Skip to main content

Syria and The Recent Arab Awakening – A Unique Circumstance

May 29, 2011

Recently the entire Middle East/Arab countries were rocked by a massive wave of uprising against the established political order in their various countries. Tyranny and despotism and its concomitant impoverishment were at the root cause of this insurrection that has seen the popular overthrow of age-long dictatorships of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Today the regimes in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria are presently teetering on the brink of imminent collapse.

Recently the entire Middle East/Arab countries were rocked by a massive wave of uprising against the established political order in their various countries. Tyranny and despotism and its concomitant impoverishment were at the root cause of this insurrection that has seen the popular overthrow of age-long dictatorships of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Today the regimes in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria are presently teetering on the brink of imminent collapse.

The ruling oligarchies in these countries in this volatile region have been challenged by their own people even as countries like Syria and Lebanon continue seem to be embroiled in existential conflict with their neighbour Israel and this has not helped their circumstances. This month of May also marked the 63rd anniversary of what the Arabs referred to as “Naqba”, an event that has radically altered the socio-economic and political situation of the region.

It is crystal clear that for many in the Middle East/ broader Arab and Muslim world, 1948 and more particularly 1967 proved years of unforgettable catastrophe as well as a historic turning point in their chequered and unfortunate historical experience.  Israel’s quick and decisive defeat of Arab forces in what is remembered as Naqba in 19471948 and the six-Day war of 1967, during which Israeli forces trounced the combined Arab forces and captured and subsequently occupied the Golan Heights, Sinai. Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem constituted a devastating blow to the Arab/Muslim pride, identity, and self esteem. Most importantly, the loss of Bayt Al- Maqdis also known as Al-Quds (Jerusalem) which is sacred and regarded by all Muslims as the third holiest city of Islam, assured that issues bordering on Palestine and the liberation of Jerusalem would not be regarded as regional (Arab) issue but rather as an Islamic cause throughout the Muslim world. Just as the defence of Israel is dear to many Jews throughout the world, Palestine and the liberation of Jerusalem for Muslims who retain a sense of membership in a transnational community of believers (the Ummah) is equally evocative of profound sentiments. Thus, in this context, Palestine and the liberation of Jerusalem are strongly seen as issues of Islamic solidarity and pan Arab nationalism. More than any other country in the Arab world and the Middle East region, Syria in recent time has adroitly arrogated and appropriated to themselves the unique role of being the undisputed champion in the ensuing struggle against “Zionist” Israel and “imperialist” America and an indefatigable defender of the Arab cause. Syria is a frontline and resistance state within the convoluted context of the Arab-Israeli impasse that has characterized their apocalyptic conflict. Some observers of the Arab-Israeli conflict strongly believe that all roads to peace relative to the Arab-Israeli imbroglio lead to Damascus. On the other hand, some commentators are of the view that Syria does not really and genuinely want to see a resolution of the crisis. This school of thought are of the opinion that the present Syrian regime finds and uses the Palestinian crisis and their hard line stance as a weapon or tool for legitimizing and justifying and even sustaining their misrule of Syria. However, Syria’s position on the broader Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian question is somewhat discombobulating. For instance, then late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin virtually did everything he could to resolve the Syrian track of the Arab-Israeli crisis including offering to return the Golan Heights to Syria but Hafez Al Assad would not agree to a signing a peace treaty with Israel as Egypt did to regain the Sinai peninsula it lost to Israel in the 1967 war. In 1982, after the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979, Israel withdrew from the entirety of Sinai.  In November 1967, UN Security Council 242 was unanimously adopted, calling for “the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East” to be achieved by “the declaration of both the following principles.” “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and: Termination of all claims or states of belligerency” and respect for the right of every state in the area to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries. Jordan later signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 but authorities in Damascus will not have any of that.

Despite all attempts to resolve the conflict in the region, Syria remains perplexingly firm and adamant in their position in relation to the perennial crisis, even on the Syrian axis of the conflict which would have assured the return of Golan Heights to Syria by Israel. It is as a result of this hard line and belligerent posturing that many of the observers of the Middle East politics are maintaining the position that there is more than meets the eye in inscrutable and unfathomable dynamics of Syria’s foreign policy. This line of thought opines that the excessive obduracy of the regime in Damascus with respect to their policy in dealing with the conflict in the region seems to have served Syria’s Ba’athist regime interest well since 1962 to the present day. They are of the opinion that Syria is exploiting the Arab-Israeli/Palestinian conflict in and for their own interest.

