Transcript of an episode first broadcast on March 15th, 2020 (available here).
Ani White: Kia ora. Welcome, comrades, to Where’s My Jetpack?! a politics and pop culture podcast with sci-fi and socialist leanings. This month we’ve got an interview with Yasser Munif on the Syrian revolution, once again on the anniversary of the revolution. So Yasser Munif is a Syrian academic and activist, and associate professor of Sociology at Emerson College. He teaches courses about colonial history, racial identities, social movements, Middle Eastern politics, and feminist theories. He is the co-founder of the Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution and his book, The Syrian Revolution: Between the Politics of Life and the Geopolitics of Death, which will be mainly discussing here, was published in 2020. So welcome to the show, Yasser.
Yasser Munif: Thank you for inviting me. Thank you for the opportunity.
Ani White: Yeah, thanks for coming on. So first, a general question. What are the key things people need to know about the Syrian revolution?
Yasser Munif: So the Syrian revolution obviously started in 2011 with a number of other revolts in the region and I think the entry point, the most important to understand about the revolution in Syria is that it’s both a simple and complex process. Simple in the sense that there is a long history of violence in Syria that didn’t start in 2011, but rather we could trace back to the rise to power of the Ba’ath Party in the 1960s, in addition to dire economic context, crisis, since the 1980s, but also since 2000. So it was commonsensical that people would rise up and oppose this dictatorship in 2011. I think that’s an important entry point to understand that there was a lot of resentment, a lot of coercion to the population, marginalization, high unemployment rates, and so on. It was logical for large segments of the population to oppose and to resist the Assad regime.
On the other hand, it’s also a very complex revolution in the sense that many actors were involved at different stages of the revolt with their own interests, with their own logic. So, for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran were involved and in a certain way were fighting each other and using Syria as a proxy to face each other. There is also the opposition between the Kurdish politics and Turkey, and US and Russia and so on and so forth. I mean, there are a number of layers that complexify any understanding of the revolution very quickly. So what I propose usually is that we begin with that simple entry point to understand that people revolted for obvious reasons, like many other populations in the region.
The second thing I would say is that one cannot really understand the Syrian revolution without understanding its connection to the entire region, the Arab region or the Middle East and Northern African region. There was an authoritarian order in that region that was more or less stable in the past several decades, at least since the 1960s. For many of them, dictatorships that were run oftentimes by families, whether that’s Egypt or obviously Saudi Arabia or Jordan and the same thing in Morocco and so on, or a ruling party that became very much once again run by a small clique or even a family, like in Syria or in Iraq up until the US invasion, or Algeria. So it’s important to understand that those revolts are very much interconnected in the same way as the revolt of the socialist camp after 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and therefore we should understand them in their globality as interconnected and the impact of each one of them on the others.
Thirdly, I would say that it’s very important to really focus on the grassroots politics and not reduce those revolts to the geopolitical dimension. And I’m sure we’ll have an opportunity to talk more about that. But oftentimes people have a tendency to jump to the geopolitical aspect of those revolts and ignoring or dismissing the grassroots politics, which is, I think, central in any understanding of the Syrian revolt, but also the Arab revolts in general.
Ani White: Yeah, and for an example of those grassroots politics, you spent a few months in the city of Manbij during the revolution. Can you describe the revolutionary process there?
Yasser Munif: Yes. So Manbij is a city located in Northern Syria, close to the Turkish border and I chose it because it was more accessible for me at some point. I couldn’t go back to Damascus. Initially, I started going to Damascus, but then my name ended up being on some list and it became more risky to go to the areas controlled by the Assad regime.
So Manbij was liberated in July 2012 and was run by a Revolutionary Council and was a very interesting case study to me. I mean, I wanted to go and see for myself what is happening and how the revolution really takes place in the everyday life. And so it was a really important trip in a certain way because there were a number of initiatives happening in the city. People were trying to make the city liveable despite the amount of violence against the city, either through bombardment or through siege. Oftentimes it’s very difficult to even get bread or other type of food, medication and what have you. There was also a large number of refugees in the city. And so all these aspects made the running of the city more challenging. There were almost 200,000 refugees or internally displaced people, which is approximately equal to the population of Manbij. And all these people needed housing, access to medical health care. They needed food, schooling for their children and so on.
So it’s within that kind of context that people were actively trying to recreate many of those institutions that are essential for the survival of the population in those areas. I think oftentimes those examples, those struggles are ignored. They don’t necessarily end up on the front pages of the international media. First, because it’s very difficult to access those areas. Second, it requires spending more time and getting to know the population and who’s doing what and the different groups operating on the ground and so on. So it requires more time and that’s not something that many journalists are able to do.
