THE SYRIAN REVOLUTION ON THE MOVE AND IN IMAGES
The Syrian revolution occupies a very special place in the surge of democratic uprisings that have crossed the Arab world since the winter of 2010-2011. Unlike the protests which quite rapidly brought about the overthrow of Presidents Ben Ali (Tunisia) and Mubarak (Egypt), the Syrian revolution is a long drawn-out crisis which has been going on for two long years. Again, where the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were marked by their commitment to non-violence, the Syrian revolution, after its first few months, was forced to become an increasingly military conflict. Finally, in contrast with the Libyan revolution, where NATO's intervention was decisive, the Syrian protest has to rely primarily on its own, internal strength, which accentuates its nationalist dimension.
In addition Syria is marked by a deeply rooted historical tradition, Aleppo vying with Damascus for the claim to be the region's oldest continuously inhabited city: both go back several thousand years. Their heritage goes back to the successive arrivals of the Aramaeans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. In 636 the victory of the Muslim armies from the Arabian Peninsula opened the country to Islam, with the first dynasty, known as the Umayyads, choosing Damascus as their headquarters. Damascus' “Umayyad Mosque”, like Aleppo's, was built on the site of a church, itself built on a Roman temple. Indeed two centuries after the Islamic conquest most Syrians were still Christian.
In 750 the Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown by the Abbasids, who punished Syria by transferring the capital of Islam to Iraq. Medieval Syria became a sanctuary of minorities, both Christian (with a dozen churches, “Orthodox” and “Catholic”) and Muslim (Ismaili, Druze and Alawites). The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were marked by the Crusades, with both sides building citadels. These fortresses are now playing an unexpected role in the revolution: Krak des Chevaliers, re-built by the Knights Hospitallers in 1140, has become an insurgent stronghold, while the fortress of Apamea (Qalaat Mudiq) is held by loyalist forces. Both face a hostile environment.
Doctrinal and philosophical diversity is the mark of Sunni Islam, which after the Crusades became the majority religion in Syria. The Andalusian mystic Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) spent the last fifteen years of his life in Damascus, his Sufi teaching appealing to many. But against this message of tolerance Ibn Taimiyya (1263-1328) preached the most radical violence against “bad Muslims” – first and foremost the Alawites. The Algerian emir Abdelkader (1808-1883) was a disciple of Ibn Arabi, and after his failure to stop the French in North Africa chose exile in Damascus. In 1860 he saved thousands of Christians (and the French consul) from a mob lynching. In 1918 his grand-son turned against the Ottomans to proclaim Syria's independence, before being swept away by the wave of nationalism.
In 1920 the "Arab Kingdom", established in Damascus after the First World War, was crushed by France, backed up by its Syrian “mandate” from the League of Nations. Right up to the country's formal independence in 1943, and the withdrawal of French troops in 1946, Paris did not stop playing “divide and rule”. The autonomy of the “Druze Mountain” (Jebel Druze), south of Damascus, had already been established during the Ottoman Empire. In contrast, there was no historical precedent for “the Alawite State” on the Mediterranean coast, with the energetic development of the port of Latakia. Syria, separated from “Greater Lebanon” in 1920, lost its province (sanjak) of Alexandretta on the eve of the Second World War, ceded to Turkey in exchange for Ankara's neutrality in the coming conflict.
When finally independence came, Syria, fragile and unstable, went through a period of intense parliamentary upheaval, with free elections and a pluralistic press, on the one hand, and military coups linked to the vagaries of the Cold War, on the other. The Baath Party, which is both pan-Arab and socialist, took power in 1963. Its attempts to better Israel contributed to the spiralling tension which led to the June 1967 war and the loss of the Golan Heights (occupied since then by the Jewish state and annexed de facto since 1980). Purges and rivalries weakened the Baath party, until in November 1970 an ambitious Alawite general, Hafez al-Assad, removed any barriers to his unchallenged domination.
“Assad's Syria” is the only example of an hereditary Republic in the Arab world, with Bashar al-Assad, son of the regime's founder, succeeding his father after the former's death in June 2000. The real power lies in the hands of the Assad family and a close circle of Alawite potentates, supported by a dozen “security” services with functions as opaque as they are arbitrary. Officially the Baath Party, the government structure and the military hierarchy are led by Sunni leaders, but this organizational façade has little to do with the real chain of command, tightly controlled by a like-thinking “hard core” of Alawites. The sectarian basis of power increased after the civil war of 1979-82, when the Muslim Brotherhood, citing Ibn Taimiyya, targeted the Alawites – and as a consequence sparked the massacre of at least ten thousand people in the Sunni fief of Hama.
Despite claiming that he is opening up Syrian society, Bashar al-Assad is as ruthless a tyrant as his father was. The short-lived “Damascus Spring” was put down in 2001 and the “Kurdish intifada” of March 2004 was repressed with much bloodshed. The opposition's proffered hand, including the Muslim Brotherhood's, trying to make good their past mistakes, has never been taken, quite the contrary. Bashar al-Assad uses the strategic importance of his country, between Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, to lock down his domestic “front”. He can also count on the unconditional support of Russia and Iran, both of whom see Syria as a major stepping stone in the Middle East.
I. A peaceful protest
II. The war of images
III. The world a witness
The Syrian revolution occupies a very special place in the surge of democratic uprisings that have crossed the Arab world since the winter of 2010-2011. Unlike the protests which quite rapidly brought about the overthrow of Presidents Ben Ali (Tunisia) and Mubarak (Egypt), the Syrian revolution is a long drawn-out crisis which has been going on for two long years. Again, where the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were marked by their commitment to non-violence, the Syrian revolution, after its first few months, was forced to become an increasingly military conflict. Finally, in contrast with the Libyan revolution, where NATO's intervention was decisive, the Syrian protest has to rely primarily on its own, internal strength, which accentuates its nationalist dimension...
Professor in contemporary Middle East history, Sciences Po, PSIA