Today, the Syria regime is facing its own existential problem and given the dynamics of her political circumstances and her unique position in the Arab world and the broader Middle East region, observers of international politics are filled with morbid apprehension as to what may be the outcome of the latest political crisis in Syria. It is in the light of the foregoing that this writer strongly believes that the current crisis facing the President Bashar Al Assad’s regime may likely ultimately assume a more dangerous dimension capable of engulfing the whole region. Many people in the region believe and see Syria as a resistance and frontline state championing and leading the charge in the struggle against “Zionist” Israel” and “imperialist America”. Therein lies the exceptionality and uniqueness of Syria in the recent Arab awakening.  Most people think that the circumstances of Syria are different and that it would be far more dangerous to re-enact the Libyan approach against Syria. Some people will see such an approach as a “Zionist” and American conspiracy to undermine and destabilize the only true Arab state holding the charge against the “Zionist” enemy and still standing strong when others have compromised and sold out to forces of Zionism and imperialism. It in this context that the international community are strongly urged to be very careful when it comes to dealing with Syria in relation to the popular uprising in that country and the brutal crackdown being unleashed against the protesters by the Syrian regime. The exceptionality of the Syrian circumstances which may distinguish Syria from the rest of the Arab countries being currently challenged politically by one form of protest or the other makes the likely outcome difficult to predict.

It is this writer’s opinion that the current crisis in Syria presents an exceptional and unique situation different from what has been happening in other Arab/Middle East countries in recent time. This writer cannot over-emphasise the imperative for caution and appreciation of the unique situation or circumstances of Syria and in this regard, the writer is urging the international community to deal with Syria with utmost caution and circumspection to avoid an all out escalation or war of unimaginable magnitude in the region. It is this writer’s opinion that a peaceful solution can be found in Syria if the Syrian regime and the disparate leaders of the popular protest can be engaged in intense negotiation with a view to ending the protest and the brutal crackdown. Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt can play a pivotal role in this regard. Besides, it is also imperative that serious efforts be given to the Palestinian issue which according to some observers, the Syria regime has been using as a basis of legitimacy in its own interest.  It would seem as if Syria has suspended all socio-economic development of their nation and has devoted her entire policy, both domestic and foreign on the Palestinian question. Hence some people argue that the regime has nothing to show to her people for their long hold on power in Syria. The sooner the Palestinian question is resolved the better, for an effective resolution of the Palestinian question will usher a new awakening and reality in the region and deny those who are bent on using this conflict as a specious platform to play politics in this volatile region. The political dynamics in this region will change if and when the Palestinian question sees resolution.
It is beyond dispute that Syria is a prominent Arab/Middle East country which is strategically located in the heart of the Arab world. Geography makes it difficult for the international community to ignore Syria.  For instance, Syria borders Lebanon and the Mediterranean to the West, Turkey to the North, Iraq to the East, Jordan to the South, and Israel to the southwest. One cannot fail to appreciate the strategic location of this important Arab/Middle East country/nation in the context of the Middle East region’s geopolitics. Her geography is very strategic in modern geo politics.

What is present- day Syria formerly comprised the entire region of the Levant which included present day Lebanon and part of the Holy Land. The modern-day Syria encompasses the site of several ancient kingdoms and empires. Damascus, the capital of Syria, is reputed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and was the critical centre of the Umayyad Caliphate and a provincial capital of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. The population of Syria is about 74% Sunni Muslim, with 13% Shia and Alawite Muslim population, 10% Christian and 3% Druze. The Alawite in Syria is a small minority however since 1960, Alawite military officers have tended to dominate the country’s politics. This is also part of the dynamics of uncertainty that characterises the current protest. The ruling Assad family are of the minority Alawite sect in a predominantly Sunni nation. The modern Syria was established as a French mandate and attained independence in 1914 46, as a parliamentary democracy.
In 1963, the Arab Ba’ath Party of Syria staged a coup d’ etat in Syria which brought the Ba’ath Party under Amin Hafiz a Sunni Muslim  to power in Syria. He was later overthrown in 1966 by Nureddin al Attasi and Sahah Jadid to be in turn overthrown in a bloodless intra- party coup known as the corrective revolution in 1970. Since then, the father of the present ruler, Hafez Al Assad ruled Syria until his demise in 2000. However, the Hafez Al Assad regime in Syria was able to unify the diverse and fractional Syrian society that has been plagued by coups and somehow instilled a sense of national pride among the populace. Hafez Al Assad’s foreign policy shaped by Syria’s attitude to Israel was belligerent, pugnacious, hard line and unduly uncompromising.  Syria played a major role in Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. The 1973 war in particular is presented by Syrian government as a victory against Zionist entity and American imperialists.

