To say a ceasefire has been established in Syria is an overly optimistic assertion. It’s an assertion that will be refuted by each bullet or artillery shell directed at residential areas in towns and cities across the country that have committed the offense of merely protesting Assad rule. Flawed and insufficient the ceasefire may be, it was desperately needed after a period of eight days when one thousand Syrians lost their lives in violence that showed no way of ending in either regime triumph or defeat.
The ceasefire, however, should be seen as a triumph to the various forces opposing the Assad regime. Assad has since the inception of the uprising portrayed it as the work of armed gangs, terrorists, and any other term that can be used to belittle and delegitimize opposition. For the regime to agree to a ceasefire doesn’t simply acknowledge the regime’s weakness, it acknowledges that Syria as a nation is contested territory the Assad regime is physically incapable of controlling even with all the tanks and soldiers at its disposal.
The ceasefire holds a great advantage to opponents of the Assad regime. If the ceasefire is entrenched in the days and weeks ahead, it can permit the intensification of the popular phase of the revolution that dominated the first half of the Syrian uprising. Even in its current tenuous state, the ceasefire has seen large and energetic demonstrations like this one today in the Damascus suburb of Douma:
If the ceasefire deepens and displaced families are permitted to return, protest mobilizations may soon return to their previous form of bringing hundreds of thousands to the street in contrast to the still magnificent mobilization today that brought out tens of thousands of Syrians.
The Syrian revolution is at its healthiest when the largest number of Syrians are able to participate in it. The armed phase, however justified in resisting a brutal military crackdown, simply doesn’t enable enough Syrians to involve themselves in the revolutionary struggle when it is in the form of an armed campaign, an armed campaign defined by smaller and highly mobile units avoiding direct confrontation with the full might of the regime’s army.
The revolution will find its completion through its original mass participation that left the regime so desperate that it stoked sectarian tensions in a cynical ploy to justify its own existence as a supposed vanguard of a united Syria. Toppling the Assad regime requires a diverse coalition from Syrian society, a coalition that stands a better chance of forming during this ceasefire than during the heat of combat that raged just last week. As described with biting accuracy years ago by Ella Shohat, “war is the friend of binarisms, leaving little place for complex identities.” In a society as rich with diversity as Syria, the role of an armed struggle is limited even with revolutionaries retaining the best intentions. I have little doubt that opposition fighters prevented an even greater death toll in population centers like Homs and Idlib. That said, armed struggle stands little chance in subduing the Russian armed Assad regime and stands a lesser chance of replacing it with a government that meets the aspirations of the revolution. Both these goals are to be achieved by the energy and ingenuity of Syria’s youths who initiated the revolution.
There’s great alarm over the fate of Syria’s Revolution as the stalemate in the country leaves it subject to external forces capable of dislodging its beleaguered combatants. For the regime, it can rely on its Russian and Iranian benefactors to provide diplomatic, financial and military aid. For the opposition weathering military sieges in Homs, Hama, Daraa, and the suburbs of Damascus, such natural allies are not so readily found.
In the absence of natural allies, the opposition within Syria may soon or have already sought out the assistance of either Western powers or regional Arab states aligned with the West. This potential alignment has struck the most well placed suspicions of the West’s intentions, but it plays best to audiences in London and New York who are inclined to both support the popular revolution in Syria while opposing any foreign intervention, whatever differing forms it could take.
The article “Imperialism, Despotism, and Democracy in Syria”, by Columbia University professor Joseph Massad isn’t for an audience in besieged Homs. I’m at least hoping he wouldn’t argue to irregular fighters in Homs that they confront Assad’s tanks with what inadequate weapons they salvage from Assad troops just so he can be assured they surpass the highest of ideological purity tests. This is a test in blood that can result in a staggering death toll. It was a test some from the safety of London wished on the revolutionaries in Benghazi.
It’s a difficult situation and we owe it to ourselves and the people in Syria to acknowledge it as such. From that, I’m incapable of arguing an effective model to balance the need of Syria’s revolutionaries to make tactical choices with our need here in the West to maintain solidarity without abandoning our opposition to interference by the nations we reside in.
In any circumstance, as leftists in the West, we must own up to our own failings that leave an international order where revolutionaries have no where to turn when the dictator they fight plays by “Hama Rules”. They’re left with limited options while some like Joseph Massad righteously wield against them a yet to be assembled ideal method to defeat Assad without any external help to even negate the support Assad is receiving from Iran and Russia.
We would be foolish not to credit the judgment held by those in Syria who’ve waged an over ten month campaign against the regime. No one can say they’ve hurried to turn outside for help. They delayed escalation to arm struggle despite the brutal repression throughout 2011. They insisted on continuing their peaceful revolution even as Libyans achieved success in military battle.
We, like the tyrants of the Arab World, underestimate the Arab revolutions at our own peril. Tunisians renewed their revolution after the fall of Ben Ali to ensure his regime fell down with him. Egyptians are also undergoing this process in challenging the military state which produced Mubarak. Libyans, having lived through direct international intervention while toppling Gaddafi, have demonstrated to the world that their revolution is still in their hands, taking to the streets of Benghazi to protest the transitional government’s combined lack of transparency and commitment to change.
