was covered by the Iranian Press TV: if the station’s anti-US biases were combined with a minimum degree of professionalism, then my intervention wouldn’t have been censored, after I raised several critical points Anderson intentionally ignored.
Notwithstanding the political biases of Western and Gulf media [the focus on Syria in contrast with how Bahrain has been overlooked and the role played by certain American media in advocating war on Iraq in 2003, despite the lack of any evidence on its chemical arsenal, just to quote two examples], the solution is not to take at face value the version of events provided by pro-Syrian regime sources to come up with a credible alternative narrative. Journalism is about verifying facts, a strong ground-driven knowledge of the context you’re talking about, a reliable network of local contacts and, ideally, some fluency in the local language (Arabic): all these aspects were totally absent in Dr Anderson’s conference.

While retaining the right to be skeptical about the Western media’s coverage of Syria, everyone should bear in mind that the main reason of the conflicting news reports coming from this country is the restrictive context journalists are forced to operate in: while based in Damascus in 2011, I had to pretend being a student to avoid being monitored 24/h by security forces, my Brazilian colleague Germano Assad has been detained in confinement for five days under the only accusation of being a journalist. I have been denied access to Syria in 2012 and told I was not welcome there anymore on the grounds of the interviews I conducted with local political dissidents. I’m sure this was the reason, because of the content of the questions posed to my colleague Assad under interrogation. This is just an idea of what you have to endure as a Western journalist, if you’re not there on an official parade organized through government press visas. It goes without saying that Syrian journalists “enjoy” a much worse treatment: one of my personal acquaintances had to leave Syria recently, after having been tortured and put on trial for “working without a license” and “spreading lies”. Let us not forget WHY it is so difficult to work in Syria and inform about the ongoing events.

Going back to Anderson’s talk, first of all, you don’t claim to show support for one “nation”, if you only sat for pastries with Asad, that’s not showing solidarity with the “Syrian people”, that’s an official delegation voicing its support for a Government.
During my stay in Syria I had the chance to walk around without any escort, both in Damascus in 2011 and in the province of Hasakah in 2013: this clearly makes the difference from an official visit to Damascus (actually, to a certain extent, it makes the difference even in comparison to some other journalists, who have only been escorted into Syria by rebel brigades). As a matter of fact, Anderson didn’t meet with anyone from the opposition, neither from the armed factions nor from the civil peaceful movements (and there are lots of peaceful activists still active in Syria… http://www.syriauntold.com/en) .

There was a lot of talk on US imperialism and Zionism: could Anderson provide any actual evidence that the US have been willing to overthrow Asad? All the red lines have been crossed (including the use of chemical weapons), three years have passed and I haven’t seen any intervention. If they really wanted, they could have done it much earlier. This picture of Asad as a staunch anti-American also stands in contradiction with the rapprochement between Washington and Damascus in 2010, marked by the appointment of ambassador Robert Ford. The position of the US on the Syrian events has been largely stumbling, due also to the fact that they didn’t receive any green light from the Israelis. Did Anderson bother to listen to Rami Makhluf- Bashar al-Asad’s cousin and one of the most influential business figures in Syria- when the revolt started in 2011? He said clearly that the Israeli security was dependent on the permanence of the Asad regime.
If you brand the Asad regime as an anti-Zionist vanguard, then you probably disregard some historical facts: no offensive was launched against Israel since the October war in 1973; Hafez al-Asad’s Syria was willing to reach a peace agreement with the Israelis in 2000, on condition of the return of the occupied Golan Heights and a renewed access to the Sea of Galilee, hence a pragmatic approach concerned about national sovereignty rather than the Palestinian cause; Palestinians were slaughtered by far-right Lebanese Christian militias in cooperation with Syrian troops in the massacre of Tel Zaatar during the Lebanese civil war; the PLO has been at odds with the Syrian regime for a long time, since the latter was not willing to jeopardize its national interests for the sake of the Palestinian cause (See what the socialists have to say about this http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/06/assa-j16.html). I would also suggest Anderson and his likes read more on the so-called Red Line agreement between Israel and Syria during the Lebanese civil war, a deal brokered by Kissinger to share regions of influence (http://www.merip.org/mer/mer236/syria-lebanon-brotherhood-transformed#_5_).
The Israeli officials maintained an extremely low profile position on Syria during the events and why on earth should they have pushed for the removal of Asad, if he kept the Syrian-Israeli border quiet for forty years? They look more worried about a new unknown diverse galaxy of rebel groups controlling the border, whereas they know exactly what to expect from Asad. Have a look at what Noam Chomsky had to say about the Israeli stance on Syria (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MQeGHoiPj4&feature=youtu.be Is he too part of the corporate media?): he clearly points at the fact that, if the Israelis wanted to support the opposition, they could have just opened another front on the Golan. Such a move would have weakened the Syrian army by opening a new front in the South: a much less costly option to support the armed opposition than an open scale offensive on Damascus. But nothing like this happened and Anderson still define it as a regime from the “Resistance” axis.