So my experience there was extremely interesting in the sense that one begins to understand how revolution really operates. It’s oftentimes a very chaotic process. Oftentimes people learn by trial and error. It’s an iterative project of the revolution. Looking at the revolution from below is an extremely important thing for people who want to understand those processes. So I was able to gather a lot of stories from people who were either trying to reopen the school to get the kids to go back to school, despite the challenges, despite the Syrian regime bombarding the school and preventing people from going back there or providing bread and the politics of bread and how all that operates and so on. So it was an important opportunity for me to observe the revolution from below, to see the everyday life of people resisting and trying to rebuild from the destruction that the Syrian regime imposed.
Ani White: Yeah, thanks for that. In your book, you talk about the Syrian revolution representing a micropolitics of life against a macropolitics of death, or necropolitics. Can you explain what that means for our listeners?
Yasser Munif: Yeah. Again, there was a lot of writing about the Syrian revolution, and oftentimes I felt that what people highlighted really was the geopolitical aspects and international relations and so on. So I wanted to shift the focus and try to highlight other aspects that are not necessarily very visible in the mainstream media, or even among certain academic circles, or even among activists. So I used this, I would say, theoretical tool, micropolitics and macropolitics, or what I would call also the politics of life against the politics of death, which is, I think, a really useful way to think and look at this revolution.
So what I mean by the micropolitics, or the politics of life, are all these micro processes, the everyday resistance and the minutiae of building alternatives that oftentimes are very decentralised. So people began their involvement in the revolution by organizing at the level of their neighborhood, among family members, because those are the people you trust and their villages. Because Syria was very violent, I mean, the regime was very violent in Syria, the political parties were almost nonexistent. So when the revolution started, there was no structure, no leadership to lead the revolutionary process. So this is why it was a very decentralised process. So what you find in one place, for example, in Manbij, is very different from what you will find in other regions, either because of the demographic composition of the population or the urban texture of the city or the neighborhood or sometimes because of the large presence of the military. In some areas, the activists were much more prepared and much more democratic and therefore they were able to build a much more solid alternative and so on.
So it’s through that process of politics of life, observing what people are doing on an everyday basis to again rebuild those institutions and the effective networks that people build to communicate among each other, either through social media or other ways or sometimes using art even to resist. And I think that’s another dimension that is oftentimes marginal. People don’t pay much attention to it. But in some of the areas, it was almost impossible to organise a protest. For example, people in the beginning would put red paint in the fountains, to remind everyone that maybe there are no protests because of the security and the military and so on. But there is something like a rebellion brewing, or people sometimes with through ping pong balls, with messages from a hilltop in some of the neighborhoods that would go to different places downhill. And so people would find those ping pong balls and read the message, and so on and so forth. So there was a lot of creativity. It’s only through those minimalist kind of observations one can begin to understand the revolutionary process.
On the other hand, to understand what the regime was doing. I felt that it was important to look at death as a major entry point, and I think by doing that, we can understand the state logic and how the Syrian regime was regulating its forces, by looking at how it can impose more violence and more death and so on. So the book is really structured around those two processes, the macropolitics or micropolitics, and the politics of life and the politics of death. One can, I think, understand the revolution better by using those frameworks. In a certain way it’s a way to decolonise theory, because I think a lot of the social sciences are oftentimes Eurocentric and inadequate to understand what’s happening in our region and the Arab world. For example, a lot of the social movement theory, the new social movement theory was developed in a European context where social movements can operate, they can formulate demands to the state, and there is a public sphere and so on and so forth. All that doesn’t exist in the Arab region. So using a social movement theory, for example, to understand what’s happening in Syria is not appropriate. This is why I was trying to develop alternative tools, theoretical tools, to understand, on the one hand, the violence of the Syrian regime, but also the creativity of the people who are building alternatives, and fighting for a politics of dignity from below.
Ani White: Thanks for that. You argue that the prison is the central pillar of necropower or the politics of death. Can you explain how that works?
Yasser Munif: Sure. One cannot really understand Syrian history or politics without understanding the rule of prisons in it. Mustafa Khalifa, for example, explained that Syria’s history is the history of prisons, concentration camps, and massacres. And that’s very accurate. If we look at the way that the Syrian regime, the Ba’ath Party and Assad rose to power – it was through a coup. And Syria has also a history of coups. Some historians would argue that they were up to 19 different coups, depending on how you count them and so on. So when Assad took power, he wanted to build a coup-proof regime or state, and one of those central institutions to help him do that was obviously the prison. So the Syrian regime imposed an equation in Syrian society where violence really played a central role. and the Syrian regime imposed that politics of fear where one has to always be on guard and be careful. and you end up in the end self-censoring, and people avoid any kind of talk about politics. I remember even hearing from people that one should not talk about the price of vegetables, tomatoes, and what have you in public transportation because that could be understood or interpreted as a critique of the regime. So that was the level of violence. So obviously only a small portion of the population was incarcerated in prison and was experiencing the violence and the torture of the Syrian prison, which are notorious on a global scale. Only a few places really compare to the Syrian prison where oftentimes people died under torture. The Syrian regime developed the whole carceral knowledge and strategies to better torture prisoners, either to humiliate them or to get information and all that to impose that politics of fear and create this narrative that anyone can end up being there.
