The Syrian revolution: context and consequences (audio)

I gave the following talk at University of Bologna on Wednesday March the 29th, 2017 to a class of students and I was hosted by Francesca Biancani.

The text of the talk was co-written by Alice Bonfatti who worked on a significant part of pre-2011 history. It’s in English – starting at around 1:25 – and I cut out the last bit which was on Lebanon because it wasn’t long enough to be that meaningful. Apologies for not translating the Italian bits.

This text is a draft that I used as inspiration. I added quite a bit, and in the Q&A I answered other questions. There are mistakes in what I’ve said but nothing major (I hope) – if there are, please email me at joey[at]ayoub[dot]ch. I suspect that my answers to the questions focusing on battles may have some oversimplifications, but that’s because it’s not my area of focus.

Aleppo, December 2016

Here is the text:

I am going to try today to track the main events and factors that led to the Arab spring in Syria, and what happened in 2011 and discuss with you what we can draw from it in terms of thinking of radical progressive politics.

I should mention that due to time restrictions, I will not be able to tackle everything in this presentation so please do feel free to ask any further question. For example, I won’t be talking about ISIS in the next hour, nor will I go into details of the several factions involved in the civil war as of 2017. I will try and simply contextualize how and why the uprising began and how it became militarized on the one hand. And then, I will speak of what the achievements of the revolution, what we can learn from them and why so much of the global Left failed to acknowledge the ongoing potential of the Syrian revolution.

In 2011, the world witnessed popular uprisings in the Arab World now known as the Arab Spring. They started in Tunisia with the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, the street vendor who killed himself on December 17, 2010 in response to the confiscation of his products and the harassment and humiliation that was inflicted on him by a municipal official. This act became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring. The Tunisian Revolution lead to the downfall of the dictator Ben Ali on January the 14th, 2011, less than a month after Bouazizi’s death. This in turn became the catalyst for the Egyptian revolution launched on January the 25th 2011 and which lead to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak on February 11th, 2011. This continued throughout the region, from Libya to Yemen.

Here we will focus on the Syrian revolution which started on March 15th 2011 in the southern city of Daraa. But before getting to Daraa and what happened there, we should know a bit more about Syria itself.

If there is one name for Syria that one should know before 2011 it’s the ‘kingdom of silence’. Media was restricted by the Assad regime, and so was political agency of any kind. This meant that any form of political dissent was repressed, building up anger and resentment towards the regime but not enough to create widespread protests before 2011. This is especially the case because the memory of what happened under the previous Assad regime, that of the father Hafez, still lingered on. I’m referring to the 1982 uprising against Hafez el Assad in the city of Hama and the subsequent massacre by his forces, with the estimated number of killed surpassing the 30,000 in just a few days.

It is important to note that when we hear the words ‘Syrian regime’ or ‘Syrian government’ what we mean by that is the Assad regime which entrenched itself to power over the course of four decades, consolidating its coercion and cooptation over Syrian society. The Assad dynasty is the state. It came to be in 1970 with an internal coup within the dominant Baath party by Hafez el Assad. The Baathist movement described itself as a socialist, pan-Arab and nationalist movement, inspired by Nasser’s Egypt. It had several factions, the two largest being the Syrian one and the Iraqi one. At the center of Baathist ideology was the predominance of state-led economy and expansion of the public sector. This project proved to be unsustainable due to regional politics and high levels of corruption.

Two major military defeats against Israel, first in 1967 when Hafez was a military commander, and then in 1973, as president, lead to the weakening of his figure within Syria. In fact, during the Syrian revolution one of the chants repeated by protesters referred to Hafez losing the Golan Heights to Israel. By 1973, the country was drained by the war efforts and the model of state-lead economy, so central to Baathist ideology, was forced to open to foreign capital, thus starting the neo-liberal reforms under Hafez el Assad and the emergence of a new private sector which would be critical in the consolidation of power of Hafez el Assad.

Indeed, neoliberal policies benefitted only a small section of society which ended up being strongly tied to the ruling Assad family. In the years before the Arab Spring, 60% of the country’s wealth was in the hands of the Makhlouf family, related through marriage to Hafez El Assad. Rami Makhlouf, for example, Bashar’s cousin, owns the majority of the shares of SyriaTel, the largest mobile phone operator of Syria, and he owns a personal fortune estimated at six billion $. Just to give you an idea, Rami owns and controls a long list of companies in a wide range of sectors such as banking, insurance, oil, real estate, tourism and media.