 Hafez Al Assad believed that what constitutes Israel, West Bank and Gaza was an integral part of Southern Syria. There was also a trend of thought among some people that Lebanon is Syria though this has some historical backing as Lebanon was a part of Syria but by the sheer design of the colonial powers like France, that was altered as the colonial powers like France and Britain had in fact redrawn the map of the modern world in the 19th century.

Syria deployed troops in Lebanon in 1976, officially in response to a request from the Lebanese government for Syrian military intervention during the Lebanese civil war but after 1982 remained in Lebanon as an occupation force under the guise that they are maintaining and guaranteeing peace in Lebanon. However, the United Nations Resolution 1559 ended the Syrian presence in Lebanon in 2005 after Mr Hafik Hariri, then Lebanese Prime Minister was assassinated on 14 February 2005 and the ensuing March 14 2005 protests.

When the uprising in Syria commenced, many observers of current affairs opined that the crisis in Syria may never become like the one in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya. Their argument is based on the exceptional circumstances of Syria as mentioned previously.  Syria has always assumed the role of defender of the Palestinian people in their struggle against Israel.  Syria has seemingly always played the role of guarantor of peace and stability in Lebanon.  Syria believes that without her there can never be peace in Lebanon.  Syria plays an important role in the Arab-Israeli conflict and presents herself as the “only power” still standing tall and fighting in the struggle where all others have given up, collapsed, fallen or compromised. Since the death of former Egyptian President Gamaal Abdel Nasser in 1970 and the Egypt’s subsequent signing of peace treaty with Israel in 1979 following the Carter-brokered Camp David accord, Syria has assumed the role of a frontline champion of the Arab resistance and struggle against their common foe, Israel.

But Syria’s role in this conflict is deeper than most people appreciate. Although Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel in the 1967 war, Syria makes the Palestinian crisis a more important instrument of her policy than her own national problem for her own strategic interest and has been using the Palestinian conflict to assert, maintain and sustain her basis of legitimacy. The whole business of state/national development is suspended in Syria under the guise that the country is still at war against Israel and the primary state objective is the liberation of Palestine and any question or voice as to the proper governance of the country is seen as treacherous and a perfidy in the face of a more important national aspiration which is “the liberation of Palestine.” For instance, the relationship between Hafez Al Assad and Yasir Arafat was characterised by a strong antipathy owing to the fact that Hafez Al Assad aimed to bring the Palestinian issue under Syrian control in order to use it as a political tool.  Syria feared regional isolation and irrelevance as late Yasser Arafat moved the PLO in a more moderate direction and sought compromise with Israel.

Syria in this regard does not want to see a resolution of the Palestinian conflict as this will deprive her of her sole instrument of legitimacy. Thus, during the administration of ex US President Bill Clinton, despite the genuine and authentic effort made by President Clinton towards a resolution of this festering conflict, his genuine and sincere efforts in this regard fizzled out into nothingness. To some people, there seems to be some strategic interest for Syria in her uncompromising stance in the face of the Middle East conflict as a resolution of the crisis will deny Syria’s regime of the one single basis of legitimacy and relevance, hence Syria must vehemently oppose any move to resolve the Arab-Israeli/Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Syrian regime’s hold on power is very tenuous and the Assad family is morbidly afraid of losing power in the region. Syria also plays host to most of the militant organisations operating in the region. Until recently, the Pekaka Kiurdistan Kurmanji (PKK) or the Kurdish Workers Party led by Abdullah Ocalan was based in Syria from where they were mounting attacks against Turkey in their struggle for an independence Kurdistan. Turkey threatened to invade Syria in 1998 and Syria was forced to ask the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan to leave Syria and he was later captured by the Turkish military intelligence in Kenya and kidnapped to Turkey.
While most of the Arab countries like Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, seem to have some relations with Israel, Syria sees herself as the “only man still standing” and championing the banner of the struggle and resistance against the “Zionist” enemy

One must also note the dilemma the Arab world is facing today. There is today in the whole of the Arab world and the broader Middle East region a marked common critique of and disillusionment with the military, political, and socio-cultural failures of Western-oriented development in the entire region and a deep-seated and profound quest and yearning for a more genuine and authentic society and culture based on an Arab identity and less dependent upon the West and rooted more indigenously in an Arab Islamic heritage and values.  However, it should also be noted that with the end of the Cold War and the loss of Soviet patronage, Syria sought to shed its terrorist image and improve its relations with the West. Although it continues to support Harakat Al Muqawana Al Islamiyya (HAMAS) against Israel and act as a conduit for supplying the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah with “Iranian victuals”!

