It would mean very little to talk about the increasingly military nature of the Syria revolution, without taking into account the 320 days of conflict with a regime that has used unrestrained violence from the very outset, or the intellectual, political and psychological changes that have taken place in society and the revolutionary movement during these bloody months.
The broad outlines are well known. The regime pushed the army into a confrontation with the revolution, executing those who refused to open fire on their fellow citizens. Conscripts and officers began to desert, forming a ragged alliance called the ‘Free Syrian Army’. Cities and municipal centers in and around Deraa, Damascus, Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deir Ez-Zor were subjected to punitive assaults that resembled colonial anti-insurgency campaigns. Here and there, civilians took up arms to fight the regime’s forces, which included the shabiha.
In short, the revolution has almost always had a military component, one that cannot be ignored when thinking about its future. This militarization is neither the result of external influence nor adherence to any pre-existing ideology. At the same time it has never compromised the generally peaceful nature of the movement. The revolution’s non-violence is rooted in its social make up, in the unique nature of the demands it sets out in its use of demonstrations as its primary mechanism for expressing dissent. It does not stem from ideological preferences or conscious political strategizing. Detrimental comparisons of peaceful demonstrations carrying signs and chanting and armed groups firing bullets say nothing meaningful about the reality of the revolution, they merely reveal the commentators’ ignorance about what is happening on the ground and show how superficial their analysis really is.
The fact is that in most locations peaceful demonstrations could not have continued without the relatively modest levels of protection afforded by the military and civil wings of the Free Army against the regime’s retribution. Refusing to acknowledge this will not change the fact that it is true. Voicing one’s distaste for militarization while ignoring the violence perpetrated by the regime is equivalent to blaming the victims for choosing to resist, and there can be no patriotic or human excuses for such such a position.
In the abstract, of course, peaceful resistance is morally preferable to fighting, but we are not free to pick and choose as we like. This is reality, a reality that has forced countless Syrians to defend themselves against a regime that generated violence and hatred as part of its very nature and not, as one bloated Syrian minister recently claimed, ‘out of necessity’ or in response to ‘popular demand’.
This tendency towards militarization is better understood against a backdrop of general chaos and disorganization. One cannot be a purist these days and reject any armed resistance out of hand or oppose to the revolution simply because of some of the unregulated activities that take place in its shadow. So as long as the regime itself continues to militarize this is an inadequate response. The proper course is for the revolution itself to work to unite the armed soldiers and civilians into one body, or at least achieve some degree of coordination, so that the military component operates in the interests of the revolution as a whole. This will not be easy. There is no guarantee that this ideal state of affairs will ever come to pass. However, harping on about non-violence as an absolute principal is of benefit to nobody, because it is an impossibility.
Structurally speaking, violence is elitist and non-democratic. The more it is used - regardless of whether it is disciplined or not - the more it obstructs the revolution and weakens the participation of women, children and the elderly. Yet we do not have a choice between militarization and non-militarization but between a militarization that is unrestrained and unregulated and one that is curbed and disciplined.
Political change effected through force of arms creates numerous security, political and social problems and is less conducive to democratic transition that a peacefully obtained transformation. But to make the point once more: we don’t have a choice. The military component of the revolution is a side effect of the regime’s essentially violent nature: nobody wanted it or planned for it.
The basic point in all this is that our prelapsarian innocence can never be regained. We can never go back to that time before the blood, to the sweet words about confronting the regime’s violence with ‘bared chests’, now that the regime has targeted everyone with its bullets, not just those on the streets with their shirts around their waists. Instead of illusory innocence we need initiatives and hard work to inculcate a military, political and moral discipline in the use of arms. Our reality is running amok. It is chaos. Intellectuals and politicians do their duty when they attempt to order and rationalize it, not when they turn away from it out of high principle and distaste. That is an abrogation.
The truth is that some of what is said about militarization is motivated by opposition to the revolution itself, not the legitimacy of the practices that take place in its name. The revolution is the effort to deny the regime’s legitimacy and its patriotic and popular credentials, to declare its violence classist and un-patriotic and to reject the lawfulness of its agencies of state. The revolution aims to establish a new legitimacy, yet this legitimacy does not automatically devolve on everyone who acts in its name. The only credible opposition to random, unregulated violence can come from within the revolutionary movement itself, not from those outside it, still less from its opponents. The violence practiced by the revolution is certainly more legitimate than that of a regime which murders its people, and it is doubly legitimate because it is both imposed on the revolution and defensive, even when it has to be pre-emptive for tactical reasons.
At the same time the revolution contains a genuinely non-violent component, one that rejects all violence even for reason of self-defense. Yet the best way to defend non-violence is to participate in the revolution by turning out in the streets and working to increase its civil nature. Sitting on the fence and hymning the virtues of non-violence is possibly the worst thing one could do.
Looked at practically, the legitimacy and public acceptance of the revolution requires us to move beyond mere words of support and actively participate in the revolution; to create intellectual, political and organizational structures that respond to its ever-increasing complexity. This engagement should aim to coordinate the various branches of the revolution and lead them towards the ultimate goal. At the moment, such engagement is lacking but the sheer variety and diversity of initiatives being produced by the revolution gives us good reason to remain optimistic. These initiatives are independent and self-generated, the groups creating them working tirelessly to curb the militarization of the revolution and bolster its civic, inclusive nature.
Published in Al-Hayat, January 29, 2012. Re-published with kind permission of the author.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.
Yassin al-Haj Salih is a Syrian writer and dissenter based in Damascus. He was a political prisoner between 1980 and 1996. He writes for several Arab newspapers and journals outside of Syria and regularly contributes to Al-Hayat newspaper. Among his book publications are “Syria in the Shadow: Looks inside the Black Box” (Arabic, 2009) and “The Myth of the Others: A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of the Critique” (Arabic, 2012).