Peace with Justice in Syria

The reaction of progressive activists to the bombing of Gaza by Israel, such as the events of this week (Operation Pillar of Defense) or more extensively to Operation Cast Lead, is immediate and justifiable. How passionate we were, and rightly so, when Israel engaged in its onslaught against Gaza in Operation Cast Lead just a few years ago. But today in Syria the regime has killed more than ten times as many civilians and the only protests we see are those carried out by a handful of Syrian expatriates. Robert Fisk wryly remarks "we demand justice and the right to life for Arabs if they are butchered by the West and its Israeli allies; but not when they are being butchered by their fellow Arabs". [1] Fisk is equally wise in suggesting that for those who engage in an amoral calculus, that this is a proxy war on Iran.

It is nevertheless perplexing to witness the lack of concern; Jonathan Freedland wonders about this strange pariochial internationalism [2], however in the comments that follow that something can be discerned. There are fears that the Syrian opposition is largely controlled by foreign Islamist forces, and that they are no friends of the liberal and democratic Arab Spring of the successful revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. On a related matters, there are those who argue that the the Syrian opposition has been as guilty, at least, at human rights abuses in the civil war. Others are concerned with the potential of international intervention and liberal imperialism, especially after the events of Libya. These are reasonable claims for concern. On a politically amoral level, there are those progressives who do not speak out because of the geopolitical implications, or even because they have sympathy with the Baathist regime and its ideology. Unsurprisingly, because these positions are the most distant from the internationalist libertarian socialist perspective of isocracy they can be dealt with first.

The Grand Game and Ba'athist Fascism

Some opponents to the Syrian revolution begin with a geopolitical perspective of the Middle East with historical grounding with an opposition to Israel as a colonial and imposed imperialist state. From this perspective, Syria and Iran has remained a consistent military opponent of the existence of the state of Israel, a position strengthened by its support of the Shi'a Hezbollah subsequent to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Opposing Israel translates into opposing an uncertain Syrian or Iranian future where Israel's position may be strengthened and that of the Palestinians further weakened. As part of this sectarian calculus, Hezbollah has provided military support for the Syrian government [3]. It is a rather simplistic, amoral, and ultimately incorrect assessment (and one which must lose support over time as it is unprincipled) founded on the idea that a weakened Israel must mean the aspirations of the Palestinians are strengthened, as if that the freedom of some means the oppression of others. In reality, all it would mean is that an aggressively sectarian, terrorist, and theocratic organisation would gain relative strength; which is not a victory for the rights of Palestinians or anyone else, for that matter.

In a similar manner the Syrian government, contrary to most Palestinian organisations, has received support from the PFLP(GC), a Ba'athist organisation which rejects any political settlement with Israel and has never engaged in any peace process. This is contrast to groups like Hamas, which now supports the Syrian revolution [4]. Although nominally secular and socialist, Ba'athist ideology, particular characteristics have meant that it was inevitable that such regimes (e.g., Hafez and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hussein's Iraq, and, as a variant, Gaddafi's "Green socialism") would lead to a left-wing fascism and follows the expected trajectory; state collectivism, anti-individualist, anti-democratic, ultimately leads to a disregard for human rights, and any progressive qualities of such regimes is quickly discarded due to theoretical limits of the ideology. For example, the progressive anti-colonialism of pan-Arabism has become a means for oppression of non-Arabs in Ba'athist regimes (as experienced by the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq). The inevitable contradiction between the political authoritarianism and the economic developmentalism is an issue well articulated by Louis Proyect [5].

The Syrian Opposition: Socialists, Conservatives, or Islamicists?

