In the Name of Allah the Most Gracious the Most Merciful,
The cataclysmic earthquakes that have struck Syria and Turkey this month have ignited debate about effective aid measures and, by extension, the politics of the Syrian conflict. The Syrian government has taken no small pleasure in an opportunity to ease its official diplomatic freeze in much of the world, blaming Western sanctions for the difficulty in aid and in turn bringing into question the politics of the conflict. Unfortunately, to claim that sanctions are in themselves to blame for aid difficulty ignores the fact that the vast majority of the devastation has hit areas outside government control and under the control of the Syrian opposition, which were already subjected to a crippling, Gaza-style siege by the very same government. It is a further mistake, not in theoretical but in purely factual terms, to compare Syria with other Muslim countries — such as Afghanistan, Iran, or formerly Iraq — that are under sanctions, because in everything but name the Syrian government has been the major beneficiary of the status quo.
In an article published last week, the author, Faizan Malik, attempts to critique sanctions from the viewpoint that non-Muslim countries have no right to sanction Syria, therefore Muslims should not support such sanctions. It is one thing to critique sanctions — which I agree are generally both politically useless and destructive — and another to base such a critique on the flawed premises that he proceeds to cite. Effectively the Syrian war is over, argues Malik, and as such Muslims should draw together against Western, colonial-style intrusions such as sanctions. We are even reminded of the refusal by Ali and Muawiyah, may Allah be pleased with them, to draw in non-Muslim powers into their dispute. This analysis misses several major points, which I will examine in the remainder of this article.
A Muslim regime?
Firstly, the regime of Bashar Assad is not a Muslim government. This is not a takfiri denunciation of anybody who has ever worked for or with it — as have much of the opposition themselves before defecting in the early 2010s — but rather a statement of fact. Officially, the regime pointedly notes its secularism and unofficially it is dominated by a certain selection of Alawite elites that almost monopolize policy. This was the case since the 1960s, when an already narrow “neo-Baath” military elite — so-called because it differed from the original Baathists, who were largely purged — monopolized power after years of back-and-forth military coups, and especially so since the 1970s, when Hafez Assad monopolized power within that elite. In particular, the elder Assad relied heavily on the intelligence service of the airforce from which he hailed, which acquired a special notoriety for its cruelty, but also other repressive instruments and tactics such as hiring paramilitary “shabiha” thugs, often controlled by family members of an intensely corrupt ruling class. Syria, a historically decentralized, multiconfessional but decidedly Islamic land, became under the neo-Baath a secularist yet sectarian police state, with not only Muslims but other groups, such as the Druze, subjected to recurrent bouts of suspicion and scrutiny.
The Syrian regime’s relationship with Islam has similarly been complicated. The Assads belong to a specific section of the Alawite group that, until Hafez Assad himself, made no claims to Islam, even as a minority sect. Assad’s father, for instance, was a vassal of the French mandate who begged them to either stay in Syria or break away as an Alawite ministate, a la “Christian” Lebanon, specifically in order to keep the Muslim majority at bay: this hostility to Muslims among the regime’s inner circle has been a recurring theme that explains much of its subsequent actions.
But, in order to control a largely Muslim land that was constitutionally bound to have a Muslim ruler, Hafez declared that Alawites were in fact Muslims, making occasional references to Islam even as he closely monitored its practice. Muslims were indeed invited to serve the regime, and many took up the offer: much of the largely Sunni merchant class, which had been an early hotbed for opposition, was eventually co-opted, while some Syrian scholars such as Ramadan Bouti took their perceived opportunity to draw the Assads closer to Islam. On-off support to select, though severely controlled, Palestinian groups helped as well, and indeed whenever confronted with opposition the regime would routinely insist that it was being targeted for its solidarity with Palestine — a solidarity that was, as its relationship with successive Palestinian groups shows, entirely meant on its own terms.
Many more Muslims were excluded than included in the government’s favor, instead subjected to routine surveillance that reached totalitarian lengths. Stories abound of informants within families, of the notorious dungeons where guards would routinely taunt their prisoners with insults of Islam; even in such a supposedly national institute as the military, Sunnis were routinely pressured into betraying Islamic rules and making blasphemous statements. Syria was not the only police state in the Muslim world, but it was the only one ruled by a largely non-Muslim elite that considered Muslim identity as an implicit threat. Consequently, under any pressure the regime would lash out, directing its campaigns almost exclusively against Muslims. Take for example neighboring Lebanon, where Hafez Assad’s traditional suspicion toward the Palestinian Fatah movement overcame his suspicion toward their Israel-backed rightwing Maronite rivals. Having long chided such populists for upsetting Lebanon’s balance, when Assad actually entered Lebanon in 1976 his campaign was aimed exclusively, and quite brutally, against the Palestinians, in turn impressing not only the traditional Maronite aristocracy he sought to defend but even the United States whom he supposedly resisted. He was, in the words of the American ambassador, treated as the “latest incarnation of the crusaders.” Unfortunately, this impression extended at home as well and contributed in no small part to the Islamist revolt in Syria that was savagely extinguished, with acts of horrific slaughter, in the early 1980s.
