Syria: Revolution in a time of terror

Syria: Revolution in a time of terror
11 min read
09 Mar, 2015
Comment: Arab revolutions must be seen in a context outside temporary set-backs. They have long since passed the points of no return, writes Hamid Dabashi.
Demonstrators burn a poster of Bashar al-Assad (AFP)

15 March marks the fourth anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, the momentum and significance of which is now all but buried under the heavy smokescreen of the bloody rise of the Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) and its murderous exhibitionism from Syria and Iraq, with heinous supplementary video installations from Libya. 


The gory mayhem of the ruling Assad regime and its equally barbaric products, IS and co., are only one impediment to the unfolding path of the Syrian revolution. Its forced narrative degeneration into a “civil war” is another. Feeble

     No cause is left but the most ancient of all... the cause of freedom versus tyranny.

- Hannah Arendt

minds, journalistic impressionism, sensational round-the-clock news cycles, clichéd concepts, tired old analysis, and a very short attention span are chiefly responsible for this historic and theoretical vortex pre-empting the possibility of seeing the Syrian and the other Arab and Muslim revolutions in their longer time span, and in the full force of their world-historic significance.


What we see in Syria is no “civil war”. It is a revolution. It is our active understanding of the term “revolution” that needs to be critically examined, if we are not to fall into the dominant narrative trap concocted by bewildered and impatient journalists, think-tank analysts, and sophomoric articles in North American and Western European venues.


As a murderous ruling regime faces off with equally vicious gangs, Syrian people bide their time for these two Godzilla creatures to end their fights and with that jointly fall into the abyss of history.


People make history


The Syrian revolution began peacefully. But the turn to violent suppression by Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, turned the democratic dreams of Syrians into a nightmare. No assessment of the Syrian revolution — four years into its unfolding and with plenty of blame to go around — should leave Assad out as the single most cruel factor in suppressing his people’s uprising.


Many other criminal factors have entered the revolutionary equation in Syria, but Assad remains the main and the most brutal factor. Reports indicate that by the end of 2014 more than 200,000 Syrians had lost their lives since the revolution began. No matter who these Syrians are, and on what side of what political formation they have fought or lost their lives, Assad is chiefly responsible for these murders and he must face charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court.


After Assad come those who have closely and ardently aided and abetted him in his brutish suppression. On the side of Assad and his ruling machinery of death and destruction stand the critical roles played by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Lebanese guerrilla outfit Hizballah, Russian machinations and Chinese economic opportunism. By July 2014, some 85,000 Syrian refugees were reported suffering in Camp Zaatari in Jordan alone. Not just Bashar al-Assad, also his main supporters are responsible for eviscerating the homes and habitats of some 23 million human beings.


On the opposite side of this carnage stand the US and its European and regional allies — Saudi Arabia and its GCC fraternity club in particular. By actively arming the Syrian opposition — from the Free Syrian Army to al-Nusra Front and IS — these foreign forces have been equally responsible for turning the Syrian revolution into a proxy war for regional domination and Islamist hegemony, so that in the dust kicked up, the Jewish apartheid state of Israel can continue to steal the rest of Palestine.


The two main culprits in this proxy war have been Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the singular achievement of their rivalry has been the nasty sectarianism they have managed to inject into an otherwise entirely pluralistic and cosmopolitan revolutionary disposition that Syrians have shared with other sites of the Arab Spring.


Turkey, meanwhile, has successfully sustained its habitual role of playing both sides for its own advantages and regional benefits: supporting the Syrian revolution to the point that it was targeting Assad’s regime and then turning its back to it once the Kurdish uprising in Kobani (Rojava) in particular began to harbour far more radical revolutionary implications than it could handle or allow.


The exact opposite of the revolutionary potential evident in the Kobani experience has been evident in the rise of the IS group, which, linked with widespread desperation in Iraq in the course of US-initiated de-Bathification, turned the ruthless machinery into a wild beast.


