I have been a Palestine solidarity activist to a greater or lesser degree since 1965, although we didn’t use the term at that time. It is possible to be in solidarity with Palestinians without taking sides amongst them, but rather to advocate for their rights and to oppose their dispossession and expulsion, although one may question the consistency of Palestine solidarity advocates in adhering to that standard.
The same has been true of the “Arab spring” in Egypt and Tunisia, although solidarity became more complicated after the success of the revolutions, as divisions within the movements began to express themselves. Nevertheless, solidarity expressed as support for the exercise of the free will of the Egyptian and Tunisian peoples is still much appreciated by the people of those nations.
Regrettably, the picture is not so clear in the case of Syria. While everyone agrees that Syrian popular consensus should prevail, there is little sign that this is possible. The country is split, and not into just two parts. When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000, there was hope that the regime might promote greater democracy and less corruption. Indeed, Bashar introduced modest reforms that gave room for more freedom of expression as well as increased opportunity for economic participation. However, there was no significant reduction of corruption, because the Assad regime relies on the support of powerful economic interests in Syria, as well as the military and intelligence services, which are the regime’s sacred cows, as in many countries.
The regime also tends to behave as if it is paranoid. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, it is among a shrinking minority of non-aligned countries that are not within the U.S./European orbit. The regime occasionally cooperated with the U.S. government, but could hardly be termed an ally. Such independence is precarious, and the Assad regime has historically reacted swiftly and decisively to anything that it considered non-constructive criticism, which has an expansive definition within its vocabulary.
There is a loyal opposition in Syria, one that is represented in the parliament. This opposition has much more freedom than under Bashar’s father, but it still operates within paternalistic boundaries. It is an “authorized” dissident voice, not one that can realistically take power from the Assad family.
On the other hand, there is no room for “unauthorized” voices. Like many governments, including the G.W. Bush regime in the U.S., those who are not friends are considered enemies. There is no room for people, parties or movements that might be neither one nor the other.
Thus, when the “Syrian spring” began nonviolently in March, 2011, the reaction was to crush it quickly and violently, so as to “nip it in the bud” and not suffer the fate of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Although the move was clearly anti-democratic and an assault on popular will, it may also have been a poor tactical decision that set in motion an armed insurrection. If the Assad government was concerned that foreign agitators may have been behind some of the peaceful demonstrations, its actions succeeded only in giving an excuse to opportunistic foreign interests to take a very active role in armed resistance.
Perhaps the result would have been the same either way, but one wonders if a more tolerant and conciliatory approach toward the demonstrations might not have brought the regime better results. If armed conflict was to be the inevitable result, as the regime claims, there is something to be said for letting the other side initiate it. The result, however, was that nonviolent dissidents like Haytham Manna and others who do not support the armed insurgency now preclude any role for the Assad regime, given the repression that they have suffered.
Meanwhile, the armed resistance, while Syrian at its core, has become the plaything of outside interests such as the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya and even Israel, who (with the exception of Israel) see an opportunity to bring Syria into their orbit and to break the tripartite independent alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, who form a cooperative front against Israel and in opposition to U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the region.
Among the strange bedfellows in this cooperative venture are the U.S. and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an al-Qaeda affiliate. It is of course not the first time that the U.S. has formed such a partnership, if we think back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. However, the U.S. is more circumspect this time, and clearly concerned that it may be unable to control either this group or the conservative Muslim Salafist elements that are supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya. In this case, the U.S. and Israel may be satisfied with a semi-permanent situation of chaos, mayhem and destruction in Syria, condemning the Syrian people to an indefinite period of misery, death and dispossession, as in Iraq, or worse.
Supporters of the regime include most of the non-Sunni communities: Christians, Shia, Alawis and other minorities, along with a minority of Sunnis. More common among Sunnis are those who refuse to take sides between bad choices and are amenable to nonviolent movements like those presented by Haytham Manna and others. Nonetheless, it is important for us in the West to realize that a large part of the Syrian people is very supportive of Assad and not merely coerced by his regime. Indeed, there is little possibility that the regime could have survived two long years without such support.
Given the panoply of forces and movements, solidarity with Syrians becomes a hazardous undertaking. Some Syrians accept no less than expulsion or elimination of the Assad regime by any means necessary and at any cost. Others are opposed to the use of arms but also reject any compromise with the Assad regime. Meanwhile, those who support the Assad regime do so out of concern that its replacement will become – variously or collectively – a puppet of the U.S., an intolerant Islamist despotism, and/or a repressor of women and minorities. (Syria is currently a relative bright spot for secularism and women’s rights – i.e. equally repressive or tolerant of all, depending upon one’s point of view.)
On the one hand, a solidarity movement for Syria must support those who have spent years in Assad’s prisons for speaking out, and those who have lost friends and family for the same reason. On the other hand, it must also support those who view the Assad regime as a protector and the only thing between them and the destruction of their communities. In fact, it must be in solidarity with all Syrians, including those who have taken up arms on all sides.
This solidarity does not extend to non-Syrian actors that are interfering in the internal affairs of Syria. These include regional powers like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Libya and Israel, but also non-regional actors like the U.S., Europe, Russia and China.
In fact, this suggests the appropriate role for a Syrian solidarity movement. For those of us who love Syria and even for those who are driven by a more general concern for human suffering, it is painful to sit on our hands and watch what is happening. Given that any form of taking sides will be interpreted as hostile interference by one or another Syrian group, solidarity movements can act within their own countries to assure that Syrians are given the opportunity to resolve their problems amongst themselves, as follows:
1. Solidarity groups in all regions and countries can prevail upon their own governments to provide no aid to any group, except purely humanitarian supplies and services, which should be administered by a neutral party such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to all Syrians regardless of affiliation. Western-based Syrian groups such as the Syrian Support Group (U.S.) and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (U.K.), as well as non-Syrian human rights groups, should stop receiving government monies, and their reports should be given only as much credibility as can be demonstrated by verified facts and equal input from all sides. The ploy of providing U.S. government money and supplies to intermediaries like the Syrian Support Group as well as governments in the region should be opposed by U.S. solidarity groups, while similar efforts can be undertaken by solidarity groups in other countries with respect to their governments.
2. Solidarity groups can provide an opportunity for all Syrian parties to be heard equally in their country’s media, without preference to any side, so that the international public can be as informed as possible about the issues and arguments of all sides.
3. Solidarity groups can seek out the various parties and dialogue with them in order to better inform themselves and their societies about the issues.
A would-be Syria solidarity movement must come to terms with the fact that – unlike Egypt and Tunisia – there is no clear consensus amongst Syrians to overthrow the existing regime, but rather very strong proponents for the different sides. Given this division, the only constructive role for solidarity is to allow Syrians to resolve their differences amongst themselves, without the rest of us taking sides or allowing our own societies to interfere.