[Marxism] The Agony of Syria

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 10 11:09:01 MDT 2012

NY Review of Books
September 27, 2012

The Agony of Syria

by Max Rodenbeck

The Syrian Rebellion
by Fouad Ajami
Hoover Institution Press, 240 pp., $19.95 

Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad
by David W. Lesch
Yale University Press, 262 pp., $28.00 

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution
by Samar Yazbek, translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss
Haus, 269 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Postcolonial governments have often seemed condemned to repeat the sins 
of the imperialists they replaced, a sad irony that has been especially 
pronounced in the Middle East. The British in 1920, for instance, 
pioneered the use of poison gas against civilians in order to subdue a 
tribal revolt in Iraq. The last known deployment of chemical weapons for 
mass murder was again in Iraq, in 1988, when Saddam Hussein gassed his 
fellow citizens during the notorious Anfal campaign against the Kurds.

Syria, too, has experienced sinister symmetries. Soon after France 
grabbed the territory as a share of its spoils from World War I, an 
insurrection among the proud Druze of the Houran region in the south 
quickly spread elsewhere. The colonial government countered this 
challenge with a mix of sweet propaganda and extreme violence. Depicting 
their foes as sectarian fanatics, the French posed as patrons of 
progress and as the noble guarantors of peace between Syria’s diverse 
sects. Yet they also worked hard to sharpen the schism they warned of. 
Arming and empowering favored groups, they brutalized others with 
summary executions, the burning of crops, and the razing of villages.

The counterinsurgency culminated with a brazen demonstration of 
destructive power that effectively terrorized Syria’s propertied class 
into submission. In October 1925 French artillery and aircraft bombarded 
Damascus for two days, leaving 1,500 dead and much of the Syrian capital 
in ruins; the large, incongruously grid-patterned section of the Old 
City known simply as al-Hariqa—The Fire—today serves as a memorial to 
that conflagration. In May 1945, French forces again shelled Damascus 
indiscriminately, killing more than six hundred people in what proved a 
vain attempt to reassert control following the end of World War II.

The regime built under the Assad clan, whose godfather, Hafez Assad, 
Syria’s then minister of defense, seized power in 1970 and held it for 
three decades until his son Bashar’s succession, has followed these 
unfortunate examples. Like France’s colonial governors the Assads have 
posed as defenders of a modern secular state. They have called their 
opponents sectarian extremists, even as their favoritism toward some 
parts of Syria’s complex ethnic and religious mosaic—particularly their 
own minority Alawite sect—and punishment of others, such as the 10 
percent Kurdish minority, have enflamed communal resentment. The 
striking viciousness and scale of state repression, enforced by 
seventeen competing intelligence agencies whose upper ranks are 
dominated by Alawites, have been excused as a necessary bulwark against 
threats to national unity.

Just like the French, too, the Assads have made a practice of training 
heavy artillery on densely populated areas. In 1982, responding to a 
budding Sunni Muslim insurgency that included terror attacks against 
Alawite soldiers, an army brigade commanded by Hafez Assad’s brother 
sealed off Syria’s then fourth-largest city, Hama. The two-week barrage 
of mortar and rocket fire that followed killed tens of thousands, 
erasing Hama’s large and well-preserved historic center.

In the face of the current uprising, now in its eighteenth bloody month, 
Bashar Assad has ordered a sustained use of heavy weaponry against its 
own people in modern times that may be unmatched by any state. The gory 
internecine wars in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Sri Lanka saw governments 
behave with similar savagery, but against what they claimed were 
separatist revolts. In trying to crush an inclusive, nationwide, and 
initially peaceful pro-democracy movement that from its inception was 
unquestionably backed by the vast majority of Syrians, the Assads’ army 
has wreaked devastation akin to that in Grozny or Jaffna or Sarajevo, 
only across swathes of a country with a far larger population, 
devastating scores of villages, dozens of towns, and all three of 
Syria’s biggest cities.

Aleppo and Homs have been worse hit, but Damascus itself has hardly been 
spared. Perhaps nothing better expresses the wantonly destructive 
nonchalance of Syria’s government than its stationing of big guns atop 
Mount Qasyoun, the barren, 3,700-foot-high ridge that looms above the 
Syrian capital, and where Cain is said to have slain Abel. Regularly in 
the past two months, these cannons have sent shells soaring high over 
the city center to crash into its mostly Sunni-populated suburbs.

