Syria Changes Some Aspects of Arab Political Culture
Syria Changes Some Aspects of Arab Political Culture
In 1968, the Soviet Union invaded the former Czechoslovakia. The ‘Prague Spring’ was trampled by Warsaw Pact tanks. Alexander Dubcek, the Communist who wanted to renew Socialism and give it a “human face,” was shipped to Moscow. Europe was more terrified than it had been in 1956, when the Hungarian revolution was crushed by the same tanks. True, that same year witnessed the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, during which Joseph Stalin and Stalinism were famously denounced.
However, it is also true that the Khrushchevist turn did not include Central Europe, which it was intended to remain a ring around USSR safeguarding its security. Furthermore, the Hungarian invasion came only three years after Stalin’s death, while Czechoslovakia was invaded 12 years after he died.
After Hungary 56, it was said that Stalin had died, but Stalinism had not. After Czechoslovakia 68, it was said Stalin had died, but Stalinism would not.
The Arab world did not pay much attention to the question of Stalinism. The overwhelming majority sided with the Soviets’ invasion of Czechoslovakia. The few who opposed it stayed silent or voiced their thoughts circuitously. That is because the Arabs had suffered the humiliating defeat of 1967 one year prior, and Moscow, as the prevailing narrative went, is our ally against Israel; that year, it had begun sending experts and officers to Egypt to join its “war of attrition” against the Israelis. The Jewish state, on the other hand, opposed the Soviet invasion, and that was enough of a reason to support the invasion, let alone all the poison being spewed- as some claimed at the time- by the snakes of “Jewish conspiracy” who do nothing else.
Positions and attitudes regarding the ongoing Ukrainian war are different. The change does not amount to a paradigm shift, but it is noteworthy. A solid majority in Arab countries still supports Russia, and there are several reasons for this: anti Americanism is one reason, a culture of clinging to authoritarianism and admiring authoritarians is another, and the refusal of unipolarity (which is justified in principle) is a third. Added to these factors are what remains of memories regarding the “Arab Soviet friendship” that faced up to “imperialist plots”...
Nonetheless, over the 54 years that now separate us from 1968 Czechoslovakia, we came to hear different voices: education and exposure to the wider world became more widespread. Sensitivities toward justice, the rights of the weak, and respect for the smaller entities’ right to independence became stronger, especially among the youth. Comparisons were made by some Lebanese and Kuwaitis, both of whom know what it means to have an arbitrary and tyrannical neighbor. Communists in Sudan and Iraq have become half-communists or ex-communists, and as for Arab nationalism, in almost every Arab country, it has become a thing of the past. The former has become less assured about the benefits of “Arab-Soviet friendship” and have no confidence that a friendship with Putin would be of benefit. Some among them may have remembered that Karl Marx himself had warned, in the 1850s, that invading had become second nature to the Russian state since Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century.
As for the now-former Arab nationalists, alliances to serve ‘fateful battles’, in their Nasserist and Baathist sense, came to induce nothing but a yellow smile. Bennett and Putin meeting in Sochi while Israeli planes rammed Damascus is too much for even those with an iron gut to stomach. Bennett spoke of Russia as a country “with which we share a common border.” Putin, per Haaretz, demanded that Israel improve coordination with Moscow on its actions in Syrian territory, and do so more accurately.
These and other factors have weakened the majority’s support of the Russian war. They have reduced it slightly. But Syria, more than anything else, caused this shift. Today, it may not be an exaggeration to say that the Syrian people are the only ones in the Arab world with a majority behind Ukraine, albeit with some bitterness regarding the unevenness in how they and Ukrainians are being treated by the West. It is there, in Syria, that the relationship with Moscow mounts to a common knowledge: destroying Aleppo, protecting a crumbling regime, establishing military bases, displacing entire segments of the population, and turning the country into a testing ground for Russian weapons... Some observers and strategists are now talking about “applying the Syria theory in Ukraine.” The Syrian people had experienced the Ukrainians’ pains with their own flesh and blood.
However, there is also the Syrian revolution and the Arab revolutions more generally. With them, freedom and human dignity were installed, for the first time, into the heart of Arab political culture. They confirmed that our peoples are not an “exception” and that they are not only driven by the causes of Arab nationalism, Arab unity, and the liberation of Palestine, but also the pursuit of freedom. This significant breakthrough explains the partial transformation that has taken place. The Syrians and their revolution deserve our thanks for this achievement.