The Syrian Heartbreak

by Peter Harling , Sarah Birke | published April 16, 2013

For background on the Syrian crisis, see Peter Harling and Sarah Birke, “Beyond the Fall of the Syrian Regime,” Middle East Report Online, February 24, 2012.

For more on the refugees, see Aslı Ilgıt and Rochelle Davis, “The Many Roles of Turkey in the Syrian Crisis,” Middle East Report Online, January 28, 2013.

There was a distinctive sense of national pride in Syria. It flowed from the confidence of a civilization dating back to the times of the earliest alphabets and visible in the country’s wealth of archaeological sites, including some of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It came from the depth of local culture. It stemmed from the music of Syrian Arabic, the elegance of Syrian manners, the finesse of Syrian cuisine and the sincerity of Syrian hospitality. It proceeded from modern geopolitics, too, as Damascus carved out for itself a role bigger and bolder than its scarce resources should have allowed. In particular, and despite tremendous pressure, Damascus stood firm on the Palestinian cause, which Syrians feel more strongly about than anyone, perhaps, except the Palestinians. The regime may have been a conveniently quiescent foe for Israel, but Syria was, on the map of the Arab world, the only state still “resisting.”

Syrian pride, too, fostered a strong national identity and a calm self-assurance, even among Palestinian refugees, chased from what is now Israel, who blended in over the years -- in stark contrast to the ostracism their kin experience elsewhere in the region. Such equipoise was on display when in 2006 large numbers of people fleeing violence in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq were absorbed with rare ease into a society that seemed to know and accept itself well enough to open its arms to others. Friction occurred, as in any refugee crisis, but remarkably little considering sectarian tensions and the sheer scale of the influx.

Syrians have lost much in the conflict they are now locked into, with no way back and little sign of a way forward, either for supporters of President Bashar al-Asad or for the assorted opposition forces. Syrians are paying an exorbitant price for the impasse. The country’s urban fabric is being ripped apart. In the large and lively city of Homs, Sunni neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble and the mainly Christian area around the central market pounded into dust. The industrial powerhouse Aleppo is following a similar path, as may the capital, Damascus. Architectural heritage has been razed or looted, removing a key source of that singular national pride, not to mention of revenue from future tourism. Families, businesses and religious organizations have been displaced or torn asunder by death or unbridgeable divisions of opinion.

The killing, in numbers now in the high tens of thousands, does not spare the best and the brightest, taking the lives of all too many talented activists, dedicated doctors, brave mothers, earnest fathers and children oh so young. It is easy for outside observers to forget the human faces behind the figures: For Syrians they are sons and daughters, neighbors and friends. Among fighters the casualty rates are so overwhelming that they have adjusted to death as a daily routine, taking in stride the passing of comrades in arms.

Yet, amid all the grief, what many Syrians find harder to shake off is the humiliation that caps the disruption of their lives: parents who once espoused the joy of family barely subsisting with surviving relatives in the ruins; multitudes fleeing, their belongings in plastic bags, often to be turned back, by Iraq, which has selfishly closed its borders, by Jordan, which will not admit Palestinians, or occasionally by Turkey; those who make it out ill treated or despised, sometimes by those, such as the Lebanese, that they once welcomed; women preyed upon for forced marriages in Jordan; and an international community as generous with words and weeping as it is niggardly with actual aid. World politicians have coughed up only a fraction of the $1.5 billion they pledged in January. A people that greatly valued solidarity with victims of injustice has for the most part met with indifference in its own hour of need.

When the fighting finally abates, a feeling of national dignity may be the most difficult thing for Syrians to recover. A Syrian businessman who cannot decide which to hate most, the regime or the opposition, put it in bitter terms: “As far as I am concerned, Syria is finished. Whatever I believed in, and made me sure of my identity, is gone. Whoever wins will be entirely dependent on whoever props him up. Our independence is over.”

