Syria and the hole at the heart of the Arab revolts

Events in Syria suggest that nobody has the authority to resolve the Arab crisis – not the US, not the regimes, and sadly not the rebels either.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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More than six months since the Arab uprisings came like thieves in the night, terrifying ageing Arab rulers and bamboozling so-called international relations experts, a strange stalemate has descended on the Arab world.

Yes, there is still violent struggle, most notably in Syria. And even in those countries where Western observers believe the ‘revolutions were successful’, primarily Egypt and Tunisia, there remains widespread dissatisfaction with the not-so new regimes. Yet the uprisings seem stuck, unresolved, caught in a kind of action-replay loop as they sway unpredictably between new outbursts of anger from below and new rounds of repression or concession from above. Neither side has been victorious: not the peoples fighting for freedom nor the regimes desperately trying to shore up the old order. It’s like the Arab world has had electric shock treatment, and is still dazed and confused as a consequence.

On one level, this is normal. There have been many instances in history when political upheavals, even ones as large and as awesome as the Arab Spring, have not led to instant meaningful change, instead taking all parties by surprise and provoking the hurried creation of new-ish political arrangements. But on another level, the stuckness of the Arab Spring speaks to something peculiar to our era. The key issue in the Arab world right now is that none of the forces involved in this historic clash seems to have the moral or political authority to resolve things decisively in its favour: not the US; not the repressive Arab regimes; and sadly, not the Arab people.

The Arab Spring has exposed what we might call a triple crisis of authority. It has revealed America’s serious imperial impotence, where the US seems incapable not only of directing events, as it would undoubtedly have sought to do during a moment like this in the past, but uncertain of what direction it would like events to move in. It has also, most obviously, exposed the crisis of authority, the moral and political rot, of the regimes that held power in the Arab world for most of the post-Second World War period. And finally, and most worryingly, it has exposed the crisis of oppositional, radical politics today, where the Arab people certainly have the daring that has been a central part of every big uprising throughout history, but lack coherence, a strategy, even a political language in which they might articulate their aims.

This triple crisis of authority is at its most glaring in Syria. Here we have an Arab country governed by a regime that has lost whatever sliver of political legitimacy it might once have possessed, where groups of angry but disconnected people launch occasional acts of furious public disobedience. America, meanwhile, looks on, almost as a mere spectator, feeling the urge to distance itself from Bashar Assad’s regime yet simultaneously terrified of what might arise if Assad falls. The end result, as one Democrat congressman said of his own president, is an approach to Syria that ‘manages to combine colossal moral failure with unimaginable strategic imbecility’.

One of the most striking things about the uprising in Syria is the extent to which the question of political legitimacy, the true issue at the heart of the Arab quake, is being discussed openly. And none of the parties has made a convincing stab of assuming such legitimacy. In recent days, as Assad’s tanks have continued to assault protesting people, US officials have announced that his regime no longer has legitimacy. ‘In our eyes, he has lost the legitimacy to govern’, declared secretary of state Hillary Clinton – as if ‘legitimacy to govern’ is something conferred on or withdrawn from foreign parties by the US State Department.

Clinton’s attempted withdrawal of legitimacy from Assad is striking for a number of reasons. Firstly because it suggests US officials have a very flimsy idea of what constitutes legitimacy. In Clinton’s eyes, did Assad have ‘legitimacy to govern’ before the Arab Spring, when political repression and occasional crackdowns on oppositional forces were still the order of the day? Secondly, it is notable how behind the times is the State Department. Assad’s so-called legitimacy has already utterly collapsed, by dint of the Syrian people’s rebellions in recent months, not State Department diktat. Alongside the bloody protests in various towns and cities, there is now also a more everyday form of anti-Assad dissent, including in Damascus. According to one report, in cafes and bars in the capital, ‘conversations that were once reserved for the privacy of the home are being held in public’. A cocky democratic shift is occurring in Syria, and it is this, not Hillary’s press releases, that has demolished Assad’s ‘legitimacy’. And the third striking thing about Washington’s attempt to determine issues of political legitimacy in the Arab world is just how unconvincing it sounds.

