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Regime and Islamists sectarian in the same way?

Discussion on the prospective of Syrian Islamism

31. December 2013

Actually we deliberately want to stress the reciprocity and similarity of the phenomenon of sectarianism from both sides of the Syrian civil war though the more suitable notion would be communalism built on a specific group identity.


Responding to the contribution of Anton Holberg

: While it is obvious that Sunni Islamism is exclusivist, the regime’s secularist narrative constitutes a hidden, more covered de facto communalism. It is true that it does not refer to religion in the same way as Islamism does. It is fair enough to notice this difference but politically it does not matter much. We know that even the French role model behind the formal façade of egalitarism is de facto very exclusivist and elitist. In Syria everybody starts from the assumption that loyalty to the leading group is not based on ideology or whatever criteria but on communalist group solidarity provoking counter-reactions by the excluded, exploited and oppressed. Unfortunately under the given conditions the popular rebellion was susceptible for a sectarian reading of the autocratic regime. The ruling group’s narrative of painting the popular protest movement as entirely Islamist poured in further fuel as well as the sectarian reorganisation of the armed forces. To call all this “merely tactical” is a euphemism at best.

It is also true that only based on communal minorities the regime would not be hardly strong enough to survive as they will not exceed roughly one third of the total population (neglecting the fact that there has been important sympathies and support for the popular democratic movement also among the minorities). A decisive pillar used to be a powerful commercial bourgeoisie with Sunni background drawing huge benefits from the neo-liberal turn operated by Bashar. It is clear that the support of the economic elites can make good on lack of popular support.

By the growing Jihadisation the rebellion has lost a lot of appeal among minorities and also middle classes including with Sunni background. It seems as if there is a growing passive part no more taking side. Eventually this runs in favour of the government.

Inner-Islamist differentiation

History is open and we do not believe in secure prognosis. We do believe instead that the development of Islamism will much depend also on the approach of the revolutionary democratic forces towards them. It will certainly be a tremendous mistake to homogenize them under one singe political category. On the contrary it is all about to differentiate them and to build co-operation with those elements representing the lower classes and at the same time accepting their social and democratic rights. We should not underestimate their influence in society across all classes as a result of the historic failure of secular nationalism.

Some of their trends have been able and willing to co-operate with the secular business elites as well as the westernized urban middle classes. This was the recipe of the success of Erdogan’s AKP. This at the same time opened up unprecedented democratic spaces. Only when he violated his own premises starting a culturalist campaign targeting also his secular coalition partners he has been undermining his own model. This shows their capability to co-operate with the upper end of the secular forces. Why such a co-operation on the lower end should be excluded at least with parts of their forces?

Syrian Muslim Brotherhood

The Syrian Ikhwan is squeezed between Jihadism on one side and democratic forces ready for a political settlement providing military and sectarian de-escalation – and the west which more and more tends towards this second option. What would be their prospective alongside Jihadism? They can only play the second fiddle given the fact that Saudi bloc is against them providing the main material support for the war. For the time being their main function is providing political representation for the anti-Assad front and their choice was to integrate leftist and secularist forces in form of the National Council (SNC). They seem to have understood that based only on Islamic or Islamist forces they will not be strong enough. Also their attempts and projects to build a party are reaching far beyond the Islamist environment.

Certainly there is not only a different discourse towards different milieus but also different tendencies among them ranging from 82 revanchism to combining Islam with democracy.

The MB cannot accept anything coming close to capitulation in front of Assad not only for historic reasons. And the political pressure from Jihadism against any type of half-way compromise is very strong as well. We believe that they are pragmatist enough to eventually accept such a compromise given the adverse relationship of forces, all the more if their western backers force them to do so. But the problem is that Assad did offer nothing hinting in this direction. They insist on the eradication line of Algerian type which is impossible given the foreign support for the Jihadis which their Algerian homologues did not enjoy.

So we are unfortunately far away from a situation where the question whether the Ikhwan would move against Jihadism and Takfiris is posed.

Wilhelm Langthaler


Assad’s tactical sectarianism

While I am largely agreed with your analysis your analysis there are however two major points on which I have at least questions:

1. You again and again label the regime as “sectarian”. While it is certainly true that the Assad regime’s core constituency is formed by members of the Alawi sect/community, and while it is undoubtedly true that the regime is ready to instrumentalise Alawi-sectarianism it seems to me that by labeling it “sectarian” the fundamental difference between its sectarianism and the sectarianism raging within the Sunni community is being ignored. First thing is to see that the Assads obviously are not very much religiously bound people at all. Bashir’s wife is even Sunni, but this obvioulsy doesn’t mean much to her. But more important is the fact that a religious sectarian regime based on a clear numerical minority (even if the other minorities such as the christians, Druze, Ismailis, Shia and what you got are added) can not survive in the long run. The Baath regime however has ruled Syria for over 40 years now and is bound to do so for some time to come. Don’t you think that a difference should be made between this sort of unideological merely tactical “sectarianism” and the deeply intrenched sectarianism of islamist (not islamic!) forces ranging from the Ikhwan to the openly takfiri forces?

2. Are you certain that the differences between the Ikhwan and the openly takfiri groups are fundamental and not just tactical so as to allow a sort of truce between the regime and the MB (in particular after the bloodstained history between them at the times of Hafiz al-Assad in the early 80s)? I think that we should be very cautious to judge these forces on the basis of what they say to media written in languages all of us understand (this of course does not mean that a rational regime – no use to talk about a democratic or even progressive regime in the case of the Assad-regime – should try and win or at least neutralise as much as possible of the rank and file of the MB). It is quite obvious that the discourse aimed at their Arabic speaking audience is a rather different, a much more “radical” one.

Can you imagine that they could be of much help when it comes to militarily eredicating the jihadi forces present in Syria who will surely not have much to do with anything coming out of Geneva II? The war will keep on between the army and these forces, and “we” will have to chose between both and not between the army and practically non-existent or at least non-counting forces more to our liking.

As for the Syrian “leftists” I read about it seems to me that they are all burned by their position taken during this bloodshed. I wouldn’t give a dime for them in the foreseeable future. Pacifism and whitewashing the character of the bourgeois reactionary regime is certainly as little a receipt for becoming the vanguard of a plebeian or even proletarian revolution as collaborating with islamists and pro-imperialist armed forces. It should also be clear that the organising activities of the “civil society” so often cited by leftist “friends of the Syrian revolution” is bound to collapse as soon as a sort of central state is reimerging whether ruled by the ASBP or some islamist outfit. These committees are not Soviets or some double rule institutions. In short, we unfortunately do not have to chose between left and right, between democracy and dictatorship, but merely between two evils. If we don’t want to chose, something we could easily do since we are happy to be far away from the arena, we ought to analyse and not engage in spreading any pipe dreams (which fortunately you more or less don’t do anyway).

Anton Holberg