From “Brothers” to Others

The regime and its allies have lost any moral standing in what they chose early on to frame as an existential struggle, in which self-serving ends justify abominable means. Much of the opposition, in response, has gradually adopted a similar worldview, brandishing its enemy’s ruthlessness to excuse its own excesses, to the point of no longer recognizing them as wrong. “I see the change in myself and in my men,” commented one rebel commander with discomfort. He described moving from feeling sorry for his opponents to summarily executing them. Several months later, he has stopped worrying about it. More than ever, one side’s casualties erase any regret for the other’s losses. Fighters see their predicament as a zero-sum game: Kill or be killed. Even some of the smartest activists have started to say that soldiers (and, in some cases, ‘Alawis) -- who they once described as “brothers” -- deserve whatever they get for failing to desert the regime.

A previously peaceful society is now privy to unspeakable forms of fratricide in which it struggles to recognize itself. “We are not the same as Iraq or Lebanon,” many continue to insist; others talk about the killing as if it were in some foreign land, as if it were not Syrian murdering Syrian. The opposition refers to the regime as an occupying power and tends to stress the alien culture of the ‘Alawi minority that forms a key component of the regime’s fighting structure. Loyalists, conversely, say they are struggling against invading hordes of jihadis, and the official media routinely portray victims of regime depredations as foreign terrorists.

The conflict, never symmetrical, has proceeded with a perverse predictability. As the opposition gradually coalesced, the regime harnessed the unrivaled military and financial resources of the state to the brutal ethos of its security services. From day one, it whipped up fears of collective punishment among the ‘Alawis. And it set off a frenzy of carnage -- shooting protesters, most of whom were non-violent, in the uprising’s early stages and, lately, firing ballistic missiles at residential neighborhoods in Aleppo and elsewhere. On the way, the regime’s sectarian militias have butchered whole families. The May 2012 slaughter in Houla, close to the axis running from Damascus to the northwestern coast crucial to the regime, was one of a string of shocking mass murders.

The core of the opposition, never entirely peaceful, has grown vicious and short-sighted, too. Kidnappings for ransom, torture and execution of detainees, desecration of corpses and indiscriminate attacks are not the sole preserve of the regime’s henchmen, much to the dismay of many Syrians who did not support the status quo ante. Since mainly rural fighters reached Aleppo in July 2012, bringing them into contact with urban classes who did not want to see battle, social tensions have grown. The resentments exacerbated the moral decline of the rebellion, as fighters ransacked facilities not associated with the regime, such as the factories of wealthy Aleppines and even schools. In places, armed opposition groups evidently place short-term battlefield gains over the country’s long-term interests. Throw in the authoritarian ways of the Islamists proliferating in their midst and the consequent bullying of minorities and secular Syrians, and the picture looks bleak indeed. That said, the sheer disproportion of means puts the regime in the lead in escalating the level of violence.

Pride has also defined one side more than the other. From early on, there were few noble sentiments involved in endorsing the regime’s repression. Loyalty was driven by communal fear, social prejudice and individual selfishness. Loyalists chose not to see the obvious savagery with which the regime dealt with protesters, peaceful activists, armed militants and their relatives; instead, they steadied themselves by embracing the official narrative of bravery in the face of conspiracy and treason. They pounced on the opposition’s every failing to rationalize decisions taken long before the opposition was the ugly thing it has become. They averted their eyes from acute suffering, saying it was self-inflicted. The best educated and informed of Syrian society were no less inclined to wear blinkers: A former ambassador acknowledges the regime’s horrendous repression, but justifies it as a response to the opposition’s radicalization, when in fact the former catalyzed the latter. Where there is pride on the loyalist side, it is to be found in the sacrifice of those who can be described as fighting -- heroically, from this perspective -- to defend the state and the nation. This narrative, which the regime has been keen to spread, has gained credibility since the time when loyalist elements were locking up demonstrators to save the regime. By ripping society apart, closing off any avenue for peaceful change, and thus making the opposition more violent, Islamist and foreign-backed than it originally was, the regime has given its soldiers a real enemy to fight.

As the revolt has transformed from street protest into all-out war, its initial displays of grace -- facing tanks with roses, holding crosses aloft with Qur’ans and shouting that Syrians are “one” -- have in many cases given way to pure hatred. Armed groups that were initially made up of local shabab (young people) who merely wanted to protect their families and friends became brutal and ideologically repulsive. Militants have sought the succor of foreign powers that have long elicited suspicion in Syria’s collective psyche -- such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have provided the most material aid, or France and the US. The resulting distrust is not to be confused with anti-Western sentiment, the ingrained assertion of independence present since the colonial era. That remains, but now the weightiest accusations are directed against insiders rather than outsiders: Syrians blame each other for selling out to Iran or the Gulf, acting on behalf of a Shi‘i or Sunni axis, or doing Israel’s bidding, whether by contesting or supporting the regime, depending on the side they take.

