The Palestinization of Syrians

Translated by: Buthaina Shaheen

فلسطنة السوريين وتحولات موقع القضية الفلسطينية في الوعي السوري العام

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It might seem heretical to claim that the destiny of Syrians is worse than that of the Palestinians, or even to compare the Assadist state to the Israeli state. Traditional Arab nationalist doctrine does not accept this comparison – it even considers it blasphemous and profane. For Arab nationalists, the struggle against Israel is an existential one, while if there were to be a struggle against the Assadist state, it would be at the most a political struggle. Some even think that this Assadist state embodies the true Arab nationalist principles (Arab unity, Palestine liberation, social progress…). Therefore, opposing it would be treason for the cause as well as cooperation with the enemy.

In reality, however, Arab nationalist thought no longer reflects the conditions of contemporary Arabs, whether they are Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis or others, and perhaps it never did. This thought lacks a genuine relationship with the lives and deaths of people, Arabs or others. It has been fundamentally unable to consider the rights and freedoms of individuals and groups and their life conditions in any country of “the Arab Homeland.” It has focused on high politics and on big players, while disregarding politics from below or grassroots struggle. All this has resulted in rendering great importance to a despot such as Saddam Hussein, not to the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and to a criminal thug such as Bashar Al-Assad and previously to his father, not to the lives of millions of Syrians. Arab nationalist thought considers social, political and intellectual struggles within any Arab country as secondary issues, even if the outcome is the murder of hundreds of thousands of citizens by their rulers. As it brands struggles with “external” forces as absolutely imperative, it disregards the situation on the ground and the capability of making an impact to the advantage of the Arab people.

The dogma of Arab nationalism is not even able to stand up against anti-Arab racism, due to its inherent indifference to the life and dignity of Arabs. The human being’s life, his/her aspirations, longing, frustration, wrath, hope, despair, hunger, sickness, torture and death do not occupy the minds of Arab nationalists. The latter are engaged in issues such as territory, states, geopolitics and strategy. At its heart, this dogma is an imperial logic, albeit without an empire. In addition to this, our Arab dogma despises its weak  non-Arab citizens and positions itself as superior to them (such as Kurds in the Arab East, Amazigh in North Africa and blacks non-Arabs in Sudan). Therefore, the dignity of Arabs should not be based on an ideology that is indifferent to their dignity. On the contrary, it should be based on a radical critique of this ideology. This can be achieved by revealing the intellectual, moral and political limitations of the Arab dogma, as well as through liberating the strong sense of Arab affinity from this dead ideological frame.

I am interested here in this ideological construct, because it served for more two generations as the lens through which Arab states have approached the Palestinian cause. Palestine is “the first Arab cause,” and we are in constant war with Israel for the sake of Palestine. Therefore, we ought to defer raising our internal disagreements, as well as our social and political aspirations, for the sake of our country’s steadfastness in the essential struggle against Israel.

This discourse is absolutely false. The Palestinian cause has been used as a tool to control the Syrian and Palestinian people, and to suppress political agency both in Syria and the region. All of this has been intended to secure that the Assadist state stays in power forever. It has nothing to do with a struggle for the liberation of Palestine or its people. This game would not have possible without a degree of complicity from the side of Syrians themselves, due to their awareness that Israel is really antagonistic and aggressive. The Syrian people are more radical in their stance towards Israel than their rulers, despite their apathy sometimes towards certain political tactics, even though their radicalism does not mean they are always for confronting Israel militarily. Every time Palestinians suffered Israeli aggression, everybody would rally with Palestine regardless of their diversity of opinions towards Palestinian politics or the politics of this Palestinian side or that.

Enmity toward Israel

The origin of our hostility towards Israel is a moral and a humanist one, not religious or racial. However, some religious figures and politicians have been able to exploit this just hostility and give it religious and racial attire. Focusing on this hostility does not aim at confronting the aggressive Israel. Rather, it serves to situate the ruled in an inferior position and to give the impression that they need protection and care, and consequently disempower and silence them. Palestinians are also among the ruled. The regime needs to use Palestine as a disciplinary cause to control the population, but what advantage would this bring for the Palestinians?

