With no leadership and lots of guns, there is nothing romantic about the ‘revolution’ in Syria
Wissam Hassan would never commit murder in private life, he had no aspiration of taking a weapon either. Fourteen months ago, the discontented and frightened youth crossed over from Syria into Turkey traversing the dense yet porous terrain. He fled for his life, he told me in our first meeting in Yayladag˘i, Turkey, and transcended into a new state of being.
As a refugee of the “Arab Spring,” unwilling to submit to Assad’s regime, he found home in one of the many rebel safe houses in Turkey’s Hatay province. Fourteen months ago he held his first automatic weapon and six months ago he fired his first bullet. He hasn’t stopped since. “The guns keep flowing,” he said. In a society ruled by the sword, might had to be matched with might and as lawlessness gripped the Syrian state, he became a foot soldier in the battle for power determined to rid Syria of a decaying political leadership.
Now the battle cries have been sounded from other quarters. The Obama administration has abandoned dialogue and has upped the aid to rebels, following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Policy rooms in Washington discuss policies to safeguard Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal while an official in the Syria’s Intelligence Ministry calls this chapter of the Syrian misadventure “a battle to create chaos.”
Damascus is petrified: hardly a soul stirs on the streets, shutters to already struggling businesses are now drawn and the sanctions imposed by the U.N. have crated a fragile economic calamity. Gunfire reverberates, armed thugs in uniform and the army in choppers battle each other and rebels egged on by the recent suicide attacks that took from Assad members of his inner circle create havoc placing Syria on the edge of anarchy. Yet the international community continues to ballyhoo the crisis in leadership in Syria under the guise of the Arab Spring; are they unaware? Do they not realise that seasons change?
Let us first rid ourselves of delusions. There is no Arab Spring, the term itself coined in Washington to reflect a period of openness in the Middle East in 2005 is an immensely popular and appealing gimmick-ridden campaign. There indeed was a bona fide revolution in Tunisia, but the Egyptian, Yemeni and Libyan cases have brought the sweetness of the Arab Spring into question. There has been no fundamental shift in power; people’s power has failed to replace the old system where powerful generals continue to preside over power in Egypt and thugs run Libya into the ground.
Indeed there is a discontented youth frustrated with the constipated view of life and chronic discontent with the existing order has allowed for new stakeholders to stoke already rife tensions. Take Turkey for example. The state with a “zero-problem” foreign policy not so long ago now houses the opposition to the regime in refugee camps found along the Syrian-Turkish border. It also makes forays into the international arena with a policy that can be likened to a sort of neo-Ottomanism. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have channelled funds for the uprising allowing a ragtag militia to morph into armed gangs with an agenda of open rebellion. NATO and the U.S. have allied themselves with peoples, the Syrian National Council (SNC), who live in a world of ideas with little contact to physical realities. The highbrow benefactors of aid, the Europeanised opposition, rule from five-star hotels in Istanbul and bicker among themselves, each motivated by his own political agenda.
Now a Libyan style intervention into Syria is on the table for discussion. This would be a misguided strategy, the Libyan case should be proof enough. In the last days of the Qadhafi regime, a senior aide to the Brother Leader asked who we reporters would speak to when the night sky was calm. Today, armed thugs united to defeat Qadhafi, battle each other pushing Libya towards civil war. Syria has ushered many comparisons, parallels have been drawn to the Balkans yet the closest comparison is Iraq, its weakened neighbour where Sunni and Shi’a and Kurd jockey for power unwilling to share authority resulting in political deadlock.
Let us not love the dictator but let us also avoid romanticising the revolution. Assad has indeed clung onto unabashed privileges, and hammered political dissent creating a system where organised alternatives, so-called governments in the waiting like Tunisia’s Ennahda and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood do not exist. Yet a stalemate has been reached with neither side, rebel or government, willing to engage in constructive dialogue.
Recent efforts at diplomacy by Kofi Annan and the blatant disregard to his calls for ceasefire push a country further towards an all-out civil war. Another stalemate in the Security Council — Russia and China have vetoed further sanctions — creates a space for another push at diplomacy. Would it not be wiser for foreign powers meddling in the region to back off and push for dialogue?
In a recent conversation with Adib Shishakly, once a Gandhian philosophy-espousing founding member of the opposing SNC, I was alarmed at his request. “What we need are anti-tank missiles. There is no space for dialogue,” he said. Would the rebels he helped arm lay down their weapons once the conflict was over? He had no definitive answer. Would he and other members of the SNC genuinely unite to lay the groundwork for a new Syria? He hoped so but Wissam Hassan, the rebel with the gun, wasn’t as optimistic. To him the opposition are disconnected Europeanised technocrats incapable of leading and not worthy of leadership.
Tragically, one cannot simply change from one system to another. In the Syria of today, no leader has emerged from the ranks of the rebels, no flag-bearer of the opposition has won the people over and Bashar continues to rule with his eyes shut.
(Alia Allana is a Mumbai-based journalist working on a book on the Arab Spring.)