Totalitarianism has been programmed into the Syrian population for generations, writes Nadim Shehadi.
It has been another week of bloodshed, war talk and an escalation of violence in Syria. But both the Syrian government and opposition activists have disputed an assertion by the United Nation’s peacekeeping chief that the bloody Syrian conflict had descended into a civil war.
Activists said the term “civil war” suggested an equivalence between the two sides and ignored massacres committed by the regime.
A war of words has also erupted between the United States and Russia over accusations that Russia has sent attack helicopters to Syria.
Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Council is engaged in an ideological battle with the regime’s dominant Ba’athism.
The appointment of Abdulbaset Sieda to head the council comes at a time when it is undergoing what is euphemistically called a “restructuring” and is opening up to other opposition groups.
It is part of the opposition’s experiential overhaul in the past year, during which so much change has occurred. It also follows the declaration made by the previous president of the council, Burhan Ghalioun, that the council had failed the Syrian people.
Complex web of informants
The appointment comes after two important meetings, one of the council in Rome, which decided on the restructuring and another in Bulgaria, where the council met several other opposition groups and managed to come up with a joint statement. The Bulgaria meeting also discussed a road map to create a common vision and a plan for co-ordination between what is now recognised as a diverse collection of opposition groups, with the aim of developing a mechanism to work together under the umbrella of the council while maintaining their autonomy. The other goal is to prepare for transition after the fall of the regime. Making these plans more difficult is the fact that the opposition is at the same time fighting an ideological battle with the regime’s dominant Ba’athism.
Ba’athist ideas are deeply ingrained in the minds of Syrians, including those of the opposition, and benefit from a head start of 48 years, during which Ba’ath party ideology was hammered into the population through the media, education and other government institutions.
In addition, a complex web of informants, modelled on Eastern European security services, created a lack of trust and a kind of thought police that expected citizens to report on each other. Even Syrian expats and exiles never felt far from the atmosphere of suspicion.
The council has had problems since its inception. It was created in the summer of 2011, initially from a coalition of the Damascus Declaration, the Muslim Brotherhood and several organisations that represent religious and ethnic groups like Kurds and Assyrians. To these were added the delegates of local co-ordination committees who represent protesters on the ground.
From its inception, the council was criticised for not being inclusive enough, for being created by Turkey and Qatar, for being unrepresentative of the forces inside the country and for being dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. It also invited inevitable comparisons with the Libyan National Transitional Council and hence was suspected of preparing the ground for a Western military intervention or invasion.
Then other groups started springing up as alternatives to the council. The National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change was formed in Damascus as several versions of old parties such as the ancien régime National Bloc were also being created and other parties and movements emerged from the left, right and centre. Prominent members of the council broke away and formed their own parties, then rejoined.
Under pressure for inclusiveness, the council expanded its membership from about 70 to more than 300 until it became unmanageable, with meetings reminiscent of that last caricature-like scene in the film Lawrence of Arabia, in which the Arabs, instead of uniting, end up bickering in Parliament.
The opposition to the Syrian regime, in fact, represents every idea that was suppressed in Syria since the 1958 declaration of the United Arab Republic and unity with Egypt and especially since the advent of the Ba’ath party in 1958.
The Arab socialist Ba’ath party incorporates elements of Arab nationalism that call for pan-Arab unity, combined with anti-imperialism and socialism. The authoritarian or even totalitarian nature of the regime evolved from a slogan that no voice could emerge above the noise of the battle against Israel and imperialism. This was consolidated through several wars and battles, both internal and external.
The ideas represented by the opposition include various facets of the antithesis of Ba’ath party teachings. Where the dominant ideology was unity, the opposition has diversity; where it has secularism, the opposition has the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious parties; where it had Arab nationalism, it has Kurds and ethnic groups; where there was a one-party state, there is now a multiplicity of parties. What was a strong centralised state under the Ba’ath is now a debate about various forms of administrative and political decentralisation.
For decades, contact with foreign countries was totally forbidden, whereas now there are competing regional and international influences and agendas reflected in different elements of the opposition. Tribes are re-emerging as a force to be reckoned with, as are traditional families, some with feudal backgrounds.
From the standpoint of the official regime, the ideology of the opposition represents everything that has been anathema to its views for almost half a century. Hence, the opposition looks fragmented, totally dependent on foreign influence and supported by the West and Gulf countries, which in Arab-nationalist terms represents imperialism and its clients.
Syrians were brought up for generations with the idea that any attempt at dissent was part of a conspiracy to fragment the nation and weaken its resolve in the battlefield, amounting to treason and collaboration with the enemy. Although this may sound like empty rhetoric, Syrians, some of whom are discovering the practice of politics for the first time, experience these mental obstacles and realise the difficulties of surmounting them.
What the Syrian National Council hopes to achieve in the near future amounts to co-ordinating different ideas and battling a mentality that is deeply programmed in the minds of people. It is, in fact, a process that will take at least two generations and will last long after the regime is gone. The enemy is in the mind of each and every Syrian. – © Guardian News & Media 2012
Nadim Shehadi is an associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa programme