If we relied solely on Arab nationalist ideologies a source of information and analysis about our region, then what needs to be explained is the absence of war with this “national enemy,” rather than the existence of war. To mystify this question, the Arab nationalist ideology has spawned two sub-ideologies: The first is anti-normalization (tabi´) and the pretense of resisting the normalization relations with Israel, and the second is the rejectionism (a Middle Eastern variety of sham anti-imperialism, mumāna’a). Regarding the first ideology, normalization is not our own decision as Syrians, Palestinians or Arabs, so we are not in the position to naturalize or de-naturalize the existence of Israel. It is Israel that does not want to naturalise itself in the region. Israel continues to arm itself, because it is aware its arrogance and essential rejection of equality makes it unacceptable to the people in the region. It is Israel that does not seek to be a natural acceptable neighbor.

Mumāna’a is a mixture of things. It involves a negative position towards the whole world, not only against Israel and the West. It involves also a patriarchal rule internally and the dismissal of the population from the political arena. The ideology of mumana’a is centered on power, not on society and the needs of population. It gives priority to hypothetical national struggle instead of real social struggles. It is an ideological agency of despotism for this very reason.

The Arab nationalist ideology deceives itself and others. The opposite of anti-normalization is not a call to normalize relations with Israel. The opposite of mumana’a is not detachment from issues of rights and justice. The antithesis of both (normalization and mumana’a) is the struggle for justice and equality in our countries, in Palestine and elsewhere in the world. The struggle is also against Zionism, as it is a source of discrimination, domination and racism in Palestine, the region and the world. Some of those who oppose the Assadist regime make a huge mistake when they go from a righteous opposition to the phony ideology of normalization, which is in fact the absolute acceptance of normalization. As if Israel is longing to give us a warm embrace! In fact, those Syrians reduce themselves to insignificant minute tools in a really long struggle and deceive themselves morally.

This despicable, shameful attitude is a natural development of a Arab nationalist ideology that is centered on states, their feuds and hostilities, and their understandings and relations. This world is fully separated from that of people and their relations, struggles, agencies, initiatives and practices. When its world implodes, this ideology does not descend to the world of people. No, it reconciles itself with the enemy and stays high there, in the world of states and elites. It might as well take another trajectory: many of the pro-Assadist supporters would hail another trite ideology: “Syria first” or “Syria above all,” wherein they call for focusing on Syria alone, and leaving out Palestine for the Palestinians. These would go as far as saying “Palestine has only brought a headache upon us.”

This is stupid. Even if we forget the Golan Heights, and leave Palestine alone, Israel will not leave us alone. Just as it has stripped Palestinians from their political identity and rights, Israel is the model and support to stripping us all from politics and rights. It is the epitome of racist relations that the privileged authorities have established against its subjects in our countries, and one of those authorities is the Assadist monarchy. Palestine is far too important than just leaving to the nationalists and Islamists, who are by their very nature geopolitical, geo-strategy-oriented – and imperialistic in their own way. They are by no means society-oriented or humanists. Palestine is a principal area for liberation struggle and at the same time a measure for progress of the struggle on the moral, intellectual and political level.

The call for normalization with Israel is, therefore, not a departure from nationalist ideology. On the contrary, it is an indicator that shows how much this ideology occupies minds and how our imagination is also occupied by states, elites and privileged people. Kamal al-Labwani, an anti-regime activist who visited Israel and sought Israeli support against the regime, is not dissimilar to Bashar al-Assad and his cronies; he is just the other face of the cheap coin.

These two trite clones of the Arab nationalist ideology: mumanaa’ and anti-normalization, together were burnt down to ashes in the course of the Syrian Revolution. A tremendous contradiction appeared between what the Arab nationalist identity entails (it reduces local political and social aspirations to the “existential” struggle against Israel), and the actual existence of people – Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis and others. People’s existence is threatened by “politicide” and by an actual genocide if they dare to oppose their rulers. Throughout six years of revolution, half a million of Syrians have been killed, 7,600 of whom under torture only between the beginning of the revolution in March 2011 and August 2013. This means a daily average of nine people tortured to death every day. I would like to give a special mention to Samira Al-Sahili, a Palestinian mother of four children. She was from Yarmouk Refugee Camp and was tortured to death in November 2014. Before her arrest, Sahili used to work to provide food for the population of the Camp. This happened long before the horrible report of Amnesty International in February 2017, which estimated that 13,000 people had been hanged in that horrible place between September 2011 and the end of 2015.

