June 1, 2013

In Blog

Mohammed Tabatabai


The main issue is legitimacy. At least so far in human development, no political system functions perfectly humanely, and all are works-in-progress. Yet, not all flaws render a political entity illegitimate, and much less justify violent opposition towards it. I think, judging on what I have come across your statements on Gandhi and civil disobedience, you would agree with me. 
To complicate matters further, two individuals living in the same nation-state may differ over what bestows legitimacy on a political entity, and it is a fact about the world that both cannot be satisfied. 
To speak of legitimacy without being vague, one would speak of legitimacy according to some standard of legitimacy. There is a minimum, I suppose, to which a political entity must conform to render it legitimate. 
For me, Professor, engaging in internationally illegal warfare which leads to uncountable destruction and death of citizens would render the government illegitimate. It matters not one iota that the government has a democratic mandate, acts according to a free constitution, or carries out its functions transparently as befits a republic. This is the case for the USA, Britain and Poland, states that invaded Iraq. For me, their governments were illegitimate, even if a majority of their people offered them unflinching support throughout the affair, or the courts of law were upheld, or welfare continued, or the economy prospered. So, neither popular democracy, nor state constitutionality, nor economic and social prosperity lend legitimacy to a violent contravention of international law, in my eyes at least.
Yet, I did not thereby support internal armed challengers to these governments. Protests and civil disobedience, perhaps, but protestor endorsement of violence is only justified in response to governmental endorsement of violence. Where there is room for international pressure to make reforms, where evolution has not yet died out, armed revolution is disproportionate. The aftermath of armed revolutions is very often unstable and detrimental to the ordinary citizen. 
This, however, is not the only disaster lying in store for a revolutionary Syria. There have always been only two realistic options for such a Syria: to become pro-Western pro-Gulf states, or to become salafist Taliban-esque radicals. They can be economically and socially prosperous, rely on a sound constitution, even depend on a popular mandate, they would remain as illegitimate as the Lebanese 14 March Alliance is, if by legitimacy we mean the minimalist formula ‘the fitness of a state to defend its citizens’ rights.’ Peace with Israel over the Golan and the Palestinian issue, or the welcoming of US hegemony into the region, or a sectarian radicalism, perhaps an autocratic one at that, undermines the rights of the Syrian people dramatically. The only way forward was always reform.
But, as I previously said, I am not convinced that armed elements were not present from very early in the peaceful uprising. Most of what we really have on Syria are unverifiable claims from both sides, receiving different emphases of coverage, depending on the news outlet. I do not insult anyone’s intelligence if I say that it is a psychological bias to have more trust in the claims of protestors than the claims of the government, simply because of an overdog-underdog dynamic. What we were told was that a large number of members of the Syrian forces were killed. The government called them martyrs fighting terrorists. The opposition called them defectors who were gunned down by the government. I don’t so easily buy the latter. But what we know of a long-term Pentagon plan to destabilise Syria, Saudi and Qatari investment in toppling Assad, and the emergence and dominance of armed foreign salafists on the ground, I find Sayyid Nasrallah’s interpretation more accurate: the peaceful opposition was hijacked by armed gangs and Syria was put on the road of civil war. 
A quick word needs to be said about chemical weapons. Governmental use of chemical weapons is being manufactured by the opposition, the news outlets and certain governments. We are asked to believe that Assad, whose only hope is to call for dialogue and expose the violent nature of the rebels, is instead acting out a role most desired by the opposition narrative: the man who gasses his own people, who crosses the US red line, who justifies an international coalition to invade his country and bring him down. I will never believe such obvious propaganda, especially when the only unbiased finger pointed at the rebels for possibly administering chemical weapons. This unbiased finger was rather hurriedly dismissed, no doubt under considerable pressure. No one should be able to place pressure on neutral international organisations, but it is a fact that even international organisations are pressured out of neutrality. But, if a case for chemical weapons is so easily conjured up from thin air and given fuel, why not ask the very legitimate question: how much of the opposition narrative is a mere conjuring trick? A short series of simple, fabricated claims on day one can be responsible for an entire civil war. Army defectors? Or victims of armed gangs? That makes all the difference. 
