Although Syria’s revolutionaries took inspiration from their counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, their situation is unique in the Arab world, argues Fouad Ajami. He sees vivid parallels, though, with the Spanish civil war.
Of the rebellions that broke out among the Arabs in the last two years, the struggle in Syria was bound to be a case apart. Think of the Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali calling it quits and leaving with his loot, of Hosni Mubarak stepping aside after 18 magical days of protest - this Syrian rebellion’s ferocity belongs to a different world of insurrections.
The Syrians must have understood the uniqueness of their situation. They took their time before they set out to challenge the entrenched regime. The first stirrings came two or three months after the other Arabs rose against their rulers. In a refugee camp on the outskirts of Antakya in Turkey, a young lawyer from Jisr al-Shughur - a Sunni town that tasted the full cruelty of the security forces - told me that he had been ready for a long war. He had left his home in the first summer of the rebellion, in 2011, but brought with him his winter clothes.
He was under no illusions about the rulers - they would fight a scorched-earth war. They were a minority, historically disdained, but all powerful. They had risen by the sword, knew no other way, and were certain that defeat on the battlefield would be the end of the world they had carved out over the last four decades.
Analogies are never perfect, but as I have tracked this rebellion, and read and reflected on it, thoughts of the Spanish civil war have come to mind. The rancid hatred and mercilessness that separates the warring camps in Syria is evocative of that quality of hatred that played out in Spain. Franco had been a tedious, colourless man, but the cruelty was relentless. No Syrian Picasso has yet given Aleppo, bombed by the regime’s aircraft, the fame of Guernica, but Guernica was a town of 7,000 people, while Aleppo is a large metropolis, Syria’s largest, a city with a fabled history of travel and commerce.
Ours is a different world today. Romantics and communists were drawn to Spain - the Lincoln Brigade, men and women who saw the cause of freedom hanging in the balance in that war. We have no such brigades now. True, some Sunni Islamists, Libyans and others, have made their way to Syria. But they are a trickle, and the Syrians fight alone. They invoke Allah more often than they did at the beginning of their struggle - which is perhaps an accurate reading of their solitude in the world of nations.