So the Syrian regime was not necessarily interested in preventing stories from leaking from the inside to the outside. On the contrary, it wanted the Syrian population to know to a certain extent about what’s happening in places like Tadmor or Sednaya, the massacres that happened and so on, not too much, but enough to scare the population. And so the Syrian prison obviously has its own specificity. It’s very different from the US prison system or other prison systems in – how should I call that? – in highly developed capitalist countries where the prison, like in the US, plays an economic role and is connected to the economic institutions, and in a certain way allows the state to accumulate and to punish any surplus population or unemployed population like in the US with the Black and the Brown population. In Syria, it doesn’t necessarily have that economic incentive. On the contrary, in Syria the prison costs the state money and it’s not necessarily productive in the way that it is in the US. So it fulfils a different role, which is, as I mentioned, producing that politics of fear and making sure that everyone is on their guard and making sure that there is no opposition, because there is always that possibility of ending in prison.
As a result, Riad al-Turk, who is one of the important leftist intellectuals and political leaders called Syria the ‘Kingdom of Silence’, because of the central role that prisons really played. There is a whole literature in Syria called the prison literature. And that’s also true in the region, I should say, because there are some similarities between prison in Syria and, say, in Iraq and in Egypt and so on. So this is why I think it’s very important to put that institution, in any analysis, in a central position to really understand the way that the Syrian regime operates, and the way that it projects this image of force and coercion and violence.
Ani White: I think it’s also perhaps worth noting, as many have noted, that in terms of that carceral logic and the logic of torture and the macropolitics of death, as you put it, that the Assad regime collaborated with the US on essentially rendition of people for torture during the so-called War on Terror, kind of somewhat undermining the idea that Assad is an anti-imperialist.
Yasser Munif: I think that’s an excellent point because, as you noted, not only the Assad regime but also Mubarak and others, oftentimes the European countries and the West in general would outsource that torture because it’s more difficult to execute that level of violence and torture in Western countries. And so, yes, Syria played that role, and coordinated with the US very closely in the war against terrorism, or quote unquote “terrorism”, but in the end implemented its own agenda.
The other thing I think that we should mention in relation to the prison, there are two ways to understand the prison in Syria. Some people have proposed a minimalist kind of definition, which understands the prison as simply the building and the center where people are incarcerated. Others have proposed a more maximalist definition of prison, which basically includes the entire Syrian territory, because in some ways, all people are victim in some way or another of that system. I think it’s more adequate to find something in the middle where prison is not simply the building and those incarceration centers, but rather it has also annexes. So it’s also sometimes some hospitals, especially during the war, during the revolution, the hospital played a major role.
For example, Hospital 601 in Damascus was more feared than the famous, or infamous SedNaya prison, because people would go there and there would be doctors helping the guard on techniques of torture, and pushing the limits like almost to death, and bringing the prisoners back so that they get more torture. So that coordination between some death doctors and some prison guards is really horrifying. I think we should understand better the collaboration between the prison system and healthcare that has also parallels in the Nazi system, where doctors oftentimes were in some ways helping prison guards and so on.
Ani White: Yeah, I definitely think the carceral logic extending beyond just the prison is a real thing.
What is the state of exception and how does it apply to Syrian political history?
Yasser Munif: So that’s another important dimension of Syrian politics, the state of exception or the state of emergency. It was called the state of emergency in Syria. It’s the idea that the state can suspend the legal system to preserve itself, and preserve its interest. It represents a kind of desire on behalf of the state to, on the one hand, be legalistic and be part of the international community, but also using that powerful weapon that actually many “modern” states between quotation marks, which is the state of exception, that the law can be suspended because the state has an interest in doing that. So the way it was justified in Syria – the state of emergency was imposed in 1963 when the third party took power, and it can also be traced back to periods preceding that in the 1950s, when Abdel Nasser became de facto President through the union between Syria and Egypt. It was also imposed during the French colonization of Syria during the French mandate. So one could also trace back that state of exception or state of emergency.
