Where there is unity, there is always victory.
-Publilius Syrus –
The themes of division and unity are central to discussions about Syria and the Syrian revolution. If society’s fragmentation has been, on one hand, an important cornerstone of Baathist – namely Assadist – rule, many wonder if the lack of unity among revolutionaries was the main reason for their setbacks and defeats.
Since ancient times, themes of unity and harmony have always been prominent in works of political philosophy. In Plato’s Republic, for instance, Socrates claims: “Have we any greater evil for a city than what splits it and makes it many instead of one? Or a greater good than what binds it together and makes it one?” It was simply inconceivable for Plato to imagine an ideal city in which factions and discord might be encouraged. This is why, in his well-known theory of harmony, he proposed the abolition of all sources of disunity, including private property and family interests.
For Aristotle, harmony and unity could not be acquired by abolishing differences but, as he explained in the Nichomachaean Ethics, through the application of “friendship”: “Friendship […] seems to be the bond that holds communities together, and lawgivers seem to attach more importance to it than justice; because concord seems to be something like friendship, and concord is their primary object – that and eliminating faction, which is enmity.” For Aristotle, the abolition of differences and particular interests would only lead to further resentment, whereas a shared pursuit of good would create feelings of friendship and collaboration.
“Divide et impera”:Assad’s Way of Ruling Syria
To “divide and rule” means to gain and maintain power by breaking up societies and exacerbating particular interests and divisions. In Book VI of The Art of War, Machiavelli explains the concept well from a military point of view when he says that a captain should seek in every way to divide the forces of the enemy either by making him suspicious of the men he trusts or by giving him reason to separate his forces and thus become weaker. This maxim is connected to two other important principles of power in Kant’s Perpetual Peace: fac et exscusa (act now and then make excuses) and si fecisti, nega (if you did anything, deny it).
The purpose of this technique, as used historically by governments and empires to rule and expand, is clear: to create and foster division, distrust and enmity among subjects or citizens in order to prevent alliances that might challenge the established order. It is well established that tyrannical power has narcissistic qualities, and such strategies are also used by narcissists at a personal level. This is because to divide groups means to weaken and isolate the individual, making it easier for the narcissist/tyrant to manipulate and dominate.
A legacy of colonial rule, this is precisely the strategy that has been used for decades by Assad to control the country. By creating a state based on the security apparatus, the Assad regime has succeeded in creating mistrust between and within religious and ethnic groups, movements and even families. “Even walls have ears,” is a sentence Syrians know well, highlighting the possibility that even a close member of the family might betray you. Sectarianism has been another important tool of control through division. As pointed out by Yassin al-haj Saleh in The Impossible Revolution: “Sectarianism does not stem from inherited cultural differences […] but is rather the outcome of social and political privileges” (Yassin al-haj Saleh, Impossible Revolution: Making sense of the Syrian Tragedy, Hurst & co., London, 2017: 23.
Generalised mistrust, and the fragmentation , is one of the reasons Syrians found it hard to unify their voices once the revolution began.
One Revolution, Many Voices
While protesters seemed to be united by a common purpose in the early months of the revolution and worked together despite coming from different areas or religious and ethnic groups, over time, conflicts and disparities came to the surface. This led to the birth of many revolutionary groups – both civil and military – of various inspirations. Although all were united by the common goal of toppling the Assad regime, they could not agree on proposals concerning the future of the country. Whereas secular activists aimed to create a democratic country in which all of Syria’s ethnic and religious components might find expression, religious groups aimed instead to affirm Sunni Islam and further the cause of transnational Islamic unity.
Generally speaking, here are a number of important topics on which Syrian activists and their supporters cannot find agreement, such as the role of Turkiye and the interrelated question of the relationship with the official opposition, the Syrian National Coalition. While some argue that Turkiye is the only country that has helped Syrians and portray its President Erdogan as a new version of ancient Islamic leaders, others claim Turkiye has used the Syrian situation for its own purposes, for example, by hindering the creation of a Kurdish state at its borders and, in the case of refugees, taking from the European Union. Likewise, many activists feel alienated from the Syrian National Coalition, which, in their eyes, does not pursue Syrian interests but works for its own advantage and that of Turkiye. Furthermore, the fact that a great part of northern Syria is still governed and controlled by Abu Muhammad al-Jolani and his Islamist Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which uses methods similar to those of the Syrian regime, many to baulk at the possibility of a united opposition front.