Until now, the Syrian regime is enforcing a devastating siege on the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, because part of its inhabitants joined the rows of the opposition. I have been collecting evidence of the first anti-regime demonstrations in Yarmuk on my blog since June 2011 (in Italian https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/2-blogging-five-months-of-revolution-inside-syria-5-6-june-2011-golan-to-yarmuk-palestinians-joining-the-syrian-uprising/), when Palestinian protesters were shot at for chanting against the exploitation of the Naksa day at the hands of Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC: in that case, the demonstrators voiced their indignation, after several residents of the camp were literally “thrown” in front of the Israeli rifles at the border in order to divert the attention from the Syrian uprising. Khaled Bakrawi, a Palestinian activist from Yarmuk, was killed under torture in the Syrian prisons in September 2013: he took part in the Naksa march and was outspoken about the way the Syrian regime had exploited the fervor of the Palestinian youth, despite having been himself wounded by the Israelis at the border (http://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/death-under-torture-in-syria-the-horrors-ignored-by-pacifists/).
I personally know several Palestinian leftist dissidents unknown to the media who had to leave Syria or ended up in its jails, but I cannot name them, as it might affect their upcoming trials or their return to Syria in the future. One of the most famous ones, Salameh Kaileh, a marxist Palestinian (http://links.org.au/node/2841), had to flee to Jordan after having been arrested and detained in 2012. Was he an Islamist too? Perhaps a Zionist?
Has Anderson ever read how the Palestinian anarchist Budour Hassan has totally debunked the claims of those who portrait Damascus as a champion of the Palestinian cause (http://budourhassan.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/analysis-the-myth-of-palestinian-neutrality-in-syria/)? What about the experience of Omar ‘Aziz, a Syrian anarchist who returned to his country upon the outbreak of the uprising to help organizing the first local revolutionary committees in Barzeh, which are considered “some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self organization” (http://tahriricn.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/syria-the-life-and-work-of-anarchist-omar-aziz-and-his-impact-on-self-organization-in-the-syrian-revolution/)? He died because of a heart attack in February 2013, after having been detained for three months in the Adra prison. During his talk, Anderson mentioned a visit to Adra, blaming the “radical Islamists” for the constant shelling, but I doubt he ever asked about whom is detained in the local prison, didn’t he?

A comparison with Afghanistan and its pre-Taliban empowerment of rural classes was made in the introduction and Anderson repeatedly labeled the Syrian regime a “socially inclusive” Government. This means he didn’t even bother to check the map of the areas controlled by the opposition: basically a wide portion of the countryside is in the hands of the rebels. Why? Because the uprising was more popular among the rural outcasts, namely those who have been impoverished by Bashar al-Asad’s shift towards neoliberalism and those who have been always marginalized under the Ba’th, like the Kurds living in the Northern countryside (See another Syrian socialist perspective on the “inclusiveness” of the regime’s economic policies http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3380). Although it wouldn’t be objective to argue that the social gap in Syria was as wide as the Egyptian one, for example, the Syrian case is remote from “social inclusiveness”, it looks more like an economy controlled by a gang of affiliates and tycoons like Rami Makhluf, who are the antithesis of social justice.
Anderson depicted the uprising in Aleppo as led by religious fundamentalists, but he didn’t mention at all that a vast segment of the urban classes who sided with the regime are actually part of the Syrian bourgeoisie, epitomized by Aleppo’s traders. Did the so-called “anti-imperialist left” embrace a moral struggle to defend the urban upper classes against peasants, on the basis of the length of the beards of some of these peasants, who are homogeneously branded as “Islamists”? In July 2011, I visited a group of metalworkers in their workshop in Qadam (Southern Damascus), they were all taking part to the protests, one of them was a Syrian in his twenties with a degree in computer science he was never able to use: his father passed away and he had to seal shawarma machines to cover the expenses of his young brother living with him. This young graduate was also a hip hop singer from the group Refugees of Rap and we recorded a track together called “The Age of Silence” (Zaman as-Samt) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umQ3xGj4E2Y), which deals with the drive behind the protests. Is the “anti-imperialist left” supposed to empathize with the demands of this kind of marginalized urban youth or to side with the ruling classes?

Was the regime “socially inclusive” towards 2 to 4 million Kurds, who are mostly secular minded? Not at all. In 2013, I’ve spent five months in the province of Hasakah, a region affected by chronic poverty, despite its natural resources. The history written by the Ba’th is made up of racist Arab settlement policies confiscating wide shares of Kurdish lands in Hasakah (the so-called al-Hizam al-Arabi, the Arab Belt policy). The regime has also abided by a census conducted in 1962, who stripped off the Syrian citizenship thousands of Syrian Kurds. Even though the Kurdish regions are rich of oil, all the refineries were built in Homs and Banyas to impede the economic empowerment of rural peripheries.
During Anderson’s talk, I heard him praising “elections” and “pluralism” under the Ba’th and I confront this with the story of one of my close acquaintances in Hasakah, whose nails have been removed under torture on the grounds of its affiliation to the Yekiti Kurdi Parti. Is this the pluralism he’s talking about? Or is this pluralism about the Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar, the secretary general of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), that Anderson mentioned in the ridiculous attempt to provide evidence that other political forces are tolerated inside the Ba’thist government? Is Anderson aware that from 2005 until 2012, despite the dissident history of Antoun Saadeh’s party, its Damascene branch has been part of the National Progressive Front established by the Ba’th to create an umbrella of loyal parties behind the facade of pluralism? Is he aware that Ali Haidar has recently endorsed the candidacy of Bashar al-Asad for the upcoming presidential elections? I personally know some SSNP members, who quit the party, after they realized to which extent it had become involved in the recruitment of pro-government militias (shabbiha) in 2011.