The Arab Spring has exposed a US that seems shorn of both its determination and its ability to influence global events in any meaningful way. So in Syria, the US is tailending events rather than driving them, adjusting, in a very ad hoc manner, to whatever shift in the balance of forces it can discern through its aloof observations of a country in crisis. In late March and early April, the US was still banking on Assad pulling through and reassuming control, albeit with concessions. Clinton said she considered him ‘a reformer’. Then in May, as the regime’s crackdown intensified, the US started issuing ‘condemnations’ and imposed some sanctions. Over the past week it has upped the ante by questioning Assad’s legitimacy. The extent to which Washington is simply trying to keep up with events was captured in the assessment of one senior State Department official, who said of the worsening economy and internal incohesion in Syria: ‘All of the factors that keep the regime in power are trending downward.’ Here, a part of the world that the US would once have fought tooth-and-nail to shape in its favour is reduced to the level of a market tumble, with US officials playing the role, not of map-redrawing imperialists, but of wide-eyed bankers wondering why share prices are falling.

At the same time as the US is increasingly critical of Assad it can’t quite let go of the olive branch it has been extending to him in recent years. So officials say he has ‘lost legitimacy’ but also hint that if he were to ‘pursue political reform’ then things might improve. Some international observers have sought to depict this dual approach by America as a very clever strategic ploy. In truth, America’s borderline schizo approach towards Syria is a product of discombobulation more than design. Primarily, it is America’s out-of-touchness with currents in the Arab world, and its irrational fear that the Arab uprisings will end in more 1979-style Islamic theocracies, that has led it towards a ‘policy’ that can best be described as Hedging Its Bets. As a former US government adviser told Foreign Policy, Washington is gripped by a ‘fear of what might replace Assad if he falls… Take your pick of scary scenarios: civil war, a Sunni fundamentalist takeover, or a new base for al-Qaeda.’

Such fears are an indicator of how much America’s foreign policy is now driven more by a feeling of being out-of-control than by a determination to control, more by an inability to recognise where its national interests lie than by the cool-headed pursuit of its national interests. As Democratic congressman Gary Ackerman put it, US policy towards Syria is ‘completely incoherent’, with officials unable to see what Ackerman believes to be in America’s ‘blindingly obvious national interests’ (in his view, the demise of the Assad regime).

Yet just because they are incoherent, that doesn’t mean Washington’s political interventions in Syria and other Arab states are without consequence. On the contrary, America’s indecisive, concerned-about-Assad-but-even-more-concerned-about-what-happens-after-Assad stance is likely making a bad situation worse. On the one hand, the half-hearted attempt by the international community to isolate Assad can be seen as making the Assad regime more reckless still. Feeling it has little left to lose in terms of international reputation, it is lashing out against what it falsely depicts as ‘foreign saboteurs’ with their ‘advanced mobile phones’. On the other hand, the admittedly withered but still existent olive branch from Washington to Assad communicates to him the message that if he regains control, then the West might give him the nod to stay in power and ‘pursue political reform’. For a regime that has always relied on external support, whether it got it from the old Soviet system, Iran or from semi-friendly advances from the West, mixed messages from Washington are likely to be having a severely disorientating impact on Syria.

As in other Arab states before it, the uprising in Syria has confirmed the political decay of the regime that ruled for most of the postwar period. Built on little more than access to natural resources, external political backing and internal authoritarianism (often cynically justified in the name of preparing for the coming liberation of Palestine), these regimes have become utterly hollowed out in recent years. The removal of the various crutches with which they propped themselves up, from the demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s to the decommissioning of the Palestinian question in the 1990s to the destruction of Syria’s Ba’athist cousins in Iraq in the 2000s, has exposed, to all, the illegitimacy of the Arab states. The speed with which rulers fell in Tunisia and Egypt further confirmed their weakness, acting as an invitation to other Arab peoples to try to push aside their dictators.

