It seemed virtually impossible for Syria to experience a popular revolution—but it happened. By the same token, the revolution’s demise, and the disintegration of Syria, seemed to be inconceivable. But these events also happened, and are still unfolding before our eyes today. Now, paradoxically, a just solution to the Syrian crisis can only be attained beyond the bounds of possibility—in the realm of the impossible.
This article broadly examines these three impossibilities.
The Birth of Permanence
Forty years before the revolution, and as a direct consequence of the military coup which brought Hafez Al-Assad to power in 1970, Syrians were introduced to a regime that was virtually invulnerable to all forms of political change. Indeed, as president, Hafez Al-Assad declared that his coup would be the last in Syria’s history—and for good reason. He successfully developed the security structures and institutional practices necessary to eliminate the possibility of future military takeovers.
Nearly a decade after his ascension, however, Hafez Al-Assad witnessed the consequences of his political hubris. Because his regime fundamentally denied Syrians the only two mechanisms of political change previously available to them—military coups and free elections—a countrywide rebellion erupted in 1979, culminating in the infamous Hama massacre of 1982. In successfully crushing this rebellion, Hafez Al-Assad’s regime went from forcibly seizing the state, to forcibly seizing Syrian civil society.
To accomplish this, the regime crafted ghoulish mechanisms of social control which not only treated all forms of dissent as national security threats, but also refused to acknowledge the innately political core of any and all rebellions in the country. Additionally, the regime established media networks dedicated purely to glorifying the president, in order to anathematize and eliminate the possibility of alternative forms of leadership in the public mind.
Regime loyalists were allowed to participate in mild legal violations, and were even encouraged to help themselves to public and private resources, so long as their criminality did not seriously threaten the state’s stability. (Notably, the regime still occasionally punished its supporters for these “tolerable” violations, if only to assert its dominance.) This is how the regime ensured a docile, dependable, and innocuous population of devotees who affirmed its indelible hold to power.
Given these conditions, and considering that Syria was rife with government informants and sectarian fears, Syrian civil society risked self-destruction if it ever chose to rebel against the regime. In fact, because the regime eventually extended its political influence beyond Syria’s borders, many in the surrounding region also risked being negatively impacted by the possibility of the Assad dynasty’s collapse. While Hafez Al-Assad’s plans were not perfectly immune to error, he nonetheless concretized the ultimate goal of his policies: staying in power “forever.”
Despite the regime’s “eternality,” however, the impossible still took place in 2011. This political anomaly, the Syrian revolution, happened within the framework of the “Arab Spring”—a time of collective self-confidence, courage, and hope (virtues which were previously unapparent in Arab societies). Emerging in the first two years as a peaceful uprising (March – September 2011), and evolving into a mixture of unarmed demonstrations and armed resistance (September 2011- June 2012), before ultimately morphing into a pure armed struggle (July 2012- April 2013), Syria’s revolution seemed to finally be moving in the direction of regime change. Unfortunately, this tide stagnated in the spring of 2013, and was practically reversed in the fall of 2015, when Russia militarily intervened to protect Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Indeed, in calling on its foreign allies to combat the revolution (beginning as early as 2012), the Assad regime transformed the country’s civil war into a complicated, global conflict of sectarian proportions.
Impossible Is Nothing
What seemed impossible as early as four years ago is now a lived reality. Syria’s revolutionaries could never have imagined that their national struggle would become an international geopolitical game, or that the revolution would be appropriated by “Sunni” and “Shiite” forces. It was unimaginable that Hezbollah would intervene in Syria, or that a bloodthirsty “caliphate”—the so-called Islamic State (ISIS)—would establish itself in Raqqa and spread throughout the country.
We did not predict that maniacal, genocidal groups like Al-Qaeda would entrench themselves in our struggle, that Iran would lead a protracted effort to defend the Assad regime under Qassem Soleimani’s aggressive leadership, or that a major chemical massacre would destroy approximately 1500 lives in the Damascene suburb of Ghouta. And even after experiencing these horrors, Syrians still did not think U.S. President Barack Obama would retract his “red line,” that the regime would continue to use chemical agents on civilians, or that international efforts by the Americans and Russians to disarm Assad’s chemical stockpile would be so brazenly lenient—almost careless.
It did not occur to the Syrian people that their towns and districts would be besieged by the regime, or that they would be starved to death, as world leaders turned their attention away from a clear humanitarian crisis, to focus on bombing ISIS instead. Neither did Syrians dream that they would one day witness Kurdish military groups, led by the PKK, controlling large swathes of the country, and fighting against the Turkish government from Syria. They did not believe that Russia would establish military bases in the country, that it would use its veto right eight times in the Security Council to protect Assad’s regime, or that Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan—who uttered in complete confidence that there would be no “second Hama” in Syria, as Syrians helplessly braved countless other Hamas—would eventually intervene militarily in agreement with Russian policy, and against Kurdish expansion.
