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Syrian conflict: a different view

Last update - Sunday, September 1, 2013, 15:41 By Ronit Lentin

What has been called a civil war in Syria began on 15 March 2011 when the Syrian people, inspired by the wider Middle East protest dubbed the Arab Spring, staged popular demonstrations against the government of Bashar al-Assad. 

What started as a struggle for democracy ended, as we now know, in takeovers by the Muslim Brotherhood, in the bloodied summer that followed that hopeful spring. The current intervention in Egypt, for instance, was sanctioned by an estimated 30 million Egyptian women, men and children from all walks of life who went to the streets demanding that the army put an end to the Muslim Brotherhood’s terror.

When the current uprising in Syria began, Assad retaliated against the insurgents, comprising the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and several Islamist groups. The FSA, from the very beginning, was supported financially and provided with arms and training by Qatar, apparently at the instructions of the US and Turkey. By June 2013, there were over 100,000 dead in Syria; these include soldiers, civilians, rebels, but also foreign insurgents – Chechans, British, Tunisian, Egyptians, Saudis and Afghanis. According to the UN, four million people have been displaced, of whom 1.8 million have fled elsewhere.

But this is a complicated conflict, far from a straight-forward story of ‘good, democratic’ insurrection against a ‘bad, despotic’ regime. International support is split: while Russia, Iran, China and Hezbollah support Assad, Qatar and Saudi Arabia side with the insurgents, with the US and the ‘west’ sitting on the fence.

Palestinian feminist activist and sociology professor Nahla Abdo sees the anti-government uprising as a “fierce plot against Syria in the service of imperialism. This is not about human rights, or democracy. This is about imperialist control over the Middle East, and we should be well aware of this.”

Syria, Abdo reminds us, is the only Arab country with a serious and modern constitution that demands a 50-per-cent representation of peasants in the General Assembly. Political parties were established in Syria and democratic parliamentary elections took place in 2012. We should also remember that both the strong public health system and education, from kindergarten to university, are free in the country. Furthermore, she argues that Syria remains “the only bastion for Arab (especially Palestinian and Lebanese) national and anti-colonial resistance. Syria has also been and remains strongly allied with Russia and Iran: two countries the US dreams would disappear from the political map of the world.”

Abdo continues by arguing that since 2006 the US “has been building new and stronger alliances with ‘moderate’ Arab countries and with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya”, creating “a new role for its traditional allies, the oil and gas countries of Qatar and Saudi Arabia”. She is optimistic, despite the mounting casualties in Syria, that the current Middle East might be moving towards a new phase, championed by the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist forces fully supported by Syria and its allies.

For me, this is a novel and challenging way of looking at the Syrian conflict. But I want to raise another concern – the racialisation of those accused of killing more than 1,000 Syrian people last week, ‘allegedly’ by chemical weapons. Abdo has no doubt that it was the insurgents who perpetrated the attack. I am still confused, but I take strong issue with people who write about this attack as demonstrating ‘Arab nature’, fuelling yet again the already raging western anti-Arab and anti-Islam hysteria.

There is no ‘Arab nature’, just as there is no ‘Irish nature’ or ‘American nature’. Have we forgotten that between 1914 and 1945, so called ‘civilized’ European nations slaughtered more than 100 million people? Or the Stalinist massacres? Or the methodical colonial genocide of indigenous people perpetrated by the Europeans?

So let us stop talking of the ‘Arab nature’ and extend our warmest sympathy to the Syrian people without casting racist, Islamophobic stones.



Ronit Lentin is associate professor of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Her column appears fortnightly in Metro Éireann.

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