September 8, 2012

A few days ago, the Open Democracy website published an article by “Rita from Syria”, a Damascus based Syrian activist. Titled “The FSA: how to lose support and alienate people in no time“, the writer bemoaned the growing trend towards the militarization of the initially peaceful Syrian Revolution. Civilian activists now feel increasingly insignificant and sidelined, unable to shape events. Syrian towns and villages that shelter the Free Syrian Army suffer under increasingly bloody reprisals and punitive assaults by the Assad regime. The FSA is accused of “miscalculations”, and challenged to “win back its credibility”.

The most telling sentence in the entire article is a quote from “Raghda”, a woman who recently lost her job at a publishing firm; “I just want to continue my life. I don’t see an end to this armed conflict. I agree with the rightful demands of the opposition, but if this means bringing a halt to my life then I will stand against them”

Which is as close one can get to advocating capitulation, without actually using the word “surrender”

Let us be clear on one thing; Assad cannot win this fight. He cannot defeat a guerrilla movement that has spread to nearly every single village, town and city in the county. The FSA, with little to no outside support, has managed the grind the region’s largest military into a stalemate. Whereas in Hama this time last year, twenty tanks were sufficient to bring the entire city to heel after the massive demonstrations in the Orontes Square, now those same twenty tanks are the regime’s loses on a good day.

So what’s a tin-pot dictator to do? What every tyrant on the ropes has done; go after the segment of ones opponents lest able to defend themselves. Just as Hitler desperately tried to knock the British out of World War 2 by indiscriminately pounding London with V-1 and V-2 rockets (thereby killing more civilians in England than his army managed to do on the field in the European theaters of war), the regime’s policy and actions has been to subject areas sympathetic to the FSA to the maximum amount of suffering and bloodshed as possible.

If Assad cannot beat the FSA’s soldiers in Aleppo, his airforce bombs their home towns from the air. Eventually, the logic goes, the misery of the civilian population will be so great, that they will discourage or actively deny the FSA shelter and space for movement. In the case of the recently unemployed Raghda, that seems to have worked. The only way the FSA can lose this fight is if enough of the Syrian population become convinced that the losses and suffering are too great, and the prospects for overthrowing the regime too remote.

In any war, the resilience of the societies engaged in war matters as much as the number and quality of arms those societies deploy. Long before Hitler got around to invading France in 1940, a defeatist mentality had already taken hold of much of French political society and its upper military echelons. The Battle of France had been lost long before the first German tanks broke through the Ardennes.

Rita is correct when she writes “FSA leaders should take heed that a guerrilla army can only attain success if it is mindful of its relationship to the people”. However, laying the blame at the feet of the FSA is misplaced, even if it is convenient from Rita’s point of view. No army in the world can protect every civilian center if its opponent engages in a deliberate policy of targeting those areas. It is the FSA’s job to wear down as much of the regime’s military machinery as possible, and it is the civilian opposition’s job to make sure that the regime pays, in terms of political and popular support, as a result of any disproportionate and indiscriminate retribution by the Assad army against the civilian population.

Or maybe scope of responsibilities isn’t so clear cut in the minds of the revolution’s civilian activists. To quote Rita’s article;

“Armed with a deep conviction in our revolution rather than any heavy weapons, the embryonic FSA used to keep watch in the alleys and alert us to the coming of regime forces and the shabiha.”

Alleys. Alleys and side-streets. Defectors, risking their lives by carrying arms to defend a 15 minute demonstration in some alleyway or side-street, the end result of which would be a few minutes uploaded to Youtube or some material for Al-Jazeera to stream. Amazing that the FSA waited so long and so patiently before concluding, correctly, that the regime was never going to fall through flash demonstrations in some darkened neighborhood corner. The civilian activists had plenty of time to make some tangible headway, to provide some accomplishments to justify the thousands of dead, thousands more wounded, and untold tens of thousands of disappeared and imprisoned.

A military aspect of a society only rises in prominence above that of the civilian, when the latter proves utterly incapable of meeting the challenges of the day. If the civilian activists feel sidelined, it is because in the 20 months of the revolution, they have in all honesty provided next to no tangible accomplishments on behalf of the revolution.

