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Syria: The Revolution that Never Was


Watching events unfold in Syria has been agonizing.

Even those who are most eager to see the Assad regime deposed are highly skeptical of Western intervention. As we’ve seen many times before, so-called “humanitarian intervention” may very well ensnare Syria in yet another sinister plot cooked up by the imperial powers. Observers need look no further than Libya to see the bitter fruits of NATO intervention.

Syria’s revolution has essentially been hijacked. Transformed into proxy war with competing objectives, the struggle is no longer focused on what really matters: the rights and interests of the people of Syria.

Helpless onlookers may have a difficult time assessing the landscape. Apart from the obvious humanitarian crisis, what’s really happening in Syria? Unfortunately, it’s not been easy to find a concise, relatively objective overview of the situation.

Asa Winstanley’s analysis is at least a good starting point for a discussion, about Syria and the wider Arab Spring.

Syria: the revolution that never was

by Asa Winstanley, Middle East Monitor

What has happened in the Arab world since Tunisian icon Muhammed Bouazizi burned himself to death in protest in December 2010?

A series of popular uprisings, each feeding off the next, swept the region. From Morocco to Oman, there were varying degrees of protest against ossified regimes, demanding everything from the downfall of the regime to more simple reforms.

But we can now say with confidence that none of these uprisings has constituted a revolution. Of course, the immense struggles and sacrifices that people have made may yet sow seeds for the future.

But what is a revolution anyway, if not a struggle to completely transform the state and society? The closest any of the uprisings has come to revolution has been in Tunisia, which still faces immense internal problems.

As my colleague at The Electronic Intifada Ali Abunimah has put it, Egypt is now back behind square one. The generals’ bloody coup regime is fulfilling its junior contractor roll as part of the brutal Israeli siege on Gaza far more effectively than they managed under Mohammed Morsi. The first elected Egyptian president was kidnapped by the military and now sits in their dungeons, awaiting the outcome of a farcical show trial.

Libya is an absolute disaster. Brutal militias now run the country, gunning down demonstrators, and kidnapping government ministers and security officials at will. The same militias that ethnically cleansed an entire town of black Libyans and still blocks their return. These are the fruits of the NATO “liberation” campaign of bombs, which was foolishly supported by even some leftists.

I was always against NATO bombing of Libya. But if I look now back at some of my reactions on Twitter in the early part of 2011, it’s clear I too was over-optimistic about Egypt and elsewhere. I too spoke in favour of the early demonstrations against the Syrian regime, notwithstanding fears from the beginning they would be hijacked.

Like many others, I hoped for positive change to the sweep the region. As well as the inherent value of such a change in itself, a free Arab world is best placed to confront Israel’s apartheid regime. The road to Jerusalem runs though Arab capitals, as the late Palestinian leader George Habash used to emphasise.

The American imperial power and its clients and allies were caught off guard and seemed paralysed. But, spurred on by the Israeli-Saudi tag-team that leads the counter-revolutionary forces of the region, the hegemon soon rallied its forces and wasted little time engaging in covert operations.

And so I come to the missing part of this picture: Syria.

To say Syria is now a disaster is a massive understatement. This is a sectarian civil war which could continue for a decade if the regime’s enemies, led by the brutal Saudi tyranny, continue to wage their proxy war on the country.

The mostly widely-relied-on body-count, that of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (a group which is close to armed rebels, and whose reliability I have questioned in the past), now states that 120,000 Syrians have been killed. The Syrian Observatory claims that the majority of these are combatants. It also says the majority of these combatant dead on have been on the pro-Assad side.

The fact of this imbalance is conveniently ignored by western media reporting, which continues with its untenable narrative about about a revolution of unarmed Syrian protesters which only took up arms after being shot down by the evil Assad regime.

If that was true, why do even the Syrian Observatory’s figures not bare this picture out? There was never a revolution in Syria.

As I have said, that is also true of other countries, but there are important differences.

Firstly, pro-Western dictators like Ben Ali and Mubarak were resting on their laurels, and failed to cultivate a significant popular base. (Presumably they foolishly thought they could rely on their American and European funders not to sell them down the river. How mistaken they were.)

This is why, for example, in the early part of 2011, you never saw anything more than small handfuls of cowed government workers in pathetic little pro-Mubarak demonstrations.

