what's left

The Syrian conflict is not about democracy

Posted in Syria by what's left on January 15, 2013

Reprinted from Mark Thomas, “The Syrian conflict is not about democracy”, October 22, 2012 http://www.extension.harvard.edu/hub/blog/extension-blog/syrian-conflict-not-about-democracy

By Mark Thomas

Many foreign policy advocates are dismayed by the lack of US leadership in establishing no-fly, no-drive zones along the Syrian borders with Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Along these lines army defectors and rebels could stage military operations to bring about the downfall of the Assad regime.

The truth about US support of Syrian rebels

The Obama administration has thus far provided political support to the Syrian rebels. But it has limited military aid to intelligence, training, and logistics.

The administration is betting this kind of qualified support will help overturn the regime. And the United States will appear to be on the side of victors.

Its real motive is to weaken Iran’s regional influence by a proxy war that would destroy its ally.

The Syrian rebellion is more antigovernment than prodemocracy

US support for the rebels and those who call for an interventionist US policy are under the illusion that the antigovernment rebellion is a prodemocracy one. But the rebels have no conception of freedom and democracy in the Western tradition.

The spontaneous rebellion that aimed to topple the Syrian regime soon mutated into a sectarian civil war between two sects: Sunnis and Alawis.

The Sunnis are represented by local fighters, international jihadists, and regional Sunni states, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

The Alawis control the army and have grassroots support from secularists, heterodox Muslim sects, Christians, leftists, nationalists, and feminists.

Classified intelligence briefings have made Congress aware of this. Yet the administration, the republican presidential candidate, and the mainstream media still present a misleading picture to the US public.

The conflict in Syria is not simply between a tyrant and his people. If that were the case, Assad would have been overthrown in a few weeks, like Ben Ali of Tunis and Mubarak of Egypt.

The sectarian character of the conflict

The advocates for military intervention underplay the sectarian character of the conflict. They claim that the Assad family fomented sectarian strife to convince members of their sect, the Alawis, that the fall of the regime would be catastrophic for Alawis.

But the Alawis needed no convincing. Their nonliteral reading of Islamic scriptures makes them susceptible to secular ideology. They are apostates in the eyes of the dominant Sunni orthodoxy. And apostasy in Islam is a capital offense.

Throughout history, the Alawis were subjected to campaigns of mass murder. The first religious judgment was issued against them in 1305 by a Damascus based Sunni religious scholar. The Sunni Ottoman state issued similar decrees in 1516 and 1820 to kill Alawi men, enslave their women and children, and loot their property.

When the Alawis were not being pursued, they were boycotted and ostracized. They lived for centuries in appalling conditions, often forced to give up their children into servitude to escape starvation.

After Syria’s independence from France, Alawis filled the ranks of the army and the emerging secular Baath party, whose ethos suited them as much as it did the rest of the persecuted heterodox Muslims and Christians who sought equality.

Democracy would mean majority rule, not constitutional democracy

The Alawis, rich and poor alike, understand that democracy in the Middle East implies majority rule rather than a constitutional democracy. They understand that under the pretense of democracy, Syria would gradually become like Saudi Arabia.

For them, giving up power implies the tyranny of the Sunni majority. Sunni religious authorities have shown for the past millennium that there is no place for freedom of thought and religious heterodoxy within Islam.

Indeed, the religious orthodoxy that emerged by the end of the Crusades was only sidelined after the 1966 Alawi officers’ coup that endorsed the more enlightened Sufi clerics among Sunni religious scholars. The latter focused on the universal values of Islam. They sought reconciliation with other sects and religions.

The Alawis have two options

For those of us who grew up in the Middle East, the sectarian divide is a reality. Those who claim that Assad stirred up sectarianism either are ill-informed outsiders, who formed their image of Syria by reading politically correct discourse, or are in denial.

Bear in mind that this secular authoritarian and arguably brutal Alawi regime granted religious freedom to all sects. It appointed the first woman vice president in the entire Muslim world.

