Syria’s inscrutability

Syria is hard to categorize in relation to the Arab spring, because of its people’s multifaceted relationship to the Syrian state and current regime, their fear of a fundamentalist takeover, civil war, resistance to foreign-imposed regime change and to military intervention.
Issa Khalaf
10 September 2011

At the risk of evoking classical Orientalist representations of an impenetrable, unmoving East ruled by Muslim despots and enclosed in harem walls, Syria is one of the most inscrutable states in the Middle East by far.  This is not owing to the state’s ruthless, secretive security apparatus, or the fact that Syria is a crude police state.  Nor is it because a talentless Ba’ath party in all its glorious paranoia has managed to create a dull, lifeless civic, cultural, artistic, and social life. Syria’s unreadability, rather, is linked to its resistance to categorization as another Arab country in the grip of a popular Arab democratic upheaval.  

Events there since mid-March cannot be dubbed a popular uprising, akin to those of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, or Bahrain.  Even Saddam Hussein’s Iraq - once Syria’s fearsome Ba’athist twin in holding together a sectarian and ethno-linguistically divided society - was clearly discernable as a nasty regime that tyrannized all Iraqis.  No, Syria is not an exception to the Arab world’s urgent need to eject its brutal autocracies, to practice democratic politics, the rule of law, civil liberties, human rights, and empower vibrant civil societies. But it is also not (yet) a nation in widespread revolt.  

Sure, maintaining rule, deterring opposition voices, and preventing national revolt, violently and otherwise, is a less arduous task for such a tightly controlled regime like the Syrian one parading its army and armed security in every city.  But this still does not account for an ‘uprising’ which started in all places, in the marginal Jordanian-Syrian border town of Dar’a and its surrounding villages, and whose centre continues to be small towns near the Lebanese, Iraqi, and Turkish borders, and in the Homs, Hama, and Latakia provinces.  These may take on a populist character at some stage, but for the tie being the violence in Syria does not appear to be an uprising of the popular and urban multitudes. 

There is a view, however, that argues differently. It states that the regime’s allies and its  mainstay are to be found in the corrupt business elite, including Syria’s Sunni and Christian wealthy merchants, both of whom greatly benefited from the privatizing of public wealth through neo-liberal economic reform.  Along with those from the security apparatus who enriched themselves with smuggling, profiteering, and public theft, the economic elite, including banks and large companies, are intimately connected to the ruling cabal, or the ‘Alawi- and al-Asad family-dominated state’.  

Thus it is assumed that the remaining vast majority constitutes the uprising’s constituency, opposing the narrow economic elite and regime.  This would bind together the middle class youth, intellectuals, and professionals, shopkeepers and small family businesses, and the marginalized and impoverished working classes, unemployed urban youth, unskilled laborers, and small farmers and peasants.  The latter groups in particular, historically the Ba’ath’s base constituency, have not benefited from the privileges and power of Syrian crony capitalism.  It is no surprise, therefore, so the argument goes, that the worst off provinces in which unrest has been prominent include the drought-ridden and rural infrastructure-starved and impoverished eastern and southern provinces. 

Yet the puzzle here is that hundreds of thousands, even millions, of urban youth and members of the middle classes, infused with a democratic, pluralist, socially modernist worldview, have not joined in the uprising, certainly not even as peaceful demonstrators.  While a Washington-supported but ever-shifting opposition whose most recent incarnation is the ‘National Council of Syria’ supposedly represents a whole range of Syria’s ideological forces, including liberals, secular nationalists, and Islamists as well as ethnic and sectarian groups, implying majority representation of Syrian society, this majority nevertheless remains quiescent in Syria’s great cities.  The nation’s important provinces and cities such as Aleppo and Damascus, the cities of Homs, Hama, and Latakia, are, despite the armed violence and regime crackdowns in Homs and less so in Hama, essentially absent from this revolution. 

Syria’s difference

There may be several reasons for this.  Syria lacks the extreme conditions of many non-oil Arab states.  Albeit all Arab regimes to one degree or another enrich themselves at the expense of the public sector and Arab states are beset by high youth unemployment and poverty, Syria’s Ba’athist (“socialist”) ideology has maintained relative socio-economic equality.  The rich elites have got richer under economic neo-liberalism, but inequalities in income and wealth distribution do not compare to those of many in the region and beyond.  Also, women’s rights, minority rights, and religious freedoms are better in Syria than in many other countries in the Arab world. 

Most probable of all, this reticence stems from Syria’s heterogeneity. Many Syrians support Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a rational, secular counterweight to destructive communalism and sectarianism and Iraqi-style geographical break-up.  Specifically, they fear the sectarian civil war and perhaps ethnic cleansing and armed chaos that may attend the collapse of the centre.

Syrians understand the hollowness of regime anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist slogans, but they also know that these threats are not fantasies and that Syria needs protection from outside destabilization.  Because of its unique geo-strategic position, the Syrian state historically has maintained a bull-headed realism and pragmatism in defending Syrian interests, including readiness to have normal relations with the US and make peace with Israel in return for the Golan.

Syrian concerns are exacerbated by the machinations of another, in this case monarchic police state, Saudi Arabia, whose fundamentalist, sectarian-inspired regional ambitions match only its enormous fear of the secular, democratic polities demanded by the Arab uprisings.  The Saudi ruling family is on a frenzied mission to quash and portray these uprisings, certainly those in the Gulf, as foreign, that is, Iranian and Shi’a instigated, geopolitically encouraging and aligning itself with US hegemonic pretexts about a regionally and globally threatening Iranian-Syrian-Hizbollah axis. 

