[Marxism] Angry Arab interviews expert Thomas Pierret on Syria: Must Read
mkaradjis at gmail.com
Sat Feb 15 17:54:44 MST 2014
While this interview is old, I just discovered it and I think it's worth
posting, because really if anyone is an expert on Syria, and especially
on Islamist movements in Syria, it is this guy Thomas Pierret. There is
just so much useful analysis here for so many who remain confused about
even some of the basics on Syria. In particular it is interesting that
he is interviewed here by As'ad AbuKhalil the 'Angry Arab', who
disagrees with him strongly. Not that Angry is an Assad apologist - he
hates all sides equally - but has gradually drifted towards the
left-conspiracist theories that see Assad's opposition as the worse
alternative, without actually formulating it that way (when you're just
an angry ranter, you don't have to formulate a position).
Angry, to his credit, ahs interviewed a lot of people he disagrees with.
A knowledgeable and logical Pierret does a very good job of putting an
angry Angry in his place when the later asks his loaded questions,
questions full of silly assumptions that are unrelated to reality. I
recommend anyone interested in the issue read it in full.
Angry Arab interviews Thomas Pierret on Syria
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Thomas Pierret (of the University of Edinburgh) and I have disagreed on
Syria, privately and publicly (on an academic email list) but I regard
him as a knowledgeable expert on Syria with a command of Arabic,
although he can be quite uncritical in his reading of claims by Syrian
exile opposition--but that is his business. I chose to post the answers
of interviewees (this is part of a series) without editing or comment
from me so as not to be unfair to the answers. I may interview myself
at the end of the series and respond to many points that appeared in the
interviews. My questions precedes his answers in bold:
"1) You and I have disagreed on Syria, do you think that Syria experts
have been wrong in the last years especially with the regular and
constant predictions of the imminent fall of the regime?
The generalisation is problematic. Such predictions were rather made by
journalists, who have the good excuse of not being Syria experts, and
Western officials, who often did so for a bad reason, i.e. in order to
justify their inaction: if Asad is about to fall, then there is no need
to do anything to stop him.
"Experts" did not collectively agree upon the imminent fall of the
regime. In early April 2011, I published an op-ed in the French
newspaper Le Monde. The last sentence said this: "Nothing guarantees the
success of the Syrian revolution, and if it happens at all, it will
certainly be long, and painful" . I was not the only one to think that
way. I clearly remember a conversation I had at the same time with
Steven Heydemann, who was even more pessimistic than I was: he predicted
that the regime would use its full military might against the
opposition, and that none would act to stop it.
I must admit that later developments made me over-optimistic at times,
but overall, I do not think I have seriously under-estimated the
solidity of the regime.
2) What accounts for the resilience of the admittedly repressive regime?
Has it been difficult for the supporters of the opposition to
acknowledge this resilience?
I do not speak in the name of the "supporters of the opposition". As far
as I am concerned, it has not been difficult for me to acknowledge
something I had anticipated from day one.
The only independent variable you need to understand the resilience of
the Syrian regime is the kin-based and sectarian (Alawite) nature of its
military. All other purported factors are in fact dependent variables.
The kin-based/sectarian nature of the military is what allows the regime
to be not merely "repressive", but to be able to wage a full-fledged war
against its own population. Not against a neighboring state, an occupied
people or a separatist minority, but against the majority of the
population, including the inhabitants of the metropolitan area (i.e.
Damascus and its suburbs). There are very few of such cases in modern
history. Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi are the closest examples in the
region, but the West proved much less tolerant with them.
The regime's resilience is in no way a reflection of its legitimacy: on
the contrary, the legitimacy of this regime is inversely proportional to
the level of violence it needs to use to ensure its survival; in other
words, this is a highly illegitimate regime in the eyes of most Syrians.
Kinship has been key to securing the loyalty of the upper echelons of
the military in order to avoid the fate of Ben Ali and Mubarak. The
latter did not have the chance to have a large number of relatives among
the top military/security hierarchy, contrary to Bashar al-Asad, whose
own brother Maher is the actual no. 1 in the military (other relatives
in top military/security positions include Hafez Makhluf, Dhu al-Himma
Shalish, Atef Najib and Asef Shawkat, among many others). In such a
situation, generals cannot seriously think about sacrificing the
president in order to save the system: contrary to their Egyptian or
Tunisian counterparts, they are not in a position to claim that they are
in fact good guys who have nothing to do with the awful incumbent
dictator. They stay with Asad, or they fall with him. Beyond kin ties,
the loyalty of the military hierarchy has been secured through
sectarianism, since it is likely that a majority of the officers belong
to the Alawite community.