Assad’s strategic utility as a check — against his Iraqi rivals, against the Palestinian groups, and against his own Muslim subjects — was not opposed, but instead largely appreciated and thus accommodated, by foreign powers. France admired in him an Arab Bismarck; he was supported by both the Soviet Union and Iran; and even the United States tolerated him for this utility, only objecting when his proxies in Lebanon collided with those of Israel. This relationship warmed in the 1990s, after Assad helped Washington fight his longstanding rival Saddam Hussein. But Assad also spied an opportunity in Fatah’s embrace of the Oslo Accord to increase his prestige at home and away, instead supporting their rivals — though again on his, and not their, terms, since he had long disliked Fatah. This did seem to impress many Muslims; even the activist scholar Yusuf Qaradawi would claim after Assad’s death that his son Bashar was effectively acting as a Sunni Muslim — a statement he would soon come to regret and recant.
Although an ever-ruthless cynic, the elder Assad can at least be said to have been his own man — if not the man of the Muslims he ruled. The same is patently untrue of his son Bashar, who first relinquished the Syrian colony in Lebanon and then his own rule at home, both by overreach. Like Iran, Syria under the second Assad’s rule initially joined the American war on terror, for which its dungeons were primely suited, but balked when Washington approached its border by conquering Iraq. To be sure, there was tension between Damascus and Washington in the 2000s; Assad permitted the passage of insurgents into Iraq, and Washington played a role in Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. But these were turf disputes rather than a genuine hostility, and Washington’s alarm toward “Islamists” — a catch-all term under which Assad could easily categorize any Muslim critic — drowned out any distaste it might have for the dictator.
Western Opposition to Assad?
The second point that must be addressed is that of the supposed Western opposition to Bashar Assad. This statement might have briefly been true ten years ago; it is unequivocally false today, except in the most cosmetic of terms. Even after the Arab uprisings broke out in 2010 and 2011, the United States remained initially ambivalent, with much of its establishment continuing to portray Assad as a “reformer.” The corresponding regime crackdown, coinciding with an actual revolt-turned-regime change in Libya, briefly led the United States to consider the removal of Assad. Certainly, Qatar and Turkey, which had been instrumental in the overthrow of Muammar Qaddhafi, along with Saudi Arabia were enthusiastic about Assad’s overthrow, and Libyan weapons and fighters did make their way to Syria — often through the channels of Muslim governments like Ankara and Doha — not the United States. France, certainly no friend of Muslims, upped the ante by hosting a “government-in-exile,” which, however, was and remains irrelevant. And in time, the American stance morphed into one of constant denunciation, usually by its ambassador Robert Ford. Over the course of 2012, American officials such as Ford and John McCain did publicly meet, and attempt to co-opt, Syrian opposition.
But such stances were shaky for a Washington still largely in “war on terror” mode, on whose skewed terms, uncomfortable with most public manifestations of Islam, the Syrian revolution was suspiciously religious. In particular, the Nusra Front, then an affiliate of Qaida and since reconstituted sans Qaida link as Tahrirul-Sham, attracted dismay. This suspicion only deepened after autumn 2012, when the Libyan adventure seemed to have spiraled out of control, and the war-on-terror reflex kicked in. The Nusra Front’s designation as a terrorist group at the end of 2012, which was largely protested even by other groups and activists, was the first sign of a rapid shift in Washington’s policy. Even Western sympathizers of the rebels would attempt, in classic “war on terror” terms, to shoehorn groups between “secular” and “Islamic,” “moderate” and “radical,” and so on — disregarding the fact that most groups, even the relatively radical Nusra, drew from the same pool of relentlessly targeted, largely middle-class or rural, Sunni Muslims.
When and where the United States and France had considered regime change in Syria over 2012, it had been a purely cosmetic venture that sought to replace Assad with another, preferably Sunni, autocrat: the Talas clan, which had been the most powerful Sunni family in Assad’s Syria but propitiously defected, were favored clients-in-waiting. This was obviously at odds with the overwhelming majority of the revolt, which wanted to oust not only Bashar Assad but the cabal at whose helm he stood. So too was the paramount concern that the status quo on the Golan Heights, which the opposition often accused the Assads of having effectively abandoned, remained: thus no later than 2013, the United States withdrew support to the insurgency. Subsequent support over the mid-2010s was explicitly conditioned on usage not against Assad, but against the Daesh group that had waded into the fray from Iraq. When and where American support did translate into insurgency against the government, a scandalized Washington hastily withdrew.
