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Dania Akkad

October 24th, 2012

Haytham Manna’s Lecture at LSE: Violence and Democratic Perspectives in Syria


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Dania Akkad

October 24th, 2012

Haytham Manna’s Lecture at LSE: Violence and Democratic Perspectives in Syria


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

On 22 October, Dr Haytham Manna, head of the Syrian National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, delivered a lecture as part of the MEC’s evening lecture series. The following is a copy of his lecture, a podcast of which is expected to be available soon here

By Dr Haytham Manna

“I hate the Alawites and the Shiites. We are going to kill them with our knives, just like they kill us”. When I read this sentence in the very professional newspaper International Herald Tribune in an article about al Zaatari camp in Jordan, I asked 3 of my friends to ask 60 children in the same camp what is the name of three Shiites families in Daraa. After 20 days not one of the children asked had an answer!

How can you hate an enemy who you cannot personalize in your city? Has this child an ideologically advanced approach to identifying his enemy on a sectarian basis? What happened and why was a political pacifist movement for freedom and dignity transformed in less than one year into a dirty war?

Here in London, I tried 14 months ago, to speak about the difference between Revolution and War. I gave the French proverb: “A la guerre comme à la guerre”(In war as in war) or the Arabic one: War is deceit (الحرب خدعة). Now killing in both sides becomes criminal, the antagonists share; every one with his own capacities and tools: kidnapping, torture, extrajudicial killings and after everything . . . falsification. Some factions of the opposition still talk about the inadmissibility of a comparison between the victim and the executioner. Our diagnosis is very different: in war, there are war crimes and crimes against humanity to denounce. War is not a pacifist demonstration attacked by the army, al-mukhabarat  or ashabihha.

On the same occasion, I spoke about the example of Lebanon 1858-1860, how the Tanios Shahin villagers’ Intifada becomes a sectarian war. Some of my critics spoke about me as a defeatist who was weakening the revolutionary sentiment (إضعاف الشعور الثوري), a comic deviation of the regime’s terminology: weakening the national sentiment (إضعاف الشعور القومي). Today, nobody speaks about revolution, we all speak about the War in Syria. The principal question unfortunately becomes: Are you with or against war? In other words: with or against violence?

The generalization of violence was the way of solution for the dictatorship. Isolated from inside and outside, the official propaganda was based on the conspiracy theory and the fabricated opposition armed groups. Up to August 2011, the Syrian government’s media had not any name to describe the armed “imagined” groups.

From Jisr el Shoughour to Maarat al Numan, the path of militarization of the popular movement was not funny. Day after day, the regime reinforces the military solution [1]. Unfortunately, the Syrian external opposition lost the pacifist road in its daily propaganda. After a period of denying any militarization, Gulf media and Islamist virtual networks begin to speak openly about Al Farouk Battalion and Free Army. Rapidly, Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera overvalued the armed struggle in Syria. They stopped mentioning the forms of civilian resistance. The spokespersons of the Free Army groups take the place of politicians. The most important claim of the SNC members’ TV interventions becomes: give the necessary arms to the Free Syria Army. The Syrian authorities win the second round, and the official propaganda becomes: Do not speak any more about pacifist revolution, do not deny the existence of military groups, they were underground waiting for the right moment!

For the majority of western media: Syrian Free Army is Beautiful, Jihadists in Syria are not dangerous, militarization is inevitable and negotiating a political solution with the Assad Regime is impossible.

For the “National Coordination Body for Democratic Change”, militarization means the political and financial dependence on the military opposition, the marginalization of democratic forces, and the reinforcement of sectarian extremist and black Islamism groups: Black like oil, black like darkness and black like exclusion.

Let us speak about human and material costs of war:

Violence in Syria has all the socio-cultural elements to be based in organic structure: it will be sectarian and religious more than civilian, because the motivation of class, nationalism or democracy for violence remains very weak in the Syrian reality. Armed groups are a luxury for which our democratic and pacifist revolution cannot pay the cost: More than 40,000 killed (only 20 percent of them before the armed confrontations), more than 200,000 injured, 30,000 disappeared, 29 percent of health infrastructure completely damaged, 85 villages and neighbourhoods have been completely destroyed, more than 2 million displaced, 380,000 refugees. The economical cost today is largely more than $150 billion [2].

In a very crucial moment of our history, how we can comment on the scandal of political money and to speak about the new forms of corruption inside and outside the country?

In any society, social movement is strong if it remains attractive to the majority of its society. In Syria, from the beginning in Daraa, we did our best to reinforce the element of progress in the spontaneous movement:

For Freedom, Dignity, Justice, Equality. Against despotism and corruption and I launched the ‘Three NO’ in the third week: No to violence, No to sectarianism, No to foreigner intervention . . . because we know that the multi-sectarian, multi-religious and multicultural composition of the Syrian identity is not the same as Libya or Tunisia. We cannot go to radical change without a global approach of modernity and the clear imprint of the Civilian State. The City in geopolitics, civism in the revolutionary culture and citizenship in the political institution are very important elements to win the minorities, sensu largo, that means structural minorities and political ones.

