The struggle for a third option

War without end? Developments in Syria

The liberationary uprising in Syria in 2012 has turned into a bloody war between the government and heterogeneous opposition forces, with the outcome uncertain. This development has been a matter of intensive concern for medico throughout the year. What does solidarity mean, given the contradictory and deadlocked situation in Syria? By Martin Glasenapp

In December 2012, the hopes associated with the uprising in Syria the year before had given way in many observers to a paralysing sense of powerlessness. There was no central Tahrir Square in Syria, no unmistakeable mass of people to force the rulers to step down. Instead, the regime shot back, mostly in the rebellious suburbs. As each demonstration became a funeral and each funeral a demonstration, the first city militias formed, mostly from deserters. Later, they formed the so-called 'Free Syrian Army', which was more a loose alliance of armed groups than a real army. Bombs shook Damascus, air attacks shook the suburbs. Reports of massacres leaked out to the public. In addition, there was a move towards division along religious lines by radical groups, and foreign jihadists opened a new front in the war. Finally, there was the growing suffering of the civil population, the actual or threatened interventions from abroad – the conflict invited a response of looking away fatalistically or even assuming that the 'war of cultures' was waging again.

In this situation, on 10 December – Human Rights Day – medico joined with the civil society initiative 'Adopt a Revolution' to publish a call for solidarity with the Syrian democratic movement which was initially signed by 60 prominent figures from the worlds of politics, academe, art and culture. 'In Syria, there is a threat that society will be destroyed by a tyranny of violence seeking to postpone its overthrow for an indeterminate period, using military force which cannot triumph. However, part of the Syrian tragedy is also that the future of the country has long since passed out of the hands of its citizens alone. Every step in the arms race in neighbouring countries holds the danger of regionalisation of the war. Any other form of open military intervention will drive the political forces to the brink and further split the opposition in Syria. However, there is a danger that simply standing by and watching could lead to similarly devastating results.' In the face of the bitter contradictions of the Syrian conflict, medico called for adherence to a third option. This is more likely to happen when we have a better understanding of the background to the uprising, strive to follow the evolution and dynamics of the happenings, and focus on the motives of those forces that are clinging to a civil perspective despite everything.

The social character of the revolution

The Syrian uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad occurred in a society in which wealth was more unevenly divided than ever before. 50% of the country's wealth was concentrated in the hands of just 5% of the population. 20% were living below the poverty threshold, 30% of the population and 58% of the under 24s were unemployed. An entire young generation had grown up without economic prospects. All this is the result of Assad's deregulation of the national economy since taking office in 2001. The rural areas were neglected, the public sector and state utilities were dismantled and the newly-created private sector was controlled by a rapacious elite in the New Economy. In this situation, the Baath party, which had taken power in 1963 and never relinquished it, also implemented comprehensive land reform. Major landowners were expropriated, and tenants, landless farmers and agricultural labourers were able to buy the land cheaply. As a result, one of the ironies of the Syrian revolution is that a regime is facing its bitterest foes among the descendants of the very farmers who had been freed from slave-like conditions 50 years ago, with a promise of modern development. This is why it was no accident that the protest movement started in 2011 in the periphery, or – more exactly – the grey belts of agglomeration around the major cities of Darah, Hama, Homs and (particularly) Damascus. These are the suburban areas where hundreds of thousands of former farmers have settled. While it is true to say that the civil war is threatening to superimpose religious divisions on the social character of the revolution, it would be wrong to forget that the uprising is still also a movement of the poor against the privileged. Recently, a merchant from Aleppo emphasised on the BBC that it is impossible to ignore the 'class components' of the Syrian uprising: 'For the rebels, there is total correlation between the regime and the rich. If you have money, you're part of the power elite.'

Syrian society lived for decades in a permanent state of emergency of a formally secular political system, a republic of fear in which the consent of the governed could only be guaranteed by an omnipresent apparatus of surveillance. This is the second bloody truth of the Syrian tragedy - that a country with a determinedly non-sectarian constitution has begun to destroy itself in an increasingly religiously-charged conflict which the constitution was drafted to prevent. In Syria we see that the great ideological struggle of an Arab nationalist progressive movement against the political and religious project of the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be lost. As all the squares in Syria have been sealed off and controlled by the secret police and army since the outbreak of the protests, and unarmed demonstrations have been fired on, and injured demonstrators dragged out of hospitals by the secret police, people created a new open space for themselves in the mosques (and individual churches), where Muslims in particular came together before Friday prayers, joined by Christians and Alawis to protest against the prevailing dictatorship. When young Syrian rebels in Homs, Hama or Idlib call out, 'We kneel to no-one but God'", this aggressive declaration of faith is not only a demonstrative rejection of the formally secular regime and quasi-religious family cult surrounding the president, but also a sign of the direct support religion provides for an uprising, giving the popular rebellion the strength to oppose the repressive system. Given this, in a situation in which everything is geared only to serving despotism, is it not at least a logical consequence that there is a return to traditions and religious institutions, and this then creates regressive and exclusive tendencies?

Approaches other than militarisation

From the start, medico has sided with the protests and tried to create partnerships with the courageous activists demonstrating for freedom, democracy and human dignity. We deliberately engaged in a practical search to see how our support for fundamental civil rights and the ideal of social equality can be incorporated into events in Syria. The universal idea of public education also means siding with democratic uprisings, even if the movements themselves are not solely shaped by a secular or classic left-wing consensus. People are not only calling for a better future with a good life, they are also rebelling against the monstrous product of authoritarian modern development philosophy. This applies to Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen and – particularly – to Syria. While the Arab world has irrevocably entered the 21st century in recent years, the signs still point to restoration and a possible regional war. The feudal monarchies of the Gulf States in particular are trying to make use of Syrian opposition to the 'godless' regime in Damascus, while medico remains on the side of those pressing for a free and socially just Syria. The democratic uprising of a whole young generation is in danger of being suffocated. Our support is for all the activists supporting local initiatives and medical aid structures which are still struggling unarmed for a democratic society in Syria. Despite the escalating civil war, they still stand for a third option, beyond simply surrendering to the regime and the expanding sectarian terror, beyond internal and external militarisation. Even if our options are limited, we are still trying to act responsibly. Is there hope for success? Samuel Beckett has already supplied the answer in 'Worstward Ho!': 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

In 2012 medico spent a total of € 153,484 for emergency aid in Syria and for Syrian refugees in Lebanon (inc. support from the German Federal Foreign Office and German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ))

Published: 01. June 2013

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