But what a difference in Syria. Yes, the regime is dictatorial and ruthless. But from the beginning of the uprising, which initially only demanded “reform,” Syria was split. Along with large anti-Assad demonstrations, there were equally huge pro-Assad demonstrations.

When demonstrations supporting a brutal tyrant are attended on such a massive scale, you shouldn’t fool yourself with the farcical BBC theory that tens of thousands of people were “forced” onto the streets.

By now, there are no demonstrations of significance on either side, and these pro-Assad mobilizations occurred before he committed some of his worst crimes. But there is no doubt this popular support freed his hand for further (and often indiscriminate) military crackdowns on the “terrorist” groups.

This is a tyrant who has (as strongly implied by UN weapons inspectors) used chemical weapons against civilians, and who has bombed whole areas indiscriminately in his fight against armed groups. And yet, Assad has a genuine support base which, almost by default, is only growing as the armed insurgents fighting him become more and more openly aligned to fanatical groups like al-Qaida.

The always questionable “Free Syrian Army” is disintegrating, with many of its members either joining the al-Qaida-aligned brigades such as the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham – or even defecting back to the regime. Astonishingly, some leaders in these supposedly “moderate” brigades now no longer want Assad to leave power.

One recently told the Guardian’s reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad that:

“I need Bashar [al-Assad] to last for two more years… It would be a disaster if the regime fell now: we would split into mini-states that would fight among each other. We’ll be massacring each other – tribes, Islamists [sic] and battalions… There will be either Alawites or Sunnis. Either them or us. Maybe in 10 years we will all be bored with fighting and learn how to coexist… In 10 years maybe, not now.”

As this sectarian hatred shows, they were never moderate anyway. Which explains why so many “FSA” units have now joined groups pledging allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawarhari (formerly Osama bin Laden’s number two).

And herein lies the second key to the mystery of Assad’s continued support base (polarised as it is): the alternative is considered by many normal people in Syria and in the region as a whole, to be far worse.

Armed takfiri fanatics, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, now control large parts of the Syrian countryside, even as the regime’s forces are making steady gains. The only “revolution” with any current prospect of succeeding is an al-Qaida revolution. And of course that is no revolution at all.

This is the “revolution” which, apparently unnoticed by its Western cheerleaders, expelled Syrian Christians wholesale from the town of Qusair, long before the Lebanese resistance party Hizballah began its divisive intervention in support of the regime there.

This the “revolution” whose supposedly moderate “Free Army” brigades fought with al-Qaida groups who invaded Syrian areas which they considered strongholds of the wrong religion or sect. FSA units fought with Jabhat al-Nusra when it invaded the historic Christian-majority town Ma’loula in September (until they were fought off by the regime).

The exiled and nominal head of the FSA, Salim Idriss (who is quite openly armed and funded by France, the UK and US) participated – apparently in person – in a joint FSA-al-Qaida invasion of Latakia villages in August. This was a purely sectarian slaughter of at least 190 Alawite civilians, with not even a pretence of a military target.

An eyewitness related to the Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele: “When we got into the [Latakia-area] village of Balouta I saw a baby’s head hanging from a tree. There was a woman’s body which had been sliced in half from head to toe and each half was hanging from separate apple trees. It made me feel I wanted to do something wild”.

Idriss described this campaign as one of their “important successes and victories that our revolutionaries have gained”. Some victory.

In a November 2011 article, most controversial at the time, renowned Palestinian academic and intellectual Joseph Massad wrote that Syrians “must face up to the very difficult conclusion that they have been effectively defeated, not by the horrifying repression of their own dictatorial regime which they have valiantly resisted, but rather by the international forces that are as committed as the Syrian regime itself to deny Syrians the democracy they so deserve… the struggle to overthrow Asad may very well succeed, but the struggle to bring about a democratic regime in Syria has been thoroughly defeated.”

Unfortunately, today we can see that Massad was both right and possibly even over-optimistic.

An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.


