“When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse.” (The Atlantic, Nonviolence as Compliance)
Similarly, when calls emerge from certain quarters addressing “both sides” of a conflict and appealing for calm, even when one side has been using overwhelming violence from the get-go while the other remained committed to nonviolent tactics with few exceptions, we can all be sure that a ruse is in the work.
This is exactly what happened in the early days of the Syrian Revolution. Some regime officials, including the country’s VP at the time, acting in consort with the so-called “loyal” opposition, held a number of public “dialogue” sessions aimed at curbing the violence, “irrespective of who was responsible,” since, as we were told, determining the identity of the perpetrators was meant to be the subject of an independent inquiry to be launched when order has been restored!
How convenient, for the regime! And how inconvenient for it that the people were not fooled!
Indeed, when caught unprepared for dealing with a mess, especially one that is of their own making, figures of authority seem to have access to a treasure-trove of tricks buried deep in the collective memory of the institutions they run, and which could be used to help them gain/waste time, and seem and sound reasonable, even as they perpetrate crackdowns and cover-ups. Democracies are no different than autocracies in this regard, except in regard to the intensity and scope the crackdowns and cover-ups they can unleash.
But the ruse is not always perpetrated by authority figures serving to avoid accountability. There are others as well who stand to benefit from such a ruse, namely: those who are more interested in maintaining the moral high grounds than in changing the status quo. For while they may not necessarily be beneficiaries of the status quo, they are ultimately not harmed by it, and what really drives them to do what they do and say what they say is the desire to be seen rather than the desire to change anything.
The Syrian Revolution was plagued with its fair share of such figures – members of the expat and aristocratic communities who, at one point, used to wine and dine with regime figures and ambassadors, sometimes including the Bashar Al-Assad himself and some members of his inner circle, and who used to defend Assad as a reformer. Both for status as well as business considerations, the revolution forced this lot to turn into unwitting “critics” of the regime, but only up to a point.
Having already been caught in a compromising position due to their alleged “closeness” with the regime, a fact they themselves have played up for so many years, they now had to be careful not to fall in the same trap by over-betting on an opposition and a people that were completely unknown to them, and who offered little obvious benefits in terms of prestige or business to make the prospect of gambling on them somewhat alluring and potentially worthwhile.
And so, our protagonists ended up endorsing what one can call “safe positions,” that is, positions that make for good soundbites and allow for the retention of an aura of reasonableness and decency, rather than practical stands that can actually make a difference on the ground, albeit at the cost of earning some serious criticism from the usual assortment of conspiracy nutters.
Protest calmly. Die quietly. Don’t interrupt our siesta or threaten our interests. Don’t trample on our necessary illusions #BaltimoreRiots
— Ammar Abdulhamid (@Tharwacolamus) April 28, 2015
For this, and early on, our protagonists advocated calm (which in practical terms amounted to call for halting all protests) when the protesters remained clearly and wholeheartedly committed to nonviolent tactics in the face of the regime’s violent crackdown.
Then they endorsed nonviolence when the protest movement eventually turned into an armed insurgency (and they spoke of it with such commitment and passion one would be forgiven in thinking that they were the ones to have taught it to deal old Gandhi),
and clamored for defending state institutions when insurgents began liberating towns and cities and the regime started dropping bombs on them (so, in practice, they basically did not want rebels to take over any town or city, and they made that clear in those hapless moments when they address rebels, through their Facebook status updates naturally),
and called on the international community to intervene military and politically but only in defense of the country’s religious minorities when ISIS and other radical groups emerged on the scene, while they had earlier opposed such calls the target for intervention would have been the Assad regime even though it was quite busy decimating the country at the time, and the majority Sunni population.
But calls for calm, nonviolence, protecting state institutions and cultural heritage, and defending religious minorities always sound reasonable when the audience is not aware of the overall context, of the identity of the real perpetrators of the violence, the real culprits behind the destruction of the state’s institutions and cultural heritage site (long before ISIS emerged on the scene), and the identity of the people who were actually using the country’s religious minorities as cannon fodder, and facilitated the emergence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates. That is the regime and its regional sponsor: Iran.
But facts and context are mere details, and our protagonists were not interested in details or real developments on the ground. What they sought out and deployed were the broad headlines, and specifically those that can be spun to help them to get their main message out, namely: how good, decent and moral they seem, and why people of the world should host them, feat them, support them, and enrich them.
So, and while the rhetoric of our protagonists was quite civil, the intentions behind it were clearly not. Nor was the overall impact of their presence on the scene.
Watching the riots in Baltimore today, I cannot help but anticipate the emergence of those bloody assholes who will soon be playing a similar role here.