Just as we shouldn’t under estimate the Arab revolutionaries, we shouldn’t assign them our responsibility to defeat imperialism. That victory is to be seized by common struggle by those living in the West and those who’ve been made subject to it. It certainly won’t be won on the back of an Assad tank shelling the ill-equipped defenders of Homs.
Engaging in debates on the crisis in Syria, I came across a claim I found both new and startling, that most Syrians support Assad based on the findings of a recent poll by YouGov Siraj. This struck me as a misrepresentation of the poll, a misrepresentation finding its way onto a “comment is free” piece in the Guardian. The result was that 55% didn’t want him to resign, a main reason cited was fear for the future of the country.
But not wanting Assad to resign is very different from “backing” him. But this could easily become a dispute of semantics. Fortunately, I found the full report issued with the relevant poll, and it isn’t as simple as this 55% number being wielded against Syria’s revolutionaries:
“Interestingly, those who do not think President Assad should resign do not really want him to stay in power either as over half of them (51%) believe it is best for Syria if he remains in power but with the guarantee of free democratic elections in the near future.”
This isn’t exactly a display of loyalty to Assad but a public concerned with stability rather than preserving the Assad presidency.
Now, I was tempted to deconstruct this poll but decided against it for two reasons. The first reason is because the job has already been more effectively done by Brian Whitaker on his personal blog – turns out the poll asked just 97 internet users in Syria, hardly a substitute for actual democratic elections. The second reason is more important for me. I wish to confront the logic behind misrepresenting this flawed polled.
The logic behind the argument is to shroud Assad with a measure of legitimacy, as still a player in deciding the resolution of this conflict. I suppose we are meant to believe this legitimacy is reached by edging just above the 50% mark in the polls. Fall to 49% and suddenly you’re an illegitimate tyrant. This is an absurd way to address the crisis. A president’s job isn’t just to maintain approval among a majority of his constituents. A president’s job is to protect every citizen, even his political opponents, from destruction. There is no poll capable of measuring how much Assad has failed in this crucial task, for he has participated in the destruction of his own people. A 99% approval rating for Assad wouldn’t bring the thousands he’s killed back to life.
It’s the high priority of the Assad regime to portray the conflict in Syria as an international contest. This aligns with the playbooks of Arab regimes rocked by uprisings, a tale of Western spies and satellite tv from Qatar combining forces to trick the people into turning against their decades old masters and protectors of national sovereignty. While this was desperate propaganda in a failed bid by Mubarak to rally counter-revolutionary masses against Tahrir, for Assad it is his pretext to wage an internal war.
It is this war by Assad that is threatening the stability and integrity of Syria. It is a war that grows less one sided as defections and volunteers bolster the armed opposition, an armed opposition Assad portrays as the hand of the West out to conquer Syria and transfer it to the U.S. imperial dominion. The irony is that it’s Assad’s forces who most evidently receive foreign backing. The weapons in the Syrian army are supplied by the Russians and the Iranians send money and snipers to assist in the crackdown.
There is already intervention in Syria and it’s on behalf of the regime and against the Syrian people. Subject to this foreign powered offensive by the regime is an out gunned opposition buying what weapons it can from the Lebanese black market and often from former colleagues in the Syrian army willing to sell weapons to be used against Assad. The armed opposition is well suited for preventing militia attacks but it can at best buy time for protesters and civilians to seek shelter when Assad’s army commits tanks and heavy weapons to assault opposition hotbeds. When the army went to retake Damascus suburbs secured by lightly armed opposition fighters, the fighters simply melted away, presumably to wait out an army overstretched by regions across the country falling into open revolt.
All of this comes amid frantic international diplomacy centered around the Arab League and its thus far failed attempts to end the violence. This international diplomacy was an effort to obtain a ceasefire, rather than a ritual of diplomacy proceeding the ultimate intent of a military intervention on behalf of the opposition. Quoting from the text of the Resolution:
“The Security Council… Reaffirming its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, emphasizing its intention to resolve the current political crisis in Syria peacefully, and noting that nothing in this resolution authorizes measures under Article 42 of the Charter”
Article 42 of the UN charter being the text authorizing use of military force as a last resort.
With the failure to arrange what was an effective ceasefire, we can be assured of the continuation of war like conditions, if not their escalation. The conflict can escalate with more defections, potentially ones reducing the opposition’s lack of heavy weapons, or the opposition can seek out its own patrons to gain a military edge within Syria. This is a dangerous new chapter Syria is entering, beyond the danger seen during months of protests repressed with live ammunition. The diplomats may not fall completely silent for now, but they’ll be drowned out by gunfire.
As the video posted above shows, army vehicles, specifically an armored personnel carrier by the looks of it, are still very much on the streets despite assurances by the Arab League observers. This video being from Kafaranbel in Idlib province, a region that saw some of the worst violence before Arab League observers arrived.
Meanwhile, the armed struggle against the Assad regime is building momentum amid the failure of the Arab League mission to halt the crackdown. Eighteen soldiers loyal to Assad were killed as members of the army were in the process of defecting. These are always hugely significant for as soldiers are leaving to swell the ranks of the opposition, simultaneously the ranks within Assad’s military are being reduced. This latest violence as the the armed opposition warns of an escalation in the armed campaign against the regime.
In other news, the regime and the opposition have traded blame for the latest pipeline explosion in Syria.