Opinion Articles


Whose truth?  Competing narratives in Syria and Libya


After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Syria and Libya became the two strongest mukhabarat or 'secret police' states. The longevity of the Al-Asad and Qaddafi regimes could be attributed to the ability of state security forces to project fear into the populace and quell anti-state protests whenever they emerged. Damascus used force to crush an uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in the town of Hama in 1982 and Tripoli did the same to crush a Libyan Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.

Both Syria and Libya (and Saddam's Iraq) did not rule on fear alone. These states also depended on networks of patronage, a way of communicating to these 'in-groups' that if the regime would fall, so would their privileged socio-economic status. Defending this status could explain the tenacious resistance of military units around Qaddafi and Al-Asad.

While patronage can only benefit a few, the masses were seduced by their leadership with rhetorical campaigns to cement loyalty between the regime and public. As these besieged regimes defend their positions of power with armed force, they have also fallen back on systems of truth telling and conspiracy theories to legitimize their rule. Speeches delivered during the ongoing crises reveal how these leaders view themselves and the struggles that they are uniquely qualified to fight. If they were to fall, so would their struggles. Thus, using force against opponents is justified in the name of defending the regime engaged in struggles greater than the state itself. Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad's speech from the People's Assembly on 31 March provided a window into these dynamics.

Unlike the other countries facing domestic revolts, Syria is the only country that can tap into a 'resistance' discourse. It is the only frontline state (excluding Lebanon) that has not signed a peace treaty with Israel, and its support for Hizbullah allows Damascus to burnish its credentials for continuing this fight. From this perspective, any domestic disturbances can be blamed on foreign plans to undermine this national and pan-Arab struggle.

According to this reasoning, in March Al-Asad declared that Syria faced 'a great conspiracy, the webs of which spread from far away countries and close countries, and some of whose strings reach inside the country.' Al-Asad only mentioned Israel as a threat and placed the rest of the blame on unspecified 'satellite channels' and 'foreign conspiracies.' These enemies were 'smart' in choosing satellite television and text messaging to infiltrate the country but Syrians 'note their stupidity in that they chose the wrong country and people, as this kind of conspiracy does not work here.'

The global media characterized his statements as a delusional conspiracy theory. However the notion of a conspiracy theory is subjective. One person's conspiracy theory is another person's truth. What Al-Asad was explaining to a Syrian audience, and a global one at that, was the Ba'athist/Syrian interpretative schemata or framework for understanding its role in the Middle East.

The Syrian state could retort, 'Who are the foreign media to question our version of the truth?' As long as the Al-Asad and the Baath believe what he says is the truth, then it is the 'truth.' Has any state provided him with any evidence to counter his argument? Of course I do not argue that Al-Asad's speech should be taken at face value. Rather the speech should be analyzed by what it says and what it did not say at the same time.

Al-Asad declared that the protests were part of a plot 'to weaken Syria, for Syria to crumble ...' It followed a similar pattern throughout this season of revolts of blaming foreign powers for seeking to undermine incumbent regimes. The speeches made by leaders who are threatened by domestic uprisings from Benghazi to Damascus play upon a victimhood psychosis.

One of the legacies of European imperialism in the region is this self-victimization narrative, where the British, French, and Russian empires were seen as hidden hands manipulating the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After the Second World War, America, the Soviet Union, and Israel emerged as the source of these 'conspiracies,' theories of which abounded among Middle East publics, and in the 1970s was the subject of a popular book in Iran, My Uncle Napoleon, dealing with foreign intrigues in Teheran during the Second World War.

Foreign intrigue was a theme of a speech by Buythana Sha'aban, the de-facto spokeswoman of the Syrian state, to a Ba'ath Party conference in March. 'The second thing that is being targeted in Syria is the beautiful co-existence in this country. As you have seen, this region is targeted to make it a sectarian, parochial, and ethnic-based region, ' she said. Her fears express a sentiment that probably harks back to the French colonial era where exacerbating sectarian differences in Syria followed the colonial pattern of divide-and-rule. The Syrian mandate was carved up into mini-statelets for the Druze and Alawite communities, but this tactic did little to mollify anti-French sentiment among the Syrians.

This harking back to the past was also evident in Al-Asad's 31 March speech, when he reiterated the state's support for 'pan-Arab rights and independence, and supporting Arab resistance movements when there is occupation.' This statement is replete with nostalgia for Syria in the pan-Arab framework of the 1960s and for his father Hafez al-Asad's continued resistance to Israel following Egyptian President Sadat's bilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Then, giving up personal freedoms seemed justified when Damascus was technically at war with Israel. That 'cold war' with Israel allowed Hafez to perpetuate the Emergency Law, the revocation of which being one of the key demands of protestors today.

Foreign plots. Antagonism towards Israel. Syria as the vanguard of Arabism. Those are the Syrian state's truths. What about the truths that Al-Asad failed to acknowledge?

In March Al-Asad deflected the issue of reforms arguing that these 'there are no obstacles [to reform], there is only procrastination, and there are no opponents - the opponents are those with personal interests and the corrupt, and as you know, this was a small group of people who are no longer around.'

However, in the eyes of critics this 'small group' of people remains. Systems of patronage have become one of the crucial pillars of regime survival in the region. Since the creation of the Arab states in the 1920s, ruling elites have sought to consolidate their powers by showering the largesse of the state on a narrow segment of society, whether military officers, a privileged tribe, or family relatives. The current season of revolutions is primarily provoked by and targeted against patronage.

Granting monopolies or state tenders to the regime's favoured groups transformed the state and its beneficiaries into villains and created resentment among publics across the Arab world. The revolts were not only directed at heads of state but numerous targets including the kleptocratic Tunisian Trabelsi clan (the in-laws of ousted President Zein al-Abidin), Qaddafi's sons and their extravagant lifestyles, and the pro-Mubarak supporters loyal to the National Democratic Party who amassed huge fortunes. A target of Syrian protestors in the southern town of Dera were the monopolies operated by Rami Makhluf, a cousin of Bashar.

What Al-Asad failed to acknowledge in March was that Syria is a mukhabarat state. The people behind the increasing number of demonstrators' deaths recently are members of the dizzying array of security apparatuses that maintain the regime. No amount of rhetoric or deflection could hide this.

A heavy-handed police state. Corruption and patronage among elites. Those are the pillars of state security and the truths for many Syrians. Addressing those truths would given Al-Asad more legitimacy than the jaded strategy of deflecting local problems on foreign enemies.

About the author

Ibrahim Al-Marashi is Assistant Professor of Contemporary History at IE University in Madrid, Spain. He is co-author of Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History (Routledge, 2008).

ibrahim.almarashi@gmail.com

About Us


H&P is a unique collaboration between the Institute of Contemporary British History at King's College London and the University of Cambridge.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More