Whilst it is not likely that supporters of Ba'athism fascism or its indirect backing of Hezbollah theocratism have concerns for human interests, a more legitimate cause of concern is the make-up of the Syrian rebels and the behaviour of what their government will be when they succeed. The standard that the rebels would have to lower themselves to be worse than the rule of al-Assad would have to be fairly extreme of course. Syria has consistently been rated as one of the worst [6] governments in the world for human rights by organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Reporters without Borders, etc. There are thousands of political prisoners (mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the democratic communists from the various parties in the banned National Democratic Rally). The much heralded secularism in Syria is itself tempered by the constitutional requirement that the President must be a Muslim, with Hanafi Sharia law. Arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, and biased trials are all quite common, freedom of movement is restricted, and press and Internet censorship is extreme - and all this was before the current uprising.

A common claim among opponents of the Syrian revolutionaries is the expressed uncertainty that the opposition is dominated by Islamicists and would convert the somewhat secular Syria into an Islamic state. Without a doubt, the long-banned Muslim brotherhood is a major force among the Syrian National Council. Once certainly an Islamist group, its April 2012 [7] objectives pledges to respect individual rights, pluralism, and a multi-party democracy. The Council also has significant influence from the multi-religious and multi-cultural Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians [8], and the communist Syrian Democratic People's Party, which is also party of the democratic socialist and reform communist alliance the National Coordination Committee [9]. From the Kurdish side, the Kurdish Supreme Council consists of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (affiliated to the PKK in Turkey), and the multiparty Kurdish National Council. As much as an opposition is allowed in Syria (5 seats out of 250), the opposition also consists of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, and from civil society the extremely well-connected Local Coordination Committees of Syria.

This accounts for the political opposition, from which it should be evident there is very little evidence of an Islamicist or theocratic orientation. To be sure, there are Islamic religious conservatives involved - but it should be evident that even they have taken into consideration the need for democratic and individual rights in what it a significantly heterogeneous society. For the critic however, the military opposition to the government is of primary significance. From this perspective the major groups include the Free Syrian Army, made up from soldiers that have defected (c 40,000 strong), Syrian Liberation Army, which is made up primarily of armed civilians (c30,000 strong), and the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (c4,500). These are all indigenous, secular, and democratic groups. The Islamicist groups, mostly of foreign origin [10], include the Ahrar al-Sham, consisting of some 500 fighters in Aleppo, and the similarly sized Al-Nusra Front, which has successfully carried out a number of terrorist attacks (e.g., the January 2012 al-Midan bombing, the Deir ez-Zor executions of May 2012).

Rather than random assertions, developed without careful consideration of the actual organisations that constitute the multi-faceted Syrian opposition, the preceding survey clearly indicates that the overwhelming majority of the opposition forces, both civilian and military, are made up of an multi-religious and multi-ethnic alliance of democratic religious conservatives and socialist and progressive secularists. Doubtless these major forces will engage in an electoral competition once they have acquired government, but this has also been the case in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The Islamacists constitute a very small, but effective, terrorist aspect of the opposition that has generated a great deal of media interest. Nevertheless, they are outside of the mainstream, a fact noted by such organisations themselves, through their rejection of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces [11].

War and the Crimes Against Humanity

War is, except to the most pathological, a dreadful experience and one which is to be avoided in most circumstances. But peace is not something that can be defined simply by the mere absence of war [12]. It is possible, of course, for a population to be cowed by the threat of state violence and terror. It is possible, for a time, that the people will swallow their pride and try to make do the best they can. But as the wealth of a country increases, the population becomes educated, and people acquire access to those technologies that allow them to see how the rest of the world lives - the situation cannot last. Either the regime reforms, or the population will seek to change the regime. In Syria the latter has occurred; a question that remains is how are people dying, who is causing it, and how it can be prevented.

The death toll in Syria is, to say the least, horrifying, estimated at over 40,000 at the time of writing [13], including some 28,000 civilians (including civilians who have taken up arms against the regime). There are over 300,000 refugees in neighbouring countries. Both rebel and government forces have committed human rights violations. But the thorough assessment emphasise that the government has engaged in violations of greater scale, more systematically (i.e., with leadership responsibility), and more common, that those of the rebel forces [14], to the extent that their actions have been considered war crimes by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has called for the Syrian government to be taken to to the International Criminal Court.

