The following is the Afterword to Charles Glass’s new book Syria Burning from Or Books. In it, Glass puts the failure of the Syria revolution into a broader historical context where the United States, with its European and Arab allies, have manipulated and subverted movements for change in the Middle East for decades. You can buy Syria Burning here.
Could Syria’s revolution have been different? At its birth in the spring of 2011, it promised hope for a better, freer life for Syria’s people. Syrian aspirations resonated with lovers of liberty everywhere: an end to governmental corruption and arbitrary arrest; an independent judiciary; a free press; equality before the law; abolition of torture; genuine elections leading to legitimate authority; and democratic institutions responsible to the governed. The state responded with arrests and violence. Dissidence evolved into war. Those who eventually captured the revolution dropped its original objectives in favor of supplanting a secular dictatorship with a dictatorial theocracy. The revolution was defeated from within, albeit with much assistance from outside powers motivated by anything but the good of the Syrian people.
Thirty-five years earlier, a coalition of progressive movements in neighboring Lebanon issued similar demands for reform. It may be helpful to recall what happened in Lebanon during a 15-year civil war that, despite an estimated 150,000 deaths and the transfer of populations into sectarian ghettos, left the corrupt antebellum system intact. In 1975, the year that Lebanon’s war erupted, there seemed nothing incongruous about a revolution led by what the French press called Islamo-progressites. The world had yet to witness the Islamic revolutions in Iran, Sudan, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Those movements were more reactionary than progressive, less liberating than despotic. Yet, in those naïve times, progress and Islam did not seem self-contradictory. Indeed, Lebanon’s Christian parties, despite having sponsored social security and pension reform in parliament, resisted change, while Muslim militias waved the banner of revolutionary progress. It was a time when a Marxist historian, Maxime Rodinson, could write about Islam both critically and sympathetically without fear of assassination.
Revolutions that begin with the goal of liberating people from the dead weight of an oppressive past often lead to a more oppressive present. Ideals give way to expediency. Those most likely to seize control of popular forces are pitiless rather than compassionate, well financed rather than independent, more conspiratorial than collaborative. Those who trust their fellow revolutionaries suffer for it, while the victors are those who first destroy the enemies on their own side. So it was in Lebanon; so it would be in Syria.
The Palestinian commando groups that had been expelled from Jordan in 1970 took their revolution to Lebanon, where it flourished. Initially secular, democratic and socialist, the Palestinian national movement threatened the sectarian, dictatorial and pseudo-capitalist oligarchies of the Arab world more than it ever did its ostensible enemy, Israel. The rich Arab oil states, notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, funded nationalist Palestinians like Yasser Arafat of Al Fateh as a counterweight to the more dynamic socialist movements led by George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh. The leaders of the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine happened to be Christians and secularists, whose followers included more Muslims than Christians. The princes, sheikhs and mullahs of the Arabian Peninsula rejected them and their philosophy. Saudi financing enabled Arafat’s Fateh, with its incoherent ideology and tensions between its secular and Islamist adherents, to claim the leadership of all Palestinians. Al Fateh used Saudi money to dominate its rivals in the Palestinian movement and to lead the Lebanese Left to self-destruction.
The idealists who demanded structural change in Lebanon’s body politic lost ground to the partisans of sectarian identity. From seeking an end to the distribution of political spoils from the presidency down to postal clerks by sect, they demanded merely a larger share of the spoils for Muslims, specifically Sunni Muslims from outside the traditional elite that had shared power with the Maronite Christians since the state’s independence. Instead of making all Lebanese equal before the law, as the socialists had proposed, they would recalibrate the distribution of state offices to reflect changed demographics. What had been a principle surrendered to the familiar horse-trading that Lebanon had inherited from the Ottoman Empire and the French Mandate. It was barely reform, certainly not worth killing or dying for.
In the mid-1970s, the Left in Lebanon, as in Chile and other countries where popular movements challenged oligarchies dependent on the United States, met overwhelming external resistance. The US approved Saudi Arabia’s policy of co-opting and taming the Palestinian revolution and, with it, Lebanon’s National Movement. Saudi Arabia would go on to fund opposition to social change as far afield as Nicaragua, Afghanistan and, most recently, Syria.
As well as bolstering nationalist opposition to socialism, Saudi Arabia used the Islamists to undercut nationalism. Islamic revanchist movements funded by Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth resisted economic and social reform in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s and opposed education for women in Syria 20 years later. In Lebanon, they failed to represent the most impoverished segment of society, the Shiite Muslim peasantry whom Israel in its military onslaught against the Palestinians was exiling to the shanty towns of Beirut’s southern outskirts.
Arab nationalism, with its commitment to equality among Muslims, Christians and Jews, died in the Arab versus Arab bloodletting on the streets of Beirut in the 1970s. One motivating idea remained: Islam in political forms dictated by Saudi Arabia for the Sunnis and by Iran, after its 1979 revolution, for the Shiites. A political division within Islam that had lain dormant for centuries would torment Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.
In the spring of 1976, the western half of Beirut was infected with the revolutionary ethos that saw the rich, like Italians fearful of the Brigate Rosse in the same era, hiding their jewelry and luxury cars from the envious glare of a roused proletariat. There were echoes of Orwell’s Catalonia in both the idealism of young zealots and the cynicism of power-hungry aspiring dictators. The US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, recognized the threat to American dominance, as he did in so many other countries, and fashioned a solution in the form of a Syrian invasion to protect the embattled old guard and control the excesses of the Palestinian-Lebanese rebels. The revolution died, but the war raged for another 14 years. The war ended, but only after two Israeli invasions and countless massacres. Foreign powers imposed a settlement at a conference in Taif, Saudi Arabia, in October 1989. By then, most Lebanese were willing to accept any outcome that allowed them to drive to work without fear of snipers, car bombs, artillery or kidnapping.
