Two years ago Paul Frijters asked me to write about the Syrian civil war. I can’t remember if it was for this place or for some other place. I thought about it and decided not to write anything because I couldn’t understand what was happening in Syria. One of the problems is that the news outlets that I usually read became unreliable when it came to Syria. In the first months of the Syrian revolt the enormously popular al-jazeera fired key professional staff and the most important academic forum on Syria, Joshua Landis’ Syria Comment, disintegrated.
Thankfully the Syrian civil war has reached a stalemate in which the government forces, who have been gridlocked by corruption since the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, control the coast, the capital Damascus, the main highways and a part of the northern city of Aleppo. The non-coastal countryside remains in the hands of local strong men who have turned to the type of civil war economics that we saw in the later stages of the Lebanese civil war: a kind of organised corruption where the main aim is to control and tax trade routes (Aleppo), arms smuggling—to both sides—in the southern Houran region, and drug smuggling in the western Qalamoun mountains on the border of Lebanon. There is also the embattled rebel area around the town of al-Rastan in the central Homs region where there is a stalemate between the Sunni Muslim villages and the surrounding Alawite and Christian villages.
There are sparsely populated regions in the Syrian desert that are controlled by various al-Qaida affiliated forces who have an ideology of genocide. I know that they want to kill everyone who is not a Sunni Muslim but I can’t figure out which of the Sunni Muslim Syrians they don’t want to kill. al-Qaida affiliates seem to be minor participants in the civil war who engage in spectacular indiscriminate massacres. The emphasis on spectacular non-strategic attacks, such as attacks on Christian monasteries, youtube beheadings, mass murders, kidnapping of whole villages, suicide truck bombs, highway robbery and murder of truck drivers who cannot recite the orders of morning prayers, makes it clear that they are trying to impress rich televangelists who are ready to donate millions of dollars for good youtube footage of murdered non-believers.
Initially my reflexive inclination was to think that there are similarities between the Syrian civil war and the Spanish civil war. Analytically, I also thought that I can understand the Syrian war in the same way that I used to understand the Lebanese civil war. I changed my mind one year into the Syrian war when I felt deeply uncomfortable (and intellectually embarrassed) watching a 1978 BBC documentary that detailed a sophisticated socialist narrative for explaining the civil war in Lebanon. I am sure that in 1978 I and many others would have been greatly impressed by the scientific sureness of this BBC documentary, I would have agreed with it. But in hindsight though Marxist ideas may well have motivated some in the Lebanese civil war, Marxist analysis contributed nothing to our understanding of that tragedy.
So what is the extent of my current understanding of the war in Syria? The Syrian civil war is a rural revolt against an authoritarian socialist regime whose authority is derived in the two urban centres Damascus and Aleppo. Initially the revolt was inspired by the wave of revolutions that started in Tunis, the war was sparked by Damascene excesses in the rural southern Houran regions, and was initially lead by conservative army officers in the rural Homs region. The revolt emerged as a major revolt when villagers surrounding the norther city of Aleppo managed to take over suburbs of Aleppo. It is sustained by Gulf and Turkish support for the Muslim brotherhood, money from Saudi Arabia aimed at weakening Iran’s main ally in the region, and the emerging symbiotic economic relationships between corrupt army officers and local strongmen. I cannot predict the eventual outcome of the war.
The Syrian war is a series of tragedies with many victims. One tragedy that shook me was the spectacular murder of the distinguished Sunni Muslim scholar Mohamad Said Ramadan Al-Bouti in March 2013. He was murdered by al-Qaida and news of his murder was greeted with some joy by some of the better known televangelists. His murder seems to have strengthened urban populations’ support for the government and probably enriched one or two al-Qaida affiliated commanders. His murder affected me in a very personal way. You see for many years I have been interested in the conversation between distinguished Muslim scholars and secular Arab leftist theorists. This dialogue began in full earnest in the 1970’s when post-colonial secularism emerged as the the dominant ideology in the Arab world. Al-Bouti authored influential books like “The critique of the illusions of dialectical materialism” and “Economic Theory: Between Communism and Islam.” His writings treated the dominant socialist theory in the Arab world seriously. There is a great tradition of dialogue within Muslim scholarship about secular philosophy. This has its roots in the eleventh century writings of Al-Ghazali, the author of “The Incoherence of the Philosophers,” who laid out a rebuke of Greek philosophy. By way of impact Al-Ghazali is undoubtably the greatest philosopher since antiquity. Al-Bouti approached Marxist dialectic materialism and Arab leftist economic theory from a Ghazalist perspective. His discourse focused on bringing contemporary economic issues into the fold of (Islamic) theology. He was a Muslim theologian and leftist.
I don’t know how Al-Bouti’s death will affect the Syrian war or the Arab world. But his murder reminds me of the murder of another leftist Islamic theologian, who was killed during the Lebanese civil war: Musa as-Sader. as-Sadr was a Shiite Muslim scholar who like al-Bouti theoretically engaged the Marxist left. as-Sader brought Islamic legitimacy to Arab leftist movements. as-Sader, in addition, afforded legitimacy to the Syrian socialist regime, and was probably murdered for this (by al-Qaddafi). In the 1970’s the Syrian constitution was changed allowing for a non-Sunni but still Muslim president. The problem was that no one recognised the Alawite sect of Syria’s ruling family as Muslim. A constitutional crisis was avoided when as-Sader declared Alawites as Shiites Muslims. This in part caused a series of minor revolutions lead by the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, and it remains a major part of what the Muslim Brotherhood is fighting for in the present Syrian revolt.