Statistics have consistently failed to capture the scale of Syria’s 
tragedy. The widely cited current death toll of around 20,000 may not 
seem large by the standards of modern conflict. Yet this is a 
conservative estimate of numbers that are accelerating very fast, with 
more people killed in July alone than in all of 2011. Tens of thousands 
more Syrians have been injured, while even larger numbers have suffered 
while under arrest. For many if not most, this has meant often 
shockingly extreme forms of torture in a detention system whose 
systematic cruelty has been extensively documented.

The conflict has so far displaced at least 1.5 million Syrians 
internally, aid workers privately estimate. Many have been uprooted more 
than once, fleeing to sanctuaries that have then also come under 
government attack. Some can be seen trudging by roadsides, or sleeping 
in parks in the safer parts of Damascus or Aleppo. Most remain 
invisible, housed by relatives or helped by the numerous local charities 
that have proliferated in wartime. But thousands of Syrians have also 
fled abroad. The UN’s current figure of 150,000 counts only those who 
have officially applied for refugee status, but with just one of Syria’s 
neighbors, Jordan, claiming to host that number alone, the actual total 
of Syrian refugees is likely to be closer to half a million.

The scale of suffering reflects the fact that the Syrian government, 
uniquely among countries swept up by the Arab Spring, represents not 
merely a corrupt and oppressive ruling clique. It baldly represents the 
interests of a small, fearful, well-armed, and organized sectarian 
minority, set against the wishes of a majority that has remained 
inchoate, politically divided, and powerless. The fact of this 
polarization, long elaborately disguised by hollow pageantries, has only 
become clear to many Syrians now that the underlying nature of the state 
has been exposed and the violence implicit in the country’s neocolonial 
power structure has been made dramatically explicit.

The stark estrangement between rulers and ruled struck me during a visit 
last winter to Douma, a largely Sunni Muslim suburb of Damascus. It is 
one of a ring of overgrown villages, divided from one another and from 
the old city center by empty spaces that have now revealed their utility 
as potential security cordons. Taken together these villages house most 
of the capital’s four million people. At the time Douma was just 
emerging from the trauma of a three-week government siege designed to 
flush out what state television insists on calling “terrorists.” The 
campaign worked, for a while: the then barely armed local self-defense 
groups loosely known as the Free Syrian Army briefly pulled out of Douma 
to spare it further punishment. (As has happened nearly everywhere the 
government then claimed victory; the rebels simply waited, then filtered 

As a proud group of local youths showed me holes blasted by tank fire as 
a show of force, a mosque donations box pilfered by soldiers, and a 
cemetery with many fresh graves and more gaping open, ready for urgent 
use, the thought kept nagging that I had seen this all before. It was 
when they pointed out that every one of Douma’s rooftop water tanks had 
been punctured by government gunfire that I realized what seemed 
familiar. The Israeli army had done the same thing during the first 
Palestinian intifada. In fact, the entire catalog of collective 
punishments meted out in Douma suggested the handbook of an army of 
occupation: cutting power and phone links for days on end, enforcing 
curfews with snipers, forcing children at gunpoint to paint over 
graffiti, breaking down doors instead of knocking, administering public 
beatings, arresting male youths en masse, using masked informants to 
finger suspects.

Already in February, however, Syria’s revolution had taken far more 
disturbing turns than either the first, rock-throwing Palestinian 
intifada or even the second, far more violent one between 2000 and 2005. 
The gaping graves in Douma’s cemetery, for example, had been dug in 
advance not merely because they were likely to be filled soon. Fallen 
martyrs needed to be buried in haste because Assad’s men held corpses as 
macabre hostages: only families who agreed to attest in writing that 
their kin had died at the hands of “terrorists” would be allowed to 
retrieve their bodies.

Already in February, government shelling had destroyed large parts of 
Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, rendering a quarter of its 1.2 million 
inhabitants homeless. The shelling was smashing smaller towns to bits, 
too, such as Zabadani near the Lebanese border in the west, Idlib in the 
far north, and Deir Ezzor, far to the east in the valley of the 
Euphrates. The widespread assumption was that Bashar Assad meant to make 
examples of such places, just as his father had done with Hama. This, in 
fact, had been his government’s response to every new challenge since 
the start of the uprising: to commit an act of violence so extreme that 
its enemies would be cowed, and fence-sitters would think twice.