Lebanon, like Syria, saw democratic, secular dreams vanish into a sectarian maelstrom that ravaged the country and left it vulnerable to foreign invasion and local brutality. Yes, Lebanon’s old system encouraged corruption. Yes, there was injustice. Yes, a majority suffered from inequalities. Yet changing the system was no excuse to shred the fabric of a society that, for all its flaws, was tolerant of different creeds and political beliefs. Two revolutions perished in Lebanon, the Palestinian and the Lebanese. Security became more important than freedom, if only because so much freedom permitted the anarchic rule of kidnappers, gangsters, drug dealers, gun runners and fanatics. In the absence of central authority, the only states on Lebanon’s borders, Syria and Israel, occupied different halves of the country. The only militia to survive the war as an armed force was Hezballah, a sectarian grouping of religious Shiite Muslims that represents Iran and the perpetuation of sectarian politics in Lebanon.
One way to view the fanatic Islamicization of the Syrian revolution after 2011 is that it was the inevitable form of a rebellion inspired and financed by Saudi Wahhabism that sought not democracy but the elimination of rule by Alawite “infidels.” Another is that fratricidal violence marginalizes moderation, renders compromise impossible and pushes forward the most brutal actors. What was more surprising than the rise of fanatics within the revolution was that such disparate opposition forces had found any common ground at all. Like the leftists opposed to the Shah of Iran in 1979, Syria’s democrats saw their Islamist allies dispose of them and their beliefs when they were no longer needed. If the regime fell, the victors would replace it with a theocratic dictatorship that would purge the country of its diversity, its minorities, its dissidents and its tolerance.
The Syrian revolution lacked strategic vision because it began without any objective beyond reforming or replacing a regime that had nurtured as many allies as enemies. Too many rebel leaders sold themselves, as most Palestinian leaders did, to external paymasters for any one of them to establish popular, unifying credentials. Hundreds of armed groups came into being, sponsored by the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. The regime, which had almost 50 years to perfect mechanisms of control, played its cards better than rebels with no experience of government, no roots in social work and little experience of combat. Fighters with battle scars from Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria and Libya dominated the rebel side of battlefield. When they trod across the border into Iraq and threatened American interests, the Obama administration responded with air strikes. Yet it did not admit it was wrong about Syria, the strength of the regime or the relative strength of fanaticism within the opposition. That would have meant admitting it was wrong to assume the regime was so unpopular and weak it would fall with a small push before the opposition turned from early reformist demands to radical Islamism.
Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria who had championed the revolution and encouraged its militarization, was a rare official who admitted that the policy he had espoused was mistaken. He told a conference in Washington in January 2015, after nearly 200,000 Syrian deaths and the displacement of a third of the population, “The people we have backed have not been strong enough to hold their ground against the Nusra Front.” If the US could not achieve its goals in Syria, he added, “then we have to just walk away and say there’s nothing we can do about Syria.” This is rich coming from an ambassador whose policies helped to create the fanatic groups controlling large regions of Syria and Iraq. To America’s policymaking adolescents, the world is a plaything to abandon when it breaks.
The rebels, using weapons made in America, paid for by Saudi Arabia and funneled through Turkey, imposed a vision of society that took no account of Syrian diversity and mutual respect among its peoples. Syria, as history records, welcomed the Armenian victims of Turkey’s genocide after the First World War and had long been home to heterodox forms of Islam. The goal of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and Jebhat an-Nusra was to make Syria something it never was: an extension of Saudi Arabia. No one heeded Nietzsche’s warning, quoted early in the revolution by Masalit Mati, writer of the satirical, anti-Assad Top Goon puppet show: “Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.”
The United States, with its European and Arab allies, had its own purposes in Syria. It strains belief that the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar opposed Bashar al-Assad because he was a dictator or because his cousins were taking the lion’s share of the country’s wealth. The countries that crushed popular dissent against the royal family in Bahrain could not claim to believe in democracy for any Arab country. The US opposed Assad, as did the Saudis and Qataris, because he would not relinquish the alliance with Iran that gave him a strategic asset against Israel. Israel had occupied part of Syria since 1967 and showed no sign of relinquishing its hold or permitting the exiled inhabitants and their descendants to return. The Arab monarchies, which had sought to dominate Syria since it achieved independence from France in 1946, saw in Iran an adversary for control of Syria and, through Hezballah, Lebanon. To remove Assad was to eliminate Iranian influence in the Arab world.
In the midst of the Syrian war and despite Israel’s desire to humiliate Iran, the US opened a door to the regime in Tehran. Negotiations to regulate the Iranian nuclear program improved relations between the longtime adversaries. As American business scented an opportunity to return to the lucrative Iranian market, the raison d’être for America to eliminate Iran’s only Arab ally evaporated. US policy in Syria has floundered ever since.
Hopes for a negotiated end to the war receded with the deterioration in America’s relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Assad’s only ally apart from Iran and the regime in Baghdad, over Ukraine and the eastern expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The US, Russia, the Syrian regime and much of the Syrian opposition came to Geneva in January 2014 with no plan, no inclination to end Syrian agony and no purpose other than pushing their own goals to the detriment of a population that was enduring the daily reality of death, maiming, exodus and oppression from both camps. The dominant force in the Syrian revolution proclaimed itself a caliphate, beheaded innocent prisoners, raped and enslaved women, hurled young men from towers because of their sexual preferences and burned alive a young Jordanian soldier who fought for his country. This is where superpower, Turkish and Arab policies have led. Where will they take Syria next?