Sunday, January 08, 2012

Syria: Can it be a city for all?

I have been thinking for some time now about the apparently intractable divide between those Syrians who support the revolution and those who do not. There are fools on all sides, and the presence of the sectarian and petty Sheikh Adnan Ar'our as one of the Syrian revolutions most vocal and controversial supporters shows that even the "opposition" (in all its colours and shades) has as much a share of idiots supporting it as the Syrian regime. Yet if there are reasonable people on both sides then is it not possible that some basis of common understanding could be reached? Can there not be some way of promoting a dialogue on assumptions that will not automatically alienate and offend one side or both? I want to try and explore that here, and if I fail, then what better failure is there?

There are a number of barriers in the face of such an undertaking, and each of these is considerable. There is the resistance versus imperialism discourse which portrays the Syrian regime as the victim of some "universal" conspiracy because of it's alleged support for the Palestinian cause; the lack of any charismatic leader figures in the broad spectrum of the Syrian opposition and the lack of a unified vision for the best way forward; and underlining all of this is the fear of an Iraq-style scenario of suicide bombings, sectarian killings and kidnappings. Syria is not there yet, but somebody has it in their best interest to keep that as an option. There is also the problem of automatically branding anybody who is against Assad and with the revolution as a traitor, of pro-democracy demonstrations being brutally repressed by the security services, and of the thousands of Syrians who have been killed, imprisoned and tortured since the Syrian revolution began. Ultimately, it is a divide between those who think it is a revolution and those who think it is a conspiracy.

These problems will automatically cripple any form of meaningful discussion, and will lead to an angry exchange of accusations and counter-accusations. In order for any type of meaningful discussion to progress, then this band of "reasonable Syrians" will have to try a different approach. I will refer to the Reasonable Syrians throughout this article as covering individuals on both sides of the divide who will be able to carry out such a discussion. The reasonable person term contains a bit of a circular argument, but I will take it to include a person who is prepared to accept for others what they would also accept for themselves. Such a maxim was good enough for Kant and it will be good enough for me.

In terms of approaching this problem, there will be no progress if each side insists on starting from a particular position. Instead, I propose that we agree upon one value or goal that we can all agree upon, and that we could work backwards from. In doing so, it will be a bit like getting everybody to agree that a new city must be built and then if everybody has agreed on that basis, to then proceed to identify the type of city it will be, what it must mean to its inhabitants, and how it will maintain itself. A city must be a pleasant place for all its inhabitants, it must belong to all of them and not just some, and the livelihood of each inhabitant must be safeguarded through some mechanism that can ensure the best form of justice and prosperity for all. There is to be no talk about secondary issues such as wiring and plumbing, when at this stage of planning. Syria, if it is to survive, must be such a city.

This is not a naive attempt that ignores the reality on the ground. This is a genuine effort to overcome the entanglements and insurmountable problems which threaten to burn everything. It will take great courage to stride over the hysteria and anger but the reasonable person will not care about the obstacles in their way once it is clear what needs to be done. In this way, positions that might have been adhered to for emotional reasons will no longer have the powerful hold they once did. Only once the discussion is shifted from positions to a shared value can any form of discussion take place. So the starting point is not about whether there is a conspiracy or not, or who is carrying out the killing, but as to the shape of Syria and what we would like it to be. This would require frank conversations about Syria's ethnic and religious make-up, and about the interests of each of these groups. There is no place on the table for universal narratives, but rather a more pragmatic problem-solving approach. Security for minorities and how to address it is an individual problem; safeguarding the religious freedoms of individuals is another; preventing the concentration of power in the hands of one person and preventing monopolies is another problem. Each problem will then require mechanisms for handling it, and processes must be worked out for reaching agreements or making decisions.

This is not an abstract art that requires that mysterious breed of creatures called politicians. It is an activity that anybody could potentially take part in. Underlining all of this would be a consensus that violence and thuggery have no place in Syria, however great the pressure from any one side to resort to it would be. I don't see any other way of getting through this impasse, and for the sake of this country, both sides must start to recognise this reality.

1 comment:

William Scott Scherk said...

Great, thoughtful introduction to the hardest issues, Maysaloon. I do believe that the common things are the only things that will help Syria in the coming years. All the positive myths that are held in common, all the basics of the various plans. All the presumed virtues of an ancient, tolerant, cosmopolitan polity, of kindness and mutual co-existence. Thus, one would expect an overwhelming number of Syrians to sign on to ringing declarations of political freedom and freedom to worship, for a state that protects minorities in the name of the Syrian family ...

I will look for evidence that wherever one is positioned on the spectrum of opinion (from crazed and paranoid regimist trumpets to demented sectarian death calls) most are ultimately seeking a similar end state, a Syria of freedom protected by a strong and just state.

Meaning, can there be any Syrians that do not want political prisoners released, and a reformation of the Syrian justice system? The laws that condemned Manneh as well as Maleh (not to mention the long list of other worthies from Kilo to Tayara) are still on the books! I believe that a vast majority of Syrians want an end to the actions of an ill-defined, semi-official armed militia (the Shabeeha)...

These are the common elements and there are several others that approach the same level of support, I think we will find.

Should the press be allowed to do its job (not only internation 'agitation channels' but the poor suppressed Syrian journalists themselves)? With a few sundry objectors, the answer should be strongly positive, I think. I think this could almost be assumed.

Similarly, I do not think any sizable number of Syrians would object to a ceasefire, followed by removal of heavily armed troops from urban areas. I see a strong majority for a lessening of tension supervised by monitors (even the SARG agrees) of some kind. I see strong majority support for All-Parties discussion (perhaps as per the Russian plan) that brings the whole messy tablette of opinion under one conference agenda.

What Syrian would object to a 'local deal' such as in Zabadani, a possible model for a local stand-down (what occurs to me is why a regimist does not note that there are no more daily killings from Zabadani now 'security' has removed its heavy weapons and armed personnel from the area)?

I could ramble on forever. I will send you an email instead; I think your post is a pioneering effort that really corrals the hard questions -- at least for me.