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Can the Syrian Revolution be demilitarised?

Syrians find themselves facing a momentous question: has their revolution lost the moral high ground as it turns away from peaceful protests to become an armed rebellion?

Omayma Abdel Latif , Tuesday 9 Oct 2012
Syria
Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Houla, near Homs October 5, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)
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Hamza Al-Mustafa, a Syrian activist and researcher, noted in a Facebook post on 15 September that the number of peaceful protests and rallies across the country had dwindled remarkably since the month of Ramadan. This, he explained, was the result of putting the armed struggle ahead of all other forms of protest, hoping such a move would shift the balance in favour of the popular uprising against the Assad regime.

Over a year since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed to represent the military wing of the revolution, Al-Mustafa and other prominent Syrian opposition figures have concluded that peaceful protests were – and should remain – the core of the revolution.

“The Syrian Revolution," insists Al-Mustafa, "should not be reduced to a crisis between the regime and the opposition or a conflict between the regular army and the FSA... This is – and will remain – a popular movement to achieve legitimate demands.”

The same view was echoed by prominent Syrian writer Yassin Al-Haj Salih who, in a 3 October article posted on al-joumhouryia, a website which chronicles the Syrian Revolution, warned that "the revolution is in jeopardy."  Salih acknowledged that the armed resistance against the regime was one among several options. “We have ended up relying on the armed resistance to the exclusion of all other forms of resistance including the most important: peaceful protest.”

The two views reflect a concern that the revolution is losing its high moral ground by being reduced to an armed rebellion. Many, like Al-Mustafa and Salih, who supported taking up arms against the regime, are now taking stock of the past year's events.

A series of recent events have shown the extent to which militarisation of the revolution is undermining the very cause for which it erupted.  Several recent reports, in Saudi-financed outlets, have spoken about popular resentment and rejection of rebels in several Syrian towns and villages.

“People are fed up with the presence of armed men in our midst who sometimes use us as human shields and take over our houses and shops,” one local resident was quoted by the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper. Such resentment reveals the failure of rebels to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Syrians who perceive themselves as victims both of sides in the conflict.

But who started it?

From the outset, the Syrian regime defined the protest movement as an armed rebellion by terrorist gangs. It was this definition, along with the regime’s adoption of a security-oriented approach, which forced peaceful protesters to resort to carrying arms in self-defence.

Nirouz Satik, a young Syrian researcher from Latakia, agrees with this view. “Protesters had to be armed in reaction to the violence inflicted upon them by the regime’s security apparatuses,” Satik told Ahram Online.

While the protests remained peaceful for the most part, one study on violence within the revolution suggests protesters carried arms from the early days of the revolution, albeit in a primitive way reflecting the social and tribal structures in towns where the uprising erupted.

A study published by the Doha-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies dates the emergence of armed protests to an attack by security forces on Al-Masjeed Al-Omari mosque in Homs on April 2011. When many protesters were killed and injured, a group of young Islamic-oriented men decided to take up arms in self-defence. 

A new development took place in the town of Jisr Al-Shoughur after violence by security forces during the funeral of a young protester led to the killing of at least 38 people in early June 2011. A popular reaction ensued when armed protesters attacked security check points and killed 120 security personnel, according to the authorities.

Coupled with such incidents, Syrian officers defecting from the army sought to set up a military wing of the revolution. The first such attempts emerged in June 2011 with the setting up of the Free Officers Contingent led by Hussein Harmoush. A month later, this body had taken up the name of the Free Syrian Army whose first responsibility, according to Harmoush, was to protect the peaceful protesters. Defecting officers and conscripts constituted 20-30 per cent of the FSA, with former army conscripts and local militias making up the remainder.

The formation of the FSA was a clear indication that the revolution had changed. Such a move, as will be described later, has had grave consequences on the revolution and made it lose the popular backing of large segments of Syrian society, especially the middle and upper classes, as well as minorities. Some observers even say that militarisation has become a liability to the peaceful protest movement.

Militarisation has also resulted in an influx of fighters from abroad, the majority of whom view the conflict in purely sectarian lens and some of whom have committed sectarian killings. Some estimates put the number of foreign fighters in Syria at around 800. Burhan Gholyoun, former head of the Syrian National Council, has warned against "an international Jihad" in northern Syria and Damascus. Thanks to Saudi and Qatari funding, the stream of so-called “mujahedeen” continues to flock into Syria. It would take a regional settlement involving Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey for this to come to a halt.

What are there exit scenarios?

There are several possible ends to the militarisation of the revolution. One offers a grim prospect as the rebels continue to seek armaments and external actors continue to provide the supply. This could eventually lead to a civil war, signs of which are already showing, and the country's ultimate disintegration.

In a second scenario the regime could manage to suppress the armed rebellion. This might take at least two years.

A third scenario, according to Satik, is to secure "a historic settlement" and the formation of a military council comprising of all military actors to take over the running of the country during a transitional period.

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