Syria: Secular democracy must be the goal.


“Without Western heavy political lifting, led primarily by the US, the most likely scenario is for the death toll in Syria to continue to rise, the humanitarian crisis to further deepen, and for Syria to become the new Yemen, offering refuge and acting as a launching hub for terrorist groups.”
– Jamil Sawda, Syria Specialist.

In the event of Congressional approval for a limited strike on Syria; in the event of the weakening of the power of the Assad regime; and in the event of the eventual overthrow of that abhorrent regime…. what comes next? My reservations about any strike on Syria stem from the apparent lack of coherent plan to ensure a peaceful transition to secular, democratic governance in Syria once the conflict has ended.

It is without doubt that a chemical attack in which 400+ children died, along with 80,000+ deaths in the conflict so far and over 1,000,000 exiled into horrendous conditions, cannot be ignored. It has been ignored for too long. And as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah intervene in order to press for a strengthened Assad regime, or a more oppressive Theocratic entity post-Assad, so must the forces for a democratic and secular solution ensure their allies in Syria are well equipped and supported.

As it stands, the secular and democratic left rebels in Syria are outnumbered. Their voice is too weak in the country, and its natural allies in the West – the left – are again spending their time endlessly ensuring we all know how much they dislike the US; the Stop the War Coalition predictably makes no mention of the struggle of the secular and democratic left in Syria; shows no support for the secular and democratic left in Syria, but bizarrely in an article on Syrian intervention, manages to attack Tony Blair. The democratic, secular voices in Syria – the voices we must support – suffer heavily as a result of internal conflict, and external ignorance.

Ahrar ash-Sham are the most powerful rebel force in the region, boasting around 20,000 members over 50 units around Aleppo and Hama. Ahrar ash-Sham call for an Islamic state. They are allied with Jabhat al-Nusra Front. Al-Nusra Front is an al-Qaeda associate Jihadist group who also wish to see the Assad regime replaced by an Islamic caliphate, under harsh Sharia conditions. Al-Nusra insist that upon their victory, entertainment that al-Nusra consider “immoral”, would be banned. They are the Taliban of the Syrian conflict.
In January 2012, al-Nusra claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Al-Midan, in which 26 people died – most of whom, were innocent civilians.
In October 2012, al-Nusra claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Saadallah Al-Jabiri Square that left 48 people dead and 122+ badly wounded.
In June 2012, they attacked al-Ikhbariya TV, killing seven people including three journalists in a violent crackdown of anyone daring to criticise them.
In mid-2012, al-Nusra released a statement stating that they had kidnapped and executed TV news presented, Mohammed al-Saeed, simply because he supported the Assad regime. In a statement, Al-Nusra said:

“The heroes of western Ghouta imprisoned the shabih (pro-regime militia) presenter on July 19. He was then killed after he had been interrogated.”

– This is a group that consider the kidnap and murder of a TV presenter, to be heroic. The targeting of journalists speaks volumes of the message al-Nusra wish to send out. Under their rule, Syrians would not benefit from the fundamental right of free expression. The fact that the most powerful rebel groups in the conflict are allied with a group like Jabhat al-Nusra – a group that has absolutely no problem with the murder of innocent civilians and journalists – is intensely unnerving. They could become the region’s biggest problem in the coming years. This is a group that wilfully match the vicious nature of dictatorial regimes to ensure the black banner is raised above Damascus.

But it isn’t all gloom. Indeed, there exists secular & democratic rebel groups in Syria who desperately require Western support and cooperation for their cause and the for the future of a Syria not dogged by regressive, Theocratic tyranny. They understand the desperate need for fundamental human rights and democratic institutions. The Coalition of Secular & Democratic Syrians is the most important group in the Syrian civil war. The President of the Coalition, Randa Kassis told Spiegel Online of the problems facing her movement:

“The Islamist groups, which are superbly financed and equipped by the Gulf states, are ruthlessly seizing decision-making power for themselves. Syrians who are taking up arms against the dictator but not putting themselves under the jihadists’ command are being branded as unpatriotic and as heretics. This is also affecting the many soldiers and officers who have defected to the opposition but who aren’t willing to replace the corrupt terrorism of the Assad regime with a religious tyranny.”

Secular & democratic forces in Syria are divided. There is no clear strategy. This conflict is reflected in the make-up and operations of the Syrian National Coalition, which is so incredibly complex, faces resignations on a constant basis, that it is almost entirely impotent. The Coalition saw liberal members freeze their membership upon the election of Muslim Brotherhood-backed Ghassan Hitto to the newly formed Prime Ministerial role. One of the Coalition’s liberal democrats, Kamal al-Labwani said:

“The government is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatar government. We will be against this government and will not give it legality. Democracy is from the land and from the people not from a council that is composed by the government of Qatar.”

– Hitto resigned in June, citing an inability to unite members and topple the Assad regime. The Muslim Brotherhood’s power within the Syrian National Coalition is made all the more worrying given the fact that the Coalition has widespread international recognition as Syria’s representative body. And yet, it is a body that cannot decide if it is secular, or Theocratic, but is slowly leaning toward the side of Theocracy.

The Coalition’s first leader in 2012, Moaz al-Khatib insisted that a moderate form of Islamic law should be instituted in a post-Assad Syria, run by Islamic scholars. He is a supporter and friend of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a man who once said:

“Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the Jews people who would punish them for their corruption…The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them – even though they exaggerated this issue – he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them…Allah Willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers.”

– Whilst al-Khatib may openly support horrid little fascists like al-Qaradawi, he appears to be opposed to strict interpretations of religious texts (he does not insist on the veiling of women), yet his “moderate” Theocratic principles still insist on entrenching one particular religion above all others, which is, by its very nature, oppressive. His speeches tend to confuse freedom, with Theocracy. The US Christian Right are very similar.
The Syrian National Coalition is so diverse, that the very fundamentals of forming a governmental system cannot be agreed upon. The question of Church & State separation, cannot be agreed upon. Without a working constitutional framework, there is no government. The very first, and most important question is whether or not a post-Assad Syria be secular, or Theocratic (moderate or not).

By contrast, independent Islamic extremist groups separate from the Coalition, seem to be far more cohesive and the likelihood of a powerful alliance between them increases. Islamist opposition groups, motivated by religion, and supported and armed by competing Gulf and Arab states, whilst Muslim Brotherhood power infects the Coalition, makes secular & democratic unity on the Syrian crisis all but impossible. And we know what happens when Islamic Theocrats have control of a country. Afghanistan is a prime example of the horrendous abuses and oppression of states controlled by religious fascists. Syria cannot afford that eventuality. The region cannot afford it.

Without a real diplomatic strategy to unite rebel groups, without Western support for the right groups to make sure the country isn’t overrun and overpowered by Islamic extremist groups, and to ensure strong democratic and secular infrastructure and framework – based on the fundamental right to expression, to association, to belief, to protest, to gender equality, to racial equality, to vote, to sexuality – upon which the rebuilding of Syria must be based, any intervention can only lead to more conflict and the inevitability of a ground invasion further down the line.

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2 Responses to Syria: Secular democracy must be the goal.

  1. Arkenaten says:

    One wonders with religion/Islam being such an integral part of cultural life in the Middle East will this goal be truly possible?

    The illusion of stability might be present for a short while but it doesn’t seem to last. I wouldn’t be surprised if most onlookers didn’t think, “Same shit, different day?”

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