But it’s been in place in Syria since at least 1963 with the rise to power of the Ba’ath party, and has become a tool that the Syrian regime always utilised against political parties, against any political dissidents and any form of political protest, to say that Syria is at war against Israel and the West in general, the Imperialist West, and therefore, it can use that state of emergency because of that, and can justify the way that it’s running the state. And it became a major demand on behalf of the protesters when the revolution started in 2011, one of the main demands was people wanted the end of the state of emergency. It was finally lifted in 2012, but was quickly replaced by counterterrorism laws which basically played the same role as the state of emergency or the state of exception, but are more acceptable for the international community because many countries
actually, whether in the West or elsewhere, have similar rules compared to laws where law is suspended because the state needs to do certain things that would not be acceptable or permissible in “normal days”.
So Syrians have no political rights. They cannot participate freely in political parties. There are no free elections. And in addition to that, they are completely powerless when it comes to the legal system because of that law. So, again, this is not to say that the state of exception is unique to Syria, but I would argue that in Syria, the state of emergency or the state of exception was implemented on a larger scale, and is much more visible and had lethal consequences, obviously.
Ani White: You describe a process of Assadist urbicide or the killing of cities. Can you explain that?
Yasser Munif: Yeah, so I use this concept of urbicide developed by a number of intellectuals – the idea of killing cities or the urban texture during conflict. One could also think about this concept outside conflict and outside war. But I use it in the context of Aleppo during the revolution, to understand the spacial aspect of the revolution. So urbicide was basically used by the regime to take control of certain areas in Aleppo. Obviously, it can be utilised in other cities but the focus in my book is on Aleppo, and I identified several strategies that the Syrian regime used. They include, for example, horizontal power and flows. We’re thinking about the spatial aspect of the revolution. And so the ways that the regime, for example, segmented the city of Aleppo in small areas that it can control better by putting checkpoints, and by making sure that there is no communication or coordination between neighbourhoods that are perceived as threatening. At the same time, again, if we look at this horizontal operation or flows, there were pro regime militias that were moving quickly from one neighbourhood to another. They’re called the Šhabīḥa and they’re infamous. Everyone has seen them during the revolution, but they were also present before the revolution, again to make sure that they remind the Syrians that they are watched, that the state is present. So whenever there was any rebellion or any kind of protest in the early days of the revolution, they know the city very well. They know the families very well. They know the streets of the city of Aleppo, oftentimes narrow streets where tanks cannot enter and so on. So they would be sent there and they would crush any form of protest.
So it’s important to think about the city on that horizontal level, but also on what I call the vertical power. It’s not obviously a concept that I developed, it was developed by others. But trying to understand how the Syrian regime positioned its snipers in the city by using highrises, including luxury hotels or administrative buildings or minarets. When you look at those different buildings where the snipers were positioned, what you find is the different forms of powers or the different groups that were allied to the Syrian regime. So the luxury hotels represented the neoliberal or traditional economic power. So those hotels were given to the regime, and the regime occupied the roofs where it positioned snipers. Then the second power is obviously the massive bureaucracy of the state and so those buildings represented that bureaucracy. There are very important buildings in Aleppo where dozens of snipers were positioned, and they were able to really kill many people in different areas, because those tall buildings had views over a number of different neighbourhoods.
Thirdly, the religious power symbolised by the minarets and the mosques where also some snipers were positioned. In addition to that, the snipers obviously, there are the helicopters dropping the barrel bombs and what have you. You could understand the geography of death by looking at the areas that were targeted by the Syrian regime, where those barrel bombs were dropped, there were almost 100,000 explosive barrels were dropped in Syria. By mapping those, one could begin to understand the state logic, and why is it that they were focusing on certain areas and not others, and dig further and understand the military logic through that spacial mapping.
I think that the Syrian regime has a really very deep understanding of space, and it was able to instrumentalise it and use it during the revolution, by positioning its military. It’s an old logic. It didn’t start with the Syrian revolution, because the Syrian regime always felt that there is a threat of rebellion. and faced actually a rebellion in the 1980s – an urban rebellion – and therefore, one can trace back that urban logic, at least to that period of the 1980s. So if you look at Aleppo, many of the military compounds and military centers, intelligence, security centers, they’re surrounding the city in a very strategic way. Additionally, there is also the topography of the city, again, a spacial dimension that can also help us understand the military logic of the Syrian regime. So, for example, the river was utilised in a certain way by the regime. The hilltops were utilised, to position its military to control the lower areas in the city. The green areas and the parks were utilised, and so on, to execute people and then drop them in the river. The river would bring those dead people to the areas controlled by the revolutionaries and so on.
So I mean, that’s what I meant by urbicide, trying to understand the lethal power of the state and the regime through space, which is oftentimes a neglected dimension in any conflict, but especially in the Syrian conflict. And we need much more, I think, studies and analysis of different areas, not only the urban but also the countryside, because it has its own different logic to really understand an important aspect of the revolution and the counter revolution.
