Civil war in Syria: interview with Aziz Al-Azmeh

Ardeshir Mehrdad. Thank you professor Aziz Al Azmeh for agreeing to this interview. Our world is entering a grave crisis.  War and terrorism feed off escalating poverty, with a backdrop of accelerating environmental destruction; resistance is hampered by the shattering of human solidarity, exacerbated by national, religious and ethnic conservatism. The Middle East is the clearest expression of this crisis, so it’s apt to start our dialogue here.

 Can we begin by taking an overview of the Middle East? At the most basic level, how do you analyse developments in the Middle East? From a historical perspective are we witnessing new historic phase, or is this a continuation of developments we have witnessed over the last two decades or so?

Aziz Al-Azmeh. To my mind, developments in the Middle East represent a condensation of global trends since the post-war balance broke down in 1989, with the situation condensed, magnified, accelerated and intensified with special clarity in Syria in the past half-decade. These trends – with elements predating the momentous, world-historical events of 1989 – are associated with the defeat of an historical alternative to capitalism, however spectral and contested this alternative may have been or may have become subsequently, and with it the disappearance of hopes for an alternative beyond self-indulgence and nihilism. Unsurprisingly 1989 precipitated an shamelessly rapid realisation that the socio-political prophylaxis long associated with Keynesianism was no longer necessary, a view the ground for which had been prepared by once-marginal neoliberal economists who had become all the rage during the Reagan-Thatcher years.

Both theory and neoliberal ‘reform’ worked against traditions of The New Deal and The Great Society in the case of the former one, and of Keynesianism in the case of the latter. Social democratic parties in power – in the UK, France, Germany and elsewhere – embraced these policies with alacrity albeit not without internal dissension, confirming and reconfirming continuous critique they received from the days of Marx and his immediate followers.

‘Structural adjustment’ and its companion terms and socio-economic processes became ubiquitous, and constituted a global ideological tool programmed into the actions, conceptions and public output of international organisations, including the IMF and the World Bank, whose senior economists have recently started to question this orthodoxy publicly. The regime of deregulation had ideological correlates flowing from the confluence of viscerally anti-state positions, and positions inimical to the notions of development however defined. The latter, a notion associated with historical potential in both the socialist and the third worlds, and even with the most modest attempts to, and claims for, the necessity of improvement of the type not confined to rates of growth and consumer choice and so forth.

Both conspired to disparage notions of systemic improvement, to relegate them to dismissal by a variety of expletives such as ‘westernisation’, ‘elitism’, ‘grand narratives’, for which are substituted grand narratives of the pre-lapsarian, the primal and innocent, the traditional, the local, the natural, all sometimes associated with the pre-colonial idyll,. Associated with this has been a wholesale gentrification – by academics, by the press, by social services in European countries – of backwardness and of Reaction in the guise of ‘authenticity’, ‘particularity’, ‘otherness’, pre-coloniality and related notions. The shattering of solidarity, exacerbated by the announcement of savage identities savagely held that you mention, is explainable in these terms and by these conditions.

So much for the general terms in which your first question was put.

AM: Let us stay within the structural and ideological framework for the present but pose a more concrete question in the realm of politics and the relations of power:

A number of players are active in the Middle East: world imperialist powers, regional powers, political parties and groupings, social movements and popular uprisings.  Who are the key, the determinant players? That may be at the local, regional or global level; or at the level of the regimes and ruling powers, or of popular movements of protest and resistance?

Aziz Al-Azmeh: I am not sure what might be served by listing the various players engaged in intense, intricate and extremely dirty wars on Syrian territory.

There are actors involved in the name or under the cover of the Syrian state. Of these are the regular armed forces, which under conditions of civil war has spawned privateering leaderships within, such as Suhayl al-Hasan, the so-called Leopard (al-fahd), more akin to semi-autonomous warlords than to office-holders in a properly functioning army, commanding rag-tag hordes. Less flamboyant commanders have displayed extremely poor leadership abilities and have often betrayed their own poorly trained, poorly fed, and poorly equipped troops – not infrequently abandoned to their fate, as during the Daesh onslaught on Palmyra.