These brutish forces on both militarized sides of the battlefield can conquer lands but can never rule it. Arab revolutions have long since passed the points of no return. These revolutions have happened in the minds and souls and dreams of people. They are at once sub-national and transnational and thus successfully cross over the fictive frontiers of any and all colonial borders. That dynamic will not cease to move and mobilize. Distractions are too many — in occupied Palestine, in Egypt, in Bahrain, in Yemen and in the menace of IS. But the revolutionary movement is there — like a river — now thunderous then calm.


Assad’s successes are failures


As I have always said, the Arab revolutionary momentum casts itself on a long haul. We must assess these ugly counterrevolutionary forces as both endemic to our regions and exacerbated by superpower meddling and the panic-stricken Israelis who could not fathom living in a democratically mobilized world.


But what the farcical spectacle of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s military coup in Egypt has demonstrated is that the time of a military strongman coming to pacify a revolutionary period of history is long behind us. Sisi is no Nasser. Every time he puts his gaudy sunglasses on and poses as a petty dictator we can sigh with relief. What would once have been a tragedy has now become ridiculous farce.


In an impressionistic and short-sighted assessment of the Syrian scene we can see that Assad has succeeded on four fronts: (1) to turn the revolution into a civil war, (2) to turn the Syrian arena into a proxy war among regional powers, (3) to degenerate the core of the Arab revolution into sectarian warfare, and (4) to give birth to IS. These factors become definitive and conclusive only if we lack a  longer term vision of history.


The mayhem that has resulted has now completely camouflaged the factual evidence of the revolution and what we mean by it, for precisely the same forces and precisely the same scene have backfired and categorically dismantled not just the legitimacy of Assad regime but with it the geopolitics of a region that still sees him in power. The trouble with impressionistic journalism that laser-beams on the atrocities and genealogies of IS is that they categorically lack any long-term vision or interest or investment in the course of the Syrian and by extension Arab revolutions. It is the historic task of serious thinkers of this age to defy and overcome such shallow and sensationalist pessimism and map out the widening horizons of our changing world.


The framing of a revolution in a time of terror hinges on the tempo and temporality of an emancipatory conception of timing. There were those among the observers of the Arab world who from the very beginning were sceptical, dismissive, sarcastic, and cynical, who would never believe that Arabs and Muslims were capable of such constitutional grand designs for their own futures. They continue to point to the disastrous events of the last four years as vindication of their cynicism. But just because these revolutions happened in a manner that these tired old minds did not anticipate or proscribe it does not mean that these revolutions lack their own temporality, which many may fail to read.


These revolutions have a long and arduous path to traverse. They affect change on multiple sites, on social consciousness, on political cultures, on institutional formations, on aesthetic and cultural domains, with wide ranging global consequences. In that framing, while the Sisis and Assads and tribal potentates of one kind or another may fancy themselves having put an end to these revolutions, history - as the magnificent Ghaznavid theorist of history Abu al-Fazl Beyhaqi (995-1077) put it a very long tome ago - traverses on a straight line and on this path divergence is not possible. That "straight line" is not teleological. But it has rhyme, reason, and logic of its own. We must learn how to read it.


Rebels with Plenty of Causes


In a recent article for the Financial Times, “Rebels Without A Cause,” Erika Solomon suggests “Syria’s civil war has collapsed into mayhem; the fight of rebel militias against the Assad government has been supplanted by a regional proxy war fought among the rebels themselves.” She uses the case of a rebel she calls "Tha'er" to illustrate how "until last year, his commanders told him jihadi groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [IS] would help topple President Bashar al-Assad. But when they declared Isis a new enemy, he stopped trying to understand the logic of war." So Tha'er left his battlefront and joined his family in a refugee camp near Turkey.