Although these destructive emotions have grown frightfully within the opposition, they still struggle to dominate something else: a popular awakening of sorts, which was there from the beginning. What drove Syrians to take to the streets at huge personal cost, to help others regardless of risk, to develop a vivid culture of dissent under fire, to take up arms against such a formidable opponent and to remain in the country was the pride they took in fearing no longer -- not the regime, not their compatriots, not the future. “It is a feeling that is hard to explain but worth dying for,” explained one young man from Damascus. “The last few months have been some of my happiest,” said a professional from Damascus in an interview held before things turned into the nightmare they are. “There is a sense of being alive for the first time.” This feeling is what Syrians still mean when they claim to be “liberated” as shells or missiles fall in their towns. The downtrodden people of the southern Hawran plain, for example, have been transformed by the new form of self-esteem they discovered as pioneers of the uprising. No other factor can explain the resilience they have shown during two years of particularly relentless bombardment. Similar sentiments exist elsewhere. It is why in the expanding camp just inside the Syrian border with Turkey, where families have lost so much, many men and women say they have no regrets: “What we did is right,” says one father from Idlib.

This collective sense of purpose, which was always what the regime feared most, has eroded as non-violent activists fell, radicals surfaced, criminals sneaked in and despair dampened hopes. But it has not crumbled, and it makes hardliners within the opposition far more accountable to their base than their equivalents in the regime’s camp. Many pro-opposition Syrians cry out against bombings claimed by the jihadi front Jabhat al-Nusra that kill civilians, while loyalists keep quiet when ballistic missiles do as much. Armed opposition groups must contend with demonstrations and other forms of pushback when they disappoint their sympathizers with reckless statements, predatory behavior, muscling-out of civilian committees or imposition of shari‘a. For example, in Tall Abyad, a town in the northeastern province of Raqqa, locals held protests after fighters tried to take over their makeshift governance structures. By contrast, when the security services arrest loyalists by mistake, and torture them to death before they get a chance to establish their credentials, families of the victims are voiceless and alone.

That is because the regime’s popular mandate boils down to destroying a dreaded enemy at any cost. The opposition, born out of a desire for a better Syria, must wrestle with broader, and more conflicting, expectations. In truth, part of its base is by now so obsessed with vengeance that killing Bashar, toppling the regime and ridding the country of its supporters have become ends in themselves. But many other militants, activists and sympathizers have greater ambitions, for better or worse. They want the suffering to count for something. They intend to reinvent their country. Some insist on it being more “democratic,” others more “Islamic,” and certainly that tension will play out in Syria as elsewhere in a rudderless region. Others still see no contradiction in the terms. The many components of the opposition offer up differing, vague and often worrying visions for a future Syria, which compete and collide just as often as they coexist and cooperate.

The conflict’s supreme irony is that Syrians do not disagree on all that much. They differ on the president -- father figure or father of all ills -- on whether the autocratic regime or the fragmented opposition is the lesser evil, and on who is responsible for the nationwide disaster. But when asked in the abstract what they aspire to, the majority of Syrians paint the same picture of a cohesive, tolerant, multi-religious society, blessed with a fair and representative state. Only a fringe of jihadis fantasize about establishing an Islamic emirate; those they claim to fight for would generally prefer a simple life under a political system both modern and mundane, with or without an Islamist bent.

Similarly, loyalists rarely wish for endless tyranny. In private, security officers executing the regime’s orders, day in, day out, express the same harsh criticism of the rulers that they suppress in the street: The Asad family, they complain, is corrupt, self-seeking, aloof and indifferent to their plight. Although the regime promotes an idealized vision of the state as caring, responsible and heroic, its operatives know better than anyone the shameful reality: the unaccountable ruling cabal, the blatant lies, the endemic theft, the torture chambers, all the killing in cold blood. Most are ordinary people who would like nothing more than to work for a real state, not a cynical, murderous fiction of one. Security officers refer obsessively to the state, to national duty and to fallen martyrs, but they are haunted by what they have actually done. When all arguments fail, their default and last defense is to claim that they are no worse than their enemies, however much they vilify them.