The most important war crime, in terms of the sheer quantity of casualties that it creates, is the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons - such as artillery and air strikes - in civilian areas. In the circumstances of a civil war, it is certainly understandable that there are victims of targetted and deliberate assasination. It is also understandable that unarmed civilians are caught in the crossfire of light arms fire. There are those also who due to plain bad luck, are collateral victims of terrorist attacks from Islamicist groups. But the overwhelming majority of civilians have died, and continue to die, from the indiscriminate shelling of shelling and air strikes by the regime in population areas; this is something that civilians cannot seek refuge from - and that is why it is one of the most serious war crimes.

The Future for Syria

Despite a string of recent victories for the rebels against military bases and airports in recent weeks and a gradual tightening on supply lines it seems likely that the al-Assad regime will not give up without continuing violence. Indeed, the former Prime Minsiter, after his defection from the regime, argued that Assad actually wants the civil war to turn into a regional war [15], wanting to drag Turkey, Lebanon, and especially Israel into the fray. Thanks to Russia's instransigence in the UN Security Council, the considerations of no-fly zones and even peacekeepers (following the ceasefire [16]) have come to naught and as a result the regime has felt confident it can engage in attacks on civilians with impunity; such is the results of the utterly miserable ideology of sovereignty based on the assumed independence of States having proirity over the rights of natural persons. Despite the massive increase in the loss of life, the expected military victory for the government is increasingly less likely - they have not had a significant success in many weeks for the simple reason that the population is against them. All they have managed to do is drag on the conflict. The most likely scenario is an gradual and eventual collapse of the government without spillover in foriegn countries, despite their best efforts; even the most ardent supporter of the Assad regime, with sober senses, should be able to make this calculation by this stage.

With the prospect for negotiation largely limited to how the President and other perpetrators of crimes against humanity are going to travel to The Hague, the onus exists on the side of the rebel forces to display the greatest level of moral leadership under the circumstances. Certainly a priority among both the democratic religious conservatives and the secular socialists, is to further limit the role of the foreign Islamicists and their ability to engage in the sort of unconscionable deadly terrorism that does enormous damage to the reputation of the opposition. It must be realised that the Islamicists are a worse future than the fascist Ba'athist regime; whilst they have close to zero chance of success, they can taint the opposition. Instead, the indigenous opposition must maintain its ethnic, regional, and religious, diversity, and allow autonomy along these lines. It must promote this autonomy from the outset, as part of its future plans, as opposed to simple opposition to the existing regime without clarity of the future will bring. Certainy this must include up-front recognition of democratic autonomy for the Kurdish regions (Al-Hasakah) and Alawi (Latakia, Tartus), the former a group who have been oppressed for years by the Ba'athist regime, the latter a group which has concerns following their assumed association with the existing regime. Finally, the Opposition must deal with trangressors of human rights, looters, etc., in accordance to the standards of international law [17].

For members of the world's citizenry in advanced countries not directly involved in the conflict there is a lesson to be learned which apparently is extraordinary to some. Syrians, like everyone else, have the same existential desires as the rest of us; the want peace with justice, personal freedom, the right to engage in civil society, engage in democratic control of their public institutions, and receive a fair share of their nation's wealth. In particular, for those who are struggling to grasp this, Muslims - even those who are personally conservative and pious - are quite capable of living with others who follow different faiths, different denominations (even heresies), or none of the above. Arabs, especially the young and educated with access to contemporary information and communications technology, are quite capable of managing their own public life. The people of North Africa and the Middle East are proving this to us daily; despite fits and starts, and uneven development, they are developing very well - especially if we take the effort to compare it with our own history; al shaab yurid isqat al-nitham.


