A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some Hard Questions About What's Going on in Northern Syria

 "Just  because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you." — Joseph Heller, Catch-22

"When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers." — Kenyan proverb

I want to be careful what I say here and how I say it because I absolutely do not want to give aid and comfort to the Asad regime in Syria, which has responded brutally to many clearly peaceful protests in Dar‘a, Homs, and elsewhere, that were genuinely seeking democratic change. And its refusal to allow outside journalists to report from Syria means that YouTube videos and rumors drive the ongoing Western narrative of what is happening in Syria, so the regime has itself to blame for the image presented to the outside world. But I also think there are increasing questions about whether what is going on now in Idlib Governorate along the Turkish border, and especially in Jisr al-Shughur, is the brutal crushing of a peaceful movement (which the Asad regime is clearly capable of doing), or is, as the government paints it, the brutal crushing of an armed uprising. Heavy fighting has been reported; has it entirely been tanks against unarmed civilians?

 If you didn't read it yesterday I'd urge you to peruse it now. Next, let me refer you to As'ad AbuKhalil (The Angry Arab) on the question of "Who is behind the violence in Syria?" His first point is that the regime is responsible. His second point is that the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has not been a peaceful organization in the past, so why assume it is now? (the Syrian Brotherhood is not the MB in Egypt or Jordan, despite common origins; its history with regimes led by people named Asad is not a gentle one). His third point deserves quoting at length (punctuation and capitalization as in the original); my comments after:
3)  There are from what I am hearing Wahhabi and Salafite groups with money and weapons who have been active in Syria.  I won't be surprised if the Harirites are involved too.  I find it very likely, in the service of Hariri agenda.  A reliable informant of this blog in Syria tells me (I am translating from Arabic):  "Yes, there are professional, trained, and organized gangs which are controlled by clerics who all have lived in Saudi Arabia, like `Adnan Al-`Ar`ur, and they kill and use violence against other sects...In Latakia, there are professional elements which used to live a normal life like sleeper cells and they perpetrated acts of sabotage and sectarian sedition and I saw that myself as i was there then...In Tell Kalakh, there are splinter groups from Fath-Islam which are moved by Hariri money, and not Hariri men as spread by Syrian media.  In Banyas, it is said that there are officers from Saudi Arabia and UAE and a Mossad element who are now in custody of the security service.  There were booby traps there because it has a generator and an oil refinery and a pipe line from Iraq.  In Homs, there are extremist pockets from prior to Ba`th and it has been reactivated and is still strong with Saudi money.  Now Idlib is all in flame and Turkey is supplying all with weapons and with fighters.  Army is facing difficulty advancing because all passages and bridges have been booby trapped."  This last passage is from my informant and I have no way of verifying the information.  And as they used to end books of Islamic theology, I say: And Karl Marx is the all-knowing.

PS Nir Rosen added this:  "there is also the iraq and zarqawi factor syria was a key staging area for zarqawi types, they had safe houses in damascus and allepo, they had a network of facilitators, as the americans like to say and i'd love to know whats happening in the border area with iraq's anbar where families have close ties on both sides and where zarqawi people had safe houses. the town of abu kamal for example, which borders the iraqi town of husseiba in al qaim. the americans raided abu kamal a couple of years ago and killed some key al qaeda guy. abu kamal had an uprising against the regime a couple of weeks ago. i think the zarqawi factor is an important one. these people always spoke about how the final battle will be in Sham".
Now As'ad AbuKhalil in his Angry Arab mode can come on a little strong, and the scattershot implication of everyone from Mossad to Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq to the Hariris to the Saudis may seem a conspiracy theory of the first order. Nor does his invocation of Saint Karl Marx impress those of us who prefer Groucho, Chico and Harpo as our Marxist icons. But all those elements he cites do harbor a certain enmity for the Asad regime. I don't think they're all involved here of course,but some of them may be stirring the pot.

Now since the Syrian uprising got rolling I've alluded to the Hama massacre in 1982 a number of times, usually to deplore it. Thousands died, even by the most cautious estimates, perhaps 10,000 or even more; the city was virtually destroyed. But Hama was not really analogous to what happened in Dar‘a or Homs in recent weeks and months. Whether it's analogous to what's happening up north is the question here. In 1982 the elder Asad (or really his younger brother Rifa‘at, who was the "bad cop" of that era as Bashar's younger brother Maher is the "bad cop" of this one). didn't just roll up the artillery and start shelling the city to rubble because they felt like it. They fought a battle lasting some three weeks to retake a major city that had risen against the regime. The results were a humanitarian disaster, and have deservedly stained the Asad name ever since, but it was an armed uprising that came close to lynching the governor and was the culmination of a sustained assassination campaign against the ‘Alawite establishment. Whether the uprising was justified or not is a matter of debate, but it was not a peaceful protest, it was an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafis to proclaim the liberation of the city as a first step in dismantling the ‘Alawi grip on power. The brutality of its crushing has overshadowed the nature of the revolt. And while the regime at the time blamed everybody in sight for subversion, including the usual suspects (the US and Israel), some arms did flow from Lebanese Christian militias and from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, both deep enemies of Asad.

The regime keeps trying to paint what's been happening up north in those terms: an armed uprising, even an attempt to seize Idlib Governorate and create a Libyan situation with a secessionist region. If true, that doesn't justify the ferocity of the response, at least not necessarily, but it does alter the narrative a bit. And let me note that during the extended conflict in northern and central Syria between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood that extended from the late 1970s until the suppression of the Hama revolt, Idlib was an area of Islamist dissidence, and there was at least one government operation in Jisr al-Shughur, in March of 1980. And I say this as a historian by training who wants to know what's really happening, not out of any empathy for a brutal regime.

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