The irony does not stop there. Those engaged in house-to-house combat have much else in common. They are the country’s underclass, neglected by a regime that grew out of a provincial proletariat under the former president, Hafiz al-Asad, before Bashar’s more urbane circles detached themselves from their social base. The regime’s rank and file -- whether ‘Alawi or not -- and opposition militants live in similar conditions, predominantly in ramshackle neighborhoods that are disorderly outgrowths of the exodus from hinterlands that were left underdeveloped and adrift.

Nowhere to Go, No One to Follow

‘Alawis, in particular, boast no socioeconomic advantage over their Sunni Arab counterparts. They joined the security services en masse mostly for lack of better opportunities. Even there, not all positions gave status and affluence. Before the uprising, a majority put up with long hours, poor pay, social opprobrium and, in some cases, significant danger when fighting criminal or jihadi networks. Unless some rising star used his leverage within the system to provide cushy jobs for relatives and neighbors back home, ‘Alawi villages remained miserable. For their part, poor Sunni Arabs obtained state jobs, notably in the regular police force (which has melted away), or joined the military. Alternatively, they worked the land, went to Lebanon as menial laborers or carried out petty trade as they struggled to make ends meet. Many young men have taken up arms against the regime but not all. It is not rare for families to mourn one son killed as a conscript in the army and another killed as an opposition fighter.

When protests broke out in March 2011, sympathy for demonstrators ran remarkably deep among those trying to contain, intimidate and punish them. Popular demands mostly expressed a sense of alienation from an increasingly corrupt elite, a feeling largely shared by security officers, who over the past decade or so had been left to manage a fraught society singlehandedly as state institutions eroded, the “ruling” Baath Party decayed and the economy veered toward liberalization, deepening the gap between rich and poor. Regime officials and fence sitters often shared this frustration, but blamed the opposition for not convincing them of the alternative. Had the protest movement been perfect -- entirely non-violent, impeccably organized and infallibly on-message -- it is more likely that the security services in particular would have wavered and changed sides. But Syrians are not saints. In a society that for decades had been denied any practice in politics, the uprising was improvised and messy -- as most revolts are. And the regime made sure it stayed that way, cracking down on all forms of nascent structure, separating communities, encouraging the taking up of arms and playing up, provoking or fabricating incidents that would stir sectarian sentiments or stoke deep-seated popular fears -- especially among ‘Alawis. Despite all they have in common with the people in revolt, ‘Alawis are hostage to their own history and are in a difficult predicament indeed.

In relative terms, the second half of the twentieth century offered unprecedented mobility to ‘Alawis, arguably the most downtrodden of Syria’s original constituencies under the Ottoman Empire. From the period of the French Mandate, when minorities were manipulated via the usual divide-and-rule policy, ‘Alawis moved down from the infertile mountains in Syria’s northwest, where past religious persecution had driven them, into towns on the coast and in central Syria, as well as the capital. Meanwhile, they moved up the social ladder, with household servants becoming civil servants. Jobs were made available in the fast-developing bureaucracy. The army served as a vehicle for political ambitions. Peasants subjected to the feudal domination of absentee landlords recovered land through agrarian reforms. And the practice of selling girls and young women to wealthy Syrian and Lebanese families disappeared altogether. This emancipation process is precisely what ‘Alawis fear may be reversed today.

Such dread is founded in the precariousness of the condition in which the regime has maintained ‘Alawis. By neglect and by design, their ascent was never translated into integration. Thanks to a lack of urban planning, ‘Alawis congregated in informal neighborhoods such as Damascus’ Mezze 86, which stood out for their sectarian homogeneity. They relied to a greater extent than any other group on the regime. They assumed a conspicuous role in local administrations (in Homs, for instance), state-run media outlets (such as al-Baath newspaper and, more recently, al-Dunya television) and key state institutions (notably the officer corps of the army). They were most visible, and in the worst possible way, in sprawling security services that operated outside the law and outside formal state institutions. Finally, although Bashar reached out to the Sunni Arab majority far more than his father did, he ushered in hereditary rule as a hallmark of the regime’s communal nature, and he abetted the uninhibited corruption of his immediate relatives, including the domination of the economy by his cousin Rami Makhlouf. As the Asads and their relatives expanded their control over both state institutions and the private sector, Syria came to look like a family farm. All told, ‘Alawis were not amalgamated into society as much as they were absorbed into a fictional state, leaving them alien and exposed.

