Friday, September 30, 2011

Milestones in Syrian History - The Third Syria

The forty years of Baath rule in Syria are, I think, a curious attempt to rule a country based on a narrow view of humanity. That view, that all people are selfish, scheming and untrustworthy, seemed, for a long time, to be justified. Today that view is being toppled by a resurgence of public spirit that is refusing to be cowed by bullets, sticks and knives. From the Syrian coast to the Syrian desert, the Syrian people in all their colours and backgrounds appear to have rejected the Baathist narrative and are now, without any political ideology, attempting to topple its edifice. I don't know if they will be successful, but they are refusing to be crushed.

To say that it is the "Baath" ideology that rules Syria today is to be unfair, however, since the Baath that has ruled Syria since 1969 is not the same as the Baath that took power in 1963. Adam Curtis wrote an article called, "The Baby and the Baath Water" which highlights the modern history of Syria and its struggles against conspiracies and internal coups. What surprised me was his comment that Michel Aflaq had, through the Baath party, tried to recreate an Arab society which, he believed, to have degenerated into a state of "living death", the Baath, or "resurgence", was an attempt to meld ideas of socialism, the French revolution, and Arab nationalism, into a single spark that would regenerate the entire Arab nation. You can see Curtis' documentary and blog post here. It is very good.

Since 1970, a new Syria was shaped, not along the old ideological and radical socialist lines of the previous Baath party, but along new, more pragmatic lines as directed by Hafez Al Assad. One commentator recently stated that the old Assad continued to rule Syria from the grave, such was his influence, and in a way that is very true. Whilst the Syrian uprising of the past six months has removed almost all obvious traces of Assad senior, it was very difficult up until recently to miss his ever present stare as he looked down upon all the citizens of his dominion. Assad senior masterminded Syria's involvement in Lebanon, its geopolitical position viz. the United States, through his alliance with Iran, and his strengthening of Syria's political position within the region, and especially with regards to Syria's Arab neighbours.

Today, however, I want to look at the effect of his rule domestically, something that is not often commented upon, but the results of which we must deal with out of necessity now that the Syrian republic appears on the verge of tearing itself apart. How did things get so badly out of control, and where will Syria go from here? I think the story begins with the way that Assad joined a five man secret committee which was formed within the Baath party. That in itself was the biggest indication of a tendency amongst those men that political leadership through the traditional channels of government had failed, and that what was needed was a much more resolute, and consistent rule that could be wielded through such a committee using secrecy and cloak and dagger methods. Whilst the Baath itself continued to struggle against its traditional enemies, be they communists, Nasserists or Islamists, the Baath was experiencing a power struggle within itself. It was this power struggle within an already powerful party and influential party that would start the process of transforming Syria. Assad's elimination of all the members of this secret committee, completed by 1969, also coincided with the total domination by the Baath party of Syria political life.

It was then that Assad began consolidating his grip, but this would not be immediately apparent. Whilst he quickly took the steps needed to give Syria a new constitution and to crush dissent, it wasn't until the struggle with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and the Hama massacre, that it became apparent to all how powerful Assad had become. Up until the eighties, a somewhat booming economy, affluent middle class of sorts, and a small measure of remaining political freedoms which had not been encroached upon yet, provided the Syrian population with an illusory sense of stability and some prosperity. Assad was seen as having stabilised the country after a period of coups and counter-coups. The implementation of heavy handed security services and repression, as well as the effects of international sanctions and the war effort in Lebanon, destroyed this illusion and a relatively affluent Syrian middle class woke up one morning and realised that their country was no longer their own. But this does not mean that Syrian civil society gave up without a fight. There were widespread strikes, protests and denunciations against what was happening in the country, but, and this is where credit can be given to Assad senior, his Machiavellian approach to politics which had given him so much political capital abroad was now of great use to him domestically.