Sectarianism is a powerful instrument to make sure that you can use the
army's full military might against the population. No military that is
reasonably representative of the population could do what the Syrian
army did over the last two years, i.e. destroying most of the country's
major cities, including large parts of the capital. You need a sectarian
or ethnic divide that separates the core of the military from the target
population. Algeria went through a nasty civil war in the 1990s, and
Algerian generals are ruthless people, but I do not think that the
Algerian military ever used heavy artillery against one of the country's
large cities. The fact that the best units in the Syrian military are
largely manned with Alawite soldiers (in addition to members of some
loyal Bedouin clans) has been key to explaining the level of violence we
have seen over the last two years. Of course, the majority of Syrian
soldiers are Sunnis, but it is striking that Asad did only use a
minority of the army's available units: according to some observers,
only one third of the army was entrusted with combat missions since the
start uprising. Seen from that angle, the purported "cohesion" of the
Syrian army becomes much less puzzling: the risk of defections
significantly decreases when two-third of the soldiers are in fact
locked up in their barracks, or at least kept away from the battlefield.
Once the military hierachy is loyal, and once you can use a significant
proportion of the army to unleash unlimited violence upon the
population, the rest follows. The regime keeps control of major
population centers thanks to its much superior firepower and ability to
use it, thus it keeps the families of many of its soldiers as de facto
hostages. For instance, a friend of mine just defected from the army
after his family (which had moved from one of Damascus' suburbs to
downtown in order to escape the regime's air raids) eventually managed
to leave for Egypt.
The regime's military force also keeps much of the businessmen and
middle-class loyal because although they often hate the regime, they
know that changing it means civil war, and they do not have enough to
loose to take that risk. And actually, even when businessmen cease to
actively support the regime (an enormous proportion of them have moved
with their assets to Turkey and Egypt over the last year), the regime is
still standing, because it still controls the military. Then you have
the diplomats who also remain loyal, often because they know that the
regime is firmly in control of Damascus, which means that it can kill
their relatives and burn their house if they defect. On the contrary,
massive defections of Libyan diplomats occurred in 2011 because they had
calculated that the regime would fall quickly, not because they had
become liberal democrats overnight. It is all about calculation, not
about some belief in the legitimacy of the regime.
Support from religious minorities has also been frequently mentioned as
a cause for the resilience of the regime. But except for the very
peculiar case of the Alawites, minorities do in fact weigh very little
in the balance: even if all Christians were supporting Asad (which of
course is not the case, neither for Christians nor for any other sect),
we would still be speaking of a mere 5% of the population with very
little influence over the state and the military. Other religious
minorities are much, much smaller, they do not make a difference.
In fact, many of the factors that have been frequently invoked to
account for the resilience of the Syrian regime where also present in
Mubarak's Egypt: crony businessmen and a wealthy middle-class that has
benefitted from economic liberalization (in fact much more so in Egypt
than in Syria); a non-Muslim population that is anxious at the possible
rise of the Islamists after the revolution; a sizeable bureaucracy and a
hegemonic party with considerable patronage capacities (in 2011
Mubarak's NDP was probably stronger than the long-neglected Ba'th
party). Yet, none of these factors had any positive impact upon the
resilience of Mubarak, which means that the cause for Asad's resilience
should be looked for elsewhere: it is the kin-based/sectarian character
of the military.
Then you have external, i.e. Iranian and Russian, support. It has been
important, but it only came because the Syrian regime first demonstrated
that it was solid enough to be worth spending a few billion dollars on
financial and military aid.