The early, entirely peaceful protest marches that broke out across the 
country in March 2011 were met not with truncheons and water cannon, as 
in most countries, but with lethal hails of gunfire. Those arrested were 
not booked and released, but disappeared for weeks on end before being 
dumped as human messages, either alive bearing obvious signs of torture 
or as hideously mangled cadavers. When protesters eventually began to 
procure weapons with the idea of fighting back, the government response 
was to blow up any building from which a gun was fired, often on top of 
its inhabitants. When entire rural districts and urban neighborhoods 
rose up, the response was to destroy them, first by showering them with 
mortars and shells, then by sending in the notorious shabbeeha—armed 
thugs—to selectively murder, pillage, and uproot what were, in nearly 
all cases, their Sunni Muslim inhabitants. In recent weeks the 
government has escalated its tactics once again, resorting to 
helicopter-borne rockets and bombs delivered by supersonic jets.

Such “examples” have failed to work. The uprising’s transformation from 
a determinedly peaceful campaign into a bitter and bloody fight to the 
death has come about almost entirely in reaction to the state’s 
brutality. A resident of Midan, an older district of Damascus that has 
been a hotbed of opposition sentiment, recalls with wonder that his 
first protest march passed right by the local police station, with no 
thought that a confrontation might occur. The marchers’ demands were for 
free speech and fair elections, not the overthrow of the regime. But in 
Midan as in hundreds of locales across Syria, the drumbeat of martyrdom 
soon amplified ambitions into a steely determination to sweep away the 
regime in its hated entirety. “Each time they kill someone, we recruit 
three members of their family,” an activist in one of the revolution’s 
local coordinating committees in Damascus told me during a return visit 
in July.

When I interviewed a group of destitute refugees from Homs last month, 
seated on the floor of a house in a poor quarter of Damascus whose owner 
provided refuge, it took little prompting to provoke first tears, then rage.

“I’d be happy to live in a Bedouin tent,” said a mother who claimed her 
four-year-old had lost his mind after three months of constant shelling, 
before stabbing the air with a finger. “But Bashar must die.”

“They should torture him first,” said Umm Sara, who had watched 
helplessly when shabbeehas burned her next-door neighbors alive.

“Make his kids die in front of him first,” suggested another lady, a 
mother of five.

“Slaughter him like a donkey—saw him up with a meat slicer.”

“No, a grinder.”

“Throw his body to the dogs.”

“Dogs wouldn’t eat his disgusting flesh.” This last, final comment, 
drawing bitter laughter, came from an older woman who said she had been 
in Lebanon when “the Jews” invaded, swearing that they had been nicer 
than Bashar’s men.

Less than a week after this grim conversational bidding war, the 
district of the capital where these women and their children had been 
taken in was shelled, then raided by government forces.

Not surprisingly, the regime’s iron-fisted approach has made real what 
had merely been a nightmarish fantasy. From the start it portrayed the 
revolutionaries as bands of heavily armed Sunni Muslim fanatics, funded 
and directed by Syria’s enemies. The charge was laughable a year ago, 
when by all accounts there were simply no guns in opposition hands at 
all. Even by February, after eleven months of unrest, a trophy table of 
captured “terrorist” weapons displayed for journalists at an army club 
in Deraa, the battered city near the Jordanian border where protests 
first began, proved embarrassingly puny. Amid rusted pistols and 
primitive pipe bombs, the only serious weapon was a Stalingrad-vintage 
Bulgarian-made sniper rifle.

Only recently has the Free Syrian Army, the loose coalition of local 
fighting groups that emerged last fall, begun to wield much firepower. 
Despite talk of large-scale aid from sympathetic Sunni Muslims in the 
Persian Gulf, and in particular the governments of Qatar and Saudi 
Arabia, the flow of money did not pick up until this spring, while the 
flow of weapons from outside Syria even now remains a trickle. Most 
funding to date has come, in fact, from the rebels’ own meager resources 
or from wealthy Syrians living abroad. Most of their weapons have been 
bought from smugglers or purloined from the Syrian army itself. In 
heavily guarded Damascus, which is especially difficult to supply via 
smuggling routes, bullets for the ubiquitous Kalashnikovs now cost 
upward of $2 apiece. I was told in July by an FSA fighter in the capital 
that they share one assault rifle between every three volunteers.

