The trajectory of the Syrian revolution is both sad and frustrating. Despite the initial optimism, within a few years, if not a few months, after the start of the revolution in March 2011, chaos and disorder prevailed. Some of the revolutionaries who stood against the regime of Bashar Al Assad to claim back their human dignity and freedom seemed to forget their original goals when they partially succeeded and captured vast areas from the regime. Instead of implementing their democratic ideals in those so-called liberated areas, the revolutionaries became tyrannical and oppressive themselves. Many of them looked for power and wealth, and paid little attention to running their areas effectively or helping local communities; the result of which was the prevalence of disorder and the lack of the rule of law, which made life in the “liberated areas” for local populations extremely difficult.
Worse still, once in control over these areas, some revolutionaries sought to impose strict Islamic rule, despite opposition from the local communities. Forgetting the original aspirations of the uprising to gain freedom and dignity, these revolutionaries became religious zealots instead of freedom fighters.
What went wrong? How could people with such noble ideals become so tyrannical? Why did poor and oppressed peasants and workers in Idlib, Aleppo, and rural Damascus become themselves oppressors and agents of disorder? Why did religious zeal permeate the hearts of the revolutionaries? And why were they radicalized to such an extent?
In his seminal study, “The French Revolution and the Spirit of Revolutions,” the French historian and psychologist, Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931), identifies a number of key developments in the French revolution that could be applied to the Syrian revolution. Drawing on certain social and psychological principles identified by Le Bon, this could help us to make sense of what happened in Syria and understand why the revolution went so horribly wrong.
Utilising psychological insights to understand historical developments, Le Bon’s principal contention is that logic alone cannot explain the reactions of people, especially during times of chaos and turmoil. Although revolutions against oppression and injustice may seem logical and just, these secular and worldly goals only gain traction and spread widely if they are tied to religious passions and fanatical beliefs. It is only by inflaming these passions that revolutionaries are able to convince the majority of the people to adhere to their goals as new faiths, enabling revolutions to have the potential to succeed over the tyrannical regimes. While some of the leaders of the revolution continue to operate according to the logic of reason, many other leaders, in addition to the public caught up in the momentum of the revolution, are motivated by passion. The outcomes of passion may not always be pleasant, but they help to mobilise the public and ultimately help the revolution to undermine the power of the old regimes.
The French revolution, which produced the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen, as well as a number of other key documents, is perhaps one of the greatest revolutions in history, shaping the society not only of modern France, but also the wider world in which we live in today. Is there any possibility that the Syrian revolution will have a similar long-term positive outcome?
To answer this question, it is necessary to compare the Syrian revolution to the French revolution drawing on five aspects identified by Gustave Le Bon.
According to Le Bon, the French revolutionaries were fanatic and intolerant of anyone who opposed them, even critics from among their own ranks. Like some of the Syrian revolutionaries, the French revolutionaries established revolutionary courts, tortured prisoners, stole from the rich, and imposed a rule of terror in the areas of their control.
Le Bon explained that some of the French revolutionaries responded in this way not out of a belief in freedom and equality, but because of their religious zeal. This did not mean that they fought in the name of Christianity or Catholicism, on the contrary, they were against the church and the clergy. But with their religious passion alive and ablaze, the French revolutionaries turned their belief in freedom and equality into a new kind of religion. Despite expressing their opposition to the church and the clergy, they established a kind of church in their own minds and became themselves a new type of clergy.
This initiated waves of extremism among the wider public who adhered to the new religion of the revolution. The leaders of the revolution became almost like new “prophets,”and helped to convince the masses that their blood was the same as the blood that ran through the veins of the king and the nobility. But like all new religions, this new faith made the French revolutionaries and their followers violent and oppressive. They sought to impose their new faith of equality on others, even by force, fully convinced of the righteousness of their cause.
It was because they believed that they were saving people, this justified the use force.
A similar phenomenon can be seen in the Syrian revolution.
Many of the revolutionaries in Syria today are almost fanatical believers in their own ideals. Those who adhered to the original goals of freedom and dignity took it as a new intolerant faith. They considered any citizens who did not share their own ideals as targets, and put them on the same level as the regime. Opponents were often denounced as Shabbiha, referring to the bloody regime militias responsible for spreading terror, looting private property, and causing the death of thousands of civilians.
During the French revolution, the revolutionaries, who claimed to be secular, attacked the Protestant minority in the south of France. Many Protestants were killed or expelled from their own homes. Others left France to seek refuge in the Netherlands and England. This situation is also apparent in Syria, where some Syrian revolutionaries persecuted religious minorities who came under their rule. In other cases, the Syrian revolutionaries persecuted mainstream Muslim communities who were considered to be too moderate and not as extreme as themselves. Thus, while both the French and the Syrian revolutionaries proclaimed their opposition to sectarian violence and injustice, both were in fact involved in sectarian incidents that exposed their underlying hidden fanaticism.
According to Le Bon, all revolutions are started by a small group of political, social and intellectual elites. However, it is only after a majority of the public join the endeavour, that a revolution is truly born and gains strong momentum.
