Coming to Terms with the Past

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    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    Challenges of Transition and the Dangers of a Slide into Civil War
    The Legacy of the Ba’ath and the Assad Regime

    ‘As a sect, the Alawites should be exterminated.’ This outlandish statement was recently posted on the Facebook pages of fanatical Syrian activists. This is not the first time such statements have appeared since the beginning of the protests against the regime in March of 2011.

    Such statements are usually made in the aftermath of atrocities perpetrated in some city or town that has challenged the regime. The latest one differed from others in its tone of absolute intransigence and in its wide proliferation across the social network, and it came on the heels of yet another massacre in Kafr Aweid, in Idlib Province, in the middle of September. For the second time in the eighteen months of protests now termed the Syrian Revolution, Kafr Aweid was, according to opposition groups and human rights organisations, in particular the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the scene of a slaughter by forces loyal to the regime. A YouTube video of the atrocities went viral, showing the ghastly sight of a little girl’s decapitated body.

    According to the aforementioned human rights organisation, the inhabitants of Kafr Aweid were surprised by an intense helicopter overflight of the town at around three p.m. on Sunday, 16th September 2012. After massing quickly and suddenly, the helicopters dropped explosive barrels containing TNT. Opposition sources claimed that these barrels have been widely used recently because they are inexpensive and highly destructive. It appears that such barrels landed on the building that housed the town’s family bakery, killing ten civilians on the spot, including four women, and decapitating the little girl whose picture went viral. All the victims were from the Mighlaj family. Another 120 people were injured within a twenty-metre radius of the explosion.

    Christians in the dock

    But why the call for the extermination of the Alawites following the aerial bombing of Kafr Aweid? Before answering that question, we should examine another instance of an atrocity that occurred in the area outside the capital known as Reef Dimashq (literally: ‘the countryside of Damascus’). Opposition sources claim that on 26th August, in the town of Deraya, regime thugs known as Shabbeeha slaughtered more than 300 people. Some opposition sources put the figure as high as 500.
    In the wake of this event, Syrian activists on Facebook directed their anger at Syria’s Christian minority, calling for acts of revenge targeting Christians, who bore no responsibility whatsoever for the Deraya massacre, although these calls fell short of calls for extermination as had been the case with Alawites. This was ascribed to a highly controversial report about the massacre by the privately-owned al-Dunia TV channel, whose owner, Mohammad Hamsho, is closely associated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Micheline Azar, the network’s correspondent sent to Deraya to cover the story, is a Christian – as her name indicates – and she filed an incendiary report that was widely considered to be a desecration of the journalistic mission, and an affront to the dignity and anguish of the victims. 

    Hence, it was this reporter’s disgraceful conduct that dominated coverage of the story, obfuscating the real question of how Syrian society had descended into the vortex of violence. Activists on Facebook seemingly forgot that the security services and Shabbeeha were the perpetrators, and reserved all their venom for Syria’s Christians, who had nothing to do with the massacre, just because Micheline Azar is a Christian. And thus, instead of a rational discussion of the Syrian regime’s objectives and motivations in resorting to such tactics, irrationalism and superficial commentary won the day!

    To be fair, neither the finger-pointing directed at the Christians nor the call for ‘Alawite extermination’ following the Deraya and Kafr Aweid massacres occurred in a vacuum – even though neither community was involved in the incidents as sectarian or religious establishments per se. The truth about the Syrian Revolution is that following seven months of peaceful protests, which yielded absolutely no traction politically, the regime was able to lure the opposition into taking up arms. And as the Syrian regime ratcheted up its operations, resorting to excessive violence and widespread killing, peaceful protests diminished, army soldiers refused to shoot their civilian compatriots and deserted, and opposition activists increasingly called for armed resistance and the formation of military units under the umbrella of an armed movement named the Free Syrian Army.