At the same time, they burned their bridges. While clinging to a state that does not really exist, they built their modern identity in opposition to their origins. Many hid their accents (marked in part by the hard “q,” which other Syrians pronounce as a glottal stop) and adopted urban ways. As a rule, nothing is less appealing to them than the thought of going back to where they come from, despite much speculation about Bashar’s purported “Plan B,” namely a retreat to an ‘Alawi rump state on the northwestern coast.

A central problem in the ongoing tragedy is that there is no such thing as an ‘Alawi “community.” It is, if anything, the most confused and anomic segment of Syrian society. Hafiz al-Asad tried to “Shiitize” the ‘Alawi religion and Bashar to “Sunnify” it; for the most part, though, they concealed and dismantled it, leaving ‘Alawis with a troubled sense of identity. The ruling Asad family established itself at the expense of ‘Alawi elites -- whether tribal leaders, feudal landowners or insubordinate intellectuals, of whom there are many. Under Bashar, even strong figures within the military and security services were tossed aside in favor of incompetent, interchangeable yes-men. Typically, even the underlings of these men did not respect or trust them.

This state of utter disarray is, paradoxically, the secret of the regime’s extraordinary resiliency: ‘Alawis have everything to lose, nowhere to go and no one to follow, other than a leader they profess to love and in reality loathe.

The muddle is matched to a degree by the identity crisis discernible within opposition ranks on the ground. Inspired by the Tunisian revolution, the Egyptian uprising-cum-coup d’état and the foreign-backed insurgency in Libya, simple people took on a regime they never expected to be so solid, so extreme in its methods and so immune to international pressure. In the face of ever more lethal repression, they explored every possible means of defiance. All were kept in check. They shifted their narrative to what made instinctual sense: popular protests in the enthusiastic period of the “Arab spring,” calls for foreign intervention in the wake of NATO’s adventure in Libya, self-defense under a “Free Syrian Army” as defections appeared to rise, and jihad when Islamist sponsors assumed a leading role. The exiled political opposition rode the coattails of these developments, less concerned with forging a workable path ahead than with echoing the distress on the ground and waiting for the international community to intervene. Militarization, criminalization, radicalization and Islamization proceeded apace in a milieu devoid of leadership and dominated by rural migrants who are largely innocent of ideological, social and even religious frames of reference. In this do-it-yourself revolution, the worse trends gradually took root as all else failed.

Only belatedly have political figures begun to play a constructive role: Michel Kilo, a veteran writer, negotiated a ceasefire between Kurdish and jihadi militants who clashed in the town of Ra’s al-‘Ayn. Mu‘az al-Khatib, a prominent Sunni imam, has assumed an unprecedented form of leadership, building his own base through impassioned but sensible speeches and moderate political moves.

The problem is that, just as ‘Alawis are fighting in the name of a state that is everything but, the opposition posits a universal, nationalistic agenda while increasingly mobilizing an exclusionary, imported dogma. Many argue that jihadism is tactical and temporary, but that is naive. Security officers also claim their own ferocity is an anomaly, a parenthetical comment dictated by events, and all will soon go back to normal. The truth is that both sides, although their aspirations originally met close to the center, have in their indiscipline moved to the extremes of a society that is caught in the middle. That process is hard to reverse. In this battle royale pitting the underclass against itself, those fighting have become ever more estranged from the country’s large urban establishment, which is left to watch in disbelief -- many from afar after having fled the country they would be needed to help rebuild when the conflict eventually comes to a close.

War’s Inexorable Creep

Of course, the conflict never would have reached such cataclysmic proportions were it not for more than a little help from abroad. Bashar al-Asad could not have unleashed the full force of his failing army without the political cover, morale boost and logistical aid that unexpectedly came from Russia in early 2012. Without Moscow’s patronage, he probably would have been forced to compromise, perhaps under genuine pressure from his most indispensable but savvy allies, Iran and Hizballah. The opposition’s allies are not free of blame. The opposition would have thought twice about taking up arms had it not been convinced by shallow shows of Western outrage that it would not be left to face the consequences alone. On the front lines, the opposition’s huge consumption of cash, weapons and ammunition has in large part been underwritten by sympathetic foreign states, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Islamist networks, Syrian businessmen and the spoils of conflict have been an integral part of the economy of violence, but war on this scale is primarily a matter of public, not private funds.