There is one last factor that has been commonly evoked among the left in
the Arab world and the west, i.e. Asad's purported "nationalist
legitimacy". My aim here is not to assess Asad's nationalist
credentials, a debate which I find only moderately interesting. My point
is that none in Syria decided to side with or against the regime on the
basis of its foreign policy, or on the basis of some "nationalist"
sentiment. Making a decision based upon foreign policy issues is a
luxury none can afford when a revolutionary process puts your own
individual fate at stake: what people have in mind in such circumstances
are issues like freedom, dignity, equality, fear, sectarianism, and
interest, not "resistance" or "sympathy/antipathy for the west". People
chose their side, then they rationalised it ex post by making Asad a
beacon of nationalism, or on the contrary, a traitor. Otherwise, it
would be hard to explain why formerly pro-Western bourgeois suddently
discovered that they were staunch anti-imperialists, whereas hardline
Islamists who had volunteered to fight US troops in Iraq a few years
before claimed that they would not mind if NATO was providing them with
3) Regarding your study of Syrian `Ulama’, is it fair to say that the
`ulama’ who joined the revolt tend to be more reactionary and more
conservative than those like Buti and Hassun who stuck with the regime?
(I am not merely talking about reformism in terms of rituals following
Qaradawi but in terms of views of women and minorities and role of
religion in society and body politic?
First of all, I cannot think of a more reactionary stance than
supporting Asad's fascistic and homicidal regime. This is what really
matters if we speak of "conservatism" and "reformism".
For the rest, no, it is not fair to say such a thing. There is no
general pattern here. First of all, al-Buti and Hassun are hardly
comparable figures. Supporting the regime is probably the only thing
they ever agreed upon. Hassun holds fairly non-conformist views, he has
spoken positively of secularism and inter-faith dialogue. An
arch-conservative, al-Buti despised all of this. His alliance with the
regime was not based on any kind of sympathy for the regime's ideology,
which he execrated, but instead on pragmatism and on a medieval,
quietist approach to Sunni political theology. Al-Buti simply never
expressed a single reformist opinion during his life. By comparison with
him, Mouaz al-Khatib is a very liberal and open-minded figure. On women,
for instance, there is a very telling anecdote that happened in 2007:
al-Buti lobbied for months in order to obtain that two feminist
associations be banned by the authorities, which eventually happened;
the only religious figure who openly criticised that initiative was
Mouaz al-Khatib, who argued that "Islamists should never think in terms
of repression". On minorities, regardless of the text on Sunni-Shiite
relations he published in early 2007 (which in my view was
misinterpreted and not properly contextualised), al-Khatib has made very
clear public statements about inter-faith unity. I think in particular
of his April 2011 speech at a funeral in Duma, in which he said the
All of us are one same body. I say to you: the Alawites are much closer
to me than many people. I know their villages, their impoverished
villages where they live under oppression and toil. We speak for the
freedom of every human being in this country, for every Sunni, every
Alawite, every Ismailite, every Christian, every Arab and every member
of the great Kurdish nation.
All his further statements on minorities and in particular on the
Alawites have been absolutely unambiguous.
Much of that could also be said of Imad al-Din al-Rashid, the former
vice-dean of the faculty of sharia, who was one of the first Muslim
scholars to go into exile in 2011. For years, al-Rashid has talked and
written much about the compatibility between Islam and the concept of
You can add Muhammad Habash, a former ally of the regime, whose very
liberal positions on interfaith relations where branded as "heretic" by
Of course, most of the oppositional ulama are more conservative. They
share many of the ideas of al-Buti, except (and it is not a detail) that
they have refused to legitimise Asad's regime.
4) what kind of islam is likel to prevail following the fall of the
This will be contested. Salafi interpretations of Islam (there are
several of them) are on the rise for various reasons, but a backlash is
not to be excluded if some Salafi groups show too forceful in imposing
their views upon the population. Some people may turn (back) to
proponents of more flexible approaches like the Muslim Brothers and the
traditional ulama. Reformist approaches are likely to remain in the
backseat, but they were not in good shape before the revolution either.
Under the Asads, proponents of Islamic reform were either silenced, or
delegitimized through cooptation.
> 5) Are you pleased with the state of Western academic consensus on
> Syria, where few are comfortable to speak out against the opposition?
> I know that because I often receive private communications from
> colleagues (in our academic email list) who don’t feel comfortable in
> publicly criticizing the opposition?
I do not think that there is a clear "consensus" among Western academics
about Syria, but if a majority of Western scholars support the
revolution, I am totally pleased with that. As for academics being
afraid of publicly criticizing the opposition, well, I can tell you
that, conversely I received private communications from colleagues in
our academic email list who did not feel comfortable in publicly
supporting the opposition. The fact is simply that many of our
colleagues do not like to speak up in general.