The Assadist state has committed plenty of massacres that even Ariel Sharon would be envious of should he witness them. The most infamous one is the chemical attack which claimed the lives of 1,466 people from Eastern Ghouta on August 21st, 2013. Some massacres were purely sectarian (Al-Hula, Al-Qubeir, Banias, Karm Al-Zaitun), which does not only kill hundreds of Syrians, but also the Syrian national fabric, fomenting horrendous hatred and aggression tendencies among Syrians. In this way, they paved the way to killing the future as well.

The Syrian Nakba, the Palestinian Nakba

More than 11 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes; 6 million inside Syria and at least 5 million in both neighboring and faraway countries. Three thousand people have been swallowed by the water of the Mediterranean in 2015 alone.

This is the Syrian Nakba. Doesn’t it remind us of the Palestinian Nakba?

Following 72 months of revolution, a civil war and a broader regional war, as well as almost 47 years of a dynastic rule, the regime has never shown any willingness negotiate a political compromise that would result in even minimal changes to the political structure against which Syrians had revolted in 2011. Isn’t refusal to any real negotiation a very Israeli action?

The regime has gained immunity through 8 Russian and 6 Chinese vetoes. Russia has constantly maintained their military support for the regime. Isn’t this a very Israeli action, Russian and China substituting the erstwhile role of the USA?

During these 72 months, the regime has used its air force. Its helicopters has dropped barrel bombs on the populations. It has used war planes against populated areas. Don’t these actions resemble and surpass Israeli actions?

The Israeli exceptionalism and refusal to abide by international law offers a legal foundation for Assad, who is not abiding by any laws either. Israel has been annihilating its enemies –Palestinian people– politically, and physically whenever it needed to. The Assadist state has followed suit but more savagely, with more people murdered and more buildings destroyed.

Israel has stripped Palestinians from their ownership of Palestinian land. The Assadist state has done the same to Syrians and has transformed a family of murderers to owners of Syria, –they call it “Assad’s Syria.”

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that the founder of the Assadist dynasty, Hafez al-Assad, who was minister of defense during the humiliating defeat of June 5th, 1967, preferred to strip Syrians (and Palestinians) from dignity and unabashedly installed himself as “the nation’s hero and pride.” He destroyed the very notion of dignity by doing so. As an embodiment of humiliation for both Syrians and Palestinians, Hafiz bestowed the rule of the republic to his offspring. Syrians and Palestinian-Syrians have paid a high price for the emergence of this ferocious dynasty, which has been launching yet another war on them (that is, the war of 1979-1982, where tens of thousands of Syrians were killed). Such rulers would never hesitate to launch more wars against their subjects. It is a non-stop war that recedes at times and rages at others, but it will never cease to occur as long as an Assadist remains in power.

In sum, we now have two Palestine-s and two Israel-s. The two Palestinianized peoples find themselves stripped in their confrontation with the two Israel-s. While it is perverse to envy the Palestine’s Palestinians of for anything at all, Syrians do envy them that the global left supports the justice of their cause, while it continuously fails to do the same with the Syrian cause. The outcome of these past 47 years has been merely the Palestinization of Syrians. Because of this experience, the identification with Palestinians has transformed from being a merely Arab identitarian solidarity, effectively playing at the service of the Assadist oligarchy, to a more humane, emancipatory solidarity. Both peoples now identify with each other as having similar predicaments, bloodshed and conflict.

This does not happen automatically, however. The identification represents agency and empowerment that requires intellectual and political work. Israel is the first world at the expense of Palestine, Syria and the Arab East at large; it is the pillar of the Western first world in our region. The regime of the Assadist junta is the “internal first world” within Syria. The symmetric structural relationship between the representatives of the first world –Israel, the West, or the Assadist state– is much stronger than what they seem to be. The racist supremacist Assadist state, as embodied in the murder of ordinary Syrians, the destruction of their society and the displacement of their homes, does not belong to a world far from the racist Israel. The latter cannot possibly perceive of equality with Palestinians and Arabs. Perhaps the Israelis would not accept the Assadist state as a peer, but their relationship is rather one of partnership against two third-worlder nations.

Struggling against these two first worlds, and formulating theoretical, political and symbolic methods for such a struggle, are what constitute the relationship between Syrians and Palestinians. It is a unity of position, of struggle and of goals.

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Yassin al-Haj Saleh

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