The turmoil that is sweeping the  Arab world today stems from age-long repressive and oppressive regimes surfeit in the region which has nothing to show for the betterment of the lives of their long-suffering people. Syria’s political legitimacy is fundamentally rooted in the championing of the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli crisis. Syria is home to most of the splinter Palestinian resistant movements/groups whose leaders live in Syria. For example, Khaled Meshaal, the leader of the Harakat Al-Muqawana Al Islamiyya (HAMAS) lives and maintains offices and camps in Syria. The late George Habbash, the leader of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) also lived and maintained his headquarters in Syria until he died in December 26, 2008. Nayef Hawatmeh, the leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and Ahmed Jibril, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) are all based in Damascus, Syria. This brand of specious ideological posturing of using the Palestinian question to garner Muslim and Arab sentiments is not peculiar to the current Syrian regime. The late Iraqi former President Saddam Hussein attempted to rally the Arab and Muslim world sentiments during the first Gulf War by launching an unprovoked, diversionary attack against Israel. Saddam Hussein’s linkage of his action with resolution of the Palestinian problem was quite disingenuous in the extreme given his unprovoked attack/invasion, occupation and subsequent annexation of Kuwait which almost all the Arab countries condemned and opposed.

The West and former colonial powers have not helped the cause of genuine and true peace and democracy in the Middle East region either. It is indeed hypocritical and smacks of double standard for the West to seemingly come to the aid of the Libyan people in their current armed uprising against Col Qhadhaffi while it remained silent about Israel’s invasion and occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, South Lebanon and the Israeli bombing of Tyre, Sidon and West Beiruit - which indeed wounded and killed hundreds of civilians.

We are calling for the rule of international morality and uniform application of and enforcement of UN Security Council and General Assembly resolution. Selective application of the so called principles of international law and UN resolutions must stop. Given that the U S has consistently vetoed all attempts by the UN Security Council to condemn Israel for ignoring UN’s demand that it withdraw from Lebanon , how do we justify the use of force in international law and relations against some state that are alleged to have contravened or failed to comply with UN Security Council resolution? The double standard was again observed by the peace-loving people who observe current international affairs in regard to the Palestinian intifada in which Israel military killed over 700 Palestinians including some 160 children. The UN resolution calling for international observers to investigate the situation in the occupied territory was vetoed by the US. An independent Malaysian publication reflected the strong feelings of many Muslim world in an article titled “Exposing U S moves: Third World View”, Aliran 10: 8 (1990) 38 in the terms of above.

Part of the problems associated with religious and ideological fanaticism and extremism are caused by a marked lack of international morality and fairness and justice in dealing with some of the issues and conflicts plaguing the mankind and nations of the modern world. As one writer observed tersely, the realities of colonialism and imperialism, although forgotten or conveniently overlooked by many in the West, are part of its living legacy, firmly implanted in the memory, however exaggerated at times, of many in the Middle East.

In Syria like most of the Arab world/Middle East countries, young people found themselves in a world of shattered dreams which offered a dim future and unemployment, housing shortages and a lack of political participation which were the order of the day and all these significantly increased and heightened the sense of frustration and hopelessness among the masses. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, etc need to embark on speedy political reforms and they should loosen their grips on their people and allow them greater freedom and liberties.  They should also seek to improve the material living condition of their people. Late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, though a dictator of a sort did seek to improve the lives of the Egyptians at least during his reign.

Perhaps, no modern Arab leader after Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) captured the imagination of the Arab World and the Third World than the late Syrian President Hafez Al Assad, the mercurial father of the current Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. He sought and to some extent asserted Syria’s claim to leadership of the Arab world and championed the struggle for the liberation of Palestine. Syria’s appeal to Arab/Palestinian nationalism and their avowed inordinate commitment to the Palestinian cause resonated with memories of “Anglo-French colonialism” and “American imperialism” and “Zionist expansionism” and intensified the tempo of the legitimate struggle of many in the Arab world to root their identity more indigenously in an Arab-Islamic past as it appears that the Western model has woefully failed them in no small measure. However, this does not change the aspiration of the Syrian people for greater freedom, democracy and better living condition.

Syria needs socio-economic and political reforms necessitated by the over 40 years failure of the Assad regime to improve the material living condition of the Syrian people and afford them basic, minimum democratic and civil rights and liberties. The socio-political realities of Syria today calls for a comprehensive overhauling of the political process of the country with a view to opening up the country to political plurality, democratic reforms and economic development.  Syria should alter her priorities and emphasize more on her need for domestic development and international trade and investment as the international community is urged to intensify its efforts towards the resolution of the Palestinian problem.