As I said during my intervention at the talk, I attended several demonstrations both in Damascus and in the suburbs of the capital in 2011: I heard no sectarian slogans, saw children and women taking part to the uprising and witnessed live fire opened on demonstrators by security forces. Peaceful protesters were even beaten up in front of my eyes as soon as July 2011 in the Old City (in Italian https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/6-blogging-five-months-of-revolution-inside-syria-in-italiano-proteste-nel-centro-di-damasco-se-rimaniamo-fino-a-domattina-saremo-mezzo-milione-27-luglio-2011/), in the center of Damascus. My colleague Germano Assad has been prevented by government supporters from filming this demonstration, he had to escape after they started shouting at him: “This is not Syria!”. This is just an example of the state of denial some regime supporters live in, when it comes to recognizing the occurrence of peaceful protests: one of the attendants of Anderson’s talk, a Syrian who claimed to have lived in the Old City, insisted he never saw any protest in that part of Damascus. The aim is to deny protests ever took place, then to deny massacres occurred (as this was what Anderson’s conference was all about): it reminds me of the attitude of Holocaust’s deniers, or that of those Lebanese Phalangists who assert their party never slaughtered Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila. No matter the extent of evidence and accounts you gather, they will keep denying. In the end, their angle of view is identical to the one adopted by the Syrian State television: I remember very well the cameramen of al-Ikhbariyya filming the empty streets of Barzeh (Damascus) patrolled by security forces, while they were perfectly aware that a demonstration was going on a few blocks away.

I used to know personally one of the peaceful protesters who were chased by regime supporters in that occasion in the Old City: he died in 2013, after taking up weapons to fight the regime in Aleppo. Should we consider him as a terrorist as well? On which moral ground are we denying protesters the right to take up arms? One of the points raised during Anderson’s talk was that protesters were indeed armed since the beginning of the revolt. This was definitely the case in some regions, like Idlib, where demonstrators from Jisr ash-Shughur took up weapons to defend themselves as early as June 2011: I wrote about it and I criticized the way some Western media denied the presence of armed elements (http://www.majalla.com/eng/2012/04/article55230561), but I don’t understand why Syrians should be condemned for having resorted to violence against a brutal security apparatus.

 

Part II

 

The main argument used by Anderson to advocate support for the Syrian regime was the stereotypical juxtaposition between an allegedly secular government and a radical Islamist opposition. When I stressed the genuine roots of the Syrian uprising, the only answer Anderson could provide was: “Well, I don’t deny there have been mistakes committed by the police (what a nice euphemism for forty years of “mistakes”), but could you name one secular/non Islamist brigade in the opposition?” The premise of such response is that, as long as they’re Islamists, it’s perfectly fine to kill them. Islamists have been on the Middle Eastern “stage” for almost one century, they’re still there despite what happened in Hama, but Anderson (and numerous other Islamophobic “analysts”) still perceive them as a cancer implanted by Western agendas to be uprooted with violence. I wonder whether Anderson has ever argued the same about Hamas and Hezbollah on their resistance against Israel, weren’t they to be condemned on the grounds of being Islamist forces? If the West was to keep looking at Hezbollah through the lens of its original plan for the establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon and the abductions of foreign civilians carried out in the ’80s by the party’s first embryos, no one would have imagined to see the Shi’a militia accepting its current role in the Lebanese electoral system. The same goes for the recent prospects for US negotiations with the Talibans in Afghanistan, which were completely unforeseeable after 9-11. Then, why are we to rule out the possibility that some of the jihadist groups fighting in Syria today might change their position and accept to engage in parliamentarian politics later on?
What about the Iraqi resistance under American occupation? Has Anderson paid attention to the fact that most of the insurgents were actually jihadists and many of them are currently fighting against the Syrian regime? Are they to be considered “fallen heroes of anti-imperialists” suddenly turned into “NATO-backed mercenaries”, even though nothing changed in their ideological background?