The isolation of the Assad regime can be seen, not only in its use of violence against entire towns, but also in its willingness to ditch the ideologies that it has used to justify its existence for decades. In late June, Assad, in a bid to quell dissent, promised far-reaching constitutional reforms and even ‘the end of Ba’ath Party rule’. Such a suggestion would have been unthinkable just months ago, when the Ba’athists continued to present themselves as the only guarantors of Syrian stability and freedom for Palestine. Of course, the openness with which Assad declared that he would bury a one-party system that has held sway in Syria for a great many years backfired, intensifying the determination of the protesters to do away with Ba’athism once and for all. In publicly advertising his desperation, Assad ensured that his opponents would continue to try to push him and his system from the political stage. As one report said of the protesters, ‘[Now], it is not regime reform they are pursuing. It is regime change.’

The seeming ease with which Assad said he would voluntarily bring about ‘the end of Ba’ath Party rule’ echoed similar statements made by Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. They, too, responded to uprisings by effectively declaring their unwillingness to continue ruling. Mubarak said he was ‘fed up’ and admitted that he was struggling to find a successor, either from within his own family or outside it. The response of the Arab regimes to the uprisings reflects something quite profound: a feeling of extreme disarray and lack of historic drive amongst the Arab officer class which, since the 1950s and 1960s, has presented itself as the embodiment of what Gamal Abdel Nasser described as ‘Arab consciousness’. Just as it was the self-effacing response of Ben Ali and Mubarak that gave a green light to the protesters to finish them off, so it has been Assad’s open discussion of ditching Ba’athism and moving towards something else which has further energised his opponents.

Yet if both the hollowness of American imperial clout and the Arab states have been exposed by the uprisings, there is also little evidence that the Arab people themselves feel that they have the legitimacy to take the reins in these countries. It is a sad fact that one of the most notable things about the Arab uprisings is their incoherence, their dearth of strategy and ideology. In part, this reflects the diverse nature of the groups protesting. In Syria, for example, ‘the protests are scattered far and wide’, says one report, ‘from tiny villages along the Euphrates to the third-largest city of Homs’. The Economist says the Syrian rebels are a mish-mash of ‘large parts of the Sunni Muslim clergy, university graduates, longstanding dissidents [and] day labourers’.

But at a deeper level, the incoherence of the Arab Spring is down to the continuing, almost stubborn absence of any leadership structure or overarching strategy. In relation to Syria, The Economist describes how ‘few articulate leaders have emerged [and] no formal structures exist’. This echoes developments across the Arab world, where very large numbers of freedom-hungry people have taken to the streets, but where no new, structured, active political grouping has emerged. Sadly, some of the young activists in the Arab world seem to have bought into po-mo Western ideas about the wonderful nature of leaderless protest movements, which merely make statements rather than seeking to change the world in an old-fashioned ideological fashion. As one Syrian protester wrote in the Guardian, ‘Not having a formal, organised, political opposition that can give voice to the protests was initially frustrating… yet it was also quite liberating. For one thing it has shown that young and old Syrians are capable of taking control of their destinies without the stale political opportunists and parties of the past.’ Just as some pro-US commentators have sought to sex-up Clinton’s confused approach to Syria as a clever ploy, so those who sympathise with the Syrian protesters are sexing up the disarray of the protest movement as a ‘liberating’ rejection of ‘stale’ ideologies.

In essence, all three parties to the Arab upheaval are seeking to disguise their incoherence, their inability to take the political reins and determine the destiny of these nations. What we are witnessing in the Arab world is the final unravelling of the old politics. The post-Second World War set-up in the Arab world is in freefall; America’s Cold War-era clout in the Middle East and beyond no longer stands up; and the old radical ideologies of liberation seem to have little purchase with new protesters. This makes the future of the Arab world very uncertain indeed, with the danger that powerful nearby states, most notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, will seek to fill the vacuum left by the absence of political authority amongst all the parties to the Arab upheaval.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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