1] Robert Fisk, Syrian war of lies and hypocrisy , The Independent, July 29, 2012.
2] Jonathan Freedland, We condemn Israel. So why the silence on Syria?, The Guardian, October 19, 2012
3] Hezbollah: Ties with Hamas strong despite Syria differences, The Daily Star (Lebanon), November 25, 2012
4] Hamas ditches Assad, backs Syrian revolt, Reuters, February 24, 2012
5] Louis Proyect, The Economic Contraditions of Syrian Ba'athism, July 19, 2012
6] c.f., Syria Among Worst For Rights Abuses: HRW, Reuters, Jan 24, 2011 and Amnesty International Report 2012 : The State of the World's Human Rights, Amnesty International, pp324-329
7] Syria's Muslim Brotherhood rise from the ashes, Reuters, May 6, 2012
8] Les partis d'opposition laïcs syriens unissent leurs forces à Paris, France24, Sept 18, 2011
9] The NCC consists of the Democratic Arab Socialist Union, the Arab Revolutionary Workers Party, the Communist Labour Party, the Arab Socialist Movement, the Syriac Union Party, the aforementioned Syrian Democratic People's Party, Together for a Free and Democratic Syria, the Democratic Union Party, the Marxist Left Assembly and the Democratic Socialist Arab Ba'ath Party.
10] Arab Islamist fighters eager to join Syria rebels, The Daily Star (Lebanon), July 31, 2012
11] Syria Islamist fighters in Aleppo reject new opposition, BBC News, Nov 20, 2012
12] See for example, Albert Einstein in Nathan and Norden (ed), "Einstein on Peace", 1968, p. 371 and Martin Luther King Jnr. "True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice", in a 1955 response to an accusation that he was "disturbing the peace" by his activism during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, as quoted in Let the Trumpet Sound : A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr (1982) by Stephen B. Oates
13] Syria death toll passes 40,000: watchdog, AFP, Nov 22, 2012
14] Periodic Update of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, UN Human Rights Council, 24 May 2012.
15] Bashar al-Assad wants war not peace reveals Syria's former prime minister Riyad Hijab, The Telegraph, Nov 4, 2012
16] UN mulls Syria peacekeeping plan, Al Jazeera, October 23, 2012
17] We may note, for example, that Human Rights Watch accounted for a dozen extrajudicial executions carried out by Syrian opposition forces; "Syria: End Opposition Use of Torture, Executions", Human Rights Watch, September, 2012. Subsequent to this, the FSA has established a "Revolutionary Security" force to reduce looting, extrajudicial killings etc, by opposition forces. See "Syrian rebels forced to police their own as crime tarnishes reputation", The Christian Science Monitor, November 26, 2012

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on January 28, 2013.


A UN General Assembly committee yesterday condemned Syria for human rights abuses. The draft resolution received 132 votes in favour - 10 more than a similar resolution last year received - along with 12 against and 35 abstentions.

A reminder from Machiavelli, in the final chapter where he is being much less satirical.

"With us there is great justice, because that war is just which is necessary, and arms are hallowed when there is no other hope but in them."

(Reuters) - Syrian jets bombed rebel-held areas of Damascus on Saturday, residents said, as the opposition indicated it could accept an international peacekeeping force if President Bashar al-Assad is forced from power.

The actual figures of the make up of various opposition forces come from a number of sources: Yossef Bodansky from Strategic Studies, Michael Weiss of The Henry Jackson Society for the SLA, Joseph Halliday from the Institute for the Study of War for the FSA (serious doubts with the Voice of Russia Radio claim that the FSA consists of 100,000), and for the Islamist groups, the the Middle East Security Report by Elizabeth O'Bagy.

Are those numbers correct? I have been told there are more Islamicists.

The numbers have indeed changed; the original article was making evaluations from early to mid 2012. Indeed, recent reports suggest that the continuing conflict has become a magnet for Islamicists with even up to 10,000 present. Obviously this is a concern; the longer that the war goes on the worse the situation will be. Hence the need for a rapid resolution follow international principles. If the Syrian government cannot protect its civilian (which is obvious, given that it's doing most of the killing), the quicker international peacekeepers are required.

See also this appeal published by the News & Letters Committee