Furthermore, Anderson made no reference whatsoever to what has been written on the ties between Damascus and a wide range of Islamist Sunni militant groups previously active in Lebanon and Iraq, now fighting on the side of the Syrian opposition, including Fatah al-Islam (http://wikileaks.org/gifiles/docs/214642_analysis-for-edit-syria-throws-fatah-al-islam-under-the-bus-.html) and Ghuraba’ ash-Sham (http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/radicals-are-assads-best-friends). It was also completely omitted the fact that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the militia responsible of the worst atrocities committed in Syria in the name of jihadism, has actually spent more time fighting other rebel factions than the regime and its headquarters are rarely targeted by air raids. There has been plenty of accusations from different political and military factions with regards to the ties between Damascus and ISIS ( https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=508278592619820&set=a.473931262721220.1073741828.473917376055942&type=1&theater, https://twitter.com/JadBantha/status/421263028978343936/photo/1, http://hawarnews.com/index.php/component/content/article/43-2013-02-24-21-16-12/7835-2013-11-13-12-04-59, http://claysbeach.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/bashar-al-jihad-is-isis-child-of-regime.html), whose rise perfectly suits the Syrian State media’s relentless efforts to portray the uprising as an Islamist one since its early phases. During my stay in Syria in 2013, I gathered local witness accounts on Ahmad Muhammad “Abu Rami”, the former Syrian military intelligence chief in Rmaylan (North-Eastern Syria), who allegedly joined the rows of the al-qa’idist Jabhat an-Nusra in November 2012. I also spoke with a former Syrian security official in Ras al-‘Ayn, who confirmed me how easily certain rebel brigades were infiltrated by figures known for their ties with the regime.
In addition to this, Anderson failed to mention how the regime granted amnesty to some of the top-leaders of the Islamist opposition back in May 2011 (including for example the Islamic Army’s Zahran ‘Allush), a few months after the outbreak of the uprising, in a move which could hardly be seen as “coincidental”, as it contributed to the sectarian drift of the revolt.

This is not meant to say that the Syrian regime and the Islamist hardliners share the same agenda and the latter ones do not aim at overthrowing the government; it also remains challenging to evaluate the truthfulness of certain reports, even when they’re built on intelligence sources, but we should bear in mind that they are often as credible as the reports putting the blame exclusively on the Gulf for the rise of radical Sunni groups. What is unquestionable, in my opinion, is the completely misleading portrait of Damascus as a champion in the struggle against Islamism in the light of its historical connections with Islamist networks.
These historical connections include the Syrian support for Hamas, Hizbullah, the Amal Movement (a group established with the explicit purpose to crush Lebanese communists), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and several other Islamist groups. If the Syrian regime was a promoter of secularism in the region, then it should have restricted its support to secular anti-Zionist militant groups. If the Syrian regime were secular, then it shouldn’t allow Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’a militants to fight on its side against Sunnis, or did Islamism suddenly become an exclusively Sunni phenomenon? If the Syrian regime were secular, it wouldn’t have supported the ethnic “cleansing” (tathir, in the words recorded on video of one of the perpetrators, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/nownews/pro-regime-militant-speaks-of-cleansing-banias) of Sunnis in Bayda and Baniyas in May 2013. If the Syrian regime were secular, the Constitution wouldn’t prevent a Christian from becoming the president of the republic until now just like it wouldn’t state that “Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) is a fundamental source of legislation.” (http://www.al-bab.com/arab/docs/syria/syria_draft_constitution_2012.htm). If the Syrian regime were secular, Alawis wouldn’t dominate the intelligence branches to the extent that their coastal dialect is mocked in every single joke on the security forces.
Having said that, I honestly don’t understand the point of defending a regime on the ground of its alleged secularism, if we take a look at how history is rich of examples of authoritarian secular rule such as the Reign of Terror in post-revolutionary France, Kemalist Turkey and the Soviet Union.

Another aspect of the rise of Islamist factions in the opposition Anderson and his likes fail to grasp is where “money and guns” come from or, to put it clearly, they know where they come from, but they consider this an outcome of the Islamist ideology of all the insurgents. They seem to ignore the reality of those fighters who had to turn to an outward version of Islamism to catalyse financial and military support: this was the case of the Farouq Brigades from Homs, that quickly became the equivalent of a franchise capable of attracting Qatari funds and, for this reason, it started to attract a wide range of groups under its name (http://www.arab-reform.net/sites/default/files/empowering%20the%20democratic%20resistance.pdf). This didn’t mean there was an Islamist unified vision among all the groups gathered under the Farouq brand, whose Islamist outlook might well have been as pragmatic as the Salafi-looking beard grown by the Farouq’s young commander Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, upon his rise to fame. During Anderson’s talk, when I mentioned the Farouq Brigades as an example of a non-Islamist group, I probably failed to make clear that this was not meant to claim that they are secular, but that their Islamist facade has been pragmatically motivated rather than related to an uncompromising commitment to the establishment of an Islamic state. It is the same pragmatism which led Hezbollah to accept funds from Qatar – a State with whom the party could hardly share any political and religious identity – for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Lebanon following the Israeli aggression in 2006. It is the same pragmatism which saw Hamas, on the other hand, receiving Iranian funds, regardless of their political and religious affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.
As the Syrian conflict kept growing in intensity, securing funds became a crucial factor behind the mushrooming of Islamist hardline factions, in comparison with the initial “low cost” peaceful phase almost void of sectarian drifts. In 2013, I spoke with a Syrian journalist who visited the Eastern Ghuta (Damascus) between March and April and he reported to me how Free Syrian Army soldiers had a daily limit of around 30 bullets (the figure might be higher, but the point was that their ammunition was limited), whereas the Islamic Front could count on unlimited ammunition. This obviously led to an increased number of fighters joining the ranks of the Islamist factions. In June 2013, I travelled towards al-Hul (Southern al-Hasakah) on a truck driven by a Kurdish rebel fighting on the side of ISIS and Ahrar ash-Sham: he kept joking about his beard and how he had to grow it to be accepted among jihadists, while promising to go back drinking arak as soon as the war was over. The umpteenth confirmation of how pragmatism was often a priority at the expense of the ideological drive.