> 6) Why was the news and reality of Islamist involvement in the early
> uprising and revolt in Syria covered up—in my opinion—in Western media
> and even academic narrative? Looking back, was the story of Suhayr
> Al-Atasi leading the uprising one of many lies spread by the Muslim
> Brotherhood and their supporters to camouflage their involvement?
I do not understand what you are talking about. The Muslim Brothers were
involved in early attempts at organizing the opposition abroad, but they
played no major role on the ground during the early, peaceful phase of
the revolution, neither did any other Islamist movement. The peaceful
phase of the revolution was a spontaneous, grassroots movement that
involved various components of the Syrian society. It happens that this
society comprises a large number of conservative, religious-minded
people, but that does not make the uprising an Islamist one. I never
heard the claim that Suhayr Al-Atasi was leading the uprising. Her
stance was courageous and she certainly was an important symbol, but no
particular group or figure was leading that largely de-centralized
Islamist involvement on the ground started to become significant with
the militarisation of the revolution from late 2011 on (I distinguish
between the emergence of the first armed organizations during the
summer, and the militarisation of the revolution as a whole at the end
of the year). It was hardly covered up by the Western media, who have
probably released more reports on Jabhat al-Nusra than on any other
aspect of the Syrian revolution.
> 7) Do you think that conditions of women in Syria will not deteriorate
> no matter what?
Conditions of women can only improve because they cannot be worse than
under a regime that has displaced, shelled, killed, injured, raped,
arrested, tortured, widowed, and orphaned millions of Syrian women.
> 8) Is it possible that justice in the future can be meted without
> sectarian revenge?
Do you mean "will Sunnis kill Alawites once they are in power?" I cannot
care about it at this stage. My present concern is that Asad's sectarian
army is committing mass atrocities against the Sunni population. It is
not a risk for the future, it is something that is happening right now.
The problem is that many people do not even recognize the sectarian
character of these atrocities, claiming that repression targets
opponents from all sects, including Alawites. In fact ordinary
repression does target opponents from all sects, but collective
punishments (large-scale massacres, destruction of entire cities) are
reserved for Sunnis, just like they were reserved for Iraqi Shiites and
Kurds under Saddam Hussein.
I do not deny the fact that some groups among the armed opposition have
been involved in sectarian crimes, but differences in means, scale and
political responsibility simply make any comparison irrelevant.
To sum up: let's stop the regime's mass crimes against the Sunnis, then
we can speak of the risk of sectarian revenge.
> 9) If a growing number of Syrians feel disenchanted from the regime
> and from the opposition, what will that mean?
The regime and the opposition are essentially different realities, so I
do not think that you can feel disenchanted from both in the same way.
The regime has an address, a leader, it is unified and it has a clear
pattern of action, that is, mass killing and destruction. The opposition
is a very diverse reality that ranges from exiled proponents of
non-violence to local civilian committees and councils on the ground,
mainstream Islamists like the Muslim Brothers, mainstream armed groups
like the "FSA" (whatever that means), and radical Salafi Jihadis. Many
Syrians certainly dislike one or several of these components, but at
least the "opposition" offers them a broad spectrum of political
options. The regime does not.
> 10) was it embarrassing for Western supporters of the Syrian armed
> opposition that Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar were the early and
> later sponsors?
Not at all. The question is not whether or not the Syrian opposition
should accept Saudi and Qatari support (Turkey does not provide any
tangible aid, it merely facilitates), it is whether the Syrian
opposition wants to keep on fighting, or surrender (I do not believe in
a third way, i.e. peaceful revolution and/or negotiations; it cannot
work with that regime). If the opposition wants to keep on fighting, it
cannot survive without external logistical support, and none is willing
to provide it except for Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
My only concern is the half-heartedness and inefficiency of these
countries' military support. For various reasons, these states want to
weaken Asad, but they are not eager to see him replaced, hence the
limits of their support. The outdated Croatian weapons provided to the
rebels over the last months are better than nothing, but these states
could do much more. Arms deliveries they have paid for compare very
poorly, for instance, with the top-notch weaponry provided to Hezbollah
by Iran and Syria."
Posted by As'ad AbuKhalil at 8:37 AM
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