In addition, when we look at the military industrial complex in Syria, we notice a very striking difference compared to Tunisia or Egypt. Indeed, whereas in both Tunisia and Egypt, the military wasn’t under the full control of the regimes, this was not the case in Syria. Similarly as with the dominance of Rami Makhlouf in the economic sector, Bashar’s own younger brother, Maher Assad, continues to play a leading role in the army as commander of the Republican Guard and the army’s elite Fourth Armored Division, which together with Syria’s secret police form the core of the country’s security forces.

Bashar Al Assad, Syria’s current dictator, took over his father when the latter died in the year 2000. In addition to the already existent political repression, Bashar continued and accelerated the neoliberal reforms that his father had started. This meant that not only were most Syrians repressed politically, but more and more were suffering economically as well. Nowhere was this truer than the rural areas of Syria. The growing poverty, exacerbated by the cancellation of state subsidies after 2005, particularly affected the North-Eastern part of Syria and by 2009 it was the poorest area following the three years of drought that had plagued the country.

According to the UNDP report, 30.1% of the Syrian population in the period of 2000 and 2006 was living below the ‘upper’ poverty line. By 2011, around 60% of the population was living under or just above the poverty line.

In other words, the rural working classes were the most negatively affected by neoliberal policies. Time and time again, we see a close correlation between the neglected state of the rural areas and the peripheral outbreak of the Syrian revolution. Contrary to the Egyptian revolution where the masses gathered in the now symbolic Tahrir Square in Cairo to ask for freedom, in Syria the revolution originated in the periphery – from the region of Dara’a, and swiftly spread to the centre, the capital Damascus. This is not because the urban cities did not share the same aspirations but rather due to the tight control of the Assad regime on the major cities.

So already we can see a country that was on the verge of collapse before 2011. Whether or not an uprising would have happened without the momentum of the Arab Spring is something we will never know, but the events of Tunisia and Egypt inspired protesters in Syria to take to the streets themselves.

Now we can go back to Daraa. In February 2011, just as Mubarak was being toppled in Egypt, a group of children graffitied on one of the walls the following words: “Your turn doctor”. The doctor here is none other than Bashar Al Assad, who happens to be a doctor by trade before becoming heir to the throne. The day after the graffiti appeared, on February 16, 2011, the police started rounding up schoolchildren in Daraa and arrested a number of them.

Being arrested by security forces is not the same in every country. In Syria, the security forces are so well-known, or I should say so notorious, for their torture methods that the US, under George W. Bush, called upon them to help “interrogate” suspected al Qaeda members during Bush’s “war on terror”.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the police in Daraa completely brutalized one of the boys, Yacoub. They forced him to sleep naked on a freezing wet mattress, they strung him up on the wall and left him in stress positions for hours, and they electrocuted him with metal prods. Being in the hands of the security forces also meant that no information came out about the children.

Meanwhile, protests continued and the repression continued. When Yacoub was released from prison on Wednesday March 15, anti-Assad protesters were already rallying in Syria’s two largest cities: Damascus and Aleppo. Dissent had been growing and growing. And by April, the city was surrounded by tanks.

In the end of April, on April 29th, another little boy, 13 year old Hamza Al Khatib, was arrested by security forces. About a month later, on May 25th, 2011, his body was returned to his family, deeply mutilated in barbaric ways.

Hamza’s brutal death became a rallying cry for protesters. By then, in May of 2011, protests started becoming more frequent and Hamza became one more symbol of the uprising, an uprising that reached all social lawyers of Syrian society.

The next part that I want to talk about was how the revolution, which started off non-violently, became militarized. In fact, the reason is fairly simple. Unlike in Libya, where a UN-mandated NATO intervention lead to the fall of Muammar Gaddhafi, no such intervention was planned in Syria. In other words, if Syrians were to do anything about the large-scale massacres deployed by the regime, they had to do it themselves. We saw numerous members of the Syrian National Army defecting and among those were the founders of what became known as the Free Syrian Army.

But despite the fact that the military dimension of the Syrian crisis is what is most often focused on, it is not the most noteworthy. In fact, what should be talked about more is the incredible achievements of the Syrian revolution.

Remember that I started this presentation by calling Syria ‘the kingdom of silence’. Well, starting in 2011 we witnessed an explosion of citizen media. Today, if you go on you will see over 100,000 pages of journalism archived including 297 total newspapers and 34 active newspapers still publishing to this day. All of this is in just six years in a country that knew no concept of journalism before 2011. Example of Enab Baladi.

The same can be said of artistic and cultural expression. The diversity of music genres, from rap to hip hop, passing by classical western and Arabic music to rock music, Syrian culture is no longer the same.

It’s hard to understand how radical the changes have been in Syria if you didn’t know the country pre-2011. The things people discuss now in Syria—which seem very normal in most societies—were simply off-limits before.

