On the Inevitability of Militarization in the Syrian Uprising

The fierce debate and the war of certainties that persisted around the uprising between the defenders of militarization on the one hand, and those weeping over peacefulness on the other, had little meaning.

14 November 2016

Rateb Shaʿbo

Rateb Shaʿbo is a Syrian physician, English translator and writer born in 1963. He spent 16 years of his life detained as a political prisoner (1983-1999). Shaʿbo has also published a study entitled "The World of Early Islam".

Translated by: Lilah Khoja Najwa Sabra

It is clear that the ʻdecisionʼ to militarize the Syrian Revolution has resulted in an everlasting disaster. Any talk of the bloody nature, different stages and lengthy process of revolutions, comparisons to the French Revolution or any other attempt at an explanation is nothing else than justification and fear of acknowledging the disaster.

Having said that, it is equally obvious that maintaining a peaceful revolution against a regime obsessed with its own survival, which viewed the battle against political change as a an existential one, is practically impossible. This is to say that the fierce debate and the war of certainties that persisted around the revolution between the defenders of militarization on the one hand, and those weeping over peacefulness on the other, had little meaning.

Advocates of militarization operate on the fact that the Asad regime can only fall by force. Advocates of non-violence base their position on the fact that militarization has led to dependence on foreign support, increasing Islamization and the subsequent disaster. These are both valid statements, but their differences cannot be reconciled; any serious endeavor towards political change in Syria is currently a slippery slope towards catastrophe.

Even if there were people ready to die in peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins until the fall of the regime (other forms of peaceful resistance, such as strikes and civil disobedience, were proven ineffective), there can be no guarantee that an armed resistance would not emerge in response to the regime's violent provocation.

To maintain non-violence as the primary method to coerce a political regime such as Asad’s into implementing serious change that would affect its tyrannical and bloody nature is a very difficult task. This is due to the lack of broadly accepted and effective national opposition leaders that could have altered the course of the movement and reined in its violent tendencies. Another reason is the lack of political and moral deterrents on the regime’s side coupled with the Islamist ʻcultureʼ, which pushes for jihad against an aggressor. Non-violence is ineffective also because of the regime’s insistence on the mass slaughtering of ‘Muslims’, and the world’s blind eye towards a country’s internal affairs.

If we assume, for argument’s sake, that the continuation of non-violence in the Syrian uprising was possible, its success in toppling the regime would have depended on one of two developments: the first is the global reaction, and most probably foreign military intervention to remove the regime. Such a development would have naturally opened up the country to external actors that are stronger and more effective than the internal ones that started the uprising.

This means that external powerful forces (primarily the US) would have intervened not to support the uprising, but rather to deal with the problem created by a state that failed to regulate its internal affairs and has become a burden on the global order. Thus, the goal of intervention would have been to impose a military tutelage, as it happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving the subject of political legitimacy and governance unresolved.

The second development is a split in the Syrian army, a part of which could defect and reject the bloody response to the peaceful movement, thus clashing with the remaining part which remained supportive to the regime, due to the presence of loyal key sectors that had been built on allegiance to the regime and not the country. Here, the Yemeni scenario comes to mind, which ended in an armed conflict despite the persistence of a non-violent revolutionary movement. This kind of military development would have resulted in scenarios equally disastrous to the ones we face today.

Thus militarization seems to be the fate of any popular movement that rises to change the Asad regime. More importantly, these catastrophic results do not address the primary demands of the uprising: legitimacy of rule and mechanisms for a peaceful transition of power.

Could the militarization be secular?

Every step on the path of militarization in the Syrian revolution brought the country closer to Islamic jihad, and further from accomplishing the Syrian people’s hope in a democratic system of government. Nonetheless, the choice between non-violence and militarization was, after all, not a real choice available to those caught between a regime designed to crush their movement and the backers of those who were ready to take up arms.

Among the various possible forms of militarization, the most bloody and tragic scenario took place in Syria - a popular militarization - in comparison with the two aforementioned forms, i.e. an international intervention or a significant split in the army. In both of these scenarios, a confrontation would have occurred between military units capable of recruiting people within a dedicated military structure and methodology.

Inherent in the popular militarization are two problems: the first stems from the need to find and use weapons, which resulted in not only their misuse but the promotion of felons and other criminals (who had access to various arms) to leadership positions in the newly-formed military wings and then in the public sphere. Due to the lack of formal structure and training, intestine conflict was the natural result of this situation.

The second problem stems from the fact that militarization provided a good cover for the movement’s infiltration by Islamists, due to their military expertise gained in Iraq and Afghanistan and the adequacy of Islamist ideology to redefine military efforts as a jihad against a secular (and eventually, Alawite) regime.

The Islamists also benefitted from a popular Islamic base motivated by two factors: the unlimited brutality of the regime and its willful sectarian behavior on one hand, and on the other, the jihadists preparedness to engage in sectarian discourse and attract fighters with their bravery. The picture is complete if we add to it the willingness of certain Islamic countries to only support Islamists.

If it is understandable that these jihadists won popular support for facing the Asad regime, then stopping the regime is the first necessary step to seek liberation from the jihadists. It is also true, though, that the seed of jihadism has managed to plant itself in Syria to the extent that will weigh heavily on the post-Asad phase. This seed will waste a lot of potential and cripple not only the democratic process but also the developmental one in the long-term. All that while patriotic democratic forces in Syria are abstaining from their roles and busy choosing the ʻlesser of two evilsʼ.

Did the Syrians have any other option? Could this slippery slope have been avoided? It is true that history has no interest in contemplating paths other than the one that has come to happen, but the absence of a secular democratic independent actor in the Syrian political sphere during the revolution has allowed for the emergence of the political view that only two choices exist: Asad or the jihadists.

This perception altered international attitudes towards the uprising and increased the acute polarization around the two major Syrian camps. Equally important, however, is that this polarization has destroyed any moral credit of the secular democratic opposition in the eyes of the Syrian public, turning them into mere accessories of the regime or the Islamists.

Would the existence of a secular democratic independent and politically active body have had any influence on the militarization? I would say yes. The power of such a body stems from its relevance to the majority of the Syrian public as well as its perceived political suitability to stakeholder countries that do not accept the spectrum of jihadist Islam. The existence of this independent, politically skilled body could have been the answer to the repeatedly asked question used to justify anti-uprising positions: what is the alternative to Asad?

The writer’s opinions do not necessarily reflect SyriaUntold’s views.

[Main Image: A cardboard that reads "The militarization of the revolution does not nullify the presence of millions of civilians" - Dayr az-Zawr - 26-11-2012].

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