Alongside official forces are semi-official, local Syrian militias, some state-sponsored, others sponsored by private actors, including businessmen, and generally with a sectarian composition, and with the modus operandi of predatory and rapacious death squads. A specialised vocabulary in Syrian Arabic developed to described their activities, such as ta’fish, ‘furnituring’, to describe the looting of houses, contents of which are sold in by now well-established street markets. Whatever military planning there is seems to be concerned with field situations as they develop, with crucially important input from Iranian revolutionary guards (the Quds Brigades’ commander Qasim Soleimani) and, more recently and in the past year, the Russians.

To these are to be added Iran-sponsored militias, the best known of which is the Lebanese Hezbollah. Others comprise an Afghan militia, drawn by salaries and aid to their families in Iran and the promise of citizenship in Syria. A variety of Iraqi militias are involved acting, like the Afghan and like Hezbollah, under a sectarian Shi’ite signature, the leitmotif of which is the defence of Shi’ite sites, above all Sayyida Zeinab located in a southern suburb of Damascus – the conurbation around it seems by all accounts to be autonomous territory, more like Hezbollah’s southern suburbs of Beirut than the rest of Damascus. The Iraqi militias have acquired a reputation for rapacity and extreme forms of violence, and exhibitionistic religiosity that parallels what one sees among Sunni jihadist groups, including ta’ziya processions in the Syrian capital, hitherto unknown, even on the part of local Shi’ites. There is also growing evidence of proselytism, and of the purchase of urban and rural property to create areas of Shi’ite critical mass. Of the various external actors, it seems that it is the Iranians who are the most enamoured of the idea of ‘a useful Syria’ joining Damascus with the coast, excluding most of the country, and acquiring decided sectarian accents.

I have said a little about Iran and may have the chance to add some more later as this discussion develops and as other contexts arise. Of other actors internal and external the Russians ought to be mentioned as one other major player batting for the Syrian regime. They had had throughout maintained a robust diplomatic position in support of Assad and prevented the UN from adopting a number of positions – these would have had symbolic value only, really, short of an international military coalition operating under paragraph 7. This last option was never on the cards, as the US especially had consistently preferred to have no clear policy on the ground, bar the shouting and the usual self-righteous moralising, and had in effect, since the poison gas fiasco of 2013, outsourced Syria to Mr Lavrov. Russian policy has emerged even more assertively and determinedly since major military intervention started last year, which needs to be seen in the perspectives both of internal Syrian, especially military developments, and of the recent heightened NATO aggressiveness and attempts to encircle Russia: an articulation of US external projection and the instrumentalisation of an EU expanded at Anglo-American Russophobic impetus.

Much is being said about some Great Game, like the Great Game attributed to successive wars in Afghanistan, involving pipelines. It is difficult to judge such matters. Arguments are often contrived and often speculative albeit not entirely implausible. I mention this as one element sometimes mentioned to account for the intimate involvement of Qatar and Saudi Arabia in Syrian affairs in recent years, and to account why they had both (and Turkey as well) jumped into the fray, soon after it became apparent in autumn 2011 that Assad would not play ball as was being suggested to him, and reach out with some form of very mild reform, including a cabinet, or elements in a cabinet, that would have comprised an important contingent of members of the Muslim Brothers. The partiality of Qatar and Erdogan’s Turkey (but not Saudi Arabia in recent years) to the Muslim Brothers is well known and very public.

But the main instruments of policy in this respect has been jihadist organisations, spawned by the dozen, merging and splintering and not infrequently engaged in bloody confrontations public and clandestine: small warlord enclaves, ‘shops’, dakakin, as they are known in Arabic, dependent upon and fiercely engaged in competition for subventions and local depredations with which to constitute themselves as nodes of authority, control, primitive local accumulation, and employments for armies of the unemployed and undereducated, all the while flaunting a flag of ‘revolution’, ‘liberation’ and so forth. In fact, if they were ideologically to be pinned down, they have jihadist agendas and rule over territories ruled after a savage Wahhabist imagary – from early on, secular opposition forces, including the military, had been deliberately marginalised. Those that remain, in the north and the south, and micromanaged by the Jordanians and the Turks and the Americans on an ad hoc basis. . There is a political economy to this, and indeed a business model, of predatory rent extraction, access to natural resources (including antiquities treated as natural resources), trading and various forms of tribute. They all have unstable lines of trickling down modelled, however, upon patrimonialist lines. The situation is equivalent in many respects to African mining militias and Latin American drug cartels and drug families.