As a matter of fact, there are few groups with a distinct leftist stance within the rows of the opposition: one of these exceptions are the recently formed Factions of the People’s Liberation (Fasa’il Taharrur ash-Sha’b https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sR5wcCzLyzo), set up in Duma in March 2014. These groups saw the light in the explicit attempt to counter both the regime and the most obscurantist forces of the opposition, but their capabilities are clearly limited due to lack of funds.
Anderson thinks he can wave the banner of anti-imperialism from the pulpit of his lectures in Australia, but he doesn’t seem to care about the fate of those real Syrian anti-imperialists, who are perishing on the ground without receiving a single cent from the Gulf monarchies. It would have been enough to use the funds wasted on the Wikileaks delegation’s trip to Damascus to relief the budget of the Factions of the People’s Liberation, if the aim was to support popular resistance, but Anderson’s farce is more about “copy pasting” Hugo Chavez’s quotes on Asad to feel the revolutionary vibes on Facebook.

Another paradox of Anderson’s unconditional support for secularism against Islamism is that he resorts to the good-for-all-purposes scaremonger of Christian persecutions to back the Asad regime, so that when I mentioned the Farouq Brigades, I got reminded the way “they expelled Christians from their neighbourhoods in Homs”. First of all, to argue that Christians were evicted on the basis of their faith and not as a result of the conflict is an assumption even contested by Catholic sources (www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=13804). Secondly, Anderson and other “minorities-obsessed” scholars take for granted that Christians are always persecuted because of their religion, while dismissing the possibility for some of them to have been targeted as collaborators of the regime or because of their affluence (for example, the wealth of some urbanized Syriacs was behind their kidnappings in Hasakah and Qamishli in 2013): the implicit premise to this discourse is that Christians are all innocent, they never took sides (not a single word is spent on the loyalist stance of most Syrian clerical institutions throughout the uprising) and they are suddenly in need of Western assistance to escape Islamic zealots. When the idea that Middle Eastern Christians are in need of protection was part of the French Mandate’s search for legitimacy, it was despised by “anti-imperialists” as colonialist propaganda, whereas now it is at the core of the concerns they happen to share with pro-Asad Western fascist and Catholic circles (with whom they also share sources like Mother Agnès de la Croix). As the French scholar Thomas Pierret wrote on his Facebook page, after the hypocritical indignation aroused by the displacement of Armenians from Kassab at the hands of Syrian rebels among the same people who turn a blind eye on the regime’s daily use of barrel bombs on the neighbourhoods of Aleppo controlled by the opposition, “whoever cares more for an Armenian from Kassab than for a Sunni from eastern Aleppo is a racist”.

During his visit to Syria, Anderson claims he had the chance to witness the coexistence between Christians and Muslims under the shelter of the regime, thus envisaging a future of religious persecutions, if the opposition will ever take over the country. First of all, this is a distortion of Syrian history, where there is absolutely nothing proving a higher rate of anti-Christian violence before the Ba’thist coup in 1963. Anderson went on specifying that most of the rebels are actually foreigners, an allegation common among Asadists returning from government-sponsored tours of Syria, where they never met with one single opposition fighter, just like Anderson did. I personally met with combatants from a wide range of anti-government factions in Lebanon, Turkey and Syria, and the overwhelming majority of them were Syrians, including the hardliners from Ahrar ash-Sham , Ghuraba’ ash-Sham and Ansar ash-Shari’a. Most foreigners fight within the rows of ISIS and they advocate a brutal form of Islamic autocracy Syrians are unfamiliar with: when the militants of this group vandalized a church in Raqqa, its Syrian residents took the streets to protest against religious intolerance, but they didn’t certainly call for the return of the regime. Of course, all of this was not mentioned in Anderson’s talk, where the message needed to remain “foreign Islamists make up most of the opposition and they pose a threat to the Ba’thist religious tolerance.” This was actually the same message conveyed by a Syrian woman who stood up to intervene during Anderson’s talk, when she accused the opposition of organizing protests from inside the mosques, thus suggesting the movement was already an Islamist one since its outbreak. As usual, it went completely ignored the fact that mosques were used by all protesters, regardless of their political and religious beliefs, because of the ban on unauthorized public gatherings. Over these years I spent covering the Syrian uprising, I never met someone who obtained a government license to organize a rally against the regime.

During the conference, there was also room for some racist remarks on the Bedouin roots of the Gulf sponsors of the opposition, as Anderson reported, laughing at the comments of a Syrian government official on their status of camel riders/shepherds (I cannot recall the exact words, but it was definitely a stereotypical racist joke on Arab Gulf tribes). As if it wasn’t enough to resort to Islamophobia under the guise of secularism and religious tolerance, Anderson turned to blanketing the (Sunni) Arab tribes as a bunch of rural barbarians, probably ignoring the fact that millions of Syrians are clan members with kinship links in Gulf countries.