The government’s early charges that rebels were Sunni Muslim fanatics or 
al-Qaeda agents were equally spurious, but they have become similarly 
self- fulfilling. Syria’s intelligence services had a firm hold on the 
jihadist subculture before the uprising, having themselves sponsored 
jihadist radicals in Iraq, then later unleashed them to stir trouble in 
neighboring Lebanon. In the cynical world of the regime, the bearded 
radicals were simply another card for Syria to play, and so it has 
during the uprising. The state has worked overtime to sustain the notion 
that it faces an Islamist sectarian threat. Damascenes have often noted 
with wonder, for instance, that whereas ordinary antigovernment protests 
tend to be quickly and ruthlessly dispersed, demonstrators chanting such 
baldly sectarian slogans as “Christians to Beirut and Alawites to the 
tabout”—meaning “to the grave”—march unmolested. Opposition activists 
suspect that at least some bomb blasts attributed to jihadist cells have 
been instigated by the intelligence services themselves.

Curious about an incident over Christmas that had reinforced loyalty to 
the regime among Christians, I drove in February to Our Lady of Sednaya, 
a Greek Orthodox convent dating from the sixth century that stands like 
a fortress atop a crag in the mountains north of Damascus. Having 
repeatedly blessed President Assad and described the numerous miraculous 
cures bestowed on Muslim supplicants at the Virgin’s incense-clouded 
shrine, the mother superior told me that divine intervention had saved 
her sisters when a terrorist bomb struck during Sunday mass. I asked to 
see the site of the impact. A young nun led me by a series of outside 
staircases through driving snow to the uppermost floor. I was surprised 
to find little damage aside from a basketball-sized hole in the wall of 
an empty storage room, and some cracked floor tiles inside.

Explaining that soldiers had arrived speedily to remove the dangerous 
“bomb,” the nun showed me a cell phone photo she had taken of it before 
they came. The object was a large artillery shell, and it had not 
exploded for a very good reason. The detonator cap had clearly been 
unscrewed before it was fired. The type of ordnance, accuracy, timing, 
and trajectory of the shot all made plain that only the Syrian army 
itself could have targeted the convent.

Samar Yazbek, a Syrian writer and filmmaker, documents far more 
disturbing examples of the regime’s fear-mongering in her impassioned 
and harrowing memoir of the early revolt, A Woman in the Crossfire. 
Herself an Alawite and now shunned by pro-regime coreligionists as a 
traitor, she is particularly outraged by the government’s manipulation 
of the minority, which makes up some 12 percent of the population. 
Playing upon terrors that Alawites may again be persecuted as heretics 
as they often were in the past, the Assad regime has encouraged a sort 
of Masada complex, goading loyalists toward extreme violence as if the 
sole alternative were annihilation. The effect of this, perhaps 
intended, has been to implicate Alawites as a whole in the regime’s 
crimes. In Yazbek’s words, they are being used as human shields.

Sadly, every day that passes brings Syria’s sectarian fears closer to 
fruition. This is not due to the arrival of hordes of al-Qaeda-minded 
jihadists, as some Western commentaries have implied. By no current 
estimate does the number of foreign fighters in Syria—young men who 
mostly see themselves as part of a Spanish Civil War–style international 
brigade rather than as terrorist ninjas—surpass a thousand, out of at 
least 50,000 armed men on the rebel side. Nor is the demon of 
sectarianism a product of indoctrination by more mainstream Islamist 
groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime’s persecution of the 
Brotherhood has been so extreme—membership became punishable by death in 
the 1970s—that the Syrian branch lacks organizational depth.

Communal feeling among Syria’s 70 percent Sunni Arab majority (that is, 
excluding Kurds, who are also mostly Sunni) had been growing in recent 
years very much in line with regional trends toward greater religious 
conservatism, and toward increased tension between Sunnis and Shias. But 
it is the passions aroused by Syria’s extreme violence, which has very 
largely come from the government side, that has begun to generate a real 
and disturbing Sunni chauvinism.