From this point on, the United States and other Western countries effectively adopted the policy advocated by Israeli diplomats in 2013: to let the regime and insurgency bleed each other, the only Israeli concern with the former being its support by Iran. Washington’s first airstrikes in Syria were not against Assad, but against his opponents in the Idlib region who were accused of containing Qaida elements. American support went not to the Syrian revolt, but to Kurdish ethnonationalists in northeast Syria who were cobbled into a disingenuously named “democratic” coalition; moreover, this American-backed group targeted not the Syrian regime but the Turkish state that was the Syrian insurgency’s key lifeline.
In spite of this dizzying mixture — American-backed ethnonationalists, Daesh, Iranian paramilitaries, and regime thugs — the insurgency was again on the march, having taken much of the north and south, by 2015. It was at this point that Russia waded into the fray carrying out a remorselessly brutal campaign that flattened and conquered Aleppo and proceeded, by 2018, to clear out central and southern Syria. Corresponding Turkish campaigns, in 2016 and 2019, were similarly aimed not at ousting the regime but instead fending off Kurdish ethnonationalists. Far more than Turkish support to the opposition, it has been foreign support that protected and propped up Bashar Assad. To speak then of Muslim sovereignty while discussing a non-Muslim vassal protected by a non-Muslim state is entirely absurd. Even the rebel enclave in the northwest, for its many faults, lays more claim to “Muslim sovereignty” than does the regime in Damascus.
Anarchy versus tyranny?
Could it be argued that the Syrian regime prior to 2011 should have been tolerated, as Malik indicates, on the maxim that a long tyranny maintaining order is preferable to even brief anarchy? Certainly, the argument had been made and tested on several occasions: the Syrian majority suffered the Assads for the majority of their decades in power, the revolt of the early 1980s being the only major exception. As mentioned previously, scholars such as Bouti interacted with the regime hoping to influence its policy; Muslim groups such as the Qubaisiat pursued private Islamic revivalism; and even Ikhwan-originated groups such as Hamas entertained on-off collaboration with the government before 2011.
Be that as it may, such engagement did not influence the regime sufficiently to resort to form — when faced with even relatively minor dissent in 2011, its totalitarian machinery clicked into action and embarked on a series of massacres that were often colored, as had been the case in the 1980s, by explicitly anti-Sunni hatred. The regime’s “shabiha” thugs — steroid-bloated criminals who enjoyed state sponsorship in spreading mayhem and massacre among communities — can hardly be said to represent “order” in any sense, let alone an Islamically acceptable sense. In short, the maxim that Malik quotes had been tried — and, ultimately, it did not apply to Syria under the Assads.
Unfortunately, the idea has spread among “traditional” circles that the Syrian revolt was triggered by the foolhardy impatience of unprepared revolutionaries who have since suffered the consequences of their actions. Such claims are often accompanied by disclaimers, as in Malik’s article, that nothing excuses the level of savagery that the regime has practiced, but they nonetheless place primary blame as a trigger on the opposition.
To assess this claim it is also crucial to note the sequence of events in 2011. The government’s armed crackdown in cities such as Daraa and Homs began in the spring; the first political opposition began in the summer; and the first notable armed insurgency began in the autumn. Cases such as Ghaith Matar and Hamza Khatib, murdered under torture not even for opposing the government but merely on the whims of regime thugs, were common throughout. To put this into perspective, the entire Libyan war came and went before the Syrian opposition militarized. Clearly, it was the regime, that supposed rockwell of stability, that triggered the bloodbath — and has since dominated it, with the vast majority of civilians killed in the war having fallen prey to government-backed massacres.
This is not to deny that sections of the opposition made mistakes. It was always a long shot to expect an international “No-Fly Zone,” particularly given that the United States itself had long engaged in similar bouts of “terrorist”-aimed bombardment for years. Though Nato had intervened in Libya, the situation there was almost the direct opposite of Syria: no state was willing to stick its neck out for the volatile Qaddhafi, while in Syria Assad was widely seen at the very least as a predictable alternative to “Islamists.” But such claims were made, more often than not, in desperation against crushing bombardment. To analogize, Palestine activists often appeal to international support and even the United Nations against Israel: though they know full well that these channels have long enabled Israel, there is little else they can do under the punishing circumstances — the same holds true for Syria’s opposition. Other mistakes include an early toleration of, and naivete toward, parasitic groups such as Nusra Front, who proceeded to attempt a hegemony under their own iron-fisted rule. But these mistakes must be seen against the prevailing circumstances, which included routine massacres with an overtly sectarian flavor by the regime and its supporters. When it came to the crunch, the Syrian opposition was far more efficient in disposing of Daesh than the regime, which occasionally tolerated the latter as a tactical counterweight to the rebels.