These unstable organisation intersect and compete, along networks of sponsorship and clientage that converge and come into conflict, by sponsors which are both in alliance and in conflict. All is imbricated in all in an unstable system, and alliances are often of short duration. The lines of demarcation are not always clear, not least that in September 2011, as Assad declared to the world that what he had on his hands was a war against terrorism, Syrian prisons were opened and a large number of jihadists were released, including many of those who became prominent or continued obscurely in the myriad of jihadist organisations in evidence in Syria today, including Zahran Alloush, assassinated some months ago. Many of these jihadists had been rounded up after having been sponsored by the security services and sent to Lebanon under the title of Fath al-Islam, and to Iraq to shoot at Americans before the Americans deferred to the joint wisdom of Syria and Iran and allowed the installation of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister.

This is the tragic balance as it stands now. What had started as mobilisation for national resistance and civic assertion has been squarely defeated. None of the opposition groupings has proven to be up to the task. Many parties actively in opposition do not seem to grasp what has been happening. Analyses in terms of imperialism, rights, and other vocabularies are mystifying rather than illuminating. This is politics at degree zero.

Ardeshir Mehrdad: A truly awful picture! A web of complex issues difficult to disentangle, much more confused than what we are given to believe. Yet the question remains: why? Why has the protest movement of the Syrian people ended up thus? Why has the Arab spring in Syria not ended up in something like the fate that befell Egypt and Tunisia – to be stuck in the mud for a while and then finish up in an early autumn? This despite the fact that these countries are moving in the same historical-global current and share similar structural and political developments, as outlined in answer to the first question.

If we accept that neither the justice and legitimacy of a popular uprising necessarily completely reflect its potential and ability, nor the world-historic setting in which it develops, to what other elements do you attribute the defeat of the 2011 Syrian uprisings? What role, if any, is played in this failure by such factors as the inner structural and particular qualities of the popular movement, the repression and savagery of the regime or the interference by local and world powers?

Aziz Al-Azmeh: I believe that the answer lies with conditions governing both sides of the equation, but the regime bears full responsibility for the direction the revolt took and its early militarisation and its equally early political and social archaisation. I have already mentioned structural adjustment and deregulation. These deepened, and in some cases created, large areas of structural marginality: I do not only mean regional segments such as areas in the east that had already borne the brunt of a drought exacerbated by disastrous mismanagement (by a minister of agriculture who was subsequently promoted to prime minister). Or the misery belts around the main cities, consisting of recent immigrants from the countryside as well as city elements who are no longer able to afford living in the cities. I mean vast areas of structural socio-economic marginality, the recession of the middle class by rapid declassement. I also mean cultural areas outside the reach of what had once been cultural and educational areas of once-hegemonic state action, now rendered ineffective in the national socialisation functions that they had had. With the declining cultural competence they become extremely vulnerable to the religious language offered both by Arabic-language satellite television as well as by religious societies operating locally, under supervision by the security services who, in the classical way, thought that these would be controllable forces offering a social control service to the state on a tight leash.

In more immediate terms, the initial reaction of the state was the major precipitating factor: an attitude of politics and contestation as a zero-sum game, with zero-sum solutions: long ingrained habits, a sectarian outlook, both aggressive and defensive, on the part of a major component of the narrow ruling group, a conception of rule by the Assad clan as rule by absolute lords over a swarm of subjects in which perspective all contestation, even mild objection, is considered lèse-majesté. Hence the bloody savagery of state response to peaceful protest on the streets from the very beginning. So much was also evident from the way in which people arrested were humiliated, lain on the ground and stamped upon, told they will be taught a lesson for daring to question their masters – what happened later when these people were brought into prisons and security service facilities is another story.