Co-opting, or convincing senior business figures in the country to hedge their bets on the stability he could offer, the first pillar of Syrian society to come crashing down was that of the merchants. A nationwide series of strikes almost destroyed his hold on power, were it not for the influence of the dean of the Syrian merchant class, Badr al Din al Shallah, whose son is still revered by the regime figures and exerts a lot of influence over the directing of the Syrian economy, it is said. Then it was the turn of the unions, most importantly the lawyer, engineering, and doctor's unions. These unions were, in a "crystal night" scenario, decapitated by the overnight arrest or exile of its leadership, their complete dissolution, and the creation of unions that were completely servile to the Baath party. It is these, non-functional unions which pepper Syria's landscape today, and they are in no way related to the original unions which used to take firm positions regarding political or economic matters that related to the nation's interests. The Syrian media was also completely co-opted, and today there are no independent and openly functioning news agencies that Syrians can tune into. Assad's party had completely and entirely taken over Syrian society.

On another level, I don't believe that Assad initially intended to adopt a sectarian approach to governing Syria. Though he himself was an Alawite, his pragmatism and shrewd political sense meant it was necessary for him to populate key positions of power with only those people he could trust. The fact that they happened to be Alawite was incidental, but his struggle with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood accentuated the sectarian divisions he now needed to manipulate in order to hold power. Where it came to ensuring the loyalty of those he trusted, he did so by transforming Syria into a rent-based economy where favour and industry was bestowed to his various captains. His wife's family were given sectors of industry to manage and control, his brother the same, and various government officials were allowed to wet their beaks. In essence, he institutionalised corruption too in order to maintain the loyalty of those around him, who depended on his rule to keep their welfare and income coming in. Of course, should any of them step out of line, then their corruption can be used against them. One needs only remember the 'suicide' of the unfortunate Mahmoud al Zubi, Syria's longest serving Prime Minister and hailing from the same Daraa that sparked the Syrian uprising in 2011. Zubi's great crime was not that he was corrupt, but that he became too corrupt, and that he knew about the corruption of others. Of course the fleeing of Syria's former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam was also portrayed by the regime as the elimination of 'corruption' in the Baath party. The popular joke in Syria at the time was that he too wished to commit suicide, but the regime didn't find him. Of course Khaddam was also immersed in the corruption up to his eyeballs, but his great crime was to become a threat to the legacy of Assad and to scheme for power himself. Both these examples show that corruption became, for realpolitik, institutionalised in Syria in a way that had never before been experienced or seen, not, perhaps, since the days of the dying Ottoman empire.

The 2011 Syrian uprising, so far as has become clear, is an uprising not for or against ideologies, and not for any geopolitical position that the country was adopting, but for the simplest of grievances. It was against corruption and against repression, the two pillars that have maintained Assad's family in power since he took over, and that he erected in order to ensure he stayed in power. It is therefore around these twin pillars that the Assad regime today is focusing all its defences. Economically the pillars are being targeted by foreign countries that are anxious to put pressure on the regime for geopolitical reasons, domestically, the Syrian people are trying to tear the repression down. The removal of either of these pillars would make the grip of the Assad regime on the country untenable. Whether the people will succeed is another matter entirely, but one thing is clear, with time and effort everything is possible. Assad realised this principle almost forty years ago, but will the Syrian people be able to adopt it today? After six months of constant protesting, it looks like they have.


MJ said...

that is very true. One way the regime has maintained power for so long was by institutionalizing corruption. One example of that how people thought corruption would end when Khaddam left. It played in favour for Assad junior in the early years where he was portrayed as a man who is trying to clean up the country by removing his fathers old guard and corrupt individuals in the regime. It was known that Khaddam was the person behind the disposal of nuclear waste from different countries in the Syrian desert and that when he left people said that that has ended and no nuclear waste is being disposed off in Syria. Not until recently, in one of wikileaks cables did it mention how in 2009 nuclear waste from Yemen was being disposed off in Syria. So basically what ever Khaddam was doing some one else is now carrying out.

Maysaloon said...

Where has this waste been buried and have there been any documented effects? It would be interesting to see how this stuff can be disposed of. I used to hear stories about this years ago.

MJ said...

Couldn't really tell where. but its definitely somewhere in the Syrian Desert. they simply dig a trench in the ground 10 meters deep and throw the barrels in. Disposing of radioactive waste properly is much more expensive.