In the French revolution, it was the educated middle class who wanted to remove the rule of the monarchy, the clergy and the nobility. The wider population, consisting mainly of peasants, was extremely poor and deprived, and fully embraced the anger felt by members of the middle class. In fact, it was the working class and general public that proved indispensable, and was the only side capable of turning the revolution into a reality.
However, by joining the French revolution in such large numbers and expecting instant gains, the general French public largely altered the dynamics of the revolution, causing things to go out of control, with chaos ensuing. This left the elite, who had started the revolution, unable to regain control of the situation, with something similar happening in the Syrian revolution.
In Syria, while it was the activists who took the lead in the first few months of the revolution, they soon became sidelined over time. The revolution passed from the hands of the activists to the angry masses, which refused to take orders from anybody. Those activists who had initially taken the lead and insisted on peaceful protest to prevent the spread of chaos and disorder, such as Yaser Al Salim from Idlib, and Razan Zaytouna from Damascus, were subsequently persecuted by revolutionaries themselves. Razan was abducted (and possibly murdered), while Yaser was more fortunate in being able to flee the country after spending several months in jail, with many other idealists killed, tortured, expelled from the country or simply silenced.
3- Criminal Incidents
After setting fire to the Bastille in Paris, the French revolutionaries went on to burn palaces and loot farms and churches throughout the country. In Syria, revolutionaries in Aleppo looted machinery in industrial areas; in Idlib, the grand church was looted; while elsewhere, in the countryside of Homs, Dier Ezzor, Damascus, and Dara, revolutionaries extorted money from the wealthy in order to support the revolution, with some members of the Syrian revolution resorting to kidnapping in order to extract large ransoms.
According to Le Bon, once the French public realized that they had a right to public wealth, they gave themselves permission to loot on a grand scale and and dismantle the property of the nobility. In many cases, criminal acts spread through a kind of “psychological infection,” aggravated during times of chaos. This compelled some good people to commit criminal acts, while others, who were previously peaceful, became violent.
In addition to the acts of looting, ancient sites and historic buildings were sometimes destroyed by revolutionaries in both France and Syria. Many felt little remorse about carrying out these criminal acts, and actually regarded themselves as national heroes, seeing in these buildings as visible symbols of power of the old regimes which they were revolting against.
Revolution is an opportunity for the people to break free from their shackles and claim back their liberty. Although this happened in both the French and the Syrian revolutions, in both revolutions there were some revolutionaries who went back to the bonds of ‘slavery’ and continued their past acts of submission in a new form.
In the midst of a revolution for example, many revolutionaries surrender their freedoms to the charismatic leaders of the revolution.
In France, revolutionaries almost deified leaders and blindly followed what their leaders asked them to do, regardless of whether or not those acts were considered to be ethical. Some defected Syrian officers who joined the revolution took orders from leaders who were illiterate, and followed them, even when the leaders sometimes lacked military experience. Le Bon accounts for this by stating that for the majority of people, the past is more inherent than the present. Psychologically speaking, it is very difficult for people to disregard the long past in a very short time, which can mean that traits of regression and submission to a leader appear among the revolutionaries as a psychological mechanism that helps them to cope with the rapid developments of the revolution.
Another manifestation of psychological regression is when some of the French and the Syrian revolutionaries achieved victory over their tyrants, but rather than creating genuine change, they employed the same methods as the tyrants and adopted precisely the same policies that they had initially revolted against. In France, as in Syria, many revolutionaries acquired great fortunes, built palaces and became themselves tyrannical and corrupt, with the French revolutionaries also ascribing to themselves noble titles that they had once abhorred, such as prince, count or baron.
Looking at the Syrian revolution, we notice today that many Syrian revolutionaries have enriched themselves and have established large business enterprises in Europe and Turkey, while millions of their fellow Syrians are living in critical conditions in refugee camps.
During the French Revolution, there was often a lack of trust among the revolutionaries. Many felt that they would be betrayed by their fellow revolutionaries and expected to die at the hands of their own comrades. Le Bon quoted one French revolutionary as saying, “I would better cut the head of my comrade before he cuts mine.” Maximilien Robespierre, for example, arguably one of the greatest leaders of the French revolution, helped to bring about the execution of his comrade Georges Danton, by accusing him of being a false patriot and bringing him to trial. Robespierre himself however, was later executed by his fellow revolutionaries.
Similarly, in Syria, revolutionary groups have turned against one another and are often mistrustful of one another’s motives. In 2016, for instance, rather than directing their attention against the Assad regime, the Islamic Army and Rahman Legion unleashed a bloody war against one another near Damascus losing about 500 of their fighters.
The limited power that both groups had acquired after capturing territory from the Assad regime only emboldened the revolutionary leaders and caused them to turn their weapons against one another in a futile competition for power and influence.
Thanks to the work of Gustave Le Bon, it is possible to understand that the prevalence of extremism, chaos, criminal incidents, regressive reactions and infighting do not necessarily mean the end of the Syrian revolution. Revolutions themselves are violent occurrences and their benefits only become apparent at a later stage when minds, not hearts are in action. Looking at the Syrian diaspora, the intellectuals who joined the revolution and the patriotic officers who quit the Assad regime, it is apparent that we are still at the beginning stage of a long and protracted process.