Despite belated realization of the conflict’s horrendous costs -- by the end of the year, aid agencies predict, there will be 3.6 million refugees and 6 million in need inside the country, out of a population of 23 million -- outside players show no sign of willingness to agree among themselves to help Syrians find a solution. Much mooted Russian-American negotiations have led nowhere, as Moscow stubbornly continues to back Asad and Washington is unwilling to offer incentives to alter that calculus. Meanwhile, countries united only by their rejection of Asad give priority to their own differing interests and rivalries as they vie to lift their clients above others within the opposition, exacerbating its fissiparous nature.

The conflict’s next step likely will be to engulf -- and ultimately destroy -- the capital, the seat of power, Syrian identity and what is left of the state, since the bureaucracy that remains operational is based there. Since early in 2013, opposition militants have made gains in the southern plain stretching up from Jordan to Damascus, a pathway to the regime’s nerve center. Meanwhile, armed groups in the capital have pushed further toward salient sites, including the presidential palace. But the rhetoric of a “final push” that opposition commanders and some commentators use, suggesting a decisive battle that will both determine and put an end to the ghastly conflagration, is but a pipe dream harking back to the early months of the uprising, when a quick end might have been possible. The regime has dug in on the heights of the capital, where it is virtually impregnable, preparing itself for war’s inexorable creep to its doorstep.

If the rebel incursion into Aleppo in July 2012 altered the dynamics of the conflict, the battle for Damascus will do so to a greater extent, as the destruction of the city that all have focused on brings down with it the sense of purpose and ultimate goal that continues to animate both sides. The consequences go beyond the predictable. In many other encounters, the regime has escalated its violence in response to opposition gains while the opposition has become more ruthless. Wrecking Damascus may simply increase the nihilism on both sides, or it may introduce a genuine international effort to end the conflict. The regime, unlikely to fall tidily in any foreseeable scenario, may see its cohesiveness partially shaken, and spawn large militias as it breaks up. Erasing the seat of power without vanquishing the enemy would almost certainly cause further fracturing of the opposition as it struggles to define, in this new dynamic, an overarching aim, while militant groups squabble more fiercely over spoils. If the conflict does not yet fit neatly into the definition of a civil war, the concomitant fraying could well trigger a drift toward something reminiscent of neighboring Lebanon’s, which dragged on for 15 long years.

If there is a happy footnote, it is that amid war’s many horrific tolls on country, body and soul, there are still numerous signs of hope in Syrian society. While some commentators warn that the country is turning into Somalia, with its powerful warlords, or Iraq, with its now indelible sectarian tensions, the Syrian society and people continue against all odds to exhibit unique features that are undersold by such comparisons. Civil administrations or local figures pop up to attempt to run local services in areas where the government has withdrawn. A man in Douma makes walking sticks from mortar shells and builds heaters from used rockets. In the grimmest conditions in Aleppo or Idlib, the displaced scrabble to offer hospitality, a shred of dignity in their darkest hour. A schoolteacher runs lessons from a back room. Given a chance, this society may pull through; it might fare better still if the conflict draws swiftly to a close and the aftermath is skillfully handled.

With each day of the conflict -- today is day 763 -- those chances become slimmer, diminishing Syrians’ sense of national identity and their pride in their society. Their purported “allies” and “friends” are their curse. The US, Russia, Qatar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey and Hizballah all claim to care when in fact they are defending their own prerogatives. With incremental, indecisive interference from all sides, further escalation is almost inevitable. Syria’s all-out civil war, if it comes to that, will no doubt go down in conventional wisdom as an outburst of communal hatred inevitable within a mixed society. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the product of an international standoff and cannot be rolled back without an international tradeoff. However much Syrians suffer, the war in their country is not in their hands. It is a conflict that disfigures Syrian society more than reflects it. And that is the Syrian heartbreak.

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