Syria, then Europe: worst is yet to come, but…

In this contribution, Gianluca Solera explores the consequences of the Syrian civil war for democracy and freedom, and the lack of empathy and understanding of European nations for the peoples of the Mediterranean region under oppression. “If there is a lesson to be drawn from these moments, this is one of united destinies.”  The article was originally published on Gianluca’s blog.

After the Turkish attack along the Syrian borders against the Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), an international mobilization materialized against Erdogan’s move, calling for stopping the war against the Kurds. In my country, Italy, many leftist groups called for saving Rojava’s model of democratic and libertarian municipalism, protest events were posted on Facebook, and the newspaper La Repubblica hosted for days an appeal signed by several intellectuals headed by writer Roberto Saviano[1], urging to stop the massacre of the Kurdish people. This Turkish military operation is a political disaster, in my view, not only because it has been adding other crimes and victims to the Syrian civil war’s list of, but also because it gives Damascus’ brutal regime, with the backing of Russia, the opportunity to seize control of large parts of Syria’s North-East, ending de facto the Kurdish self-government rule. Another gift to authoritarian rulers by Trump’s isolationist, selfish and democracy-indifferent America.

While I was totally unsympathetic to Turkey’s move, I could not either feel so moved by this passionate call for mobilization of intellectuals, so-called leftists and pacifists against the war. I was confused, and found disturbing this sudden surge of internationalism while nothing of this kind has been happening in the last 2-3 years when Assad’s forces and its allies Russia and Iran were destroying the towns were free municipalities were established after the 2011 Syrian revolution, bombing hospitals, schools, markets and residential districts. Silence, complete silence. Apart from the voices of a once upon a time anti-imperialist dogma, or the sympathy for Rojava’s dream of a matriarchal society, or again the Pavlovian conditioning of reacting against all what comes from the West and NATO’s forces (Turkey, in fact, is still a NATO member), I was intensively taken by such a question: why? Why the Kurds are moving our hearts, and the Arabs are not?

Moors in sight!

Certainly, because the Kurdish women have played an important role in contemporary Kurdish society and politics, and they represent an international flag for women’s rights movements. Probably, also because Kurds are not associated with Islam (although most of them are Muslims), veiled women, or traditional tribal rules; probably again, because Arabs struggling for their self-determination and finding their drive in their Muslim heritage are seen with mistrust.  Again, the historical fear of the Moors, i Mori in Italian. 

Europeans of the Middle Ages and the early modern period variously applied that name to Arabs, North African Berbers, and Muslim Europeans. The term has then been used in Europe in a broader, somewhat derogatory sense to refer to Muslims in general. And today, the more you look like a Muslim person according to our narrow paradigms, the less you deserve empathy among our fellow citizens. I have been asking to myself: why nobody has called for a massive mobilization against the dirty war in Yemen – the largest humanitarian crisis in the world as UNICEF has described it [2]? Or against the systematic ethnic cleansing of Muslim Rohingya by the Burmese regime, among mass killings, sexual violence, and widespread arson[3]? Or against the Chinese concentration camps that have been operated by the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Regional government for the purpose of interning Uyghur Muslims since 2014[4]? If you go to Venice, please visit the Saint Mark Cathedral. On the right side of its façade, you will notice a frescoed bezel representing the tricky theft of Saint Mark’s remains by Venetian merchants in Alexandria, when they hid the holy loot in the bottom of a barrel containing pork meat: while the merchants are dressing fine clothes, the Arab customs officials have unformed beards and make comic faces. This representation still shapes our prejudices and feelings.

The worst is yet to come, also for the Kurds

The worst, however, is yet to come. Syrians know well that the return of Assad’s rule in Northeast Syria means total oppression and punishment for communities that have opposed him. Journalists and activists, many of whom resisted ISIS and its ideology at huge personal risk, will face detention and disappearance in Assad’s torture dungeons. Civil society groups that have received US and European support are particularly at risk, and the West has a responsibility to ensure they’re protected. Unfortunately, also the US has considered the Kurds an instrumental ally. Kurds have always been betrayed, by the West and by Russia, and the problem according to analyst Salam Kawakibi is that the dominant Kurdish party PYD (Democratic Union Party), the only one with strong armed militias out of sixteen Kurdish parties in the area, has brought the Syrian Kurdish community to embrace shortsighted alliances to pursue its own political ambitions, thus exposing all Kurds to global risky geopolitical games[5]. And now, Kurdish SDF who decided to turn to Damascus for protection will pay a price for that. Syrian regime’s policies of discrimination and cooptation vis-à-vis the Kurds will continue, as history teaches us: between 1972 and 1977, a policy of colonization was implemented by Damascus’ regime in specific regions populated dominantly by the Kurdish population. Around 25,000 “Arab” peasants, whose lands were flooded by the construction of the Tabqa dam, were sent in the High Jazirah and established in “modern villages” close to Kurdish villages[6]. Something very similar to the “Italianization policy” carried out by fascist Mussolini in predominantly German – speaking South Tyrol as of 1923. Likewise, Damascus’ regime developed a policy to coopt certain segments of Kurdish society and to serve foreign policy objectives. Cooptation included some Kurdish political parties, and PKK was for instance authorized to recruit members and fighters, reaching between 5,000 and 10,000 persons in the 1990s and to launch military operations from Syria against the Turkish army – all of that in exchange of the abstention of the Kurdish movements of Iraq and Turkey from attempting at mobilizing Syrian Kurds against the Syrian regime. Nevertheless, later Kurdish uprisings were severely repressed, such as the 2004 uprising in the town of Qamishly, or the 2011 Arab Spring protests in several Northeastern Syrian towns[7].  That is why, it is likely that – as the Assad regime strengthens its position by conquering new territories and deploying its troops in earlier Kurdish SDF-controlled towns – it once again turns its forces against the Kurdish regions and, with the agreement and support of regional and international actors, prevents any form of autonomy in Kurdish inhabited regions.