But dropping a gun against Assad and resuming one's responsibilities towards one's family is not the end of the Syrian revolution. Tha'er has done and continues to do his share for the cause of freedom in Syria. From the man who forced him to pick up that gun (Assad) to those who armed him (US and its regional allies): They are the real losers. Tha'er and his family and his nation will triumph, have triumphed.


How can we say, suggest, and mean that? How can we say that they Syrian revolution is triumphant?


First: It is the singular contribution of the Syrian Revolution that today in murderous outfits like IS we see the complete bankruptcy and thus the end of militant Islamism as a legitimate ideology of mobilization, jus as on the other hand in Egypt we see the moral and political collapse of militarism trying to put a forced and artificial end to the natural course and demise of Islamism.


Second: The revolution has forced not just the hand of the corrupt ruling regime but also its allies in Russia, Iran, and Hizballah. Any regional alliance that comes to keep a murderous tyrant in power is ipso facto exposed as an enemy of freedom. This knowledge of where Russia, Iran, and Hizballah stand today, and how corrupt their claim otherwise is has been the singular achievement of the Syrian revolution.


Third: As Assad’s regime has lost all credibility and Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies have emerged as the textbook analogues of counterrevolutionary bankruptcy the air in the region is much clearer as to who stands where for the future of liberty in the region. Five years ago we all knew these implicitly, but today we see them boldly manifested, exorcised out of the Arab body politic. This is because of the Syrian revolution.


Fourth: The Syrian revolution demands and exacts a far more serious conception of "revolution". In her On Revolution (1963) Hannah Arendt challenged the received notions of "revolution" rooted in Enlightenment modernity and the modes of political thought such liberal and radical misreading had enabled. She began working on this book in 1959, with both the European Jewish and the Japanese nuclear holocausts paramount on her mind. By the time she published the book in 1963, the two towering forces of European wars and revolutions were definitive to her theoretical sensitivities. Contending that Marxists and liberals alike have misunderstood the fact that revolutions are geared towards constitutio libertatis, Arendt argued that the real goal of all revolutions from American and French to her own time is the constitution of public space in which citizenship is made possible. In the case of the Syrian revolution, that public space has become decidedly transnational and thus far beyond the control of any domestic tyranny.


Fifth: The Syrian revolution has reawakened the moral force of all revolutionary causes. Arendt kept the momentum of the revolution at a critical theoretic level and disallowed it to move into either a liberal or a radical direction, awaiting a fake resolution. She proposes, as late or as early as 1963, “no cause is left but the most ancient of all, the one, in fact, that from the beginning of our history has determined the very existence of politics, the cause of freedom versus tyranny.”

Because of the persistence of the Syrian revolution, and all the suffering it has sustained, that cause remains the single most viable force of our postcolonial history too. On this side of the colonial divide, we are not yet completely free agents of our own history. Classical European colonialism has planted Israel in Palestine. Contemporary US imperialism has divided the globe (including the Arab and Muslim world) into heavily militarized zones of power and influence. Under these circumstances, revolutionary agency is as metamorphic as the confounded tyranny it seeks to dismantle. The moral force of the Syrian revolution historicizes that metamorphosis.


Sixth: The Syrian revolution spreads the healthy and robust seeds of the future of these world-historic events. What the brilliant Syrian filmmaker Osama Mohammed, enduring the agony of exile in France, and his co-director Wiam Simav Bedirxan have done in their Cannes premiered, "Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait" (2014) is precisely to dwell on that post-tyrannical glimpse of history: to produce and reflect on a cinematic meditation on the fate of a homeland torn into pieces by a butcher who is too blind to see how with every blow he strikes against the Syrian people he digs his own grave and the fate of his ghastly dynasty deeper. An American film critic, however sympathetic, may indeed see the “intense poeticizing” of this film “grow tiresome” on her. But for the fate of the nation that Syrian artists suffer and survive these historic moments and their aesthetic registers are the allegories of their future liberation.


Syrians are not rebels without any cause. They remain the cause of all our future rebellions.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.