Convinced that the present rebellion is not a prodemocracy one, the Alawis have two options. They can continue to rule Syria to guarantee their security and thereby continue their repression of the rebellious Sunnis. Or they can rule their own territories in the Alawi Mountains and the Syrian coast, thereby provoking painful sectarian cleansing.

The second option would leave the rest of Syria in chaos, fighting to host the armed groups the West dreads (much like the Syrian regions currently under rebel control).

A recommended US policy

A wise US policy toward the Syrian crisis would persuade its Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari allies to stop arming and recruiting international jihadists to fight a war that would further destabilize a volatile region.

Moreover, the United States should encourage the domestic opposition to negotiate a settlement with the regime that ensures a reasonable transition to a pluralistic and secular political system and saves what is left from pre-Abrahamic civilizations from imminent destruction.

Most importantly, it should cease emboldening the rebels by continuing to predict the demise of the regime, thereby causing more unnecessary bloodshed.

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5 Responses

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  1. Ted said, on January 16, 2013 at 2:37 am

    Can the leopard change its spots?
    Why make recommendations for a US foreign policy that are never going to happen.
    As stated this is about the USA/zionist war against Iran.
    It is the ongoing quest for US hegemony by the USA on behalf of Wall St. and the unconditional support for the zionist colonization of Palestine.

    • what's left said, on January 16, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      No, the leopard cannot change its spots.

      But I didn’t repost Thomas’s article for his policy recommendation, nor to suggest that the goals of US policy would be different if policy-makers were wiser.

      I reposted it because, unlike most analyses, it draws attention to an important cleavage in Syrian society that has figured prominently in past conflicts and is a significant element of the current conflict, yet is mostly ignored.

  2. Ted said, on January 17, 2013 at 2:15 am

    Fair enough.
    But the author who makes such recommendations still “just doesn’t get it.”
    Does he?
    He still believes or “hopes” (fuck that) that the US congress or even the “first black president” or whoever will somehow wake up one day and change foreign policy and confront the pentagon, Wall St. and decades (centuries?) of US imperialism.
    Ask JFK how that worked for him.
    It’s like social democrats who believe that capitalism can be managed for the benefit of workers, students, the poor, etc.
    Such beliefs are not only delusional; they’re dangerous.

  3. selectingstones said, on January 17, 2013 at 11:58 pm

    Interesting. I think that Mr. Thomas’s understanding of Middle Eastern history is, frankly, completely incorrect, and yet the conclusions he draws are pretty much spot-on, namely, that the so-called “democracy activists” in Syria that Western media and al-Jazeera love to talk about are, in fact, just a bunch of jihadi dudes trying to set up another Saudi monarchy. They’re the same guys who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. (Literally, in some cases, the same flesh and blood people. After Gorbachev pulled out, the foreign mujahideen fighters all went home to whatever countries they were from — Egypt, Syria, Algeria, etc. — and started creating trouble and getting all their friends really into religion and guns, almost as if they were Americans!)

    And the Soviet-Afghanistan connection brings me to another point: Thomas is forgetting that the U.S. government and these jihadi dudes are not enemies; they’re on the same side. America today wants nothing more than a religious Saudi/Qatari client state in Syria. Remember, jihad is just an old trick pulled from the CIA playbook. (Again, literally, in many cases: In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the Arab countries that were republics — not the monarchies, though — were completely secular places, more or less. The whole Islamist ideology was, literally, the creation of the U.S. in order to counter the secular Arab regimes for the simple reason that the Arab republics were largely pro-Soviet. In this effort, the Arab monarchies — and especially the Saudis — were a natural ally. Reactionaries will always side with other reactionaries, which is why these jihadi guys and the U.S. are not in any way enemies, in spite of what the so-called “War on Terror” might be trying to tell you.)

    -Lawrence

    • Chevy Phillips said, on January 20, 2013 at 11:21 pm

      Good observation. Guns and religion – the Salafis and Americans have more in common than they realize.


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