What you should expect from Mr. Assad

One should read a freshly published report to understand how far such a regime has been scorning the basic human rights of its citizens, even once they have returned home. Reality behind Assad’s Promises to Displaced Syrians report – an unprecedented effort to gather testimonies from people who have returned to Assad-held areas (mostly due to dire living conditions in the displacement locations or because they believed the regime’s promises of safe return) and those who remained in formerly opposition-controlled areas after they were retaken by regime forces under so-called reconciliation agreements – tells of a policy of demographic change aimed at stripping a huge portion of the displaced Syrians of their homes and properties through discriminatory laws, demolitions and false “reconstruction” activities, as well as of collective punishment through arrests, corruption and extortion [8]. In numbers:

a – 62% of respondents or one of their relatives were arbitrarily detained by the regime’s security services,

 b – Forced conscription into Assad’s forces is rampant, especially in areas integrated under “reconciliation agreements”, where up to 75% of those interviewed or their family members were wanted for recruitment. Conscripted fighters are almost inevitably sent to the most dangerous frontlines,

 c – 64% of all those who were forced to leave their home, or had left areas that were later retaken by the regime, had to pay for non-existent services for all periods when these areas were out of its control, or when the returnees were out of the area,

 d – Two-thirds of the interviewees stated that they live in constant fear of arrest or harassment from the security services and various militias,

e – Most returnees are systematically denied the right to their property in an openly retaliatory manner, especially in areas where the regime has seized control by force, as regime officials know that one of the key reasons they returned was to officially document their property to ensure it is not lost.

Well, one should not expect something different in areas formerly run by Kurdish SDF forces, once their self-government rule has vanished.

“Putinism” and the return of the 1930s’ atmosphere

Those who compare the Syrian civil war with the Spanish civil war of the ’30 are tremendously right. Former Le Monde director Natalie Nougayrède writes: “Western and European defeat in Syria (by which I mean political and moral, not just military defeat) has parallels with the 1930s when democracies were unable or unwilling to stand up to authoritarians when it mattered, or even to play any kind of meaningful role in preventing a catastrophe that would soon enough engulf them, too”[9]. How the strongmen of authoritarian regimes (Russia, Iran, Turkey) have been able to carve a major new geopolitical area of influence in the Middle East is not the point, at this stage where Syrian people have lost everything and Damascus’ clan, one of the most sanguinary dictatorships ever, has been rescued and re-legitimized.  The point is that they have proved that liberal democracy can be isolated, contained and deconstructed, and their model for nationalism and expansion based on brute force can become the leading political stream of this century. They are proving to be able to offer an alternative to the doctrine of liberal values, democratic rule and human rights. In a world of fear, technocracy, ecological collapse, fragmentation and disinformation, the authoritarians are offering stability through identitarianism, militarization, scapegoating, order and annihilation of dissent, without renouncing to the benefits of rampant capitalism and the control of natural resources.

Is that the world order where we want our children to grow up in? It is as if the cradle of fascism moved further to the East, from the geographical triangle including Spain, Italy and Germany to the bloody alliance between Russia, Iran and Syria, with the complicity of other regional powers, who prefer neighbouring repressive governments to the popular free expression of self-determination. The level of crimes perpetrated in the name of the Raison d’État in these years in that part of the world is so profound and has been so effective but tolerated that crime has became a legitimate practice to hold power. Egyptian security apparatus, the Yemen War, the shrinking space for civil society in many countries, Crimea’s annexation, the persecution of Muslims in Asia, or the return of systematic killings by police forces or their protégés in Brazil and Central America, all these developments feel legitimated by the new doctrine. And Europe, who has been passively suffering all the dramatic consequences of the “Syrian dis-order”, from large-scale terrorist attacks to the dramatic wave of refugees, is heading for facing local emboldened nationalist, illiberal or fascist parties who praise Moscow, Damascus, Cairo, Abu Dhabi or Riyadh. And a coalition between those illiberal States and European parties such as German Alternative für Deutschland, French Front National or Italian Lega Nord is not any longer science-fiction: financial support, common discourse (with the formal exception of the anti-Islam narrative) and courtesy visits are a daily reality. One of Putin’s aides describes this doctrine as “Putinism”, and he believes it to be the ideology of the future, to be for the twenty-first century what Leninism was for the twentieth[10].

