Seeing through Assad
*Syria and the battle of the narratives*
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In an article <http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/?p=18348
> for Syria
Comment, Matthew Barber discusses a rare moment of realism this week in the
Syrian parliament. During a televised session, MP Walid al-Zou'bi spoke
about rebel gains in the province of Dera'a, next to the Jordanian border.
Zou'bi told the parliament that he had alerted the presidency and
government some three weeks earlier to the presence of armed militants who
were taking control of specific locations, but that no action had been
forthcoming in response. He also said regime forces had withdrawn from a
number of military positions in the province for "unknown strategic
*Syrian MP Walid al-Zou'bi*
Barber says these remarks from Zou'bi were not so much a protest as an
alert to the authorities, but "his open acknowledgment of loss of both
territory and the morale of regime forces in Dera�a elicited objections
from other MPs who tried to silence him, whereupon he demanded that they
not interrupt him".
This, Barber suggests, is an example of "the dance that must be performed
around the reality of events on the ground":
"It's permissible [for Syrians] to say that foreign terrorists are causing
havoc in Syria, but it's not acceptable to acknowledge that the uprising
includes Syrian participants, let alone that the uprising is primarily
Syrian � that's been the case from the beginning.
"But that other MPs would try to prevent Zou'bi, even at this late hour,
from merely discussing in parliament the practical problem of a very real
loss of territory is a telling reminder of the persistence of the Ba'athist
cult of unreality.
"How can the regime fight its war without acknowledging its battles? Is it
loyalty to mention terrorism, but treason to admit losses? Is patriotism
the acknowledgment of conflict with 'unknown' assailants coupled with a
simultaneous pretending that no failure is occurring? Zou'bi mentioned the
descent of Syria into a state of war and warned that 'if terrorists
prevail, chaos will prevail', yet apparently, even if an area is falling
out of the regime�s control, it is still taboo to acknowledge it directly.
"Subsequent Syrian news coverage of the parliamentary session made no
mention of Zou'bi."
On a similar theme, Nadim Shehadi discusses competing narratives of the
conflict in an article<http://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/nadim-shehadi/revolution-or-civil-war-battle-of-narratives-in-syria
Open Democracy: is it a revolution or a civil war?
By most definitions the events can be considered both a civil
and a revolution <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolution
> � and it is not
particularly unusual for the two to go together. The English civil war of
the 17th century, for example, was also a revolution against monarchical
In Syria's case, the revolution-versus-civil-war debate is not just about
definitions. It has important policy implications for other countries, as
Shehadi points out:
"If we call the events in Syria 'a revolution' by all components of the
population against a regime that is killing its people, then the
implication is that the people need protection; whereas if we call it 'a
sectarian civil war' then the implication is that all sides have to stop
the violence and sit around the table to resolve their differences and
state institutions need to be preserved to restore law and order.
"One description supports the revolution's narrative, while the other lends
credence to that of the regime."
Oddly (since the Assad regime has now been ostracised by most of the
international community) the regime nevertheless seems to be winning the
battle of the narratives � which may well have the effect of prolonging the
conflict. Shehadi writes:
"Official statements from the US also often undermine the opposition and
reinforce the regime's narrative of sectarian civil war dominated by
Islamists. The constant reference to WMD and the fear that these weapons
would fall 'in the wrong hands should the regime fall' sends the message
that the US is more concerned about the regime falling than about Assad
staying in power and killing his people.
"Most statements indicate that the US and many of the declared opponents of
the Assad regime are unable to see beyond him, and sometimes unwittingly
support the regime's narrative."
*The concerns about jihadists and WMD are real enough but they have begun
to obscure the central � revolutionary � aspect of the conflict as a revolt
against totalitarian rule by a regime which engages in mass slaughter and
the destruction of whole neighbourhoods in an effort to cling to power.*
Shehadi views this largely as a reaction to George Bush's foolish adventure
"The international policy debate and media coverage on Syria is mainly
driven by the trauma of the experiences of Iraq, Afghanistan and that of
the 'war on terror' which the pro-regime talking points constantly refer to
in order to reinforce the view that it is indispensable, irreplaceable and
that beyond it is chaos of unimaginable proportions.
"The international media and many policy circles seem to fall for much of
the regime�s tricks, whereas the Syrians who have lived with these tricks
for generations have reached a stage where they are immune to them.
"Another important element of support for the regime is an extension of the
opposition to the war in Iraq. Whether in policy circles, think tanks or in
the media; those opposed to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, tended to
favour engagement with the Assad regime. They projected the policy of
engagement and assistance with reform as an alternative to that of
intervention and regime change."
Critics of the Iraq war, Shehadi suggests, have become "trapped in this
narrative" for fear that they might vindicate the other side of the debate
over the Iraq intervention.
It seems to me, though, that allowing the Iraq experience to shape debate
about Syria is both unnecessary and based on a misunderstanding of the real
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a scandal of gigantic proportions,
by a bunch of American
.* In essence, it was an old-fashioned imperialist enterprise (though it
didn't achieve the usual imperialist objective of securing political and
economic domination over Iraq).*
*The Assad regime likes to portray the Syrian conflict as a similar
conspiracy, but the reality is very different*. It started with protests by
ordinary Syrians inspired by the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt,
and the Syrian regime � seeing what had happened to Ben Ali and Mubarak �
decided that force was the solution. Inevitably, foreign powers took up
positions on this, but it was not something they chose or planned.
Memories of the bogus attempts by Tony Blair and others to excuse the
invasion of Iraq on humanitarian grounds have also had the unfortunate
effect of clouding genuine discussion about protecting civilians in Syria.
Getting trapped in the Iraq narrative leads to the assumption that such
discussions must inevitably have ulterior motives.
*There are plenty of good reasons to reject direct military intervention in
Syria � not because of what happened in Iraq but because it would probably
make things worse in Syria. It is absurd, however, to go a step further and
propose conciliation between the regime and opposition: it wouldn't
would only prolong the agony.*
The problem here is that those most in favour of negotiating with the
regime (except over the terms for its departure) tend to be those least
familiar with its real nature.
Interestingly, Shehadi notes that on the international level, the countries
that are now the most vehement in their rejection of dialogue with* Assad
are mainly those that were most engaged with him before � France, Turkey,
Qatar and Saudi Arabia:*
"President Sarkozy, Prime Minister Erdogan and Shaikh Hamad the Emir of
Qatar were his most ardent supporters and personal friends and together
with Saudi Arabia they played an important role in rehabilitating Assad
between 2008 and well into 2011.
"Their engagement with him continued even after the revolution started and
went on until they came to the conclusion that he was just playing games to
gain time. Their opposition to him takes on an almost personal hue. For
them, his narrative has lost all credibility: they can see through it."
*Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 30 March 2013 *
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