Making sense of the Syria civil war

In June of this year, the United Nations announced that it believes the death toll in the Syrian Civil War has now reached 100,000, with “at least” 6,561 children among the dead.

While many of us may be willing to ignore the fact that this is one of the biggest humanitarian disasters the Middle East has faced in recent years (maybe only comparable to the situation of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories) in lieu of royal babies, the outcome of this conflict will define politics in the Middle East for a generation – not only in terms of measuring the success of the Arab spring, but also in shifting the complex geopolitical balance which exists in the region.

So how can we begin to make sense of this conflict?

I’m not going to give you a timeline of the conflict, go to Wikipedia for that, but it’s important to consider the main ideological force driving the Syrian dictatorship – Ba’athism.

The war in Syria is a war against the last truly Ba’athist regime in the Middle East, and understanding the nature of Ba’athist ideology is crucial to understanding why the Syrian regime behaves as it does.

Ba’athism was born out of the Arab struggle against colonialism and the State of Israel in the aftermath of the Second World War. While many of us now see political Islam as the dominant ideology of Middle Eastern politics, be it Sunni or Shia, decolonisation saw the development of a distinctly secular political ideology – Arab nationalism – which essentially argued for Arab unity, socialism, and independence from colonial rule.

Arab nationalism was best exemplified by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who became a hero in the region for standing up to the British Empire and nationalising the Suez Canal.

Ba’athism developed in Syria and Iraq as a more radical offshoot of Arab Nationalism – emphasising state socialism and Arab Unity, and after the 1966 Syrian coup the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party split into Syrian and Iraqi branches, each paranoid that the other was plotting against it.

But with all revolutionary movements, Ba’athism has a very dark side to it. Most notoriously, Ba’athism in Iraq under Saddam Hussein created a nightmarish totalitarian hell hole, plagued by a  cult of personality and a brutal ruling elite who used war with its neighbours and terror against its own people to maintain power.

In Syria, too, what began as an emancipatory ideology of anti-imperialism became brutal autocracy, albeit without the cartoonish villainy of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Current President Bashar Al-Assad’s predecessor and father, Hafez Al-Assad brutally crushed all opposition to his regime, most infamously in the Hama massacre of 1982, when Hafez’s death squads murdered tens of thousands of civilians in the space of a month.

There’s also an aspect of Ba’athism which, some have argued, is linked to fascism. Saddam Hussein famously drew inspiration for how to rule from Hitler and Stalin, and historian Cyprian Blamires has argued that Ba’athism can be argued to be:

“The attempt to synthesize radical, illiberal nationalism and non-Marxist socialism, a romantic, mythopoetic, and elitist ‘revolutionary’ vision, the desire both to create a ‘new man’ and to restore past greatness, a centralised authoritarian party divided into ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ factions and so forth; several close associates later admitted that ‘Aflaq had been directly inspired by certain fascist and Nazi theorists.”

There’s also the imagery. According to Sami al-Jundi, founder of the Ba’ath party, the emblem of the party was a tiger ” to excite the imagination of the youth, in the tradition of Nazism and Fascism, but taking into consideration that the Arab is in his nature is distant from pagan symbols”. Even today, the symbology of one of the Syrian government puppet parties in Lebanon (the other being Hezbollah), uses overt fascist imagery and advocates lebensraum for Syria, an empire comprising Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Cyprus, Kuwait, Sinai, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran.

What we are witnessing in Syria is the Ba’athism on its last legs, the final cry of a weird syncretic ideology being revealed for what it really is: a paranoid, far-right nationalism which will crush anyone who opposes it.

The narrative developing – the one which Bashar Al-Assad and his allies have been propagating from the beginning – is the classic Ba’athist argument for autocracy and repression: that unless the Arabs have secular fascism under the guise of “Arab socialism”, they will fall into religious extremism and political Islam. Given that this is an all-too-convenient argument, and that the logical conclusion of this argument is that Arab states can never have democracy and that the Ba’athists will rule forever, anyone with have a brain can dismiss it.

But it’s becoming a common thing to hear in the discourse surrounding the war, that as the rebels grow more and more desperate, increasing numbers are turning to radicalisation

Take a look at this bile from Bill Maher, Liberal America’s Rush Limbaugh:

Ignoring the fact that the leadership of the Free Syrian Army strongly condemned the behaviour of commander Abu Sakkar, and that a recent BBC interview with the man revealed him to be a traumatised wreck of a human being, whose family had been slaughtered by Assad’s death squads, the claim “we’re basically arming Al Qaeda” demonstrates the kind of weird narrative that’s developing among many political commentators about the war in Syria.

