It has become increasingly common for western journalists and commentators to describe the Syrian revolution as a civil war. Syrians of all opinions, however, dispute this definition to a large extent. The expression raises, indeed, many parallels with the devastating conflicts in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq and adopting it means accepting that our country is on the way to a similar fate. For supporters of the revolution, the expression also carries the serious risk of equating the two warring parties in terms of the legitimacy of their struggle. In the eyes of many, when two parties fight a civil war they become equally responsible for the destruction of their country and equally legitimate in their claim to represent the interests of the population.
It needs not be so, however, and reminding everyone that the Spanish conflict, which lasted from 1936 to 1939 and saw republicans on the one side fight fascists on the other, is routinely defined as a civil war, will make it easier to digest this definition. In other words describing a conflict as a civil war does not necessarily mean that the two parties are equally legitimate in their claims to fight for the bettering of their country and population.
What one cannot deny is that Syria is now witnessing a struggle that has turned largely armed; that on both sides the men fighting and dying are overwhelmingly Syrians – although the regional and international dimensions of the conflict are clear to everyone; and that both parties benefit from the support of significant segments of the population.
For us supporting the revolution, it has been difficult to understand how that many Syrians continue to support the regime. Isn’t the struggle for freedom, justice and dignity a legitimate one? Shouldn’t the concepts of democracy and rule of law be accepted by everyone because they are inclusive of all? Don’t regime supporters see the brutality and viciousness exercised by the regime against their fellow countrymen? Don’t they realise that the regime is only fighting in order to continue to rule the country at any cost, including at the cost of depriving all Syrians, including those that support it, from their basic rights to freedom, justice and dignity?
Well, what we have to admit is that the struggle going on in Syria is not only about these issues – and I am not talking here of the international dimensions of the conflict.
Democracy, for one, is seen by many, in particular members of religious and ethnic minorities, as a potential threat. The concept is perceived in the following manner: democracy is strictly about the ballot box; the ballot box means the unchecked rule of the majority; the majority is necessarily Sunni or Arab. As a consequence, from Kurds to the Christians or the Druze, these minorities have largely remained on the sidelines of the revolution.
The struggle for justice and dignity is no less a threat to other segments of the population. The entry into Aleppo of the opposition in the summer of 2012, for instance, was particularly telling of these divides. The conflict between the wealthy city and its underdeveloped and poor rural backyard was laid bare and depending on whose perspective you adopted, Aleppo was either being “liberated” or “occupied”.
As to the Alawites, much has already been written on the subject and on the ties of the community to the Syrian state, its bureaucracy, security services and army, and hence the fear of losing these privileges.
What matters today is that the revolution has uncovered the many fault lines of Syrian society and if Syrians want to overcome them, they will need to find a way to address these divides. The issues at stake that must be debated now, not later, include the rights of the minorities, the role of the central state and the extent of a potential decentralization, the economic and social crisis, and the management of the transition, among many other issues.
None of the above changes the fact that the values for which the revolution is being fought are profoundly fair and legitimate and that the demise of the regime is a condition for any meaningful and lasting solution to the conflict.
However, accepting that our revolution is also, to a certain degree, a civil war, and understanding what political challenges and compromises that entails, are indispensable steps if we want our revolution to succeed and to live together again.
Note: An Arabic translation of this article appeared first in September 2013 in An-Nahar, a Lebanese daily