Besides, the West should stop this exaggerated viewing of the Muslim Brotherhood and any Islamic organisation as a threat. Given the political dynamics of today’s world with the level of intellectual advancement and sophistication attained by many in the Middle East countries and the Arab World- thanks to the relative ease with which information can be disseminated-; the contemporary realities of this epoch we are living in today makes it difficult for any group to overly dominate the other members of the society without exposing themselves to formidable opposition and challenge. If for instance, there are multi party democratic reforms in Syria paving way for elections, the Syrian people will choose the government of their choice. Given that Syria is a very vibrant and modern society it is doubtful whether any group can impose its form of orthodoxy on the entire society.  It is interesting to note here that Muslims consider politics to be part of their life, because the Al Quran emphasizes the establishment of justice as a divine mission under the sovereignty of God and vicegerency of man and the Quran also recognises the principle of “no compulsion in religion” as embodied in Al Quran Chapter 2 verse 256.
The West should appreciate that time has changed and not castigate or demonise the quest of the Muslim world/Arab and Middle world for greater participation in the political process of their country. They cannot support the Libyan people and ignore the Saudis, the Kuwaitis and other people in the oil rich gulf kingdoms whose leaders are arrogantly insisting on perpetuating the more than 500 years of anachronistic ,feudalistic and aristocratic oligarchy. Contemporary Muslim preachers are beginning to combine traditional religious scholarship with a powerful reinterpretation of Islamic history and belief that emphasizes political activism and social reform and this is not Islamic fundamentalism or fanaticism or anything of the sort. This is a legitimate human quest for relevance and self actualization and the West ought to appreciate and respect this phenomenon.
The modern societies and peoples in the Arab World/Middle East region are rejecting quietism in the face of oppression and they are beginning to engage in popular struggle against social injustice and oppression.  The revolution sweeping the entire landscape of the Arab World/Middle East region is long overdue and no amount of brutal suppression or using the religion of Islam or the Palestinian question and the Arab-Israeli conflict disingenuously and spuriously will stop the struggle to bring down the dictatorships that have held the people of this vital and strategic region in socio-economic and political bondage or quagmire for much too long notwithstanding the contradictions and discrepancies that exist in the way the so called Western world will react to these series of popular awakening and protests in different Arab/Middle East countries.   There is no doubt a duplicitous disjunction between the manner the West reacts and responds to the conflict in Libya and the way they react and respond to the conflict in Bahrain and Yemen. The fear is that since many people perceive Syria as “the only country championing the cause of the Palestinian people and the Arab world” in a region where others have seemingly given up or compromised covertly and overtly, the Arab Street may be inflamed if Syria is attacked and they may see the whole thing as a grand conspiracy by “Zionist” entity and forces of imperialism to eviscerate and subvert or thwart the Arab world and subjugate and control their region. The potential for a regional escalation is real in the case of Syria which prides and sees itself as a resistance state leading the charge in the Arab world in their struggle against “the forces of Zionism and imperialism”. It is in this regard that the West must exercise caution and find a way to mount strategic pressure on all the parties involved in the conflict in Syria and possibly get them to negotiation and seek to bring about an immediate cessation of all hostile and protest activities so that meaningful political reform will commence. The Syrian regime will not stifle the legitimate aspiration of the Syrian people. The Assad family can submit themselves to democratic process and possibly win the mandate of the people and then govern with proper legitimacy. Authorities in Damascus must stop the present carnage in Syria by all means and work towards national reconciliation and democratic reforms and a more equitable distribution of power. Syria does not belong to the Assad family but to all Syrians .Any form of intervention in Syria will be viewed as another form of foreign (American and Israeli) intervention. Syria must clearly understand that socio-political realities of today make it impossible for any regime to brutalize its people with reckless abandon without attracting effectual global attention and inevitable, eventual reckoning. The internet technology has spawned a new dawn on mankind and has further enhanced information dissemination and thus making the world more inter-connected and interdependent and inter-related. Failure on the part of any regime to realise this spells inevitable doom for such a regime and this in itself is the overriding imperative why all dictatorships should realise that their days are numbered and that their demise is as sure as the rising of the sum after all no condition is permanent. Besides, the disparities between the rich and poor and the flagrant rule unrestricted by law based on force and brigandage and the marginalisation of any group of the masses, will inevitably prove fertile ground for both reformist and revolutionary movements.  Historical vindication of this axiomatic fact is legion.  History will absolve me.

The writer, Clement Chigbo is lawyer and an academic and practises and teaches in the UK and the Bahamas. He welcomes comments and criticisms and suggestions on his articles and publications. He may be contacted at [email protected], [email protected] 

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('content1'); });

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('comments'); });

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('content2'); });