Lastly, Anderson attempted to prove Syria never witnessed an uprising by asserting that “no revolution has ever targeted schools and hospitals and prevented kids from education.” Such assertion implies the absurd claim that the government forces have never targeted schools and hospitals. In addition to this, Anderson ignores all the initiatives launched in opposition-held areas to support education, civil society and local projects, despite the continuous bloodshed (http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/04/education-aleppo-syria-war.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=23ea4fcada-January_9_20141_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-23ea4fcada-93102377). In 2013, I visited several times the city of Ras al-Ayn (North-Eastern Syria), when it was still under joint Arab-Kurdish control without any presence of the regime: no one told me of kids prevented from going to school and the hospitals and the small clinics were actually struggling to function, thanks to the voluntary efforts of the doctors affiliated to the rebel militias. Unfortunately, most of these armed groups were prioritizing the arms trade over the availability of medicines and I wrote about this issue (https://mabisir.wordpress.com/2013/05/16/free-syrian-army-neglects-health-sector-in-ras-al-ayn-sere-kanye/), but I was also aware that the same hospitals could not be used to heal wounded protesters when they were controlled by the regime. The reality is much more complicated, if you verify it on the ground, but what you get from Anderson is just that the rebels are medieval bogeymen targeting schools and hospitals.

In conclusion, if some of you had the patience to read through all of this, my personal advice is to remain sceptic of those scholars who abuse their academic positions to spread out ideological propaganda on issues they are completely unfamiliar with. If I happen to spend two weeks during a phase of political turmoil in Cuba, a country Anderson is probably more knowledgeable than me about on the basis of his experience, I would remain aware of my ignorance on Cuba and wary about claiming to hold the truth on the unfolding events. I would expect Anderson and his likes to do the same. Thanks.

I also welcome every Syrian who lived through the uprising to express his/her indignation at Anderson’s denial of his/her efforts to depose the current regime.

Categories: Arab Gulf, Israel, Kurdistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

What ways to combat populistic “protection for minorities”: let’s start from historical redefinitions (Estella Carpi, April 2013)

Image

(Picture source: The New York Times)

The media discourses and people’s everyday accounts increasingly talk of Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria in terms of “Shi’a against Sunna”, as well as the Jihadist Sunni armed groups fighting against the “Shi’a cosmopolitanism” – as defined by Shehabi and Tafreshi in 2006 – that includes Iran, Iraq since Nuri al Maliki’s mandate, Syria and Hezbollah’s Lebanon.

Likewise, internationals engaged in the Syrian events have often called for the need to “protect” Syrian Christians and Syrian Alawites, by taking for granted what the concept of “minority” may indicate and, hence, by essentialising further this notion.

In this moment of political history, I therefore find extremely helpful to dwell upon the way we conceive and deal with ethnic and religious “minorities” in the middle eastern scenario. 

Our moral duty, in the capacity of bloggers, researchers, journalists or whatsoever knowledge space providers, is not to pride ourselves on the fact that we had already predicted that a confessional strife or the oppression of a certain minority would have taken place, as though confessionalisation of violence and politics in the Middle East were an inescapable human phenomenon. Rather, the duty of knowledge collectors, producers and commentators is to recall the manipulative nature of such discourses. To adopt the rhetoric of any rule-and-divide power, either western or eastern, leads us to perpetrate the power dynamics we are purported to fight.

Daniel Neep, scholar at the University of Exeter, exhaustively explains what social dynamics the divide-and-rule strategy, adopted by colonial as well as “native dictatorial” regimes, implies and deploys.

In the hope that one day we will liberate ourselves from such rhetorics, may the following words raise historical and sociological awareness around these chronically simplified definitions.

(Estella Carpi)

“Divide and conquer is a standard tactic in the colonial repertoire. Religious and ethnic diversity can be readily manipulated by foreign powers, which play minorities off against one another to prevent challenges to their rule. But the category of ‘minority’ is not a natural representation of an objective demographic reality. Instead, the worldwide appearance of ‘the minority’ in the early to mid-twentieth century is bound up with the processes of modern state formation which both divided those territories under colonial rule and moulded their populations into bodies politic whose social boundaries were now intended to be coterminous with political borders. ‘Minorities’ are neither primordial entities nor numerical facts, but a contingent social phenomenon, the existence of which deserves to be explained rather than taken for granted.

French Mandate Syria (1920–46) provides an excellent case study to explore this line of analysis. Specifically tasked by the League of Nations with creating what would eventually be a modern, self-governing state, France found exploiting Syria’s communal diversity to be a useful means of keeping the natives occupied while it consolidated its control of the country. As the traditional historiography observes, minorities such as the Alawis, Druze, Ismailis and Christians were disproportionately represented in the colonial army, which helped maintain order among the Sunni Muslim majority.

But a meticulous perusal of the historical evidence in French and Arabic allows to demonstrate that France’s minority policy was less consistent than was previously assumed. The term ‘minority’ was uncommon during the first decade of the Mandate, in both Arabic and French formulations; only in the 1930s did it become widespread. While Syria’s Christians had by then been recognised as a minority worthy of support and ‘protection’, other ethnic and religious groups such as the Kurds and Circassians were denied minority status and the legal right to representation that such status implied”. (Daniel Neep)

Categories: Lebanon, Syria | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The fearful Syria: collecting accounts in some Alawi villages during the revolution

An analysis I wrote for IRIN (well analyses at IRIN undergo a lot of editing, but there’s still most of my stuff…) back in February 2012. I relied also on a set of accounts collected by a Syrian friend of mine in some Alawi villages I would have hardly had access to.  (Photo by my companero da Syrian pesada  Germano Assad).

