x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

After Assad falls, Syrians will have to forgive his supporters

The "for or against" narrative of Syria's uprising plays into the hands of the Assad regime, by polarising ordinary people. We need to realise we must jettison the antagonism and build on our similarities

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

'I like Osama bin Laden, he's my hero." Back in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, a Syrian acquaintance in Damascus was boasting of his support and admiration for the "heroic" actions of Al Qaeda's leader.

As the Syrian conflict intensified and became entrenched across the country, this same person used his Facebook page to accuse elements of Al Qaeda of destabilising the country. Absurdly, where once Bin Laden was his hero, now Bin Laden had become his enemy; where once Al Qaeda was "legitimate" and "heroic" in attacking the United States, now it has become responsible for vandalism and obscenity in Syria.

Confident in their hegemony and hubris, many of the supporters of Bashar Al Assad's regime felt secure enough to assault and threaten the "others" in their workplaces and residences, to cause offence and to defend aggression.

Since the early days of the turmoil, some of them found it excusable - and even argued it was lawful - to exterminate civilians in towns where there were protests. What amounted to mass murder of thousands was explained away, and they suggested it would be acceptable to slaughter hundreds of thousands or even one million Syrians because, according to them, "they do not love us".

A few months ago in Damascus, a young woman who had threatened one of her colleagues defended herself to me by saying: "Bashar is my God - I don't care if someone curses even God himself, but I can't tolerate it when it comes to the Assads."

What is the magic behind that desperate loyalty? Why is it that every time the power, support or control of Al Assad is expected to fade, he seems to be strengthened within Syria? When loyalists are confronted with such astonishing stories as a father killing his own wife in revenge for the defection of his daughter to the opposition - as the 21-year-old Syrian Loubna Mrie claims happened to her mother - how can they continue their devotion? In the face of these experiences, can supporters of Al Assad really be a myth?

For those who support the opposition, there is often no hard effort to distinguish between mainstream supporters of the regime and its thugs, militia and informants.

The word "minhibakjia" is used as a derogatory term to denounce Al Assad's Syrian supporters and apologists. (The term comes from the Arabic minhibak, meaning "We love you", a common chant at pro-Assad rallies and widely displayed in Syria alongside images of Al Assad.)

From a distance, it is believed that these supporters adhere to him because of allegiance to the Alawite sect, or out of a wish to defend their economic privileges, or because they are forced to do so, or simply out of fear.

There is an excessive tendency to categorise Al Assad's supporters into static strata that must represent "only" a tiny portion of Syrians. Yet, the overgeneralisation and underestimation of Al Assad's followers is only the other side of the coin of denial. The overlooked fact, usually intentionally, is that Al Assad supporters can't be identified by a precise percentage, in the same way as his opponents defy a precise number.

Looking at it closer, it is clear Al Assad has loyalists who will faithfully defend him with their blood and even the blood of their families, until the very last minute. There are others who have never believed in the uprising and its demands, or are still roaming the foothills of conspiracy theories about its origin.

Still others advocate their stance on the basis that, despite the pitfalls of tyranny, Syria did not have any debt before the uprising and provided free education and health care (regardless of the quality) for everyone. And other others simply can't perceive a better future without Al Assad, or feel the alternatives among the rising political oppositions and armed factions are not worth the risk of jettisoning the regime.

There are many who believe these ideas. This is not a myth, nor is it a delusion. Al Assad still has many loyalists and the denial of that by his opponents will not eliminate that fact.

On the pathway of the struggle, something has gone missing. The oppressed opponents and rebels have started to adopt the same rigorous patterns of their oppressors: assault, killing and mutilation.

The videos released of rebels committing human rights violations are slowly and painfully narrowing the huge gap between the atrocities of the regime and those of the rebels. Some supporters of the rebels say they approve of such tactics, but without filming them, so as to conceal the wrongdoings.

While their anger is understandable in the face of regime brutality, their argument could equally apply to the torture, abuse and carnage perpetrated by the regime.

Paulo Freire, the Brazilian philosopher and author of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, describes how violence is always initiated by those who suppress and dehumanise: "Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence?"

We have lost our sight; how can we afford not to? But if we pick and choose which deaths to mourn, we mislay our humanity.

Those who are shelled, tortured, displaced and massacred in the name of rooting out terrorism - as Al Assad's government claims - are in fact civilians, women and children; those "cleansed" from their homes are non-violent activists, and those killed in the street are young people, who dared to hope and dream for a different tomorrow.

Yet equally many of those who are killed in the name of "liberation" may simply be poor soldiers, men who could not afford to pay rather than serve their conscription, or men who do not have connections that would allow them to perform their military service near home.

After all this tragedy, what is the trajectory for Al Assad's supporters when he falls? And what are the consequences for his opponents if the regime stands a bit longer?

Will the country be tolerant enough to embrace all grievances, to distinguish between different compulsions and feelings, between the many reasons people have done what they have done?

The derogatory dichotomy of for or against only serves Al Assad's existential narrative, and protracts the conflict at the expense of Syrian blood. Since supporters of Al Assad will continue to sustain their repulsion of the uprising and the refutation of its morality, the onus is on the various elements of the opposition to look towards the future, including both their supporters and those who remain loyal to the regime.

The physical, emotional and ethical scars of the conflict are disastrous and extensive. There must not be a postponement until the day after Al Assad to work on restructuring our souls or homes.

It is no longer a discourse of merely disassembling the Syrian National Council or forming a new opposition coalition. It is no longer the plethora of meetings, or dealing with Syria as an expensive business and the Syrians as mere figures.

It is the realisation of Syrians that they must jettison the antagonism of these past months and instead build on the similarities.

We, as Syrians, are the ones who must hold ourselves accountable. We have to realise that if we don't own our decisions of today, we will never own them in a new free Syria.


Jasmine Roman is a pseudonym

On Twitter: @JasmineRoman01