New Islamic Directions

By Imam Zaid Shakir

Syria and the Vagaries of Political Violence

Posted in notes by Imam Zaid Shakir on 2012-02-16

As Syria hurtles towards destruction, with the ongoing bombardment of Homs and the escalating assault on Hama, Dar’a, Idlib and many other Syrian cities and towns by a regime consumed by hubris, we can see clearly how political violence can lead to unexpected outcomes. At the beginning of the now almost year-old uprising in Syria, the regime smugly assumed that if it brutalized enough of its citizens the “Republic of Fear” would be able to survive the winds of change in the region. After all, every Syrian over forty years of age remembers the atrocities the regime inflicted on the civilian population of Hama, a city that had the misfortune of being home to an ill-fated uprising of dubious origins. They also understood that if the survival of the regime were at stake it would not hesitate to engage in similar or greater brutality.

Those younger than that have heard tales of that 1982 massacre. Furthermore, the young and old live with the unheard echoes of the screams of tortured family members, neighbors or someone they have heard of who had been dispatched to the dungeons of Tadmur Prison, or the expansive gulag of torture centers scattered throughout the cities and towns of Ba’thist Syria. They also understood that no one could be trusted if one were tempted to voice even the mildest words of dissent. The secret police are ubiquitous, so much so that one of the first warnings given to an outsider more accustomed to open political discussion, is, “Even the walls have ears.” The collective weight of the suspicion and the horrors, some quietly whispered, others unmentioned and unmentionable combined to create a population easily controlled and readily accepting to forgo any real political rights or freedoms in order to live in peace.

So, when the regime decided to torture and murder the innocent school children in Dar’a who had launched their version of the Arab Spring revolts being broadcast into their living rooms daily by Aljazeera they figured the message would be loud and clear. In American street vernacular, “This is Asad’s Syria and we don’t play that stuff here.” The result was unexpected, the people of that poor border town, erupted to protest the regime’s excessive and unjustified force. The regime had miscalculated and the protests quickly spread. That miscalculation illustrates the vagaries of political violence.

Now, as the country stands on the brink of a civil war, there are things that those of us outside of the country should be clear about. First of all, there will inevitably be opportunists, the Americans, the Israelis, the Iranians, the Russians, the Chinese and others who will try to influence the conflict in ways that advance their political interests and agendas. However, our support for any of those sides should not lead us to miss the essence of the conflict, namely, that an oppressive, single-party police state brutalized its citizens to the point that a favorable political climate led a critical mass to declare that enough is enough. Iran’s continued ability to supply Hezbollah via Syria, Russia’s ability to maintain a political beachhead in the Middle East, America and Israel’s ability to thwart growing Iranian influence in the region and effect “full spectrum dominance,” which are all issues that will play into the eventual outcome of the crisis, are of secondary importance at this point.

Secondly, while it is tempting, especially in the face of the actual assaults on several major Syrian cities, to urge for outside military intervention, such intervention would likely push a regime far better organized and far more ruthless than Qaddafi’s Libya to levels of violence that could easily result in hundreds of thousands of casualties. Such intervention would also likely spark a dangerously unpredictable regional war. Hence, if one of the main desires of the supporters of the Syrian people is to minimize the loss of life, outside intervention is likely not the best option.

Thirdly, the vast majority of Syria’s oppressed majority Sunni population follows the lead of their scholars. While the slavish support of the regime displayed by some Sunni scholars does not begin to represent the position of most of the Sunnis in Syria, there are other scholars who have taken a more nuanced position. While falling short of a call for an open revolt, these scholars condemn the excesses of the regime, urge political reform and call for an immediate cessation of all attacks on unarmed demonstrators,  and for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience as well. The influence of these scholars cannot be underestimated and any actions on the part of outsiders that is radically incongruent with the positions adopted by these scholars is unlikely to aid in the popularizing of the revolt beyond the current levels of support.

In light of these realities, what are the best steps forward for those outside of Syria who wish to see the establishment of a representative political system in Syria? First of all, we must call for the end of all violence from all sides in the conflict. The regime, as we have mentioned above, miscalculated when it launched a violent repression of the nascent movement in Syria, a movement that was initially calling for political reform, before it was radicalized by the violence of the regime.  However, the violent elements of the opposition also miscalculated when they launched an armed rebellion. They provided the pretext for the regime to escalate its brutality and the political backdrop for the Russians and Chinese to veto attempts by the UN to cripple the Syrian regime, and they made the conservative elements of the Sunni religious and business establishments, who would have likely thrown their weight behind a continued peaceful protest movement fearful of a descent into total chaos, and, hence, hesitant to endorse the rebellion. Some opponents of the regime argue that a violent resistance is necessary for self-defense and the defense of the unarmed elements of the movement. However, the feelings of those who are thus far not actively opposed to the regime must also be accounted for in any calculus that endeavors to assess the efficacy of violence. At the end of the day, this element will be critical in determining the fate of the country.

We must escalate pressure on the regime by expanding the scope and number of demonstrations demanding the dissolution of the authoritarian Syrian state. Increased outside pressure will work to further isolate the Ba’thist regime in Syria and will encourage continued peaceful protests, despite the clear dangers, by people inside of the country. Expanded protests must target the Russian and Chinese embassies in various countries. Increased pressure on Russia and China, coupled with a widening nonviolent protest movement inside of Syria, will greatly expand the scope of international pressure on the Syrian regime and undermine the arguments of its supporters.

Greater consideration must be given to the religious scholars and political leaders inside of the country who are more representative of the Sunni masses and have not yet actively joined the opposition movement. By being overly responsive to only the more radical elements of the opposition, those of us outside of the country run the risk of marginalizing or alienating those masses whose support will be absolutely critical for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Saying that does not mean that the actions of those who have actually stood up and are risking their lives to protest the excesses of a brutal regime are not critical to the success of the movement. However, if they are not joined in massive numbers by their fellow countrymen and women, the critical mass needed to effect meaningful change may be lost.

In conclusion, we pray that Almighty God blesses the people of Syria with a free government of their choosing where the dignity of all Syrians is respected, dissent is encouraged and the sacrifices of so many whose lives have been lost will not be in vain.


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