In the Syrian society under dictatorship, civil and political freedoms were limited but social freedoms were better protected than many Arab countries. The example given by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and sectarian Gulf media does not give any confidence to many categories of the population. If we look to the reaction in Aleppo after the attack of military groups on the city, we can understand the invisible conflict between two categories: one essentially rural, traditionalist, marginalized and influenced by Salafi groups. The second is composed of townsmen and minorities who are still afraid of these violent groups. But some superficial journalists are still speaking about Aleppo as ‘Ben Ghazi Syria’.

It is perhaps necessary to review the problematic elements of the Libyan model in Syria. Very early, some Syrian and French politicians and intellectuals tried to copy the example of Libya, from changing the flag, to calling for NATO’s intervention. As to structure, function and political project, the Syrian National Council is the Syrian copy of the Libyan Transitional Council. Mr. Alain Jupé, French ex-minister of Foreign Affairs lapsed into calling the SNC by the initials LTC. They had this image of reorganizing Libya Act 2 in Syria, which was considered by us to be a real tragedy. I very quickly met some Russian diplomats; I understood that they have what I can call, as a psychotherapist: Libyan Complex.  Not only that, but they discovered early on that this was the occasion to open the door to the post American unipolar era, “Ruse of Reason”, in the words of Hegel; Syrian progressives were the first to fight against American domination and are we here paying the price for this transformation?

Another surprise, the Kurdish region in Syria does not like to join the SFA. A ‘high commission’ composed essentially of the most important political forces (PYD & KNC) is trying to negotiate a kind of democratic local administration under the heavy watch of an anti-Kurdish government in Ankara. The European chancelleries refuse to see in this event a normal continuity of the political tradition of the Kurdish political movement in Syria which was the only pacifist example in Kurdistan.

There is no doubt that the external eyes, which began some time ago to prepare the research and plans that were called ‘The Day After’, will find themselves very far from the ground. Even the decisions of the Syrian opposition Conference in Cairo in July 2012 called for supporting of the Free Army and armed resistance, and forgot to claim the importance of civil resistance, the formation of popular committees and citizenship structures which would be able to reduce the chaos of violence, organized crime, Salafis groups and foreigners jihadists.

Never in the modern history of the region have we seen an example of democracy being built after such an escalation of violence.

Where are we going? Is “military victory” an appropriate term to describe the probabilities of the so called ghalaba mahaliyya (local prevail), if we use Ibn Khaldoun’s terminology on the incapacity to build a Central State.

In 2011, we were the example, for many peoples and nations. Today we are a small part of Nation’s Game.

War is not our fate, not only is it possible to stop it, we must do our best to do that, first of all, to save what we can from the values of the revolution, secondly to stop killing and destruction, and thirdly to protect our future, and to stop the process of assassination of the intellect (اغتيال العقل).


[1] The Syrian security killed, arrested and paralyzed a great number of the civil movement leaders.

[2] One friend in Daraa province said to me on his satellite mobile phone: “I have seen in recent weeks cases of amputation of the hand and foot more than fifteen times, because of the absence of specialist surgeons and places worthy of the name ‘surgery’. We lack doctors, we lack medicine and we lack food. Indiscriminate shelling around us has made us inevitable creatures of death. Me as a fighter, I have chosen this for myself, but the number of fighters compared to the total number victims is less … not because they are cowards, but because the shelling is blind and is designed more to terrorize people than to face the insurgents. The human being is the cheapest thing in Syria today; food and energy like gas and diesel are rare and are absent completely from some areas; people cut trees and use dried animal dung for cooking food; the price of ammunition is mythical, and medicine is increasing in price; human beings are the only cheaply price commodity. I tried to pass some news to the Gulf satellite channels, but it seems that the issue is not important for them. They want news to fit their media’s policy; they are looking for a massacre. We as human beings have not been slaughtered yet; we no longer deserve even a small report about our situation.”

Dr Haytham Manna is head of the Syrian National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in exile. An academic and human rights activist, Manna co-founded the Arab Commission for Human Rights in 1998. He acted as the commission’s spokesperson until September 2011.  Born in 1951 to a family known for its political activism, Manna attended Damascus University as a medical student. He left Syria following ongoing harassment by the security agencies and continued his education at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. He also earned a PhD in anthropology from the International Institute of Sociology, Paris. He founded the Su’al and Muqarabat intellectual magazines in 1980 and 1998, respectively.

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Dania Akkad

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