Analysis: Inside the anti-uprising movement in Syria

Loyalists 7 (Germano Assad)BEIRUT, 23 February 2012 (IRIN) – In Syria’s commercial capital, Aleppo, posters plastered across the city tell the story of a community which, until recently, has been largely voiceless in the violent events of the past year.

The posters say opposition to the Intifada, or uprising, does not mean support for the regime.

This objection resembles one in the capital Damascus last July, when Christians, who have thus far not joined the protest movement en masse, covered walls in the Bab Tuma neighbourhood with posters denouncing the “Friday celebrations” by regime loyalists, which took place while both security officers and civilians were being killed.

Since March 2011, what began as peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have increasingly turned into an armed rebellion.

Many Syrians, including dissidents, have opposed the nearly one-year popular uprising not because they support al-Assad, who has been accused by the UN high commissioner for human rights of possible crimes against humanity in the crackdown on protesters, but because they fear for the future of their country without him.

These people, so-called loyalists, describe the uprising as a crisis, or `azmah’ in Arabic: a challenging phase to be overcome by the government eventually.

As the international community increasingly turns against al-Assad, analysts say a consistent proportion of Syrians have maintained a detached, if not hostile, position towards the “opposition”. Their reasons range from a desire for stability, regardless of its authoritarian enforcement, to the perception that elements of the opposition are inherently violent and radical. Ethnic minorities view the uprising through a survivalist lens, fostered by the narrative of the regime and some personal accounts. This has further polarized versions of the events and reduced the possibility of any reconciliation. IRIN hears from these segments of the population whose voices have often been drowned out by the protests and the gunfire.

Another Iraq?

In its violent response to the uprising, the Syrian government has framed the situation for those Syrians abstaining from protests as a choice between stability (`istiqrar’) and chaos (`fawda’), the “unknown” ensuing from its collapse, analysts say.

“Even if the revolution was peaceful, Alawis wouldn’t accept the overthrowing of the regime, as it would bear negative consequences for all Syrians,” said Aref*, a 26-year-old artist from a village on the outskirts of the western port city of Latakia, who belongs to al-Assad’s minority Alawi sect.

Many of Syria’s Christians point to the stories of the more than one million Iraqi refugees – many of them Christians – who fled to Syria after sectarian violence in their country as an example.

“Without dialogue Syria will become a new Iraq,” the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo said this month.

Recent reports about al-Qaeda and various Sunni jihadist groups coming from Iraq to join the armed struggle against al-Assad have further worried Syrian minorities, some of whom have already started fleeing in fear.

A mid-December poll by The Doha Debates found that 55 percent of Syrians wanted al-Assad to stay in power, in large part out of fear for the future of the country. (The poll surveyed 1,000 respondents, 46 percent of whom were from the Levant).

Minorities

About 11 percent of the Syrian population, including the ruling family, follows Alawism, an offshoot of Shia Islam. The minority Alawis have ruled the majority Sunni country since 1970, when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, took power in a coup.

Worried about its future in a post-Assad Syria, the majority of this sect has either brushed aside protests or stood against them.

“Alawis generally remember positively the days of Hafez al-Assad, as someone who brought stability to a chaotic country,” points out Fadwa*, a 27-year-old Alawi maths graduate from Salhab, near the central resistance town of Hama. Her words point to a willingness to put stability before human rights: Syrians enjoyed wider freedoms in the “unstable” 1950s, before merging with Egypt in the United Arab Republic in 1958.

Stability is also crucial to the interdenominational beneficiaries (`mustafidin’) tied to the regime, as is clear from the loyalty of the Sunni-Christian bourgeoisie in Aleppo and Damascus. Ensuring the support of urban traders has been a persistent feature of Baathist rule even under Hafez al-Assad, who managed to prevent the Damascene mercantile classes from joining the Islamist uprising in the 1980s by co-opting the head of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, Badr al-Din al-Shallah.

But there are signs of waning support among the middle-upper classes, with the first mass demonstrations in the wealthy Damascene neighbourhood of Mezzeh on 18 February. As shortages of bread and fuel increase, private bank assets decline, tourism drops and the inflation rate doubles, Sunni and Christian urban traders are increasingly being affected.

Perception of violence

But a widespread perception of the opposition as radical and violent still has many worried.

The opposition is composed of several divergent groups with the same goal but different approaches. The so-called Local Coordination Committees of Syria are groupings of loosely affiliated activists who organize protests on the ground; the Syrian National Council is the main political opposition group outside Syria; and the Free Syrian Army is a group of defectors and other civilians who have taken up arms. While this may sound cohesive and hierarchal, analysts say much of the opposition is not. And they do not discount the possibility that outside terrorists are taking advantage of the unrest, as the government claims.

Aref, for one, believes the FSA to be a cloak for other armed groups, a concern highlighted by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in its latest report on Syria.

“Even if they shared the just demands of the revolution, Alawis got scared and confused by the bloody events,” said Anisa*, a 26-year-old Alawi from a village near Hama, who holds a master’s degree in economics.