Ani White: You mentioned the targeting of certain areas over others and I think it’s a related question: how did the regime weaponise demographics?
Yasser Munif: So that’s another important question for the Syrian regime – which is gathering information about its population. As a reminder, sociology as a field, the social sciences as a field were initially created to help the state better understand its population in order to better control it. I mean, that’s the history of sociology, which is different from anthropology. Anthropology was initially developed to further the colonial enterprise, and help the colonial power understand the population that are outside Europe, or the West. So in that sense, sociology and information or knowledge about the population is not specific to the Syrian regime. But the Syrian regime obviously had gathered a lot of information about the population, whether that’s the different religious sects, the sectarian dimension of the population, where the wealthy and the poor people live, a lot of information about the informal settlements and so on and so forth.
So I tried to look at, again, Aleppo, I used Aleppo as an example to see the ways that the Syrian regime took all these parameters of the population, whether they are young or old, whether they are living in the countryside or in the city, whether they are rich or poor, whether they are Arab or Kurds, Christian or Muslim, and so on and so forth, Palestinian or non Palestinian, and utilise all these different properties or different characteristics of the population to weaponise them and making sure that, for example, that there is tension between Christians and Muslims, if it’s local, making sure that it becomes national, if it doesn’t exist, try to provoke it and so on. For example, the Syrian regime oftentimes would send undercover militias dressed in Islamic uniform to Christian areas and massacre the population, so that people think those people were massacred by Islamists and vice versa. And same thing with the Palestinians. I mean, there were Palestinian militias, but there was also a rebellion in the Palestinian camp, so the Syrian regime took – and you could look that up, it’s been documented and it’s not even controversial, I mean, there were pictures taken and footage and so on – it took a bus of Palestinian fighters who are pro regime and killed them, and then made the Palestinian camp believe that they were killed by the opposition. So it really instrumentalised the population in different ways, to make sure that it’s fragmented in ways that will serve the interest of the state, the interest of the regime, as opposed to the interest of the rebellion.
So instead of people really working together along class lines or in their own interests, they were segmented in all these different ways at different phases of the revolution, to prevent the consolidation of a big oppositional revolutionary bloc. Some of it predates the revolution. It didn’t start with the revolution, it was intensified by the revolution. One example for that is the Kurdish population was displaced because, again, the Syrian regime had this hatred for the Kurds because it’s Arab nationalist in a very chauvinistic way. So the Kurds were displaced from the North, and the Syrian regime built an Arab belt around the border between Syria and Turkey to prevent the potential formation of a Kurdish state between Turkey and Syria. And obviously, it was coordinating with Iraq and Iran and Turkey in different ways, making sure that the Kurds don’t have autonomy or self rule. So very early on, the Arab and the Kurdish populations, there were a lot of tensions between some of the tribes that are in those areas and we saw how they were, again, instrumentalised during the revolution. Those are some of the ways that the regime weaponised the demographics. I mean, we can go much more in depth, but I think the logic is clear.
Ani White: Yes. And how did the economic policies of the Assads back to the 70s factor into the emergence of resistance? And how have the politics of bread, or agrarian policy, played out in modern Syrian history?
Yasser Munif: Obviously, the economy played a major role in the immiseration of the Syrian population, its marginalization, the high unemployment rate, and so on, and was one of the main reason for the revolt. And again, it’s not unique to Syria, many Arab countries were facing the same kind of situation. So there was an important agrarian reform implemented in the 1960s, and when the Ba’ath took power – and especially Assad – because the Ba’ath took power and a number of other leaders, but he was able to put them in prison or exile them.
By 1970, he was controlling monopolizing power. So he started reversing the agrarian reform in the 1970s, and undoing some of the gains of that reform. But despite that, the agrarian reform was important, despite the limitations. As a result, the economy in Syria, industrialization was really import substitution industrialization, and was based on agricultural production for its survival. So it was really small and ineffective and dependent on agriculture, and oftentimes that was not predictable, and therefore oftentimes depending on the seasons the industry suffered. It’s not like the kind of industry that you can plan and predict, and so on. It was depending on the season when there were droughts, obviously, that the industry suffered a lot. So, in other words, the regime was really dependent on oil revenues and aid from Gulf countries and others, and also on the remittance from the Syrian diaspora, mostly in the Gulf countries and all that was declining. In addition, the Syrian population was growing, and that was compounding and complexifying the problems of the economy.