What is disturbing about this is the applause that this insult to the brave people who have taken up arms against a government that has slaughtered them in the thousands garners from a supposedly “liberal” audience. It’s depressing that the one making the reasonable argument, that most of the rebels condemn this behaviour and want a democratic and pluralistic Syria, is Niall Ferguson, a rabid neo-conservative who has defended the British Empire. While it was once the task of the left to oppose fascism when it murdered innocents, now we parrot its narratives. 

The narrative is a simple one: that the west is arming “terrorists” in Syria to fight the regime there.

Firstly, “we” aren’t arming anyone yet.

The fact remains that the rebels, while many of them are Islamists, are not “basically Al Qaeda” and arguments that they are is a ridiculous insult to the tens of thousands of people killed for their opposition to Bashar Al-Assad. While many of the groups comprising the opposition to the regime are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood is not, and is very far from politically, Al Qaeda.

There is a jihadist element of the Syrian opposition to Assad. A large part of this extremist contingent is the Al-Nusra Front, confirmed by its leaders in April as an extension of the radical Sufist Islamic State of Iraq. But members of the Free Syrian Army have widely condemned the Al-Nusra Front, with an official accusing them of “hijacking a revolution that began as an uprising to demand a democratic system” and arguing “Their presence is reducing the popular support that we desperately need in areas where we operate [...] I appreciate their motives for coming to Syria. We cannot deny Muslims their right to jihad, but we want them to leave”.

What those who perpetuate these narratives don’t understand is that, while they think that exposing the rebels as all jihadists is preventing Western intervention (which is not going to happen anyway), they are playing into the regime’s hands and thinking exactly what Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al-Assad want them to think.

Much of the so-called “non-biased” coverage, supposedly “exposing” the Syrian rebels as terrorists, comes from our old friend Russia Today, who aired this slobbering and sycophantic interview with Bashar Al-Assad:

RT is, of course, an arm of the Russian State news agency RIA Novosti, and thus echoes the foreign policy line of the Kremlin. It’s not rebellious or radical to like Russia Today – its anti-American stuff is just a ploy to divert attention from Russia’s horrendous human rights record. There is an agenda here.

Always keen to echo the regime’s narrative is Mr George Galloway MP, who went on Lebanese television to make this bizarre diatribe against an earnest supporter of the Syrian revolution:

According to Galloway, if John McCain and Joe Lieberman support the Syrian revolution against Assad, it is not a revolution for “haq”. This is an absurd argument, tantamount to saying that because Winston Churchill, a war mongering imperialist, supported fighting Nazi Germany, or because the USSR, an evil totalitarian hegemon, supported Nelson Mandela and the fight against Apartheid, that those were not good causes to fight.

Mr Galloway has been a consistent liar on this issue, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed his work in the region. Here he claims that the Syrian rebels are the same as the jihadists groups the French fought during their recent intervention in Mali –  a ridiculous claim. He argues he “doesn’t support either side”. Of course not George, that’s why you’ve defended the Assad regime and peddled lies about the Syrian opposition at every opportunity.

It isn’t shocking of course when you find out that Mr. Galloway is employed by Press TV – a propaganda channel owned and run by the Iranian government (a key ally of the Assad regime) – so obviously has something of an interest in propagating falsehoods and exaggerations about the Syrian opposition. I mention George Galloway not because he is particularly powerful or important, but because he is extremely influential on the left in this country and is seen by many as some kind of speaker of truth to power – rather than the lickspittle to fascists he really is.

Caution about intervention in Syria is justified – I’m opposed to a boots-on-the-ground invasion of the country to remove the regime from. But lying about and demonising the opposition only helps the regime and its allies continue to support this brutal regime, rubbing their support for him and the rising death toll in the face of the world. Of course there are bad people on the side of the rebels (it’s a war that’s been going on for two years), but treating the entire Syrian opposition as though they were all one homogenous group misses the complexity of this conflict and insults the countless decent, moderate people who are willing to give their lives for freedom from Ba’athist dictatorship.

Accusing the west of supporting terrorism and claiming the Syrian opposition is “basically Al Qaeda” isn’t being some brave radical who think skeptically about western foreign policy, it’s being a simple-minded apologist for secular fascism.

Solidarity with the Syrian people in their fight against a government which has terrorised them, slaughtered them, divided and conquered them comes first and foremost. There are a number of charities you can donate to to support the Syrian people, and informing yourself about the history of the region and making a serious effort to understand this conflict is all important.

I began this article saying that this was the worst humanitarian disaster the region has recently faced in recent years, and that is true, but it is also one of the worst humanitarian disasters the world has faced in recent years – comparable with war in Darfur, the DRC, Rwanda, and the crisis in Gaza.

Let us not fall into the trap of the Clinton administration which, as Hutu radicals slaughtered Tutsis in their thousands in Rwanda, dismissed it as a “local conflict” and nothing more.

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