This response led to a heightening of frustration and of anger. In the first few months, there had been a clear body of political directions – expressed, among other things, in slogans – which had a national content, with certain Islamic and even Islamist elements to it, but national, and not inimical to the state as such. This had been sustained by a large body of younger, educated elements acting locally but with various lines of trans-local and ultimately national coherence, sustained by a sense of Syrian nationality and of a Syrian body-national (with the exception of separatist elements and egregious self-pleading among the Kurds from the very beginning), a sense of injustice, a reformist attitude, very light on ideology and indeed generally distrustful of ideologies. A certain self-deluding utopia of peaceful protest was strongly emphasised.

One of the first moves of the regime was to eliminate this leadership – many were killed, many arrested, the largest numbers driven to flee abroad; both France and Sweden were generous with visas. What remained was headless local organisations falling back on the most basic of archaic notions of locality, vulnerable to Islamist mobilisation, into which conditions the various jihadist forces, some extremely well funded, stepped in, took over, provide employment and guns and the chance for revenge, set up local authorities. They recovered and deployed whatever traces remained of familiar archaic vocabularies concerning justice and rectitude and politics and virility, primed and sharpened by sectarian attitudes and tensions, often using local family networks for cohesion and loyalty and discipline. All the while, a rentier economic model of extraction and exaction was in place, with plunder being more marked in Daesh (ISIS) territories, informal economies becoming central – the business model I mentioned earlier.

This dynamic had clearly set in by around late autumn 2011. At the same time, the Syrian government released from jail large numbers of jihadists. In both the long run and the short, the state managed to push matters in a direction that saw the emergence of an ideal internal enemy that could be clearly identified and confined and targeted, and sold to the outside world as fighting terrorism. The Americans’ knickers are in a twist trying to sort out the terrorist from the non-terrorist, Saudi, Turkish or Qatari sponsored radical jihadists.

Ardeshir Mehrdad: Can you expand on Iranian regime’s destructive role in Syria?

Aziz Al-Azmeh: The Iranian regime is playing a central and destructive role. As the Syrian army was overstretched, and as it had for years atrophied as a fighting force due to corruption, indiscipline, poor training and supply (training and supply properly speaking are monopolised by the Presidential Guard and small elite units with public order functions), the state has depended very heavily on militias. Initially these were raised locally, at security service prompting, often organised and financed by local businessmen, gangster units given to plunder, ransom, exactions of various kinds, operating in territories they controlled, exercising police functions, as well as being deployed in various offensives, generally against civilian targets. Later on these militias were to be called the National Protection Forces. Much of this had a sharp sectarian edge, resulted in a number of massacres, and in the displacement of undesirable populations and enforcing sectarian – mainly Alawite – predominance in various territories. This was reciprocated by the other side.

The logic here was initially micro-sociological, but a broader picture of demographic and social-geographical transformation emerged and is still in process. This demographic trend was reinforced and deepened by Iranian involvement on a ticket that was explicitly Shi’ite sectarian from the very beginning. Apart from the Lebanese Hezbollah involvement, generally more disciplined than the rest but nevertheless resulting in emptying parts of western Syria of its population (pushed as refugees, paradoxically, into Lebanon, with the intention of transplanting them to the north-west of Syria into areas regarded as Sunnite), and the precise interventions of the Quds Brigades of the Pasdaran whose commanders seem to be in overall control of these operations, a plethora of Iranian-sponsored militias were sent to Syria to protect the tomb of Zainab.

Recruited from Iraq, Afghanistan (and from among Afghan refugees in Iran) and Pakistan, this rabble rag-tag (organised in militias called Fatimiyyun (Afghans), Zainabiyyun (Pakistanis), Haydariyyun (Iraqis), plus the Iraqi Hezbollah and the incipient Syrian sister militia by the same name) constitute together what Gen. Hohammad falaki of the Pasdaran a Sh’ite liberation army. They have been exercising regimes of exaction and indulging in extremely and deliberately provocative exhibitionistic displays of self-flagellation and of the cursing of Abu Bakr and Umar and Uthman (the first three caliphs after the death of Mohammad, considered usurpers by Shi’ites) in the streets of Damascus and elsewhere, and inside the Umayyad Mosque itself. The latest episodes during which felf-flagellation and chanting broke out was at Beirut international airport in early November, by a group of pilgrims to Najaf. Rumour, supported by some detailed indices, has it that there is a large-scale campaign of Iranian house purchases in certain pars of Damascus, especially the old city (and specifically what had once been the Jewish Quarter), where some of these people are being settled.