Finally, I would say that the liberalization of the economy which begun in the 1980s but amplified in 2000, when Bashar al-Assad took power after his father, with the neoliberal turn, and that had major dire consequences on the population, which was growing at a fast pace. Many people, many young men and women with university degrees, would not find jobs. The unemployment rate among the young population was extremely high. All these factors really were instrumental in the revolt. Many people joined the revolt because of that economic situation. Not only – the political humiliation of the Syrian population is obviously very important, but one cannot really understand the Syrian revolt and the Syrian revolution without understanding that economic background that Syria was undergoing.
Ani White: And you argued that the Syrian revolutionaries developed a new form of nationalism opposed to official state nationalism. So what distinguished this new form of nationalism and what practices were associated with it?
Yasser Munif: Yeah, I think it’s important to differentiate between different forms of nationalism. Again, sometimes people have a tendency to conflate those and to talk about nationalism in general. Sometimes people think that nationalism in Europe is similar to nationalism in the Global South. So I think it’s important to differentiate between all these different forms of nationalism. Obviously, European nationalism is chauvinistic. It’s white supremacist, it’s expansionist. It’s about furthering Imperial or colonial logic. Nationalism in the Global South, not always, I mean, it can be also very chauvinistic and very racist, and there are countless examples of that in the Arab region and beyond. India is a good example of how nationalism can be deployed against minorities, or against certain populations. But it can also be emancipatory. Popular nationalism often played that role of becoming the dominant ideology, when there was colonization against, for example, the French or against the British, it was a way to bring the population together, and build a block against that Imperial or colonial power. That was the case in Syria. The early nationalism in Syria emerged in the 1920s, and it was a very popular form of nationalism. It wasn’t some intellectuals writing about the way it should be done, and so on. So it was a nationalism that was taking, and shaping, in the midst of trouble.
In order to understand what happened in 2011, I think it’s important to go back to that period of the early nationalism of the 1920s, where people were organizing in very similar ways, organizing and forming different councils and groups, in order to fight and to resist the French. As they were doing that, they were developing this nationalist identity. So I think the same thing started happening in Syria in 2011, as people started working together, opposing the sectarian logic, understanding that was imposed from above by the Syrian regime, that the Syrian people have so much in common, whether they are Christian or Muslim or they are Kurdish or non Kurdish Arabs, whether they are coming from different backgrounds. There is a sizeable Palestinian population, and so on. So there was a lot of that popular nationalism emerging in the beginning, and anyone shouting or screaming sectarian slogans in the early days of the revolution would be removed from the protests or marginalised, or people would really exclude them from the revolutionary process. It wasn’t acceptable to be sectarian. So it was playing that role of building nationalism from below, of experimenting and discovering how to be Syrian differently or otherwise, because for many decades Syrians grew up with that Ba’ath Party nationalism. The Ba’ath Party is obviously an Arab nationalist party and whether it’s Arab nationalism or Syrian nationalism, it played a major role in the curriculum in schools. But it was very archaic, and people understood that it was deployed by the state to preserve and further the state’s interests, and to preserve the interests of the Assad regime. That popular nationalism was oppositional to that. It was reacting against that state centric nationalism, oftentimes scripted. It came from a few books that the Syrian regime considered like Bibles, that almost everyone had to read, and slowly but surely Assad the father became the main theoretician of nationalism, and people had to learn the slogans and so on, as part of that state-centric official nationalism.
This is what I tried to look at, the differences and the ways that the popular nationalism was extremely important to build an identity, a glue to all these different groups to come together and to oppose authoritarian rule. So that is a nationalism that one cannot really understand by reading articles. It’s not scripted in a certain way, unlike the official nationalism. One has to go to the protest and look at the practices or praxises of the people, what they are doing on the ground, and what they’re going to find is a very messy process, very heterogeneous. It’s a very decentralised form of nationalism. It’s multiple in that sense, unlike the very centralised and singular kind of nationalism of the state or the official nationalism. So that’s what I tried to do, opposing those two nationalisms to better understand popular nationalism and its creative and innovative aspects.
Ani White: Yeah. I think one good prominent example of this was the chants and slogans of “Sunnis and Alawis are One!” and “Syrians are One”, which sort of undermined the sectarianism that the regime was deliberately stoking at the time.
Yasser Munif: You’re exactly right. Those slogans were extremely important and people were very creative in amplifying those important ideas, that we have so much in common as Christians and Muslims and Kurds and Arabs. Sometimes the Assad regime would send undercover security to actually try to scream or impose other slogans. And as I said, in the beginning, they were marginal. But again, they would try to videotape this one person who oftentimes would be like a security agent and so on, shouting very disturbing slogans that no one has ever heard and then putting it on the internet and saying, “oh, look what they’re shouting and what they’re saying”. That was part of the Syrian regimes strategy, which is trying to fragment the population and try to impose the sectarian logic which was very detrimental, and at some point it became actually very dominant, unfortunately.
