In an under-studied essay on the Syrian conflict back in 2016, the academic Bassam Haddad described two conflicting narratives that had split discussion of the war. The first was that of the anti-Assad camp. They insisted that the dreams behind the would-be revolution could ultimately triumph if only Assad were to go.
According to Haddad, this camp had a troubling tendency to downplay the militarized and extremist dominance of the opposition. For them Assad’s removal, by any means, would give way to a better and more just Syrian political order.
On the other side of the fence sat the pro-Assad. They had a tendency to see conspiracy and foreign interference in every aspect of the uprising. For this camp, there was no domestic or secular support for the revolutionary uprising - only the work of western imperialism and its jihadist proxies.
Resultantly, Assad’s crimes against Syrians are, for them, either falsehoods or collateral damage in a war where the ends of preserving Syrian sovereignty always justify the means.
Haddad pointed out shades of grey within these camps, and without taking a side, identified some features common to them. Both sides suffered, as he saw it, from spots of ideological blindness.
What is striking reading the essay eighteen months later is how much has changed geopolitically in the Syrian war, and yet how little the boundaries of these ideological sides have shifted. If anything, they have become more entrenched, with troubling consequences.
The international media appears either unwilling or unable to deal with the thornier points made by the side they choose to oppose. That, or it has found itself hamstrung by a raging storm of disinformation and suspicion.
The result is that all almost all media organizations, not only the established “mainstream” media but also alternative and independent outlets, are now bogged down in the same partisan split. Deviating from their general position, or even nuancing it, invites accusations of apologism by their own side, and of willing ignorance or conspiracy by the other.
And in this storm, the voices of Syrians themselves are far too often drowned out. More problematically, these broad narratives in traditional and social media often make a bold, if usually implicit claim to speak for the majority of Syrians.
Accompanying every disputed piece of footage or reporting is an insinuation that unveiling these small cover-ups will also unveil the true will of the Syrian people, a will that is being distorted and hidden by the other side.
Such a claim made about any other country would sound insane. Though Syria is in an exceptional state now, its suffering does not preclude differences of opinion about the country’s future. Many Syrians do occupy positions along the lines of the ideological camps that Haddad described, and many more fall between them.
However, there is a great deal more at stake for Syrians than political tribalism. And so while differing Syrian testimonies cannot bridge a divide, they might be able to help observers abroad think beyond partisanship, and re-introduce nuance as a matter of fact, rather than of concession.
This is a tricky exercise. It is dishonest to pretend that divisions in Syrian opinion around Assad do not exist. But it is also dishonest to pretend that this is a political debate like any other.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of trying to break the impasse, Al Bawaba has asked two Syrian commentators with opposing views around President Assad to share their thoughts. They cannot speak for all of Syria. But they may help to illustrate what divisions in Syrian opinion around Assad look like, and to introduce some more productive avenues for thought beyond proving the other wrong.
The first commentator is the journalist and activist Zaina Erhaim. Erhaim runs the blog Liberated-t, which tells the stories of Syrian women in the conflict. She has previously written for The Guardian and The Economist, and has trained over a hundred journalists in Syria in her work with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
In 2015 she was awarded the Peter Mackler Award for Corageous and Ethnical Journalism. She has recently published a chapter in a book with the Al Jazeera Media Institute about journalism and activism in Syria.
She is a well-known voice against the Assad regime. When Al Bawaba requested her input for a story around Syrian political disagreement, she agreed, but added:
“I believe we should be more cautious describing the situation between Syrians, Disagreement is certainly not the right word. You have people forced to leave their homes for foreign militias to take over. People calling loudly to massacre all those who dared to challenge the president and wipe them off. This is not disagreement, this is fascism. You are pro-regime, or you are dead, disparaged, or forcibly deported and exiled. This is not a political opinion.”
The second is Maram Susli, a widely-followed political commentator with a strongly pro-Assad stance, known online as Partisan Girl. She is a contributor to the New Eastern Outlook and InfoWars.
Susli is a highly controversial figure among followers of the Syrian conflict. She denies that Assad has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. She has often been referred to as a distributor of Syrian regime, Russian and Iranian propaganda.
Susli disputes this, and says that she is simply applying the cynicism westerners hold for these governments to European and American politics. And controversial though she may be, that same cynicism towards the west is a significant force in Syria and the broader Middle East.
Anti-Euro-Americanism is certainly not just the purview of the pro-Assad. But it is a prism through which western involvement in Syria is inevitably refracted. And Susli’s view illustrates that perspective, or perhaps a version of it taken to its logical extreme. Either way, dismissing such a view as mere propaganda risks creating false senses of security about the ways in which Syrians see the world.