Other parts of the country’s urban stock – in Homs for instance – have become urban wasteland and the trend of events indicates that they will not be resettled by persons who have been forced to abandon their homes, but that there is a demographic remapping of the country in process. There have been Sunni-Shi’ite exchanges of population across the country – this seems in many cases to have been the price for lifting sieges on towns to the west of Damascus and to the north-west of the country, and in other areas as well. In all, it seems that a form of Shi’ism is being introduced into which local polulations are being re-socialised, more reminiscent of Najaf and Qom than of local practices, so that a generation of Lebanese is growing that has more in common – in terms of sensibilities, dress, manners, tastes — with other Khomeinism-influenced Shi’ites as reconstituted after 1979 than with other Lebanese.

Iranian akhunds (mullahs) are known to be preaching, and to be trying to convert locals; Husayniyyas (Shi’i religious institutions) have been set up, and at least one Syrian university has set up a section a department of Ja’fari fiqh. Other telling indicators: with increasing frequency, officers of the Quds Brigades and akhunds speaking explicitly not only of extending Iranian interests to the Mediterranean, but also of a Persian empire with Baghdad as capital. More recently, Rahim Safavi, Khamenei’s military advisor, reminded Iraqi Kurds that they were, after all, of Aryan origin, and that their language was Persian. More is being made today of the declaration by [Lebanese ayatollah] Musa Sadr in the 1970s that the Alawites were, after all, really Ja’faris.

So the Iranian role in Syria is actually exacerbating and in many ways creating sectarian cleavages in a situation where they had been bad enough in the first place. Easier in a country which is unrecognisable compared to what it was 5 years ago, with over half the population displaced, a substabntial portion of the infrastructure destroyed, and the large-scale migration of anyone with qualifications and able to migrate. One simple index is medical services: 58 % of hospitals had been completely or partly destroyed by January 2016; whereas Syria had one physician for each 661 inhabitants in 2010, this ratio went down to 1:4041 by the middle of 2015.

Ardeshir Mehrdad: Are there any independent democratic movements in Syria today?

Aziz Al-Azmeh: It depends on what you mean by ‘independent’ and ‘democratic’.

Ardeshir Mehrdad: In your view which factors (or group of factors) have resulted in the breakup of such countries as Libya, Yemen, Syria and a little earlier Afghanistan and Iraq, at a specific historic juncture? Do you not think that this might be the destiny of a number of other countries in the Middle East?

Aziz Al-Azmeh: I am not adept at thinking of historical itineraries in terms of destiny. Afghanistan and Iraq belong to an earlier moment, and a qualitatively earlier moment. The aetiology of the Afghan situation and the devolution there of authority to a variety of successive Islamist or of local groups and the weakening of the centre is related to an extremely complex recent history, including a history of the of grooming factionalism by the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – something that was to be repeated in Syria but in a different setting.

Syria, Libya and Yemen were products of parallel conjunctures and junctures of elements that were conjoined in different measures in the three countries: state atrophy brought about by the confluence of neo-liberalism in its widest ramifications and of the privatisation of power. The latter is crucial: where holders of state power act as private patrimonial forces, and as private actors, devolving (less in Libya than in Syria and Yemen) the prerogative to use violence, and devolving economic power, to actors who enter into coalitions with the state. These are coalitions that take the form of business partnerships or security control over this area or that, or indeed the creation of semi-autonomous religious authority. The conjuncture is equally as important as the structural: this is especially relevant to Syria that had suffered from the consequences of a severe drought that was already mentioned. But perhaps the most important conjunctural element is the play of external interests and external forces, Arab countries, Iran, Turkey, the US and, more recently, Russia. The fact of the matter is that this sponsorship creates the logistical infrastructure for the creation of new forces on the ground.

Aziz Al-Azmeh was born in Damascus. He received the PhD in Oriental Studies from University of Oxford. He is currently University Professor at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. His works include Keywords, Islam in Europe, Ibn Khladun, The Times of History and Islam and modernities.

See also three interviews with Iran Bulletin:

Political Islams: Modernities and Conservative-populist ideologies;
Political Islamisms the labour movement and women
Women, democracy and political Islamisms


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