    The decapitated girl and ‘exterminating’ the Alawites

    The ‘decapitated girl’ from Kafr Aweid was neither the first nor the last child victim of the turmoil that has engulfed Syria, which had already made it onto the UN’s list of countries and entities targeting children. But the circulation of this horrific picture marked a watershed, for now the future coexistence of Syria’s component communities was in jeopardy. Fingers had already been pointed at the Christian community for siding with the regime, especially because of the perceived reluctance of Syrian Christians to join the ranks of the opposition or take part in protests, but it was not until the aforementioned TV coverage of the Deraya massacre that direct accusations were made. For Alawites, the situation is far more dangerous. If the conversation continues about Syria’s minorities, be they religious, sectarian or ethnic, the situation of the Alawites will ipso facto be headed towards genocide. The problem is that Alawites are being held collectively responsible for the actions of the security forces and the Shabbeeha. Various elements of Syrian society have made clear that they do not differentiate between anti-regime Alawites and those working for the regime, both those in the regular services and the thugs. All Alawites are being lumped together as one homogeneous political and military bloc and are no longer being regarded as a collection of individuals with different propensities and outlooks. Although it constitutes only 10% of the Syrian population, the Alawite community has produced some of the fiercest opposition figures in the regime’s history, whether under Assad the father or Assad the son.

    However, when the regime began to bomb targets from the air after suffering setbacks on the ground, rumours began to circulate that only the Alawites in the airforce were carrying out the aerial bombardments. The rumour was accelerated following the capture of a pilot whose MiG-23 crashed near the town of Muhassan in Deir-ez-Zor district on August 13th. In a YouTube video published by his captors, Col. Mufeed Muhammad Salman introduced himself as an Alawite and described his mission as having been to ‘kill civilians’ in the Sunni town. This incident and the overt vilification of the regime’s Alawite character, especially by armed opposition Islamists whose units sport clearly Sunni names, have now placed the entire Alawite community in the dock. As mentioned above, earlier statements were not as venomous as that issued following the bombardment of Deraya in which the girl was decapitated. By and large, their language was an appeal to independent Alawites to distance themselves from the regime and to join the opposition. 

    The Syrian regime has, to a large extent, backed itself into a corner. It has ruled with an iron grip, involving itself in the minutiae of the country’s life thanks to a security apparatus that was under complete Alawite domination, save for the defence minister who is a Sunni from the region of Hama. The regime’s own discourse fed the islamicisation of the revolution and it has manipulated the situation to sow sectarian strife within the mosaic that is Syrian society. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, it was the Islamist wing of the opposition that rose to the fore, chief amongst them the Salafists, thereby exacerbating the regime’s sectarianisation of the conflict. And instead of the revolution being a popular uprising against a brutal dictatorship, it is now a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Alawites, and between Sunnis and Shiites, since there is also a small Shiite community in Syria, with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah bolstering the regime’s stance. This has been further exacerbated by the pronouncements of various politicians and strongmen, notably Jordan’s King Abdullah II who has warned against the formation of what has been termed the ‘Shiite crescent’ – an arc stretching from Iran to Lebanon and including Iraq and Syria.

    Sectarian civil war and the post-Assad phase

    Whether activists and the political opposition or the regime and its supporters, Syrians by and large refuse to describe what has been going on in their country for eighteen months as a civil war – unlike the Western media which has been calling it that for quite a while because of recurring reports of ethnic-cleansing-type operations, especially in areas around Homs province. While there is broad consensus that it is the regime that has been responsible for such operations, the armed opposition has not escaped criticism either, even though to date there has been no evidence of their responsibility for such operations. Despite allegations by the UN Human Rights Council and other international human rights organisations that the opposition has also committed atrocities, it appears that its fighters, especially the ones with Islamist (Sunni) credentials, have not resorted to ‘sectarian cleansing’. Assuming that this proposition is correct, how much longer will they go on showing restraint? The longer the conflict continues, the more radicalised the Islamist units become, and the greater the gravitational pull of sectarianism for ordinary Syrians. It seems to me as if we are moving towards a devastating civil war, not as it is understood in the West, but in the abominable strictly sectarian sense. If the situation remains unchanged, that is to say if armed action continues unabated, and if there is not the slightest prospect for a political opening, then the danger grows that Syria will become a failing state along the Somali model. An additional danger is that in the absence of a unified military command that takes its orders from a unified political command, the leaders of the opposition’s armed units may well turn into warlords along the Afghan model, and that would surely lead to an open-ended and protracted conflict. 

