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Bassel Salloukh

Who speaks for Syrians?

The battle of Aleppo will leave yet another historic Syrian city in ruins [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 8 August, 2016

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Comment: Bassel F. Salloukh asks who speaks for the silent majority of Syrians, and what role have they been scripted in the game of high politics that is destroying Syria.

As plans of Syria's ultimate battle are being finalised in the capitals of regional states and international powers, one has to make an effort to remember that only five years ago there was a peaceful protest movement demanding a measure of socioeconomic justice and political reforms, and nothing more.

But this was before the popular uprisings were placed at the service of sectarianised geopolitical contests, and before they crashed against an authoritarian restoration that proved as regionally permeable as the explosion of popular uprisings. Since then, the Leviathan Syrian state - more so coercively rather than institutionally - has disintegrated, giving way to waring fiefdoms and regional and international spheres of influence.

Today the world is focused on the battle for Aleppo, one that promises to be protracted and bloody, and as physically destructive as other battles in the overlapping local, regional, and international 'struggle for Syria'.

The battle lines in Aleppo have come to symbolise seismic regional and international geopolitical fault lines. Not only who rules Syria, but the geopolitical future of the region, and the balance of world power, we are told, hinges on what ultimately happens on the Aleppo battlefields.

But we have heard these same arguments so many times before: in Qusayr, Idlib, Homs, Hama, Qamishli, Kobani, Ghouta and in the battle for the Damascus suburbs. We were told on the eve of every one of these battles that the future of Syria, and that of the region, prospective pipelines carrying gas to Europe, and the international balance of power, all hinge on how the tide of the battle goes.

Lost in this endless fog of war are the lives of the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the middle of what is otherwise a grand game of high politics

To be sure, these kind of geopolitical pontifications glide over the otherwise horrendous civilian death toll - or "collateral damage", in the bland language of modern warfare - in every so-called decisive battle. Lost in this endless fog of war are the lives of the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the middle of what is otherwise a grand game of high politics shaped in distant capitals, namely Moscow and Washington.

And it is this high politics game in which the war in Syria is wrapped that makes it very difficult to believe that all the Syrian conflict needs to reach its end, is a military resolution in yet another battle, in yet another city bombed into oblivion. It is indeed nothing short of delusional to accept this kind of reductionist logic.

But, to improvise on the title of one of Edward Said's memorable interventions, who speaks for all those helpless Syrians? Who speaks for those whose hands were sullied neither defending an authoritarian regime nor fighting sectarianised geopolitical battles? Who speaks for those original peaceful protestors who were moved by the very humane instinct to build a better future for their children?

Who speaks for the millions of displaced refugees, the children now forced to grow up as beggars on the intersections of Beirut's sad streets or along Istanbul's Istiklal street, the women raped or enslaved to satisfy sadistic passions, the torture victims, and the dead? Who speaks for the victims of an uprising turned into a regional and international geopolitical battle with no end in sight?

The battle for Aleppo today reminds us of all those past episodes in the region's history, when local struggles were ultimately decided not on the battlefield, but in political deals designed secretly in the hallways of faraway capitals.

Think of the Mount Lebanon massacres of the middle 19th century and the sectarian order they later produced as a result of an externally-imposed settlement, the dislocations that came with the map-drawings after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the question of Palestine and its lingering injustice, the inexplicably lengthy Lebanese war, the partition of Sudan, and the fallouts from the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The sad reality of the battle of Aleppo, is that it will leave yet another historic Syrian city in ruins, and so many more people dead, but it may not end the war

This is neither an orientalist exercise in reading history backwards through culturally static lenses, an attempt to deny the region's peoples agency, nor a fetish to blame the external 'others' for all the Arab world's misfortunes. Rather, it is to underscore just how much local dynamics in this part of the world are intertwined with global ones.

In turn, this is a consequence of the region's peculiar geographic and resource position in the global capitalist economy and the derivative lopsided process of state formation this has given rise to.

The sad reality of the battle of Aleppo, is that it will leave yet another historic Syrian city in ruins, and so many more people dead, but it may not end the war. The terrain is laden with so many local and transnational groups, salafi-jihadi or otherwise, that it will take many more battles, deaths and destruction, before the beginning of the long end of the war in Syria is reached.

When that end does arrive, it will come on the heels of a much larger regional and international settlement negotiated by Moscow and Washington, one that predetermines what kind of state institutions, political identities, and internal borders Syrians have to live in and embrace.

Then begins the socioeconomic agonies and dislocations that invariably come with postwar reconstruction and its perpetually difficult economic choices. All this seems to be in the very distant future, however. But as armies, world capitals, and pundits gear up for the battle of Aleppo, it would be useful to ask who exactly speaks for the silent majority of Syrians who have suffered the most, and what role have they been scripted in the game of high politics destroying Syria, and with it so much of this region's present and future.


Dr Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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