The Assad regime is one that has, as the most recent ICG report stated, mutated into little more than a militia. It doesn’t care for the loss of its border points with Turkey, or the loss of the areas in the north east of Syria to Kurdish control, as long as Assad’s core constituency retains power in the ever decreasing areas still under their control. Do the civilian “no arms lets turn the clock back to when we were demonstrating in the side streets” camp have ANY plan or solution to deal with such a regime? Not likely, if present perceptions of the SNC are anything to go by.

What exactly is required of the FSA? To lay down their arms? And will that turn to clock back to the days before the Dar’a protests? Anyone who thinks is is incredibly naive. A regime that triumphed through the use of terror and brute force will feel that the same formula is an acceptable one to apply to maintain power. Periodic mass arrests and show trials will be the norm. Towns and cities that were most prominent in the revolution will be neglected economically, its people cut off from government jobs. Every once in a while a staged car bomb will go off, to keep people on edge and remind them of the ever present danger of a return to the “bad old days” if the regime wasn’t around to “maintain stability”. And in thirty years’ time, little Hafiz will take the reins of power. But hey, at least Raghda got to “live her life”.

Which is the part of the article I personally find most disgusting and reprehensible. Saying that one is for the revolution as long as it doesn’t get in the way of one’s work, career, dates, love-life, TV-shows, is akin to saying that one would like to compete in the Olympics, if it wasn’t for all the hard training required.

Yep, I’d like to buy a house, if it wasn’t for the mortgage payments needed.

I’d like to go to Harvard to study medicine, but damn those SATs and entrance exams are a real roadblock.

I’d looooove to live in a democracy, as long as someone else is doing the heavy lifting and suffering, and a civil and free society is handed to me on a silver plater. Oh, and someone else can vote for me and keep the vigilance and sense of civic responsibility required to maintain any democracy.

One would have thought that the revolution would have at least freed us from the idea that we are entitled to the best the world has to offer without the need to put in any effort. Sadly, we are not all Al-Assads and get to inherit a country from our daddies. To say that one is against the revolution because it has gotten in the way of our lives, is tantamount to surrender. Our will has been broken, the price has become too high to pay. Brute force and tyranny have won, and just as long as the tyrants leave us to return to our miserable existence, we will soon forget the more than 20,000 Syrians whose lives were cut short, or the thousands of wounded and crippled, or the hundreds of thousands of refugees for whom returning will never be an option. People for whom carrying on with their “interrupted” lives is not an option.

If the civilian activists feel impotent, it is because for many months they acted like they were impotent, with only the FSA between them and annihilation at the hands of Assad’s shabihas. For how long was the FSA expected to carry and babysit an ineffectual civilian movement. No one wants to turn to arms as a first choice, but the Syrian Revolution found itself doing so as a result of the situation forced on it. For over a month, Baba Amr in Homs was subjected to massive artillery and tank assaults. The world community yawned a collective yawn and changed the channel. Were it not for the FSA, non of the 24,000 civilians who made it out, or the well known media personalities and foreign journalists trapped inside, would have come out of there.

If the civilian activists want to regain leadership of the revolution, then it is about time they did something to earn the mantle of leadership. The British did not whine and blame Churchill for the destruction wrought by Hitler’s bombers on their cities, and as a result their “finest hour” has become the stuff of legend.

The only way Assad can win this war is if we hand him victory. I myself spent ten days on the edges of Baba Amr while the army pounded the area. My close family has lost two homes, completely destroyed in the fighting. I have relatives who were and are imprisoned. Several distant family members were lost to us. I know full well the burden of taking on a vicious, unrestrained and barbaric regime. If the civilian activists have a better way than the one the FSA is pursuing, no one will be happier than me to hear it.

Otherwise, talk of the FSA laying down its arms is just a not-too-thinly-veiled plea by those whose will have been broken, for the revolution to surrender. I don’t judge people harshly if they feel they cannot carry the burden anymore, everyone has their own circumstances and pain-threshold. But I at least expect them to have the self-respect and decency to call what they are asking for by its proper name; capitulation and surrender to the Assad tyranny.