Why Syria is far from North Africa

Michael D. Clark

As has become standard practice in Western media over the last three months, the current unrest in Syria is being portrayed as part of a perceived wave of democratic uprising sweeping the Middle East.

This is a gross oversimplification and a poor representation of a highly complex issue. 

It is not merely the flawed perception of the unrest as part of a wider trend towards regional democratisation, although this is a common deficiency in most mainstream reporting. In the particular case of Syria, the prevalent discourse relies initially on a number of dubious assumptions regarding the wishes of the Syrian people to follow in the footsteps of Tunisia and Egypt. It often builds on this with cherry-picked opinions and a steadfast determination to avoid incorporating the complex and often opaque sentiments and statements of Syrian citizens.

This view suffers from certain striking flaws in the implicit assumption that ‘the people’ want the dictator deposed. Whilst many people want changes in the government, in the constitution or in the legislation, it is a minority of protesters and an even smaller minority of those not protesting, who want Assad himself to go.

Why might this be?

An oft unreported facet in the story is that most Syrians are painfully aware of the realities of ‘democratisation’ – after all, they have the example of another Arab state far closer to home than Egypt or Tunisia. The departure of Saddam Hussein from Iraq initiated a still unfinished maelstrom of sectarian violence. The view from Syria of a neighbour tearing itself apart left a lasting impression. Cities all over the country are full of unemployed Iraqi refugees, a proud and strong people to whom the Syrians feel a close affinity, brought low by war and civil strife. In a state cobbled together by Sykes-Picot, consisting of often antipathetic sectarian groups, the loss of a strong leader can often herald something even worse to come.

Perhaps the least forgivable part of mainstream reporting is its drastic lack of understanding of the Syrian people. They are a proud people; proud of decades of resistance against the West, against America and against Israel. The Assad dynasty has left deep and terrible scars on the people, but it has also imparted a national sense of strength and dare I say it, hubris. The link is often made between Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. This in itself is an argument with its own issues, but it does raise one important point. After the fall of Iraq and now Libya, Syria is the last strong Arab nation, as yet unbowed to America.

There is a widespread perception among Syrians, especially those who have worked in other parts of the Arab world, that Syria is the last bulwark of Arab self-respect. The Gulf Arabs and the Jordanians sell themselves and drown in hypocrisy; the North Africans are barely Arabs and are lax Muslims; the Lebanese (with the notable exception of Hezbollah) are the weak little brother; Iraq and the Palestinians are laid low by outside forces. Only Syria the strong remains.

It is not the place of this article to deconstruct and critically analyse the Syrian national mythology. It is however imperative to stress its place in the Syrian heart and mind. If the overthrow of Assad leads to the collapse of this proud independence, many Syrians will feel that however much has been gained, something far more precious has been lost.

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About ssaot
Michael Clark is a British writer on Middle Eastern politics, focused primarily on the Levant. He has travelled extensively in the region and has lived in Damascus, Syria. His particular areas of interest are non-state actors, the ideologies of political Islam and forms of political transition in the Middle East.

One Response to Why Syria is far from North Africa

  1. ssaot says:

    Nota bene: Many Syrians, if not most, especially the young, want change in some respect, whether this is the curtailment of military service, a multi-party electoral system etc. This article merely makes the point that many, if not most, are unconvinced of the benefits of deposing Assad.

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