Ani White: How did revolutionaries respond to the encroachment of ISIS at the extreme, and other sectarians as well?
Yasser Munif: So I think it’s important to differentiate between two forms of political Islam. One is to a certain extent nationalist and it can be democratic or undemocratic, oftentimes undemocratic. But what’s important is that it’s nationalist, and was mostly interested in mobilizing the Syrian population against the Assad regime. So I think it’s important to differentiate that form of political Islam from the internationalist Islam of ISIS or Al Qaeda, who are very much opposed to nationalism, to Syrianness. When I was in Manbij and ISIS started taking over the city, oftentimes they would remove from the walls any nationalist slogans. I mean nationalism in the sense of popular nationalism that I described, slogans like, for example, “the real Syrians are revolutionaries”, or “to be Syrians means to serve one city and one’s population, not the Assad regime”, and so on. So ISIS came and they started removing all those slogans and saying those are blasphemous, and the only language we should speak is the language of Islam and so on. There was an important moment, that I think shocked many people in the world when ISIS removed the border between Syria and Iraq, to remind everyone that they are fighting for a post-national ummah, that they don’t recognise those nation-states, that those nation-states were imposed by the west – which is true. Those are the byproducts of Sykes–Picot and the Western European dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. But one, obviously is opposed to that kind of internationalism of ISIS and so on. I support, for example, a socialist Arab nationalism or an open Arab nationalism to a certain extent, that is inclusive and not exclusive of the Kurdish and other minorities, that sees a lot of common interest between different Arab countries, and therefore a little bit like the kind of internationalism or Latin Americanism of Che Guevara and others, who thought that it was important to unify, to oppose imperialist power and so on.
But obviously ISIS was not dismantling the borders for that reason. What they wanted to do is destroy the nationalist Arab state and impose an Islamic logic instead. Unfortunately, there was no powerful left to propose a different alternative to that, so we were left with that kind of post-nationalism brought by ISIS and Al Qaeda. But I think it’s important to understand that the Syrian regime was always interested in empowering Islamists again, to fight and to undermine the unions and progressive parties and the communists who were very powerful in Syria and in Iraq, to a certain extent – much more powerful in Iraq than in Syria but they had some presence in Syria – and they were completely destroyed.
The Syrian regime oftentimes was allied directly or indirectly with Islamists, despite that moment of tension with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. But then later on, it allowed the Saudi to play a major role in funding jihadists in the 1980s and to fund a certain form of Wahhabi Islam, very sectarian, in order to undermine the left. I can give at least one example of that kind of collaboration, de facto collaboration between jihadists and Al Assad. I’m not suggesting that there was a big conspiracy. Some Syrians did believe that there was a big conspiracy, that ISIS was created by security agents and so on. I think there is some truth to that, but it’s not as simple. But in 2012, the Syrian regime released thousands of jihadists, many of whom became major leaders in some of the most important jihadist groups in Syria. There is even footage of them in Sednaya up until 2012 and then they were released. Some of them were international figures that were on the wanted list of the US because of their role with Al Qaeda. So they were released in 2012, again for the Syrian regime to undermine the popular aspect of the revolt, the progressive and leftist dimension of the revolution, and the liberal dimension, and to empower the Islamists. By doing that, in a certain way, there was almost like a de facto alliance between the Syrian regime and ISIS and Al Qaeda, because the Syrian regime wanted to crush the popular revolt, and in a certain way empowered the jihadists and ISIS, and therefore almost like de facto become allied with the international community by telling them, “Look, there is no real opposition in Syria. They’re not secular, they’re all Islamists, they are terrorists. They are bombing your cities, whether that’s Paris or what have you”. And therefore there was this de facto alliance between the West and the Syrian regime.
And the same thing is true with ISIS in many areas. If you go back and look at where they were operating, and what their priorities were, they were really oftentimes behind the frontline and they were attacking the revolutionaries from behind, as the revolutionaries were on the front attacking the Syrian regime, ISIS would come to a city almost peacefully, they would enter their military forces, and sometimes they were welcomed by the population, who oftentimes didn’t know what was happening until it was too late. Then they would take those cities very easily because many of the fighters were on the front and ISIS was in the back, fighting sometimes minor battles with the opposition, to undermine the opposition, and make it clear that the only way to oppose the regime is through ISIS or Al Qaeda, by undermining any other group.
