Four years on, Syria's revolution is at a crossroads

Four years on, Syria's revolution is at a crossroads
Comment: One-party states sowed their own demise. What little promise remained of Arab nationalism was sucked dry by the spigots of corruption, writes Vijay Prashad
6 min read
11 Mar, 2015
Refugees are in the camp of exhaustion, not any political bloc [Getty]
In 1967, stung with the failure of the Arab armies, the Syrian poet and diplomat Nizar Qabbani wrote with a bitter kind of hope:


You are the fertile seeds of our sterile lives.

You are the generation that will defeat defeat.


But the generation of 1967 has not been able to “defeat defeat”. It has faced its own kind of defeat.


     Desolation defines the country. Every victory is pyrrhic. There is no road that pleases anyone.

On the one side is Iraq – destroyed by its merciless war with Iran (1980-88), the US-led war to remove it from Kuwait and then the sanctions regime (1991-2003), the US invasion and occupation of Iraq (2003-2011) and now with the territorial capture by the “Islamic State” group (IS, formerly Isis). What thin nationalist cloth had been sown out of the Ottoman Empire now seems more like a shroud.


On the other side is Palestine, its people still in exile or under occupation, facing the disproportionate power od the Israeli military. The Nakba of 1948 is an event that takes place every day. It has become eternal – encroachment of security barriers and settlements reduces the land upon which Palestinians live and work.


Between these two sits Syria, and its cities – increasingly in rubble. Reports from the United Nations, from the Syrian Centre for Policy Research and from the Syrian General Federation of Trade Unions paint an ugly picture of destruction and survival. The Syrian economy has shrunk, poverty rates have soared and basic goods are no longer available. Millions of Syrian refugees in camps across the region suffer from inadequate resources – strikingly food rations will decline in Turkey, as the promises of aid come to little. Over 200,000 Syrians have been killed. Only friends and family remember their names. Morgues no longer function as they did, and there is no state to register their death.

The war continues

Meanwhile, the war continues throughout the country. IS holds swathes of northern and eastern Syria, with small pockets in the north taken by the Kurdish resistance. The violence continues along the spinal cord of Syria that runs from Aleppo to Daraa. Maps of who controls what territory are deceiving: Aleppo is held by several groups. Attempts at an UN-brokered local ceasefire have been futile. Trust in the Assad government is limited among the remnants of the rebels, while groups of the more extremist jihadi bent (Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahram ash-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam) simply do not regard a ceasefire as necessary. The West’s search for a “moderate” rebel force has likely terminated with the disbandment of Harakat Hazm into the Levant Front. Moderation has little meaning in this battle of attrition and will. No one seems prepared to give up.


On the other side of IS territory held by IS, the Iraqi army, Iraqi militias and Kurdish peshmerga confront the extremist group in Kirkuk and Tikrit – on the road to Mosul. The absence of the West and the presence of Iranian forces suggest a major geo-political shift. It indicates that Iran is no longer untouchable to the West – and it indicates the recognition by the West of the menace of IS as well as the weakened resolve of the United States to resort to anything more than aerial bombardment.


There is a gradual acknowledgment that it was US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq that strengthened Iran’s hand – removing its two main adversaries (the Taliban and the Baathist regime). It was these US blows that allowed Iran to extend itself toward the Mediterranean. That extension is now largely a fait accompli. This is the reason why there will be growing pressure for a Grand Bargain between Tehran and Riyadh to scale back the “cold war” that has inflamed the region.


What will all this mean for the government of Bashar al-Assad? It remains in charge, but only barely, here and there along Syria’s western flank. Civic action, which began the revolt against Assad has largely been suffocated. When guns begin to determine history, peaceful protests lose their immediate relevance.


Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, stands as the most powerful opposition force – drawing in fighters from other units with great ferocity. It is, as its most recent communiqué puts it, the “backbone of jihadists”. For Jabhat al-Nusra, the end of this conflict can only come when al-raya flies atop the dome of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.


But al-Nusra does not speak for the civic opposition or civilians (nor, as I discovered late last year, does it speak for its own fighters either – some of whom are in its ranks for pragmatic reasons). The civilians are in the worst position. It is never easy to calculate the support for an uprising or a government when chaos reigns. Indications suggest that very large numbers of people in Syria and in the refugee camps would like the fighting to end. They are fatigued and have paid a very high price. They are in the camp of exhaustion – not in any of the political blocs.

Who is responsible?

Obviously there are sections of the population who would like to continue the battle until the end, driven by the ferocious thought that the sacrifices of the dead should not be in vain. There is the government, whose gestures of ceasefire come with a record of barrel bombs. Certainty in this mess is a luxury for those who want only to see it from afar. Closer to the ground, matters are far from clear.


Who is responsible for this mess? Part of the answer can be found on the slippery road that Arab nationalism has paved that led from great hopes to the oubliettes of its one-party states. Hafez al-Assad shares the burden of this historic failure (a condition not unfamiliar to Arab nationalism in Iraq and in North Africa). Heirs of these one-party states, often the children of their leaders, then turned to the fantasies of neo-liberal accumulation – the difference between Jimmy Mubarak and Saif al-Islam, Qusay Hussein and Bashar al-Assad is largely temperamental. Each of them, in different tempos, turned on the spigots of corruption for the gain of their friends and themselves. What little promise remained of Arab nationalism was sucked dry by their cupidity.


Droughts in northern Syria and bread prices in Egypt certainly provided a spur, but these were only the final push. The structure of the one-party states had already been eroded from within. The fires of damnation on the people of these states came as well from the long-term malignant influence of jihadism, fostered by Gulf Arab monarchs, set free to take territory across Iraq and Syria, Yemen and Libya. What a confluence of peril befell the generation that was to defeat defeat.


Syria stands at a crossroads. Four years of this struggle have almost passed. Desolation defines the country. Every victory is pyrrhic. There is no road that pleases anyone. No unifying platform beckons the warring parties. In December 2012, I ended a three-part series for Jadaliyya with the following: “A fragile hope rests on the revitalization of Syrian or Arab nationalism as a cord that binds the people across the widening sectarian divides. But, in the dungeons of the Baath Party, Syrian nationalism was asphyxiated. Perhaps it is too much to hope for its revival in the midst of this tortured struggle. The politics are bewildering, the human suffering, intolerable.”


I return to those lines now, out of frustration.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.