Is everything lost?

Not everything is yet lost, and we should read the present signs of popular resilience to this damn obsession of domination which is driving humans insane. First, Germany has charged two alleged former Syrian secret service officers – who had entered Europe as “asylum seekers” – with crimes against humanity. In 2020, in Germany there could be the first process ever on crimes committed in the current Syrian civil war, thus breaking the impunity the Syrian regime has benefitted so far of[11]. The amazing side of the story is that substantial evidence against the men was gathered as a result of the exhibition of so-called Caesar’s photographs in the UN headquarters in New York in March 2015, which depicted the corpses of thousands of torture victims alongside personal testimonies. The photographs were taken by a former member of the Syrian military police calling himself Caesar, who fled Syria with the images in 2013.  In 2017, I had the honor to co-organize the hosting of the exhibition in the city of Florence.

Secondly, history is not made of heroes (and criminals) only. It is also made of peoples, and Arab peoples have been recently showing an extraordinary capacity to surprise and stand for self-determination, rights and justice, despite the counter-revolutionary restauration that has been taking place after 2011. Two days ago, on the 65th anniversary of the start of Algeria’s war for independence from France, Algiers hosted the 37th large demonstration since its pro-democracy movement began last February. After having overthrew dictator al-Bashir, the Sudanese revolution achieved last August to lay down a consensual transition roadmap, despite the machinery of the state’s military and the tribal divides. Last September, the first significant protests erupted in Egyptian cities since former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi came to power; the security reacted promptly and about 2,000 were detained, but the situation is fluid, and the regime fears people’s frustration. For two weeks now, the streets of Lebanon have been jammed with protesters – the biggest anti-government demonstrations in 15 years; the protests were triggered by talk of a new tax on WhatsApp and other internet call services, and enlarged their focus on the general corruption of the political class and the dominating sectarianism, leading to the resignation of prime minister Hariri. Bagdad’s Tahrir square is the theater of continuous protests since October 1 against years of corruption, unemployment and inefficient public services, with calls to overthrow the administration and stop the Iranian intervention in Iraq; police force’s repression has been brutal causing several casualties, but the movement has not given up and keeps its multi-confessional and cross-sector nature.

I wonder whether strongmen in the region are realizing that their authority is not forever, but if there is a lesson to be drawn from these moments, this is one of united destinies. Our destinies are linked, as Europeans who are concerned about the health of their democracy and homegrown illiberalism, and as Arabs (or Kurds) standing for more open societies, social justice and governmental accountability. Despotic and authoritarian regimes learn from their experiences in repression and share them with their allies. Democratic forces and movements need to do the same. Europe and the West failed in embracing the generation of the Arab Spring; why should we fail again?

A double failure would be the end of our space of freedom as we have lived it until now.


Tunis, November 3, 2019.

[1] « Fermate il massacro del popolo curdo », La Repubblica, October 21, 2019.

[2] Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 24 million people – some 80 per cent of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children. Since the conflict escalated in March 2015, the country has become a living hell for the country’s children (source: UNICEF).

[3] Since late August 2017, more than 671,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Burma’s Rakhine State to escape a military’s large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing. The atrocities committed by Burmese security forces, including mass killings, sexual violence, and widespread arson, amount to crimes against humanity (source: Human Rights Watch).

[4] Some eight hundred thousand to two million Uighurs and other Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained since April 2017 (source: Council on Foreign Relations, October 9, 2019). See also Jane Perlez, « China Wants the World to Stay Silent on Muslim Camps. It’s Succeeding. », The New York Times, September 25, 2019.

[5] Interview with Salam Kawakibi, « Syrie: de l’intervention au désengagement », France Culture, October 23, 2019. Kawakibi explains that the PYD is not representative of the majority of the Syrian Kurdish people, it has imposed its rule and political game in that part of the country, and never invested in the Syrian revolution for the genuine interest of freedom and democracy for the whole Syrian people.

[6] Source: « The Syrian Revolution and the Emancipation of the Palestinians and the Kurds », interview with Joseph Daher, Syria Freedom Forever, May 17, 2018.

[7] Ibidem.

[8] Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, Vengeance, Repression and Fear: Reality behind Assad’s Promises to Displaced Syrians, October 2019, 39 pg.

[9] Natalie Nougayrède, « Europe can’t keep shutting its eyes to the disaster in Syria », The Guardian, October 16, 2019.

[10] Volodymyr Yermolenko, « We Do Far More than Meddle in Foreign Elections, Top Putin Aide Taunts », Atlantic Council, February 13, 2019.

[11] European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, « Charges against former high-ranking Assad government official », October 29, 2019.

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