On September 16, 2011, he addressed a public meeting in Vienna’s Austrian-Arab Culture Centre (OKAZ) on the “Syrian Intifada between repression and instrumentalisation”. We recount his intervention and the ensuing debate:*
The components of the movement
The Syrian Intifada is based on the lower strata of society. Its social roots are the same as in Tunisia and Egypt. It is a revolt against unbearable social conditions while the elites close to the regime still make huge fortunes.
The initial force of the Intifada has been the poor but educated youth. As the regime is unable to fully control the internet, they used it to organise the protests. Within a few months the local co-ordinations formed two different revolutionary umbrella committees. 90% of the some 30,000 arrested belong to these trends. To curb the revolt the beginning of the school years has been postponed. But even when school ultimately commences, classes will be sparsely attended.
The second component of the revolt are the classical political parties. They have been somewhat caught by surprise by the popular eruption. At first they where forced to run behind, but now they have caught up. “Today a very old man like Riad Turk is sitting with the revolutionary youth.” These parties have their ideologies which occasionally leads to conflicts. But driven by the revolt, they are developing and in the end they also have a valuable heritage.
Then there are those who at first did not oppose the regime and just observed the events. Their consciousness has changed and many of them joined in without being organised in the co-ordinations and parties.
For the time being there remains, however, a silent majority who by their passivity save the regime from collapse. Among them are the confessional minorities who feel in danger.
Continuous decomposition of the regime
At first some people hoped that under pressure from the people, the regime will undertake reforms. By now these hopes have been frustrated. The only answer the regime is able to give are repression and brutality.
However, the repression is wearing out the regime’s apparatus. It has no trust in the army and cannot fully use it. The military would break up if ordered to crack down on the people. There is only the re-organised 4th division which remains completely loyal (and the various intelligence services). This unbroken loyalty is not only based on allegiance to the Alawi sect of Islam. Under today’s conditions, this would not be enough, as there are severe conflicts even within the Alawi community. By now the 4th division’s loyalty to the regime is mainly secured by ties to the al-Assad clan.
Because of limited manpower, the 4th division needs to concentrate its operations on one hotspot at the time. Then they withdraw and amass against another town. Meanwhile the movement is resuming. So a general crackdown is impossible.
Actually there is a great difference to the situation of 1982/83, when the armed uprising of the Muslim brotherhood was put down. The unity of the army, including its non-Alawi ranks, was not in danger. The majority of the people remained sceptical and therefore passive with regard to the insurrection.
There are, however, even signs of problems and mutinies even within the 4th division. There is growing demoralisation and discontent across the entire security apparatus. Also the recruitment of thugs is facing difficulties. There are reports that as before people got paid to beat the demonstrators, today they get paid to not demonstrate.
It would, however, be wrong to expect that Assad would soon step down. It is still a longer way to go, and the regime is determined to go to the end. There is an Intifada going on, a popular revolt which is not yet a full fletched revolution. But it is clear that there is no way back to the prior conditions. In one way or in another the regime must concede major political rights.
Sectarianism and political Islam
The religious minorities remain passive and thus help the regime to survive. There is a mindset among them that they would be in danger in case Assad falls. The regime is actively fomenting this spirit. For example there have been cases of attacks against churches during the night. But the movement believes that these provocations were committed by the regime itself in order to create fear and drive the minorities back to Assad.
For the time being most of the religious leaders still stick to Assad, but their hold on their communities is gradually diminishing. This is most significant for the Sunni majority. There is one instructive example of a video circulated on the internet, in which officers force demonstrators to chant a perversion of the perverted Islamic creed (shahada): “There is no god but Bashar.” The official Mufti publicly explained why this is no blasphemy. Obviously such episodes result in a loss of credibility of the official Sunni representation. To a lesser extent this is true for all confessions.
Subhi Hadidi pointed out, that throughout the history of Syria the minorities have always been part of the nationalist movement and have been well integrated into the political system, more than in other Arab countries. The secular tradition has been very strong.
Asked why he could exclude a degeneration into sectarianism like in Iraq, which also had a strong secular tradition, Hadidi replied with several substantial arguments:
Assad for his own sake needs to play the sectarian card cautiously, not overstressing it. His own Alawi sect is a small minority and its exclusive rule is impossible. Neither do his Iranian partners want it that way as they also look out for the Arab Sunni masses.
The secularism of the 1940s and 50s has certainly been weakened. Sunni Islamism today is, however, weak and never recovered from the defeat in the early 1980s which was caused by the fatal mistake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed uprising. In a similar way as in Egypt, the Brotherhood has been observing a kind of unilateral armistice with the regime while the secular and left opposition have been continuing their struggles. The entire opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, was thus surprised by the outburst of the Intifada, but they were quick to follow suit as popular Islam in general. Their discourse these days, however, is hardly different from the secular one. They too demand democracy.
Asked whether the Muslim Brotherhood’s position will hold also in case of an imminent foreign intervention, especially from the Turkish side, Hadidi said that in the end they might back the intervention, as they did in Libya, but that would not represent the mass movement and lead to their further isolation.