    Transitional justice and the Day After Project

    Despite this grim assessment, there is no reason why opposition activists and their international supporters should not look towards forming some kind of political alternative to the Assads’ rule, especially since they consider the fall of the regime inevitable. And in order to avoid repeating experiences from the recent past – such as the sectarianisation of Iraq, feuding by warlords in Afghanistan, or the failed state of Somalia – they should already begin to work on the tools for a transitional consitutional and political phase. Given that the Syrian regime has been totalitarian since the 1963 coup, with a huge authoritarian infrastructure, including dozens of security services, a large army that answers directly to the head of the regime, in addition to the so-called Popular Committees of the Ba’ath (Shabeeha), it seems unlikely that transition would be smooth. The longer the conflict rages the harder the transition will be, especially in light of the increasing trend towards narrow identifications, whether ethnic, sectarian or even nationalistic, all of which are being stoked by the regime to prolong its rule and fragment the opposition.

    Part of Syria’s uniqueness derives from the fact that it is a true showcase for pluralism, with its plethora of religious, ethnic and cultural communities. Its other distinguishing feature derives from the fact that the regime, established by the late president Hafez al-Assad and bequeathed to his son, is a mix of populist, nationalist ideology enshrined in the pan-Arabism of the Ba’ath Party combined with a police state whose use of repression not only weakened but eventually destroyed civil society while accruing ever more power to its leader (and his son). Against this backdrop, the transitional phase and the task of a future government are enormously complicated. 

    The most notable initiative being considered for Syria after five decades of dictatorships
    under the Assads is the Day After Project, which has been funded and supported by the US Department of State, the Swiss Foreign Ministry and one Dutch and one Norwegian NGO. The project has been facilitated by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in partnership with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP). Western powers are quite worried about the future of minorities in post-Assad Syria, in light of the factors outlined above and of Iraq’s bitter experience. Western concern for Syria’s minorities, especially the Christians, is partly fuelled by the West’s fear that Islamists will come to power, as they have elsewhere in countries swept up in the Arab Spring – notably Egypt and Tunisia but also, to a lesser extent, Libya, where, at the time of writing, the situation seems improved, despite - or perhaps because of – the violence of the uprising which eventually turned into a full-blown armed conflict.

    This project brought together forty-five Syrians representing a broad spectrum of the Syrian opposition, who met over a six-month period in Berlin to start planning for the transition to democracy. The working groups included members of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, and other opposition figures, including activists and representatives of ethnic and religious groups in Syria. Their work was facilitated by former economic and military advisors, as well as academics and organisers considered to be experts in transition planning. Months of meetings resulted in the publication of a final document which is considered a road map for a smooth and democratically-informed transition that would usher in a new era after the fall of the current regime. The document articulates some of the basic constitutional principles that would govern the transition and its aftermath, most notably the rule of law and equal citizenship irrespective of religion, ethnicity or gender. (For the full report in English, go to: 104151937?extension= pdf&from=embed.)

    While the Day After Project is probably the most significant initiative focusing on the post-Assad transition, there have been others, including meetings and conferences held in other international capitals. Discussions of what is termed Transitional Justice have been high on the agenda and much has been made of transition experiences in other areas of the world, including Iraq, South Africa, East Germany and even Morocco. The Assad regime and the Ba’ath have left a legacy of hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed, maimed, disappeared or detained, and Transitional Justice is deemed to be crucially important to the rule of law, i.e. the treatment of criminals and perpetrators in such a way as to avoid a descent into a frenzied bloodbath or the carving up of Syria into micro-states. This is no easy task in light of the alarming militarisation of the Syrian Revolution.

    Will the Syrian people be able to avoid the consequences of decades of brutal repression under the Assadist Ba’ath, embrace democracy and commit to a pluralistic, secular state in accordance with the demands of the majority of opposition groups? The future alone will provide an answer to that question.
    Ahmad Hissou
    is a journalist and Syrian opposition activist living in Cologne, Germany. He is a member of the Fikrun wa Fann/Art&Thought editorial board.

    Translated by Maia Thabet
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2012

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