This is why I think it’s important to understand the relationship between ISIS and the Assad regime, without reducing it to a conspiracy. I think they have common interest in undermining the revolt on both sides. Oftentimes there was a number of places where the opposition was fighting towards one against ISIS, another one against the Syrian regime. In those areas, oftentimes ISIS and the Syrian regime would not fight each other until much later in the process, when it became too obvious and Assad had to start fighting them, and the Russians started supporting and helping them. But for a very long time, Assad was avoiding depleting his forces in any wars against ISIS or Al Qaeda, letting them grow, knowing that the West, generally speaking, would much prefer a “secular” Assad regime than those sectarian jihadist groups.
Ani White: Yeah, I think it’s very true that it benefits the Assad regime for the international community to perceive any resistance as sectarian, and that’s been a very deliberate strategy. But what’s next for those of us who uphold the Middle Eastern and North African revolutions?
Yasser Munif: So as I mentioned before, I think it’s very important to understand the Syrian revolution as part of much bigger process, that this is not simply about Syria, or about Egypt, or about Sudan. I mean, obviously, those processes are very much interrelated. I think one of the challenges in the past ten years has been that the amount of violence in Syria was monumental and so I don’t blame people when they are hyper focused on their own struggles, because every day there is more death and more destruction and more violence and people are very focused on that level. But I think there is need to understand the interconnectedness of those Arab revolts, and understand that we have so much in common between the Syrians opposing the Syrian regime and the Sudanese, the revolutionaries, and the Egyptian protesters and so on, with the Tunisians and so on, and learn from each other. I think that the Sudanese are doing that. I was in touch with Sudanese, who are contacting activists and organisers in the entire Arab world, to better understand some of the ways that people were organizing against state violence, and against the different weapons, and asking specific questions about specific weapons and what to do against them and so on. And I think we need to expand those kind of networks, building very grassroots network among activists and organisers and understand the commonalities among those different struggles, and also the differences and specificities, I don’t think we should oversimplify those dimensions. But obviously there is a lot in common and build strategies to oppose, for example, the prison system in the entire Arab world, or the security system in the entire world, or the violent neoliberal policies in the entire Arab world, and so on and so forth. So I think we gain a lot by building those networks.
Now it’s been ten years: the revolution started in 2010-2011. I think it’s time to learn from our mistakes and learn and share knowledge between those different revolts and processes. Learn from the myriad ways that people have been struggling and building alternatives from the ground up, whether that’s in their own neighborhood, how to defend them, how to provide bread and how to build strategies and communicate with each other and so on, despite the violence of the Arab regime.
Finally, I would say that I think some of us were a bit idealistic in the beginning. Obviously, we knew that those regime were extremely violent, but I don’t think we understood the level of violence that they were willing to deploy and utilise against their own population. So now that question has to be central, knowing what the Syrian regime and other Arab authoritarian rulers are capable of and think about the ways that we can counter that. It’s not simply violence against violence. I think it’s a much more complex question, or equation. And so we need to develop new, innovative strategies to address that question, that central question of violence. And finally, I would say that we have to think about the long term because some of those processes are changing; those tectonic plates beneath are moving and colliding and so on and producing different processes on the surface. But those are slow, and oftentimes they take time to become visible and appear on the surface, because they are oftentimes beneath the surface.
I’m talking about social structures and social classes that are changing and developing, and people are understanding different interests, maybe in different ways. That requires a different understanding of the left, a less sectarian kind of left that is very important to rebuild, a left that is able to understand and learn from past mistakes, but also connect with other struggles in the surrounding countries in the region, but also beyond, because many of those crises are systemic. They are global. Whether they are environmental, or economic, or even crises of democracy or the nation state. We are facing all these different crises, and the crisis of fascism that takes a different form in our region. But I believe that those struggles are very much interconnected, and the challenge for us is to understand the specificity and the anatomy of those demons, and develop strategies to counter them, and develop strategies of communication and networking among all these different groups, to be ready for the second round and the third round, because I think it’s going to be a very long process.
Ani White: Yeah. Thanks for that and thanks for coming on the show. Where can listeners find your work?
Yasser Munif: Thank you. Unfortunately, I don’t have a website, but I often-times write articles and organise through the Global Campaign for Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution. We organise different events, including a year ago we organised a Summer University about the Syrian revolution. So trying to understand the Syrian revolution from below and we had many, many different panels in addition to global protests. Because I think that now there is a large number of Syrians in the diaspora and their allies. I believe that those should be understood as outposts of the Syrian revolution and the Arab revolts, and we should develop better alliances with groups that are in the West, where those people are, and to better communicate and learn from each other.
Ani White: Yeah, I think that’s a very important point. The Syrian community is global. But again, thanks for coming on the show, and thanks for listening all. If you like what we do, please contribute to our Patreon at Patreon.com/jetpack1917. Solidarity comrades. Goodnight, and good luck.
Yasser Munif: Thank you and thank you for all the work you do. Thank you very much.
Ani White: Cheers.