We put the same questions to both commentators. Whilst their views on Assad are diametrically opposed, there are some concerns that they seem to share.
Both fear the prospect of Syria being broken up or federalized, although for Erhaim Assad is the cause of that fragmentation, while for Susli he is the bulwark against it. And both are skeptical of the capacity, intentions and even the existence of the “international community”.
Still, as becomes clear from their answers, it is going to be hard to develop a climate in which these common concerns can be worked on cooperatively, particularly when only one set of views can be freely expressed in their own country.
Should President Assad stay or go? Can there be peace in Syria with him in power?
Zaina Erhaim: He should be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court for his crimes against humanity. There is no peace without justice, and no stability without freedom, and neither would be an option with Assad regime.
Maram Susli: He needs to stay as this is a time of war. The west only wants him to leave in order to destabilise the country further and break it apart. The west wants someone pliable that would agree to anything, from federalising the country to weakening the armed forces. They would also prefer it if that person was a sectarian religious extremist, as this would threaten minorities and cause divisions within Syria. The goal is not just peace, it is the survival of Syria. Those are not necessarily one in the same.
What is the best alternative to Assad? And what is the worst? What values are most important for Syrian leaders to preserve?
Zaina Erhaim: The best alternative is democracy, civil rights, human rights, laws and regulations, a country instead of a hell whole? Nothing is worse than what he has lead us to. He has divided Syria into islands under different occupations, created the worst humanitarian crisis, extremism, hatred, and the worst refugee waves.
Maram Susli: Only Syrians have the right to choose their leader, and their alternatives are set out clearly in Syrian law. They can vote for anyone who meets the pre-requisites for the presidency, or any of the internal patriotic opposition parties already in the country. The worst alternative would be anyone that a foreign power chooses, even if isn't an al Qaeda or Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser. Anyone chosen by a foreigner would not be looking out for the interests of the Syrian people.
We must preserve a united Syria, and we must preserve secularism – it’s obviously the only way to keep a country of many diverse sects and religions united. It is important for freedom of religion to exist in society. It is also important for religion to be separated from the decisions of the state so that they make look after all their citizens equally.
What would you want to say to the international community? What should they do for peace in Syria?
Zaina Erhaim: I won't say anything, because there is no such a thing as the "international community" There is a helpless UN and a failed international system and UN Security Council.
Maram Susli: I always found the 'international community' to be a loaded term, it suggests the world is united as one group. It isn't. So if by the "international community" you mean the United Nations, I say if they want peace they need to step up and apply what is written in their charter, and protect the sovereignty of member states. They must take steps to force the US, Turkey, France and Israel to stop the occupation and bombing of Syria. If by the international community you mean NATO and their GCC stooges, my message is: Stop arming terrorist groups, get your soldiers off our land, stop bombing our country, and give up your plans for global hegemony.
What do you think are the main camps of political disagreement between Syrians?
Zaina Erhaim: This question seems really as if we are speaking about the US elections, or Labor or Conservative parties. We are not. We are speaking about a war criminal in a situation of power and his victims! This is again nothing related to politics, it's basic rights. The right to live without being tortured to death for expressing your basic rights.
Maram Susli: After Syria was kicked out of the Arab league and attacked by several Arab neighbours, many Syrians are no longer identify as ethnically Arab, but rather a Syrian, Aramaic or Levantine. This explains the rise in popularity of political groups like the SSNP [the Syrian Social Nationalist Party]. Those who still ascribe to the Ba'athist ideals of pan-Arabism would disagree with this view. The minority of individuals that had illusions about Syria becoming a theocracy under the Muslim Brotherhood have had those illusions dashed through the course of this war beyond any hope of a comeback.
What do you think of this war between two narratives in the international media?
Zaina Erhaim: I don't see this war. There is Russian and Iranian-led propaganda and there is the leftist one that echoes that. On the other hand, there is journalism and journalists reporting what's happening objectively.
Maram Susli: Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US has been waging war on smaller weaker nations with nothing to hold them back. But Syria is an important country to many of the world powers, and likely the last straw for Russia. Russia is seeking a multipolar world. However, the US is still seeking global hegemony. The west, Russia, Iran and Syria agree Al Qaeda and ISIS are still operating in Syria, and that Al Qaeda is working with the “armed opposition” as the rebels are now being called. Where we disagree is that the west wants Al Qaeda to take over Syria as they did in Libya, and the Syria-Russia-Iran alliance wants to fight it.
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