I do not like the Ba’thi regime. I do not approve of the emergency law. I hate a high security state. This does render the political system illegitimate. But it does not justify armed uprisings. Very few contemporary states have killed and tortured and terrorised and brainwashed as extensively and arrogantly as the United States of America. No amount of polling or free press can bless the United States. In my eyes, better an autocracy that does not unjustly kill, torture, terrorise and brainwash than a democracy that does. Yet, regardless of this fact about the USA, where reform can be pushed, even theoretically, where dialogue can be held, the one who rejects it is condemned. I believe Sayyid Nasrallah, and my reading from the news confirms, that the opposition has consistently rejected unconditional dialogues aimed at reform. I have no doubt who is pressing them against dialogue: those who fear Syrian reform the most: the Gulf states, the USA and the UK. 
In the upcoming Geneva talks, we had Syria’s government support dialogue and negotiations. Immediately following this announcement, the opposition was made to say that it will only engage if and only if the result would be the removal of Assad. This is clearly begging the conclusion of negotiations right at the start, and is undoubtedly a tool to provoke the Syrian government to withdraw from the talks – handing lucrative propaganda points to its enemies: the government rejects talks. It’s an old and tired game and it is only played by those who don’t mind watching more blood spilt and more anguish spread. It’s not a game played by suffering citizens, but by guerrilla warriors.
In your email, the sentence I identify with on a personal level is this: ‘A state is not a toy in a child’s playpen.’ Professor, do you really suppose the opposition, both the pro-Western pro-Gulf secularists and the salafi radicals are anything but children, the former spoilt brats, the latter schoolyard bullies? 
Once again, many thanks for discussing this with me. 
Kind regards,
Abdel Nasser-
First we have to get the basic facts right on the ground. The Bashar dynasty has been ruling Syria with an iron first since the last 40 years. The Syrian youth who form the majority of the population has not had a chance to see any other ruler. Its the Bashar family who control the entire military and the intelligence services. There is no freedom of press and no freedom for dissent. I was in Syria for two weeks during the winter of 2010. I could feel the media control as well as blind obedience to the party which was visible in all programs I attended there. I attended student union meetings, meetings of traders union, farmers union, etc. The only rhetoric amongst union leaders were to see who could praise Bashar the most. Also, when we used to say end our speeches by Nafdeek Ya Palestine, our Syrian counterparts used to chant Nafdeek Ya much for Palestine! I can understand a section of the left supporting Bashar and rooting for him because the left was allowed to be part of a controlled farce opposition. This was mainly due to the fact that during the cold war period, Syria was in the Russian sphere of influence and still remains so. This is the only country in the world where the left has been silent towards a dictator. 
Now regarding the so-called resistance against Israeli and Palestinian’s savior propaganda; we all very well know that every dictator or monarch, be it Bashar, Saddam, Gaddafi, the Saudi Royal family or any Arab sheikhs, they either use religion, Palestine, anti-US/Israel rhetoric, etc to try to garner an image of being a timely hero in need.
The aspirations of the Syrian people have been dashed equally by the western powers in tandem with Arab monarchies who will almost blackout and go into epileptic fits when the word democracy is uttered on one hand as well as the Iranians and Hezbollah on the other. As far as these parties are concerned its all about strategic interests. I dont even want to discuss the western arguments for disposing Bashar and arming certain extremist sects to do so. Centuries of colonialism have taught us about their intentions. But what I fail to understand is how Iran and Hezbollah are using religious discourse to reason for helping Bashar. This is very hypocritical and misusing the teachings of Islam. In Islam, you side with oppressed no matter what. There is nothing called a benevolent dictator. Speaking for a free Palestine while subjugating freedom at home reeks of opportunism and hypocrisy. We are all mature enough to understand that.
The Saudi monarchy is known for building schools, hospitals, hostels, mosques, etc in many poor countries of Asia and Africa. They also donate millions of dollars in aid material to impoverished countries like Somalia. But we know that country has the worst human rights record and is an American stooge in the Arab world. What if I reason that any attempt at rebellion in Saudi will adversely affect the millions of poor Asian and African souls who are dependent on Saudi generosity and also the ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ will have the support and prayers of millions of such people who have been the recipients of Saudi magnanimity, so its strategic that King Fahd remains in power now. This is the exact sort of reasoning that Iran and Hezbollah are using to support Bashar. Its the exact line of arguments that the Americans used in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I loathe the Saudi monarchy because in Islam liberty and freedom are placed above and are of more importance than charity or rituals. Charity and prayers must be to channel the feeling of liberty and to prepare humans to fight for the same. I guess our scholars in Iran and Hezbollah stick to this basic tenent of Islam. Interfering in Syria and sending troops to aid the Syrian army is exactly the American SOP in such circumstances. Its a classic scenario of everybody trying to be more equal.
Hezbollah could have been more tactful in stalling western interests by dialogue and negotiating with other Arab leaders. It was I am sorry to say a tactical blunder of Himalayan proportions.