In the face of the grisly horrors Syrians endure daily, a resort to the 
vocabulary of religion is scarcely surprising. Most of the dozens of 
local branches of the Free Syrian Army have adopted names redolent of 
Sunni triumphalism and have consciously cultivated the mujahideen style, 
replete with beards, bandanas, and chants of Allahu Akbar punctuating 
their propaganda videos. And given that many of the worst massacres to 
date have been committed by armed Alawite thugs against unarmed or 
captive Sunnis, a sectarian backlash is to be expected. As in other 
civil wars, the words “they” and “them’’ have taken on ominous meanings. 
It does not help either that the regime’s only ally happens to be Shia 
Iran, a generous supplier of arms, cash, and, according to some reports, 
Revolutionary Guards to suppress the revolt.

The increasingly exclusive Sunni tone of the revolution worries not just 
non-Muslims, but also much of the urban Sunni middle class, which in 
Syria has traditionally taken its faith lightly. Yet Syria’s opposition 
remains multisectarian. Prominent Alawites such as Yazbek have joined 
the revolt, as have a larger number of Christians. Salamiya, a town in 
central Syria that is a center for the Ismaili faith, a branch of Shia 
Islam, was one of the earliest to declare itself liberated from the 
Assad regime. Syria’s Kurdish and Druze minorities, as well as its 
500,000 Palestinians, whose refugee camps have suffered indiscriminate 
shelling too, also tend to sympathize with the rebels. Their leaders 
have simply calculated that it has been better to hold back for the time 

The main reason that Syria’s agony has gone on so long is not because 
large numbers actively or enthusiastically back the government. The 
Assads do have supporters beyond their Alawite core, but such outsiders 
are mostly seekers after spoils, such as Bedouin tribes that have gained 
some special favor, or business clans that won lucrative concessions 
from the Assads. Their numbers have dwindled rapidly in recent months, 
ironically, again, largely because the government’s own brutality has 
made it increasingly clear that the regime is untenable as is, and 
incapable of reform.

Abu Tony, a Christian activist in Damascus, says with a shrug that the 
influx since the spring of thousands of desperate refugees into the 
capital has made it plain, even to the well-insulated wealthy or to 
those who took comfort in blocking their ears to anything but state 
propaganda, that this is a criminal regime. The increased pace of 
defections does not surprise him. “The inner circle think they have a 
Samson option, to threaten to destroy the whole country,” he says. “But 
they will find there is nobody left to carry it out.”

What has so far made many Syrians reluctant to sacrifice for the 
revolution is not loyalty to the state but fear of chaos. They have seen 
neighboring Iraq and Lebanon descend into years of sectarian warfare. 
They know that forty years of the Assads’ ostensible secularism have not 
succeeded in burying Syria’s own confessional resentments. Quite 
realistically, they expect that even after the regime falls, there may 
be worse to come.

Just what that might be, no one can predict with confidence. Even more 
than in other dictatorships, Syria’s long years of tyranny have left a 
lingering pathology of mistrust. Much of Syria’s elite is tainted by 
association with the regime. The organized opposition is fragmented. Its 
meetings have the tenor of an Afghan Loya Jirga, where 
impressive-looking people turn out to represent themselves and a few 
cousins, and most energy is exerted undermining other factions.

Recent writing on Syria does not provide much in the way of clues for 
the future, either. David Lesch, a professor at Trinity University, 
usefully subtitles his new book The Fall of the House of Assad. But most 
of its text is a bloodless, workmanlike account of recent Syrian 
history, spiced with mea culpas regarding his previous book on Syria, 
which, embarrassingly, enthused about Bashar Assad’s reformist 
tendencies. A broader view might have been expected from Fouad Ajami, a 
distinguished Lebanese-American academic best known for his brilliant 
analysis of the failure of Arab states, The Arab Predicament. But his 
new book, The Syrian Rebellion, is essentially an erudite trawl through 
press clippings and blog posts, with occasional anecdotes and profiles 
of prominent Syrians.

Ajami does, at least, provide a relatively cheerful if brief prognosis. 
He does not share the fears, most often expressed by Western 
commentators unfamiliar with the subject, that Syria is destined to 
become an Islamist dystopia. “I never doubted the ability of the Syrian 
people to create a more humane order than this dreaded regime,” he 
writes. That hopeful judgment seems sound. If the Syrians win their 
freedom, it will have been won at a higher price than that paid by any 
other Arab nation. It will have been won by Syrians themselves, with 
little help from anyone else. After such sacrifice, there would be no 
shortage of Syrians determined to safeguard it.

—August 29, 2012

More information about the Marxism mailing list