Fadwa, the maths graduate, said she has friends who began as dissidents, but switched sides out of fear of an Islamist uprising.

While the regime has tried to demonize its peaceful opponents since the protests began, analysts say the opposition movement’s initial attempt to portray itself as wholly peaceful – despite a clear resort to violence among some elements – has also tarnished its credibility.

Even the most liberal Alawis say they are increasingly alarmed by the recent escalation of attacks against government forces, and fear a descent into sectarian conflict.

“The FSA should limit its operations to protect protesters and refrain from attacking the army, as this could lead to a split in the army along sectarian lines,” said Fadwa.

Sectarian split

The majority of conscripts in the Syrian Army are Sunnis who do not necessarily trust the ruling elite, who make up much of the security apparatus.

Ibrahim al-Hajj ‘Ali, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood from Aleppo, and an officer who defected from the army to coordinate armed insurgents, said he was more likely to encourage defections among trusted Sunni soldiers than “members of the Syrian ruling sect”.

The ICG says the FSA has captured Syrian security officers and forced them to confess to using violence against protesters or to being ordered to shoot anything that moves.

“The Free Army’s posting of forced confessions by captured security officers, who, in at least one instance, show evident signs of torture – stands as a first cautionary tale”, it said.

The FSA insists that soldiers who refuse to fire on unarmed protesters defect of their own volition.

But Bushra*, a 28-year-old bank employee from Mahrusah, a village near Hama, said she knew of a case in which insurgents killed a security officer after forcing him to announce his defection from the army on video. While her story is difficult to verify, it mirrors many others told amid loyalist circles.

Existential threat

These stories and others have led to a perception of the opposition as deeply sectarian.

“If there’s a civil war, they’re not going to differentiate between loyalist and dissident Alawis,” Bushra said. “The word of the regime is the only one able to protect us.”

According to Aref, the opposition has demonized the Alawi community, portraying it as an entity indivisible from the regime, a unique gang of `shabiha’ (loyalist thugs): “They have forgotten our contribution to Syrian history, the numerous progressive Alawi thinkers.”

The Alawis top the list of religious minorities who have come to link their survival with the permanence of the regime, regardless of their historical presence in Syria centuries before the Assads came to power.

As early as April 2011, checkpoints had sprung up in the Sitta wa Thamaneen neighbourhood of Damascus, an Alawi stronghold, home to many lower class members of the security services, and by summer, Alawi families in some urban centres started migrating to their original rural areas, fearing for their safety.

“Some Alawis are convinced that they will eventually be besieged by fundamentalist Sunnis,” said Aref, “and they’re getting ready to face this threat by arming themselves”.

This, despite the fact that the status quo they are willing to fight for granted privileges only to a “restricted circle”, noted Anisa, the economics graduate. “Those in the security forces and the army are at the bottom of society, as those who benefited from the regime can afford to send their sons to work or study abroad.”

In the event of a successful revolution, Alawis who were involved in the repression of Sunnis may flee en masse to their mountainous homeland, the ICG said. This could lead to retaliatory attacks by Sunnis, not only on them, but also on communities that had no role in the repression, deepening the risk of sectarian conflict, it added.

Different languages

By demonizing each other, analysts say the opposition and loyalists have started speaking two diametrically opposed languages.

Perhaps to escape what they see as a frightening reality, many Alawis have become overtly confident that the regime will prevail.

“The government will survive; Alawis have no doubt about it… and it will overcome the crisis stronger than before,” said Bushra.

“Most Alawis believe that Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya satellite channels are making the revolution bigger than it is,” Fadwa added. But observers say many loyalists, particularly Alawis, lack an objective view of the opposition and are overly swayed by the regime’s propaganda.

Nevertheless, the increasingly polarized narratives have deepened cleavages in the way the various communities reconstruct history.

Aref remembered the Hama massacre of 1982 – in which the government is said to have killed at least 10,000 people at once to crush an Islamist revolt – as the result of a political confrontation with the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, resolved in favour of the government, thanks to the support of both Alawis and Sunnis. Al-Hajj, the Muslim Brotherhood defector, recalled the events of Hama as the beginning of an ongoing struggle against the regime, with the only difference that in those times there were no cameras to record the crimes of the regime.

Still, the loyalists interviewed for this report have played no role in the current repression and have taken steps to distance themselves from the regime. Some of them accept democratic elections in the near future as a way of out the conflict.

“Fundamentalists need to be marginalized in fair elections,” Aref said.

But while they are ready to conceive of a Syria without al-Assad, loyalists remain worried about an abrupt overthrow of the government, insisting on more guarantees of stability from the opposition and greater transparency of its armed operations.

Raja’a*, a 26-year-old Christian from Damascus who half-heartedly sympathizes with the opposition, complained the Syrian National Council was focused on overthrowing the regime without giving any sort of guarantees about the future of minorities.

“There are many doubts (about the SNC)… Their declarations are limited to the departure of the regime, whereas after… no one knows what will happen.”

Asked what it would take to get the so-called loyalists to come around, she answered: “Unfortunately, it is difficult to change their position… because it is war of existence.”

*Not a real nam
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