It is happening again. Over the last year protest movements – some of them deep and broad enough that we might dare to call them revolutions – have once more been shaking the Middle East and North Africa, ending decades-long dictatorships in Sudan and Algeria, forcing the prime ministers of Lebanon and Iraq to resign. And yet the war brought to Syria by the last wave of revolutionary upheaval – the Arab spring that began in 2011 and by 2014 had turned to something worse than winter – has not ended. It continues to be fought not only with bullets and bombs but, in a parallel battle for narrative control, with words.
In the discourses of American thinktanks and much of the mainstream media, tropes flatten the war into a conflict between, as the Syrian-American scholar Yasser Munif puts it, “western civilisation and the Islamic State’s barbarism” on one front, and between the shining freedoms of the democratic west and the dark tyrannies of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers on another. Meanwhile the more Manichaean precincts of the left prefer to imagine the war as a single fight between a brave anticolonialist holdout and Islamist terrorists in league with the west. Anyone who disagrees is rewarded with a depressingly predictable slew of smears: “interventionist”, “pro-imperialist”, “regime change advocate” and so on.
It is easy, though, to look at Syria over the last eight years and see a tragedy that does not fit into either of these frames: a genuine popular uprising against one of the Middle East’s more cynical dictatorships that was hijacked and dismembered by the still more cynical interventions of the US and Europe, the Gulf states, Turkey, Hezbollah, Iran, Israel and Russia in a proxy war that has so far taken the lives of as many as half a million Syrians and pushed another 12 million others from their homes. Looking back, I will not be surprised if historians view the conflict as an early, undeclared phase of a third world war, one that Syria was unlucky enough to host.
In The Syrian Revolution, Yasser Munif eschews such broad perspectives. Both the orientalist rightwing and obscurantist left discourses on Syria, he argues, are blinkered by a “macropolitical lens” that can see only the machinations of states, rendering the actual Syrian revolution invisible and reinforcing the regime line that “there is no authentic revolt in Syria”, only a just war against foreign-funded terrorists. Munif offers instead a “micropolitical analysis of the Syrian uprising”, centred on the 18-month period of revolutionary governance in the northern city of Manbij. This will show, he promises, “that the politics of life can emerge from within the cracks of the geopolitics of death”. [Continue reading…]