Theater of Cruelty

How the great popular uprising could go so horribly wrong

Syria After the Uprisings: The Political Economy of State Resilience, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs
SYRIA / A book about how the West stole democracy from the Arabs. It became completely grotesque when the great powers in the best colonial style began to assess the suitability of the individual peoples for independence: Syria itself ended up in category A – as suitable for independence, but Palestine ended up in category B.


It did not quite fall behind Bashar al-Assad when the first protesters took to the streets on March 15, 2011. Syria's autocratic leader had seen it happen. First in Tunisia in December 2010, and then in Egypt the following January. The phenomenon, which later became known as the Arab Spring, was under way, and Assad was believed to have done his homework.

The first signs of unrest came in Suq al-Hamidiyya in central Damascus, and although it was quite a small demonstration with about 100 participants, the authorities proceeded to the first arrests. And as this did not bring the situation under control and the protests simply continued with increased force, the regime escalated accordingly. Shortly afterwards, the first reports of deaths came as police soldiers began opening fire on the protesters.

We all know the story in broad strokes. This is the prelude to Syrias tragedy, which over the coming years unfolded as a bloody civil war with thousands of people killed and large parts of the population fleeing the world or as internally displaced persons. It is also the starting point in a new book, where the Middle East expert Joseph Daher, who is associated with the European University in Florence, gives his well-founded and terrifying account of how the great popular uprising could go so horribly wrong and end in something completely different from what was expected hoped for.

Militia groups

The protesters in Syria were directed to a greater extent against Bashar al-Assad and less powerful than was the case elsewhere, where it was more directed against the system and with demands for a fairer society. And Assad's answer came after the same coin. The reaction was brutal and the tactic consisted of playing the different ethnic groups against each other. But because Syria was at that time already economically weakened after several years of sanctions, it quickly became more difficult for the standing army to manage developments, and then Assad made his next, fatal mistake. Around the country, loyal businessmen with money in their pockets were more or less ordered to set up and finance local vigilantes, but these quickly developed into determined militia groups, which operated autonomously and terrorized the population.

In other words, it should be Greater Syria, encompassing the countries that have today become Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

Today, as you know, Syria is in ruins, but to really understand the context of the tragedy, it pays to go back a hundred years. The American historian Elizabeth F. Thompson of the American University in Washington DC has written a monumental and indispensable book on how the West stole democracy from the Arabs, and it does not surprisingly use Syria as the shining example.

A Greater Syria

We must go back to the time around the First World War. At that time, large parts of the Middle East were part of the Ottoman Empire, which had sided with the Axis powers in the war. But it was a front that in many ways was far from the hell of war in Europe, so to mobilize local support, British High Commissioner McMahon in Cairo conducted his famous negotiations with Hussein bin Ali, one of the influential leaders of the Arabian Peninsula. Sheikh Hussein agreed to coordinate the armed uprising, and he put his son, Faisal, at the head of the Arab forces that repulsed the Ottomans. Therefore, it was also Feisal who, after the end of the war, came to stand for the demand that the allied powers fulfill their part of the agreement. It consisted of transforming the now liberated part of the Middle East into an independent Syria.

Feisal presented his plan. It consisted of a cohesive state from the Taurus Mountains in the north to Aqaba on the Red Sea in the south. In other words, it should be Greater Syria, encompassing the countries that have today become Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Feisal was fully aware that it was a large and ethnically composed population, but he immediately set about holding consultations and was convinced of being able to create a democratic society that rested on mutual respect. He also knew that as early as 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, had promised the Zionists a homeland in Palestine, but even this he thought he could come to terms with.

U.S. President Wilson was of roughly the same opinion. He was among the initiators of the League of Nations, the predecessor of the UN, and in this connection he had formulated his famous 14 points. It was his recipe for a new world order, which should respect all states, large and small, on an equal footing and not least, it should look positively on all independence movements.

France's leader, Georges Clemenceau, was on board with the idea. He was inflamed by the idea that the Axis powers would never be able to rise again, so he warmly supported the division of the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire into a number of smaller nation-states, and he spoke warmly for Germany to be divided in the same way. On that account, France got Alsace-Loraine, and Clemenceau would have liked to have more.

In the best colonial style

In the Middle East, however, the idea ran into serious problems. The British leader, David Lloyd George, did everything to preserve the empire, and since British troops were already there Middle East, he had plans to colonize parts of the country in order to maintain control over the Suez Canal, and thus the sea route to India. This caused Clemenceau, who opposed colonialism in principle, to turn around. If the British were to have a share in the Middle East, France must also have earned possessions, it was said now. Furthermore, he had come to the conviction that France had to keep Beirut, because there lived a large Christian population, against whom the Muslims in Damascus would possibly commit crimes, if the two groups were to live in the same country. In addition, a number of other French politicians believed that it could cause problems in the possessions in North Africa, if the Arabs in the Middle East were too easily given their national freedom.

Faisal Peace Conference

It became completely grotesque, when the great powers were at their best colonystyle began to assess the individual populations' suitability for independence. There were thus no problems with Romanians and Serbs. After all, they were Europeans and could well administer freedom. It was worse with the populations of other continents. A system was even introduced, where individual countries were categorized as A, B or C, depending on suitability. It was worst in German South West Africa, later Namibia. It was clearly category C, which is why the British in South Africa offered to take over the administration.

The Middle East was closer to passing. One had to go through a debate about the extent to which Arabs could be defined as whites, ie as a form of Europeans, and although one never reached complete agreement, Syria itself actually ended up in category A. That is, suitable for independence. In contrast, there was not the same confidence in Palestine, so it ended up in Category B.

An artificial state

When President Wilson even had a stroke and had to retire, the visions from the 14 points began to falter. The British and French demands to divide the Middle East into mandate areas grew stronger, and Feisal's dream of a Greater Syria faded. He chose a more pragmatic approach and decided to accept a transitional period under foreign control. But even this was not good enough for the French in particular. When Feisal and the Syrian people managed to hold democratic elections for a kind of delegate assembly to discuss a common future, the French troops set up roadblocks that prevented one-third of the newly elected delegates from reaching out at all. And meanwhile the inner division grew in relation to the question of independence. The Syrian Union Party demanded immediate freedom, while parts of the money-rich aristocracy still remained loyal to the now defunct Ottoman government, and quite others spoke in favor of dividing the area into smaller nations.

It is a long and crooked story, and throughout you see the chaos that prevails today. In March 1920, Feisal became king of Syria, a French vassal state, and was soon exiled to Iraq, where the British made him king. Syria never got the internal cohesion that the country could have had if European powers had not tried to pursue their own interests.

What emerged was instead an artificial state with artificial borders, and where the internal tensions followed from the very beginning.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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