Lebanese, Syrian revolts reassessed in light of Ukraine war
In March, we mark the anniversaries of two Middle Eastern revolts that ultimately failed in achieving their goals: The Syrian revolution, which started around the 18th of this month in 2011, and the Lebanese March 14 movement of 2005. Both protested against the Syrian regime. One was peaceful and the other started as such and then turned into a violent civil war. The regime’s allies, Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, got involved and both revolts were ultimately defeated. A conversation is now taking place among Syrians and Lebanese, reevaluating why they failed, and they are reaching opposing conclusions.
The Lebanese blame their March 14 leaders for compromising too much and for their political realism, while the Syrians blame the leaders of the revolution for their unrealistic demands and lack of compromise. At the same time, parallels are being drawn with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with speculation about its possible repercussions for the region.
One Syrian opposition leader I saw in London told me that, in 2011, they could have sat with the regime when there were a few hundred dead and the country was still in one piece. It might have been a mistake for the opposition to refuse any compromise and to stick to the maximalist demand of regime change. They were encouraged by the Arab and international support at the time and emboldened by the US presence next door in Iraq, where one dictator had fallen, while others had been brought down by similar revolts in the Arab Spring.
The same people who refused dialogue in 2011 are now being pressured to talk to the regime, but to do so after hundreds of thousands have lost their lives, half the country’s major cities are in rubble and millions are either internally displaced or living as refugees in neighboring countries or around the globe. In addition, the balance of power is not in their favor like it was 11 years ago. They are in a weak position and their representatives lack credibility.
A new generation tends to see the old leadership of the Syrian revolution as a bunch of corrupt, ego-driven and powerless losers who benefited financially from foreign support. They accuse them of bickering among themselves and moving from one five-star hotel to another, while the rest of the people suffered.
Syrian revolutionaries, struggling to survive in refugee camps or foreign lands, look back at the failed confrontation, failed opposition and a country that is destroyed and occupied. The regime also seems to be in a stronger position and is unwilling to compromise. It has stronger allies, while the protesters’ international support has waned.
Some are coming to the conclusion that even a very bad deal in 2011 would have been better than the complete destruction of the country and the destitution that has been brought upon its people. Others raise concerns that it is too late to compromise after paying such a high price and that they should stick to their aspirations of a free society instead of making a deal with a despotic regime. They are encouraged by the resilience of the people of Ukraine and lament not having their kind of leader.
A similar conversation about defeat is moving in the opposite direction among the old March 14 camp in Lebanon. Their revolt was peaceful and successful at first, but ended up being a failure as the Syrian regime’s allies gained ground. They managed to avoid confrontation through compromises, but this led to the collapse of the economy and financial bankruptcy, with Hezbollah gaining control.
A new generation of revolutionaries are blaming the establishment for the collapse of the country’s economy and institutions. What was then a culture of compromise to avoid a new civil war is now seen as corrupt deal-making among an oligarchic class looking after their own narrow political and financial interests. The culture of coexistence and power-sharing is seen as dividing the cake, sharing the spoils and gradually falling under the control of Hezbollah.
There was an outpouring of emotion after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, with as much as half the Lebanese population out on the streets. Tents were erected in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square and young activists argued day and night over the country’s history, the civil war and the political system, while at the same time rejoicing in their new-found unity of purpose and congratulating themselves for going beyond sectarian divisions toward a new secular and united Lebanon.
The dream of national unity was, however, shattered by the emergence of a pro-Syrian front with sectarian undertones. Confrontation at the time was unimaginable; it would have been a return to old patterns of conflict, which the Syrian army claimed to have resolved by occupying the country and imposing stability. For many years, Syrian control was legitimized by an argument that the Lebanese would start killing each other if left to their own devices. A conflict at that time would have vindicated the Syrian regime’s claims. The obvious choice was to avoid conflict and reach out, compromise and prove to themselves that their aspirations were not mere illusions.
Several assassinations later, along with a major war with Israel and interspersed with periods of deadlock and paralysis, the strategy of compromise persisted and was institutionalized by the Doha Agreement in 2008, after Hezbollah invaded the capital and showed its military superiority. Even an electoral victory in 2009 did not alter the equation for long, as a “coup” in January 2011 turned the tables against the March 14 majority. This was followed by another period of paralysis, when there was no government, no president and no parliamentary elections for 29 months.
Parallels are being drawn with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with speculation about its possible repercussions for the region.
The ultimate compromise in 2016 brought Gen. Michel Aoun to the presidency and gave his Hezbollah allies close to complete control of the country, isolating it from most of its markets in the Gulf and driving it toward the abyss. Lebanon was hijacked and became a hostage of the Iranian camp thanks to a series of compromises, leading some people to think that a political confrontation, even if it had led to violence, would have been better than the collapse of the country.
All eyes are now on Ukraine after the Russian invasion revived interest in Syria, where Russia used similar methods. There is hope of Western support for Ukraine translating into a positive fallout for both Syria and Lebanon. But many also remember that despotic regimes can have greater staying power than Western policies or public opinion, and they can emerge looking even stronger if they survive a revolution. There might also be lessons for Ukraine from both Lebanon and Syria.
- Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist. Twitter: @Confusezeus