Tuesday, November 29, 2011

From Moscow to Damascus: Reflections on Assadism

These days I feel I can't write, I can't even think. Just when you think everything is crystal clear, that you are certain you know what is happening, something blindsides you and then you're back where you started. I look back at all I've blogged and written about in the past year, and almost all of it is to do with Syria. Pro-regime Syrians sneer at us, the exiles, the expatriates, and challenge us to come back to Syria to "see that it is all a conspiracy". In their twisted and illogical minds, only they care for the country, and their god is sacred and inviolable. Only by his grace, and under the majestic gaze of his calm blue eyes, could the country be saved. But saved from what? What is it about anybody who criticises their Baathist cult which makes them hate him so much?

A friend of mine told me a story about his family that took place in the early sixties. Back then, Syria was still relatively a comfortable country to live in. Politics was remote from the lives of the citizenry, in spite of the turbulent political conspiracies, coups and counter-coups. At that time, a young man had asked for his aunt's hand in marriage but the father had turned him down. He told the young man that, as a member of the Baath party, his life would be unstable, and that tomorrow another coup would make the man and his family exiles or worse. The young man smiled and told him that the Baath were different from other parties, and that he should not be worried. Both parties moved on, but I recall this tale often these days, because I try to understand how a political party that was as marginalised and suppressed as the Baath party was during the fifties, could so dominate a country with all its various and conflicting political, economic and intellectual elites.

I think we can find our answer if we look a little bit further north, to another country that has never emerged from the cold winter of totalitarian governments. Russia, that enormous country with its amazing people; the motherland of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gorky and countless others, has also given birth to the templates for the most frightening forms of political domination. Putting Nazi Germany on one side for a bit, the real template for Assad's Baath is Lenin's Communist Party vanguard. Lenin believed that the proletarian revolution required a ruthless, disciplined cadre of hardcore revolutionaries who would lead the rest on to revolution, and create the necessary conditions for overthrowing the conservative bourgeois regimes of Europe.

In Syria, the Baath party's civilian wing, like the Mensheviks, were sidelined by the more ruthless and disciplined Military Committee, of which the elder Assad was a member. This process took place over most of the sixties, and by 1969, Assad had made himself the unconfirmed leader of Syria after doing away with the other members of the Military Committee. The road to power in Syria lay in a series of defenses, like concentric circles, that were overcome one by one until this remarkably shrewd man became the undisputed master of the realm. Again, analogies with Russia are remarkable. Stalin, accused by Trotsky of having taken over the machinery of the state, also eliminated his enemies one by one, until in the end, it was only Stalin. The only major difference is that Stalin did not try to preserve rule in his own family. In fact he left his own son to die in German captivity, rather than trade him for a high ranking German general who was captured by the Soviets during the Patriotic War. Apart from that, the cult of personality we find in Syria is almost identical to that of Stalin. The same could also be said of Saddam Hussein's Iraq during his intolerably long reign.

One can draw analogies ad infinitum between Assad's Syria and Stalinist Russia, but a puzzling aspect remains. How do we explain the younger Assad's influence on the country? And on what basis does his popularity remain, albeit greatly diminished? From the time when he assumed power, I noticed a remarkable change in the political and propaganda machine and the way it portrayed the relationship between the regime and the people. In the old days the relationship was one of pure power and domination. There was no room for discussion, only blind obedience stripped of reason. The way the young Assad sought to portray his rule was definitely more paternal, more informal. A poster shows the smiling Leader holding up and kissing a pretty little girl. On the top of the poster we see that now famous phrase "We Love You", and at the bottom of the poster the slogan continues "and my Daddy Loves you too!". I remember reading that poster as I walked the streets of Damascus and smiling to myself, "I'll bet he loves you, he daren't". The new theme seemed to be that you will love us whether you like it or not, so why not just like it? And in a sense, why not? As the young Assad liberalised the economy, opened up Syria to foreign investment, and started opening private banks, Syrians found that they could live, through easily available credit, a far better lifestyle, and with the same consumer goods that they once envied their other Arab neighbours for.

For a time, it seemed that Syria was genuinely improving, and the country was starting to look like a place people could want to live in once again. Of course the young still dreamed of emigrating abroad, where the real money and pay were to be found, but in cities like Damascus and Aleppo, jobs for the young and educated were starting to become available. Unfortunately, a large swathe of Syria's population were getting left behind in the rush. This writer's friend had once volunteered to make a collection of basic food stuffs that were going to be donated to the poor and needy that lived in the shanty towns on Qasioun mountain. Overlooking the capital city, these shanty towns had started to spring up over the past twenty years as the Syrian countryside, suffering from a drought and desertification, forced entire villages to pack up and move to the cities. Placing a greater strain on cities that already suffered from poor planning and a weak infrastructure, many were forced to swell the sums and lived lives of abject poverty. This tale of migration from the countryside to the city is identical to what we have seen throughout the world, for most of the twentieth century, and Syria was never going to be an exception.

Whilst it could afford to, Syria's regime could subsidise diesel, sugar, flour and other basics for the poor, but as the world economy started to place a burden on the state's coffers, already stretched due to the grotesque levels of corruption that are systemic to Assad's Syria, the state began to tighten the belt. Thinking that an anti-Western foreign policy could make him immune from the wave of unrest spreading out of Tunisia, Assad thought such austerity measures could pass lightly. But he whom the gods wish to destroy, they make complacent, and a population that, at best, was marginalised during the boom years was now no longer going to accept the rampant corruption and heavy handedness of the regime's security forces. Public sector pay rises, renewed subsidies, and the lifting of a temporary ban on all non-essential imports, were the panicked response of a regime that couldn't believe what it was seeing. After forty years of complete subservience, reinforced by the terror of 1982 and a massacre in the city of Hama, the Syrian people had broken the fear barrier.

Those people who today worry about the ruination of Syria are lamenting the loss of the vision of Syria that they experienced in the early years of the young Assad's rule. An unspoken pact seemed to govern: that as long as corruption and heavy handed oppression did not get too much out of hand, then the legitimacy of Assad could remain unquestioned. But those people who gave him their support, and might continue to do so, were not the same people who suffered economically under the wanton liberalisation of Syria's economy, and were not the people who suffered the most under the heavy handed security services, or the degradation which is called Syrian military service, where young men who are supposed to be serving their country, become unpaid serfs to their commanding officers during their period of service. The remnants of Assad's populism rests with these people, 'encouraged' by his diehard supporters who are now approaching mass hysteria as the net tightens around their precious regime. The intolerable stupidity that is portrayed by the regime's media outlets is directed to this segment of the population, and not to the international community, or to Syrians that have already seen the regime for what it is. The question remains how quickly more Syrians can be made to recognise this truth, now that the mask has been removed.

1 comment:

hazrid said...

A beautiful post, Maysaloon. I'm surprised you don't have that many commenters coming here.
I have to agree with you. Before, one could rationalize the position taken by the people on the 'other side' of the Mundas/Shabeeh divide. There was a set of proclaimed motives pronounced by some of the more rational supporters of the regime, ranging from the apologetic to the hateful (towards the regime), but fearful. Deniers never were rational. Now, after eight and a half months, any attempt at rationality in the regime's favor is gone, except for the minorities who still have genuine concerns. I have found the irrational aggressiveness of the pro-regimers, whether they be of the Bashar-loving sort, or the 'we-hate-him-but-he-filled-his-bag-the-next-guys-are-going-to-fill-their's-too' type has become dangerously incendiary. I hope this ends with as little negative fallout as possible.