The satellite channels al-‘Arabiyya and al-Jazeera have become virtually indistinguishable in their obvious hostility, incitement, fabrications, and selective, hysterical reporting on Syria.  Despite its globally superior news, reporting, and programming, the latter seems to have fallen off its great perch, gained during its coverage of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. For the Peninsula remains off limits to critical al-Jazeera reporting, and its deep Qatari/Sunni bias against the ‘Alawite regime (of Iran and Bahrain) is easy to see.  The Sunni Saudi and Gulf ruling families entertain a fossilized hatred of Syria’s Shi’a ‘Alawis and their own Shi’a communities.  Their satellite media are effectively engaged in illegal counterrevolution in the region.

Thus it is a reality that “military crackdowns” are far from common or ubiquitous in major towns and cities, and that there are armed groups (Salafist gangs, as the regime dubs them) that have killed hundreds of police and military.  But recent western and Arab reports, for example, that a great massacre occurred in Latakia on between August 12 and 15, of war ships shelling the city’s poor Ramal al-Janubi neighborhood that includes the nearby Palestinian refugee camp, after cutting Latakia’s electricity, water, and Internet, are fabrication. There were no protests in Ramal, and no massacre in Latakia generally, but armed groups and snipers that were cleared out in a professional operation by the Syrian military.   

It is true that some, though rare retaliatory attacks against police or security personnel are due to townspeople, often families and clans, enraged at the killing, repression and humiliation of the brutal mukhabarat, or secret police.  However, it is also not uncommon for men to be carrying arms who insinuate themselves among thousands of demonstrators. The official leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood at this point rejects the uprising’s militarization. But the armed groups’ and snipers’ identity (that also open fire on civilians) is only a partial mystery because often they are jihad-shouting Sunni militants armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, whose goal is to provoke military violence and ignite a widespread rebellion.  Sunni Islamist types are especially unhappy with ‘Alawite rule.  They are the most likely power beneficiaries should the country sink into armed violence or civil war. 

In principle, Syrians have a right to arm themselves against the regime and dissident-terrorizing regime militiamen, the shabiha and thugs recruited on the spot.  However, truth is very much the first casualty while there are such distortions and fabrications of the media, combined with outside opposition, and on the one hand, internal activists who insist that there are no armed groups and no violence against the state, while on the other, the regime portrays all demonstrators as armed, violent foreign-supported gangs. All this can only damage the Syrian people’s legitimate call for democratic change, for freedom and dignity.  If the Syrian democratic uprising is to become communally pervasive, large scale, and supported by the key cities/ provinces of Damascus and Aleppo, Homs and Hama, armed violence, much less outside military intervention, is the last thing that is needed.  Let the regime be the one to escalate suppression and violence in response to growing peaceful protests.  This, the educated dissident activists inside Syria understand well. This is why they are supporting various non-military forms and instruments of international pressure.  

Majority ambivalence and new horizons

Now, one should not construe any of the preceding analysis as a defense of the Syrian regime. If I am trying to point out that Syria’s inscrutability lies in its internal and regional tensions, this is precisely because of the need to articulate its people’s multifaceted relationship with the Syrian state and current regime, their fear of a fundamentalist takeover, civil war, resistance to foreign-imposed regime change and to military intervention. 

The Syrian majority’s sense of ambivalence is well justified.  The paradox of Syria is that the Ba’ath regime rules because of Syrian society’s disunity, and as a result, Syrian society is reluctant to break from its modus vivendi with the state.

The Syrian state unfortunately may be congenitally unable to implement fundamental constitutional and democratic reforms because of the symbiosis between regime, military, and security that sustains the Ba’ath.  It may be incapable of reforming without unravelling, or changing until it is forced to go, though many Syrians, if not a majority, still hope that Assad will accede to real changes.  I suspect that, ironically, thanks to the regime’s obstinacy, the troubles undermine any remaining complacency on the part of many Syrians, forcing them to rethink their reality, confront their fears and demons, and imagine a world without Bashar al-Assad et al

The ‘Alawite ruling/security elite may also exist in a time warp of deep-seated fears of communal persecution. New generations of Syrians, maturing in a globalized, Internet and social media age, reaching for social modernity and rejecting parochial divisiveness and identity, have outgrown the mentality and the relic that is their leadership.  Like their young Arab cohorts everywhere in the region, they transcend socio-cultural discord and reject the regime’s manipulation of sectarian divisions and the specter of national disintegration deployed as a justification for staying in power.

The people of Syria may be rapidly changing, clear that they do not need a regime such as this to maintain Syrian national and territorial integrity in a democratic socio-political system.  Increasing numbers of social and occupational groups and classes will not indefinitely accept the current state of affairs - including an isolated, sanctioned, increasingly economically stressed Syria and inert president reliant on his military to control his people - perceiving, for the first time, great possibilities for both freedom and stability.  Furthermore, Syria is in desperate need of economic reforms and enhanced performance, including better wages and investments. The recent sanctions may make matters much worse, including alienating increasing numbers of young Ba’ath supporters dependent on its patronage network.

Syrians are highly politically aware, cosmopolitan and sophisticated.  Activists and young people desire to reclaim the country from the wretchedness and dread of the Ba’ath clique’s nearly half-century rule.  Like the rest of the Arab societies, there can be no stable socio-political system except that of a civic, democratic form of self-determination, one that, especially in Syria/Lebanon/Iraq is rooted not in rigid nationalist uniformity but in a vibrant diversity held together by a democratic, pluralist, citizenship-based state and drawing from Islamic multicultural sensibility.

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