Divisions among activists in exile and foreign activists have always mirrored this situation. In other countries, initial attempts to create unified coordination committees failed due to irremediable disagreements. The problem still exists to this day; campaigns and/or initiatives on the same issues are often autonomously brought forth by different groups, thus probably weakening the efficacy of the campaigns themselves. Let us take campaigns for detainees as an example: there are several groups advocating for this important issue and often carrying on similar initiatives at the same time. Such actions are usually addressed at entities, institutions and organizations, besides having the goal of raising public awareness. If the purpose of a campaign is to collect signatures, for instance, is it sensible to collect a few hundred signatures here and a few thoudands there? Numbers do count and one file containing all the signatures would perhaps be more effective. Furthermore, if more subjects are separately advocating for Syrian detainees, who should entities and governments interact with? How would they choose their privileged interlocutor? Similarly, protests and demonstrations are often organised separately and people taking part in the events of one group do not attend others. This results in small demonstrations which have little impact, apart from being occasions of friendship and nostalgia. In Europe moreover, the almost exclusive use of the Arabic language debars many non-Syrians or people who know nothing about the issue to understand and support the Syrian cause.
Is Unity Among Syrian Revolutionaries Possible?
In a recent article, Yahia Alaridi wrote that “Syrians need a plan to resolve the existing contradictions and fragmentations, a cooperative work project based on morals and a new national spirit based on collective thinking, and a new method of work whose approach is to uproot their thorns with their hands” (Yahia Alaridi, “Only Syrians’ Unity will determine their faith,” Syriawise 04-09-22; https://www.syriawise.com/opinion-only-syrians-unity-will-determine-their-fate/). Dr Alaridi’s ideas of cooperation and self-reliance are undoubtedly intriguing and desirable, although times may not yet be ripe for them.
Despite the road likely being long, it is somehow comforting that, as strange as it might seem, divisions are quite typical of freedom and grassroots movements, and they do not always compromise the outcome of the endeavour. In the 1960s, for example, the main divisions in the American Civil Rights movement were caused by questioning the role of peaceful protests: on one side Martin Luther King’s nonviolent ideas, on the other Malcolm X and the Black Panthers promoting self-defence through force and encouraging black separatism. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, the movement fell into further chaos and division over future strategies. Although these gaps – which grew wider in time – actually caused the end of the movement, the seeds sown in previous years nevertheless bore fruit, leading to enhanced civil rights and freedoms for black people.
Is unity among Syrian revolutionaries and activists possible? Have Syrians had the time to reconcile their fractures? What if seemingly irreconcilable differences were instead part of and even fundamental to the revolutionary movement? What if it was just a matter of time and of reaching a synthesis out of thesis and antithesis? What if the presence of many narratives and perspectives were essential ways for Syrians to get to own the discourse and the political space? In Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s words:
Almost every Syrian individual has become a public person, and the public sphere contains endless tales, different and similar, narrated by numerous people who have had first-hand exposure to the ordeal—people whose voices have long been silenced. Today, and since the beginning of the revolution, possession of discourse has been an essential aspect of Syrians’ attempts to own politics, their country, and to own the country itself. (Yassin al-Haj Saleh, The Impossible Revolution, 2, my emphasis)
What if the Syrian revolution, now irrevocably intertwined with the experience of exile, was, to borrow Edward Said’s words, “a fundamentally heroic enterprise, a project of self-definition and autodidactic struggle?” (Edward Said, “Arabic Prose and Prose Fiction After 1948,” in Reflections on Exile, & Other Literary & Cultural Essays, Granta, London : 45; my emphasis). To understand what the Syrian revolution has brought about, it might be useful to use precisely Said’s thoughts on the development of Arabic fiction after the Nakba. Zionism, argues Said, has exposed Arab disunity and political unpreparedness; it has “raised the specter of national fragmentation or extinction” (ibid. 47). On the other hand, however, it has set the scene for self-definition and the creation of the present: “The past is usually identified with loss, the future with uncertainty. But as for the present, it is a constant experience, a scene to be articulated with all the resources of language and vision” (Ibid. 49, my emphasis).
Syrian revolutionaries, who are now in most cases exiles as well, carry within and among themselves a “plurality of vision” giving rise to an “awareness of simultaneous dimensions” that is inherently “contrapuntal”, “decentered”, and “nomadic” (Ibid. 186; my emphasis). In this perspective, plurality – and even fragmentation – is part of their experience and might be fundamental for the definition of a new collective, and even national, identity. This, sooner or later, will produce a veritable “fusion of horizons”, (Hans Georg Gadamer, Verità e metodo, Bompiani, Milano, 2001: 357, my translation) allowing free Syrians to give life to a renewed national project once the already half-dead Assad regime finally falls.