27 March, 2007
I know all about Syria
Lately I have been reading a lot about Syria. As you know, Syria is a key country in an important region, and much is written about its relationships with its neighbours and with other countries around the world. My interest, though, is in Syrian domestic politics, and on this there is much less to read. In part this is because the Syrian regime is very repressive, making it difficult for researchers to cover what is going on there. I think, though, that Syria's importance as a player in international relations makes people concentrate on its external rather than internal affairs. I suppose this might be because the regime is far more focussed on foreign policy than most other Arab world regimes, in that it has long engaged in an attempt to achieve hegemony over one neighbour and is keen to recover territory by war or chit chat from another (and has a simmering boundary dispute with yet another, and is a player in the ongoing Kurdish conundrum). And unlike the rest of the Arab world, whatever else you might accuse the regime of, being lackeys of the West is not one of them. So, whereas with Egypt or Tunisia, say, discussion of the country is based on the regime's struggle against domestic opponents, in Syria people look at how the country plays the great game against Israel and its obstreperous neighbours in Lebanon, or whether Bush is going to invade it.
The general focus on Syrian foreign policy means that in attempting to research its domestic politics I read the same things over and over again. I will now state them, and then you will essentially know all about Syria's internal affairs.
1. Syria used to be very unstable with coups and counter-coups occurring with astonishing frequency. These coups often saw one wing of the Syrian Ba'ath party oust another.
2. Then in 1970, Hafez al-Assad, a military Ba'athist, staged a "corrective movement" (not a coup), remaining in power for the next thirty years. Assad accomplished this by crushing anyone who opposed him.
3. But Assad was a member of the Alawite sect, considered heretical by many orthodox Sunni Muslims. And his regime was actively secularist. In 1978, the Muslim Brotherhood began an insurrectionary campaign against the regime.
4. In 1982, sensing that their time had come, the Muslim Brotherhood took over the city of Hamah and declared a general uprising against the regime. But Assad reacted forcefully, deploying tanks and helicopter gunships, reducing the city to rubble. The Brothers were crushed.
5. After that nothing much happened for twenty years.
6. In June 2000, Hafez al-Assad died. His son, Bashar al-Assad, became president. Previously an ophthalmologist working in the UK, there were suggestions that Bashar intended to liberalise the regime. A "Damascus Spring" began in which Syria's intelligentsia began to engage in increasingly free-ranging discussion about the country's social and economic problems.
7. The regime decided that they weren't having that, and put a stop to it. Leading intellectuals were arrested and chucked in jail, sometimes following show trials.
And that's that. I hope my inquiries will discover more detailed information, or my next essay for Spy School could be a bit thin.