Can Syria properly be understood as an example of a "pure" Arab popular revolution, an uprising of non-violent, liberal protest against tyranny that has been met only by repression? I believe this narrative to be a complete misreading, deliberately contrived to serve quite separate ambitions. The consequences of turning a blind eye to the reality of what is happening in Syria entails huge risk: the potential of sectarian conflict that would not be confined to Syria alone.
One of the problems with unfolding the Syria paradox is that there is indeed a genuine, domestic demand for change. A huge majority of Syrians want reform. They feel the claustrophobia of the state's inert heavy-handedness and of the bureaucracy's haughty indifference toward their daily trials and tribulations. Syrians resent the pervasive corruption, and the arbitrary tentacles of the security authorities intruding into most areas of daily life. But is the widespread demand for reform itself the explanation for the violence in Syria, as many claim?
There is this mass demand for reform. But paradoxically - and contrary to the "awakening" narrative - most Syrians also believe that President Bashar al-Assad shares their conviction for reform. The populations of Damascus, Aleppo, the middle class, the merchant class, and non-Sunni minorities (who amount to one quarter of the population), among others, including the leadership of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, fall into this category. They also believe there is no credible "other" that could bring reform.
What then is going on? Why has the conflict become so polarized and bitter, if there is indeed such broad consensus?
I believe the roots of the bitterness lie in Iraq, rather than in Syria, in two distinct ways. Firstly, they extend back into the thinking of the Sunni jihadi trend, as advanced by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which evolved in Iraq, surfaced violently in Lebanon, and was transposed into Syria with the return of many Syrian Salafist veterans at the "end" of the Iraq conflict.
Secondly, and separately, the bitterness in Syria is also linked to a profound sense of Sunni grievance felt by certain Arab states at Sunni political disempowerment following Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki's rise to power in Iraq, for which they hold Assad responsible.
In a precursor to present events in Syria, the Lebanese army too in 2007 battled with a group of Sunni militants of diverse nationalities who had all fought in Iraq. The group, Fateh al-Islam, had infiltrated Naher al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon from Syria, and had married into Palestinian families living there.
Although the core of foreign fighters was quite small in number, they were well-armed and experienced in urban combat. They attracted a certain amount of local Lebanese support too. That bloody conflict with Lebanon's army endured for more than three months. At the end, Naher al-Bared was in ruins; and 168 of the Lebanese army lay dead.
That event was the culmination of a pattern of movements from Afghanistan and across the region into, and from, Iraq. Most of these radicalized Sunnis coming to fight the United States occupation had gravitated towards groups loosely associated with Zarqawi. Zarqawi's al-Qaeda affiliation is not of particular significance to Syria today, but the Zarqawi "Syria" doctrine that evolved in Iraq, is crucial.
Zarqawi, like other Salafists, rejected the artificial frontiers and national divisions inherited from colonialism. Instead, he insisted on calling the aggregate of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan, and parts of Turkey and Iraq by its old name: "Bilad a-Sham". Zarqawi and his followers were virulently anti-Shi'ite - much more so than early al-Qaeda - and asserted that a-Sham was a core Sunni patrimony that had been overtaken by the Shi'ites.
According to this narrative, the Sunni heartland, Syria, had been usurped for the last 40 years by the Shi'ite Assads (Alawites are a sect, an orientation within Shi'ism). The rise of Hezbollah, facilitated in part by Assad, further eroded Lebanon's Sunni character, too. Likewise, they point to Assad's alleged undercutting of former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi as an act which had delivered Iraq to the Shi'ites, namely to Malaki.
From this deep grievance at Sunni dis-empowerment, Zarqawi allies developed a doctrine in which Syria and Lebanon were no longer platforms from which to launch jihad, but the sites for jihad (against the Shi'ites as much as others). The Syrian Salafists eventually were to return home, nursing this grievance. Many of them - Syrians and non-Syrians - settled in the rural villages lying adjacent to Lebanon and Turkey, and similarly to their confreres in Naher al-Barad, they married locally.
It is these elements - as in Lebanon in 2007 - who are the mainspring of armed violence against the Syrian security services. Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Syria has experienced hundreds of dead and many hundreds of wounded members of the security forces and police. (Daraa is different: the armed element consists of Bedouin who migrate between Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria).
It is difficult to establish numbers, but perhaps 40,000-50,000 Syrians fought in Iraq. With their marriage into local communities, their support base is more extensive than actual numbers that travelled to Iraq. Their objective in Syria is similar to that in Iraq: to establish the conditions for jihad in Syria through exacerbating sectarian animosities - just as Zarqawi did in Iraq through his attacks on the Shi'ites and their shrines. Likewise, they seek a foothold in north-eastern Syria for a Salafist Islamic emirate, which would operate autonomously from the state's authority.