Ultimately, it was not the revolt but the regime that plunged Syria into today’s anarchy. It is the regime, and not the revolt, that is protected by a non-Muslim occupying force — Russia. Insofar as any foreign power helps the revolt, whose appeal remains widespread even in such parts of government-controlled territory as Daraa, it is Turkey: a Muslim state of the type that Malik seems to mistake Assad’s Syria for. The Syrian opposition resembles, for all its flaws and fractures, a “sovereign Muslim” entity far more than the regime.
Sanctions and Aid
Insofar as any reminders of the brief Western flirtation with the revolt survives, they are in relatively sympathetic news coverage — the type that Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir, and Palestine admittedly do not enjoy because the West or its allies were at fault there — and in sanctions. Certainly, sanctions have been a controversial and, in my opinion, generally deplorable measure. Recall the particularly notorious case of 1990s Iraq, where sanctions and the economic crisis that followed helped trigger deaths in the hundreds of thousands. Today, Taliban-recaptured Afghanistan is being strangled more from petulant spite than any genuine excuse, and Iran has officially been under sanctions by the United States since its 1979 revolution. As a general excuse, such sanctions hurt the population more than the regime.
Syria is a partial exception. I do not believe that sanctions against Damascus are necessary or even necessarily helpful, since the regime has its ways of bypassing them: notably the United Nations, which always maintains a bias for “recognized states” over their opponents. They also back such “autocracy is stability” Arab states as the United Arab Emirates, (tellingly the American “ace” in the Middle Eastern hole not least for its friendliness toward Israel) which has been a favored dropoff spot for Assad’s circles and the pioneering Arab state attempting to rehabilitate Assad.
But “sanctions are not helpful” is an entirely different argument than “sanctions cannot be pursued against Assad as a sovereign Muslim leader.” Assad — unlike the distasteful but authoritative Muslim rulers to whom Malik seems to be referring — is not a Muslim by any conventional definition of the word, nor is he, as a vassal of Russian occupation, in any sense sovereign. The salient comparison here is with Nouri Maliki of occupied Iraq, or Babrak Karmal and Ashraf Ghani in successive Afghan occupations: essentially a puppet, however sullen, in a Potemkin government-on-loan.
The other factor that is directly linked to the earthquake is the question of aid. The majority of aid has been transferred through government hands, in spite of a longstanding record of corrupt appropriation, but also despite the fact that the vast majority of the earthquake’s devastation occurred in opposition-held areas. Trusting Assad to rescue with aid the same area that he has relentlessly bombed to the ground over a decade requires almost willful naivete. This has not stopped the regime from selling, and well-meant people from buying, the tale that it must be part of any meaningful aid. Such claims are not only disingenuous, but they also ignore the well-established networks of aid and support that have already been in place in the north for years — largely necessitated by the devastation caused by regime bombardment. The White Helmets organization, founded by Raed Saleh, is a case in point: they have long been vilified by the regime and its foreign supporters as terrorists in disguise, yet the very same regime tried to claim their humanitarian activity as its own after the earthquake struck.
A Lost Cause?
The final point that I must address is the claim that the Syrian war is essentially over, and Assad its winner. This is a tempting claim often pushed by both disingenuous and sincere individuals tired of the war’s devastation, even if the principal culprit stands to benefit. To be sure, the 2015-2018 Russian campaign shifted momentum sharply toward the regime. But there remains a significant opposition stronghold in the north, and even regime/Russia-controlled areas such as the south bubble with unrest. Perhaps more importantly, sympathy for the revolt and its aims remain strong both within and outside Syria. Many of the opposition networks, particularly when it comes to humanitarian aid, still survive, and there is no reason to think they will cave to the will of their oppressor anytime soon. In this sense the Syrian revolt can be best compared to the Palestinian case, another cause that suffered widespread devastation and displacement, is frequently dismissed by pessimists as being essentially over in favor of the oppressor, but has instead remained a glimmering flame for decades against the odds. And Malik is right: it must be hoped that Allah remains with such cases in spite of their ups and downs in fortunes, because indeed, Allah is with the steadfast.
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Ibrahim Moiz is a writer and researcher on the contemporary history of the Muslim world. He has studied Political Science and History at the University of Toronto and SOAS.