The democratic movement itself actively opposes sectarian strife and so far has essentially been successful in doing so. There have been no major incidences of sectarianism from the side of the Intifada, despite the helpless attempts of the regime to fabricate them. It is the regime which is sectarian while the movement is the guarantor of secularism.
In Hadidi’s analysis the Intifada is a popular democratic uprising and essentially secular, leftist and liberal in the best sense of the word (not in its economic meaning). Therefore also Che Guevara is a widespread symbol. Another example is the position on the Kurdish question: grant minority rights as much as possible, but maintain the unity of the country.
Hadidi repeatedly insisted that the Syrian Intifada needs to remain absolutely peaceful. Any attempt to take up arms would be used as political evidence for the regime’s propaganda, enabling them to use excessive military force and to engage the whole army against “the armed terrorists”. The consequence for the movement would be either to be slaughtered or to call for foreign support.
Any foreign state intervention was categorically rejected by Hadidi. The Libyan experience is a negative example to be avoided at any cost. But such a scenario seems unlikely, as the vast majority of the Syrian people as well as all political forces participating in the movement want to preserve national independence and thus reject any foreign military intervention.
While NATO without its member Turkey will not be able to intervene, there is no direct threat from Turkey either. On the contrary, a possible scenario would be that Assad provokes a military conflict with Turkey in order to pose as the defender of national sovereignty.
The threat of neo-colonialism must not be used as an excuse to deny support for the popular movement. The decisive historical factor today is the Intifada against a regime which has been part of the global imperial order. Foreign sabre rattling and even limited clashes would not change this fact, as long as the movement remains steadfast and refuses to be used as an instrument of foreign powers. The Intifada will not drop its cause only because western powers might try to embrace it.
Hadidi also answered questions on the fact that there were demonstrations which did call for foreign protection and even military intervention. He stated that an overwhelming majority of the uprising with all its diverse representations within the country rejects any foreign military intervention. Such calls can be considered isolated cases. Hadidi emphasised the difference between international intervention and protection of civilians.
The situation of the people on the street is, however, dramatic. Any participation in a demonstration is a kind of martyr project as you can get killed easily. For the time being, several thousands have been killed and there is no end in sight. It is not only understandable but also legitimate that people ask for protection. Solidarity is needed urgently.
Hadidi rejects the meddling of states as well as alliances like NATO or the UN. They only follow their own agendas. But there are civil organisations who could serve as observers and there is the media. Both would help to limit the barbarity of the regime’s repression. This is why they do not let them in.
It is not enough if the Red Cross gives time to the regime to upgrade a prison into a hotel, where intimidated inmates are lined up with pictures of Assad before the Red Cross visits one single carefully picked site.
Some of the audience would object that both media and NGOs are part of the system of imperial dominance often called “soft power”. While confirming this evaluation, Hadidi pointed out that under the given conditions, the Intifada needs to use these instruments for self-protection. There is no other choice, as such a campaign also needs material means which they have. Though considered soft power of the global elites, both media and NGOs are under scrutiny of public opinion. This is why they can be used to counter the severe and bloody repression by the regime, which is threatening the entire Intifada.
Against exile conferences
As a matter of principle Hadidi refuses to give interviews to western media outlets. This decision is linked to his fierce struggle against the numerous attempts to form councils or other bodies in exile, claiming to represent the Syrian people. They will serve as interlocutors for the western powers who need to mask their interventionist drive with Syrian faces. The Libyan case should teach us a lesson.
He did not shy away from publicly warning his own friends like Burhan Ghalioun to accept assignments by such conferences: “Burhan has been a consensus figure, but he is about to loose that status. Even in his home town Homs, voices have been raised against him.”
According to Hadidi’s evaluation, the movement on the ground will sooner or later be able to form its genuine political representation. There are already local co-ordination committees leading the struggle. If the youth is ready to risk their lives participating in demonstrations, then the organised opposition should also dare to move ahead.
Who is anti-imperialist?
For Hadidi the Intifada is clearly anti-imperialist both in spirit as well as in its goals. The Assad regime has been an integral part of the global order and of globalisation. It represents the wealthy social elites like in Egypt and Tunisia, against whom the lower classes revolt on the streets. One should not forget the invitations to the Elisée and other western power centres, in whose hands Assad essentially remains. It is not by accident that the global elites and their Arab allies did not take action against the regime. But those hypocrites might also sacrifice Assad if need be, as they did with their friend Qaddhafi. This will, however, not change the anti-imperialist character of the movement.
But isn’t Assad supporting the Palestinian resistance as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah? The Palestinian resistance is first of all an issue of propaganda, as for decades not a single shot has been fired on Israel over the Golan Heights. In turn it is more a question of controlling the resistance movements and using them for his own purpose. The same holds for Hezbollah. The control by Assad over the Lebanese resistance is a disservice to them. They will continue their struggle after Assad is gone – maybe with fewer arms, but with more political credibility.
A victory for the Syrian Intifada would be a tremendous political push to the Lebanese resistance and not only. Syria today is the centre of the Arab democratic Intifada, fuelling also the Egyptian and Tunisian peoples’ movement.
* This form of report has been chosen as the speech was delivered in Arabic. To publish it as an interview, the translation on site was not accurate enough.