We saw the formation of local councils following the vision of Syrian anarchist and intellectual Omar Aziz, assassinated by the regime in 2013. The idea was simple: forming councils, forms of self- organization: education, healthcare, agriculture in liberated areas, areas that are no longer under regime control.

We saw the formation of local coordination committees, set up by famous activist Razan Zeitouneh and others with the goal of documenting abuses, organizing protests and generally helping the movements to be more organized.

I am going to stop here, because I want to talk about how the world and Leftist intellectuals reacted to the Syrian revolution.

There is a significant portion of the Western Left today that has adopted a nativist framework which started to exclude the voices of Syrians as soon as their revolution became inconvenient. The left was generally initially supportive of the revolution but ended up disavowing it or even, in some cases, supporting the fascist and imperialist forces slaughtering their way to. Beyond Syria, the inability of many to see past outdated narratives has galvanised the rise of right-wing reactionary nativism in the West. Discussions on Syria ignored Syrians for so long that it became easy to dehumanise and demonise them when large numbers reached Fortress Europe’s shores.

Refugee crisis in numbers.

– At the end of 2015 there were 65.3 million forcibly displaced people. They included 21.3 million refugees, 40.8 million internally displaced and 3.2 million asylum seekers.
– If they were a country they would be the world’s 21st largest.
– More than half of refugees come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
– Developing regions host 86 percent of refugees.
– Turkey hosts by far the largest number with more than 3 million refugees and asylum-seekers, including 2.7 million Syrians.
– Lebanon has the highest concentration relative to its own population with nearly one in five people a refugee.
– Globally, nearly one in 200 children is a refugee. The number of child refugees has more than doubled in the last decade.
– Growing numbers of children are crossing borders alone. Last year, more than 100,000 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in 78 countries – triple the number in 2014.
– The U.N. refugee agency estimates more than 1.19 million people will need to be resettled next year.

So when we speak of a refugee crisis in Europe, we should more honestly speak of a European crisis towards refugees. The total number of all refugees going to all developed countries combined do not come close to the number of refugees of a small country like Lebanon alone.

As for Europe. Here are some numbers from 2016:
– Nearly 370,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe this year, most of them by sea.
– More than 173,000 have arrived in Greece and more than 167,000 in Italy.
– The main nationalities are Syrian, Afghan, Nigerian, Pakistani, Iraqi and Eritrean.
– More than 75,500 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece and the Western Balkans after Hungary and other countries shut their borders, closing off routes to central and western Europe.
– Numbers crossing from Turkey to Greece fell sharply after the European Union struck a deal with Ankara in March to stem the flow.
– At least 4,690 migrants have died in the Mediterranean this year while trying to reach Europe, compared to 3,777 in 2015. Most have died while crossing from North Africa.

This is why I think we shouldn’t be surprised that on the 6th anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, after everything that has happened, with thousands of people tortured to death or forcibly disappeared, hundreds of thousands dead and millions of displaced and rendered refugees, the Italian TGCOM news website decided to interview, out of all people, Bashar Al Assad himself. Given his attempts at presenting himself as a partner against terrorism and as a victim of an international conspiracy, it is undoubtedly the case that many believe him. But while it is to be expected to see people on the Far Right believing him or reproducing his narrative, what has been most shocking was seeing people on the so-called Left doing the same.

What is extraordinary is that Assad speaks almost exclusively to Western media as there are very few Arab news stations that still give him attention. In other words, the dictator of Syria’s audience is dominated by Westerners. If you watch the latest Italian interview, you will see Assad repeating the same thing he has been repeating since 2011. He is the victim of a conspiracy, he doesn’t kill civilians, he is defending his homeland and so on.

This narrative fits very well with the growing xenophobic rightwing populism making advances throughout the West and Assad knows it. That’s why he has repeatedly demonized Syrian refugees who fled his reign of terror and sought refuge in Europe. He knows that the European Far Right is sympathetic to the Russian government, his ally in the war.

“When progress is not universal, reactionarism progresses,” wrote the Syrian intellectual Yassin Al-Haj Saleh.


Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin Kassab and Leila Al Shami

The morning they came for us by Janine Di Giovanni

A woman in the crossfire by Samar Yazbeck

The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria by Samar Yazbeck

Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline by Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen

The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from Islamic State by Samer

Khiyana: Daesh, the Left and the Unmaking of the Syrian Revolution by Jules Alford (Editor), Andy WIlson (Editor)

Prima che parli il fucile. Omar Aziz e la rivoluzione siriana di Collettivo Idrisi


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