When the revolution began, no one believed or predicted that half a million Syrians would die. No one thought that Bashar Al-Assad would continue to have a firm grasp to power, and that his chances of survival would somehow astonishingly improve, after injuring nearly two million people, displacing half of them from their homes (including 5 million people—22% of the population—outside the country), and annihilating over 2% of the entire population. And it was unfathomable that three million Syrians displaced in Turkey, half a million displaced in Germany, and tens of thousands of others displaced in various European countries (like the Netherlands, Sweden and France) would become objects of toleration—the focal point of a moral debate on inclusivity. All of this seemed viscerally impossible!
But, it is exactly what happened, and Syrians have learned to reckon with the fact there are powerful forces in the world that can turn the “impossible” into the concrete. More specifically, the “impossible” became a reality at the intersection of Russia and Iran’s political motivations on the one hand, and the United States and Israel’s on the other. Though these nations have their own competing, chauvinistic motivations in mind, they astonishingly intersect over one fact: that preserving the Assad regime is in their interest.
In other words, the “impossible” political realities that have unfolded in Syria are the consequence of an incredibly peculiar and fortuitous military axis—a rare and practically impossible political synergy between various global and regional powers. It is the reason Syrian civil society was annihilated beyond belief, but it is also why Syrians now believe that, not only is the impossible actually conceivable, it is perhaps ordinary.
The “impossible” not only prevented the fall of Bashar Al-Assad, but also provided him with platforms from which to appeal to the world. These are platforms he did not possess prior to the unprecedented bloodshed he caused, or before inviting hostile foreign forces to participate in his country’s bloodbath. This is beyond the ordinary, it is simply remarkable.
The Fifth Mechanism
As previously mentioned, the formation of the Assad regime was based on denying Syrian citizens the only two mechanisms of political change available to them, namely, elections and military coups. And in closing these avenues to Syrians, the regime essentially became a monarchical dynasty, thereby closing the doors to the third avenue for political change: the leader’s death.
Now, with the help of its international partners, the regime is attempting to destroy the fourth mechanism of change—revolution—by seizing the fifth and final mechanism of political change to its own benefit: international military interventions. Most bizarrely, the United States, Russia, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the PKK, and foreign Sunni and Shiite militias are, in various ways, operating in Bashar Al-Assad’s favor to effectively sustain the regime. Who could have ever imagined such a cynical, if not unwitting, alliance.
Is it, therefore, at all reasonable to imagine a solution in Syria which depends on the abrasive logic of “realistic possibilities,” such as those implied by the Geneva peace talks, or worse still, those of Astana? Not a chance. Bashar Al-Assad is not currently in power because his survival was “realistically possible,” but despite the fact it was outwardly impossible. The revolution was not decimated because the regime possessed the capacity to do so, but because the decisive actions of various foreign forces have made the “impossible” a reality. Seeking an ordinary solution to an extraordinary problem, as the Geneva and Astana talks aim to do, is an endeavor which in this context can only but fail.
Because our practical reality today emerged from the realm of the impossible, those who work exclusively in the realm of the possible (including the “formal opposition” of the Syrian National Coalition) are, in actuality, operating outside politics (weren’t they always outside?), and in contradiction to political action which could be deemed fruitful to the Syrian cause.
The fundamental solution to the Syrian crisis begins with steps taken to purge all mass killers from the country, with the Assadists being first. Is this such an impossible, fanciful task? Or will we just continue to tell ourselves that it is “possible” to rid only the recalcitrant, nihilistic murderers, while keeping the disciplined ones under the supervision of their domineering global killers? No, this “possibility” will merely aggrandize the current calamity, and ensure the society’s abiding disintegration (as is the case of Palestine today).
Tackling Syria’s “impossible” reality is the only way to seek a just solution to the crisis. And in doing so, revolution can be the only avenue. Indeed, when local or international forces envision a solution in the hopes of preserving Syria, it must be guided by the initial impetus of the Syrian revolution: a fundamental change in the political environment in the country by eliminating the Assad dynasty. In other words, we must go back to square one.
Braving the Impossible
The aforementioned analysis is not a reflection of my political or ideological biases, but rather a plain description of a seemingly “impossible” sequence of events (which are now actualities), and an attempt to impel a logical conclusion based on them. If anything, it is an analysis of how unreasonable it is to expect a fair solution in Syria on the basis of what we have mistakenly told ourselves is “possible,” when the “impossible” has been a consistent and bold reality for over 2000 days.
Do politics not typically transcend the prognostications of human logic? Indeed, they do, but it is also true that a fruitful solution to the Syrian crisis cannot be found unless we reconcile these two domains. If we are to avoid self-deceiving, wasteful, and unproductive political campaigns in the ambition to save Syria, then we must build our political understandings on the basis of a pragmatic logic. This means we must treat the “impossible” occurrences and destruction of the revolution not as the product of miracles or metaphysical forces, but as the perfectly natural outcome of a tremendous cooperation by various world powers.
Thus, by cooperating against these powers, we too can construct another political reality—an “impossibility” of our own—which can bear fruit. It begins by conceiving of the Syrian cause as part of the broader, global cause for justice, by uniting together our fractured allies, and by insisting on our goals through the language of emancipation.