This segment to the opposition is not interested in "reform" or democracy: They state clearly and publicly that if it costs two million lives to overthrow the "Shi'ite" Alawites the sacrifice will have been worth the loss. Drafting of legislation permitting new political parties or expanding press freedom are matters of complete indifference for them. The Zarqawi movement rejects Western politics outright.
These Salafi groups are the first side of the Syrian "box": they do not conform to a single organization, but are generally locally-led and autonomous. Loosely inter-connected through a system of communications, they are well-financed and are externally linked.
The second side to the Syrian box are some exile groups: they too are well-financed by the US government and other foreign sources, and have external connections both in the region and the West. Some 2009 cables from the US Embassy in Damascus reveal how a number of these groups and TV stations linked to them have received tens of millions of dollars for their work from the State Department and US-based foundations, along with training and technical assistance. These exile movements believe they can successfully use the Salafist insurgents for their own ends.
The exiles hoped that a Salafist insurrection against the state - albeit confined initially to the periphery of Syria - would provoke such a backlash from the Syrian government that, in turn, a mass of people would be polarized into hostility to the state, and ultimately Western intervention in Syria would become inevitable - ideally following the Libyan model in Benghazi.
That has not happened, although Western leaders, such as French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, have done much to keep this prospect alive. It is the exiles, often secular and leftist, that are trying to "fix" the Syria narrative for the media. These expatriates have coached the Salafists in "color" revolution techniques in order to portray an unalloyed story of massive and unprovoked repression by a regime refusing reform, whilst the army disintegrates under the pressure of being compelled to kill its countrymen.
Al-Jazeera and al-Arabia have cooperated in advancing this narrative by broadcasting anonymous eyewitness accounts and video footage, without asking questions (see Ibrahim Al-Amine here, for instance).
Yet the Salafists understand that the exiles are using them to provoke incidents, and then to corroborate a media narrative of repression by the external opposition; this might actually serve Salafist interests, too.
These two components may be relatively small in numbers, but the emotional pull from the heightened voice of Sunni grievance - and its need for redress has a much wider and more significant constituency. It is easily fanned into action, both in Syria and in the region as a whole.
Saudi Arabia and Gulf states explicitly trade on fears of Shi'ite "expansionism" to justify Gulf Cooperation Council repression in Bahrain and intervention in Yemen, and the "voice" of assertive sectarianism is being megaphoned into Syria too.
Sunni clerical voices are touting the Arab "awakening" as the "Sunni revolution" in riposte to the Shi'ite revolution of Iran. In March, al-Jazeera broadcast a sermon by Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, which raised the banner of the restoration of Sunni ascendency in Syria. Qaradawi, who is based in Qatar, was joined by Saudi cleric Saleh Al-Luhaidan who urged, "Kill a third of Syrians so the other two-thirds may live."
Clearly many of the protesters in traditional centers of Sunni irredentism, such as Homs and Hama in Syria, comprise of aggrieved Sunnis seeking the Alawites ouster, and a return to Sunni ascendency. These are not Salafists, but mainstream Syrians for whom the elements of Sunni ascendency, irredentism and reformism have conflated into a sole demand. This is a very frightening prospect for the quarter of the Syrians that form the non-Sunni minorities.
The marginalization of Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and more recently in Lebanon has aggrieved the Saudis and some Gulf states as much as it did the Salafists. The perception that Assad betrayed the Sunni interest in Iraq - although inaccurate - does help account for the vehemence of the Qatari-funded al-Jazeera's pre-prepared information campaign against Assad.
The French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur has reported on one Stockholm media activist who paid an early secret visit to Doha, where al-Jazeera executives offered open access to the pan-Arab channel and coached the person in how to make his videos harder hitting: "Film women and children. Insist that that they use pacifistic slogans."
In contrast, Arabic press reports have been plain about the demands of Assad that Gulf states (the "Arabs of America") and European envoys are insisting on, in return for their support. Ibrahim al-Amine, chief editor of the independent newspaper al-Akhbar, listed reform steps, which consist of disbanding the ruling party, initiating new legislation on political parties and the press, the dismissing certain officials, withdrawing the army from the streets, and beginning direct and intensive negotiations with Israel.
The envoys also suggested that such reforms might provide Assad with the pretext to break his alliance with Hezbollah and Hamas, in addition to severing the resistance aspect of Damascus's relationship with Tehran.....