*** Please consider donating to Save the Children’s Syria in Crisis fund here.



The USA-NATO Get Miley Syria(ous) on Bashar al-Assad

Are they “Terrorists?” Christian Free Syrian Army Brigade Undermines Sectarian Dynamic in Syria

Daniel Pipes: Support Assad & Allow Bloodshed to Continue For as Long as Possible


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  • Friend of Bosnia

    Oh yes. The Americans saved “repluka srpska.” Later none other than Richar Holbrooke admitted that was a colossal blunder, that they should have let them defeat the Serbs outright. So here we have this mess since 20 years and for God knows how long, with some people proposing that Nosnoa be partitioned for good since it is a “failed state” With “RS” going to Serbia, and half of the Federacija going to Croataia. “The rest is Bosnia”. and what woudl that be? 25%, for the Bosniaks. Two isolated enclaves surrounded on all sides by Serb ort Croata territory. Cut offf from the outside world and dependent on the good will of Serbs and Croats for every single nail, liter of milk or sack of flour, not to mention fuel, electric power and clean water which weoudl then have to be imported. So that people in those both encaves will lose hope and radicalize so then their enemies habve a pretext to do them in. Or that they starve them, like the Israelis are starving the Gaza Strip. And genocide pays off in geopolitics.

  • Mehdi

    Well I agreed with your post, it makes sense 🙂
    I denounce french policy making when I disagree with it and I approve it when it makes sense to me, the examples I listed are ones where I thought that the right choices were made. I have to say I was deeply disappointed with most foreign policy decisions recently, the only point where I have mixed feelings is about Mali, most Malians I know and most neighboring states supported it (including Algeria which was reluctant in the beginning), and it was good that pluralist elections were held after that, but unfortunately it’s a long way ahead, and the mess created by intervention in Libya (which included France…) has launched havoc on poor Mali…

    As for Horowitz & co, they just show they don’t care about America’s well being, they are just a bunch of mad hawks, their support for France’s first stance for Iran shows that France was wrong, it’s good that Fabius calmed down and helped clinch the deal.

  • Mehdi

    Agreed, funny how France’s foreign policy is becoming the shadow of the stands back at De Gaulle’s time (condemning the 1967 israeli blietzkrieg), Mitterrand (calling for a palestinian state in the Knesset and saving Arafat twice in Lebanon), or even Chirac (calling against the Iraq invasion and pushing to help Bosnia)… The new French foreign affair team is not only shameful in its stands, but also amateurish.

    The only good thing they did is endorse the recent deal with Iran (while they pushed back harshly in the previous round).

  • rookie

    “Focusing attention on any extremists who have joined the fight against Assad is not surprising, coming from the part of the world that is standing idly by and musing out loud about what might happen in the future. ”
    I might be wrong, but something tells me that the part of the world that is now standing by and watching – will react under one condition.
    And that is, only if the situation on the ground develops just like it developed in Bosnia when they stopped Atif Dudakovic at the outskirts of Banja Luka.

  • A Muslim Guy

    “The fact of this imbalance is conveniently ignored by western media reporting, which continues with its untenable narrative about about a revolution of unarmed Syrian protesters which only took up arms after being shot down by the evil Assad regime.”

    Which “western media reporting” is that? The one that only focuses on the same thing the author is–the extreme elements that have entered the fray, or the so-called Saudi assault on Assad by proxy?

    “Syrians “must face up to the very difficult conclusion that they have been effectively defeated, not by the horrifying repression of their own dictatorial regime which they have valiantly resisted, but rather by the international forces that are as committed as the Syrian regime itself to deny Syrians the democracy they so deserve”

    If I recall, the Syrian people who demonstrated at the start of all of this did not call for “democracy.” They wanted a brutal regime to be taken down. Soon afterward this incorporated calls for “freedom.” At this point, public enemy number one to the Syrians is Assad and his supporters. Focusing attention on any extremists who have joined the fight against Assad is not surprising, coming from the part of the world that is standing idly by and musing out loud about what might happen in the future. But for Syrians on the ground who have had their entire lives turned upside down (if they have even that), I’m sure they couldn’t care any less about such misplaced priorities and nervousness about their future, when Assad continues to kill them with impunity. If they weren’t too worried about survival, they would also resent the slap in the face of having their struggles against a brutal tyrant be characterized as a “sectarian civil war.”

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  • Grendizer

    I wouldn’t totally dismiss the Libyan revolution as hopeless. It is going through a rough patch no doubt but it will eventually pull through at the end

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