To foil Assad's rehabilitation, Syrians must learn from Palestine's BDS movement
More than 11 years after the beginning of the uprising that later turned into a war with multiple regional and international actors involved, the Syrian regime now controls almost 70% of Syrian territory. This is no thanks to the political, economic, and military assistance provided by its allies: Russia and Iran. At the same time, the normalisation process of the Syrian regime is moving forward across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which was confirmed by Bashar al-Assad’s trip to the UAE in March 2022- his first visit to a country in the region since the eruption of the uprising in 2011.
Having already done so with Israel, the UAE has taken the lead among influential Arab nations, in normalising relations with Damascus.
More generally, the harmonisation of relations between various Arab regimes and Syria reflects a larger trend for a majority of regional players that are also supported by different international powers. There is a desire to consolidate a form of authoritarian stability, and despite continuous rivalries among various states, they all wish to return to a situation similar to that in place before 2011.
The regime in Damascus faces huge political and socioeconomic challenges which it is far from overcoming, however.
''There is the fear of repression and the regime’s elimination of nearly all forms of organised opposition, both social and political, in the areas under its domination following 2011. At the same time, the various Syrian opposition actors are very fragmented.''
Russia, the most important ally of Damascus with Iran, is already suffering politically and economically as a consequence of the international sanctions imposed on Moscow following its military invasion of Ukraine. Although Moscow has not acted as a financial backer of Damascus, the economic dependency of the Syrian regime towards the Kremlin has increased since the beginning of its military intervention in Syria in 2015. Most notably, it became the leading supplier of wheat to Syria following the massive decrease in the country’s local production.
Organised public opposition to the regime has, nevertheless, been limited. There has only really been small demonstrations in different regime-held areas, which was the case in Sweida recently, for example.
There are multiple reasons for this, including the general fatigue as a result of the war and the continuous impoverishment of large sectors of the society. It is important to remember that more than 90% of the population lives under the poverty line, and 14.6 million people (67.3% of the population) in need of humanitarian assistance.
There is also the fear of repression and the regime’s elimination of nearly all forms of organised opposition, both social and political, in the areas under its domination following 2011. At the same time, the various Syrian opposition actors are very fragmented. The exiled National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (Etilaf)- also the main opposition group- which is supported by Turkey and Qatar and legitimised by Western powers, does not offer any democratic and inclusive alternative. It has also been severely discredited by its corruption as well as sectarian and racist practices.
In this context, there are many questions about the kind of internationalist solidarity campaign that is needed for the Syrian revolutionary process and for its aspirations of freedom, social justice and equality to be realised. For this, lessons should really be learned from various experiences of solidarity efforts from below.
One successful example of this is the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
There are of course differences between the Syrian and Palestinian contexts, namely that Israel is a settler colonial project, seeking the ethnic cleansing and expulsion of Palestinians from their lands, whereas in Syria the regime is an absolute autocratic and hereditary power.
However, there is much to be drawn from the BDS model. In particular, efforts must similarly go towards building and reinforcing links to broader social movements, from feminists, to anti-racists, students and trade unionists. This provides the basis for understanding the roots and dynamics of the Syrian revolution, while also highlighting common interests based on class solidarity and the struggle for a world free of oppression and exploitation.
This is the only way to strengthen solidarity without relying on state assistance, which has always been conditional and certainly not based on shared outcomes.
After a decade of war, more than 90 percent of the population in Syria lives in poverty, over 12 million people are food insecure and an unprecedented 14.6 million are in need of humanitarian support. ⚠️https://t.co/1IEpkjUjVm— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) March 20, 2022
Furthermore, there needs to be a reorientation of the majority of Syrian organisations across the diaspora from working with states and officials within international organisations, to engaging grassroots movements. Syrians and their solidarity networks abroad, as well as the social movements that they are part of around the world would be far more likely to share their experiences, resources and energy if this took place.
Then, of course, there is the question of international sanctions.
This has been the object of intense debate between Syrians, with growing disagreements between those inside and outside Syria. This is largely because those who remain, stand to suffer the most from the consequences of sanctions.
Ultimately, despite the differences, the answer is not to oppose targeted sanctions against personalities, institutions and private companies supporting the Syrian regime. If we are to come back to the example of BDS, calls for sanctions are made and applied until there is an adherence with all human rights. It shouldn’t be any different within the Syrian context.
''The most important challenge ahead is for Syrian democrats and progressives, is to regain autonomy from foreign actors by building their own networks and offering an inclusive, democratic project with clear socio-economic alternatives that will benefit ordinary Syrians within the country as well as the diaspora.''
Additionally, the struggle for accountability against the Assad regime should be an absolute priority. The prosecution of two former Syrian secret service officers in Germany, who were charged with crimes against humanity in 2019, is an important step towards this. Efforts must continue throughout the world to ensure that the main perpetrators of state torture under Assad and all war criminals in Syria are brought to justice, including Islamic fundamentalists, jihadist forces and other armed groups.
Finally, the most important challenge ahead is for Syrian democrats and progressives, is to regain autonomy from foreign actors by building their own networks and offering an inclusive, democratic project with clear socio-economic alternatives that will benefit ordinary Syrians within the country as well as the diaspora.
Similarly, this political orientation of solidarity from below will enable supporters of a democratic and progressive Syria to make connections with other regional and international struggles in order to learn from them. After all, despotic and authoritarian regimes learn from each other’s experiences of repression. We too, must establish strong coalitions between progressive movements around the world in order to strengthen our relations and eventually deliver freedom, social justice and equality for all.
Joseph Daher teaches at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and is an affiliate professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where he participates in the "Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria Project." He is the author of "Syria after the Uprisings, The Political Economy of State Resilience".
Follow him on Twitter: @JosephDaher19
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