19 April, 2011

Syria part 3 – Bashir al-Assad

Part 1
Part 2

Syria's long-serving President Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000. The constitution was then amended by the country's mickey-mouse parliament to allow the late president's son Bashir become president (he was below the minimum age then in force). Bashir al-Assad's presidency was endorsed in a Soviet-style election in which he was the only candidate, apparently winning 97.2% of the popular vote.

Naïve hopes were high that Bashir would usher in liberalisation of the Syrian political scene. And indeed, the summer of 2000 saw a short-lived raising of the shutters in which there was a brief flowering of increasingly free political discussion. However, when this "Damascus Spring" became a potential threat to the regime, the shutters came back down again and a load of people who had gone too far were thrown in jail.

Some of the discussion on the Damascus Spring still talks about how Bashir wanted to introduce true democratic reform but was stymied by a sinister "Old Guard" of regime figures eager to hold onto their power. This is basically nonsense, an example of commentators buying into a piece of good-cop bad-cop political sleight of hand, a modern version of the "evil advisors" myth that helped keep mediaeval kings in power. After 2000 Bashir al-Assad showed himself quite capable of marginalising the men who had served his father and promoting his own cronies in their place. Mysteriously, the demotion and removal of the "Old Guard" was not accompanied by any relaxation of Syria's rigid authoritarianism. I do not think there is any reason to believe that the crackdown on the Damascus Spring happened despite Bashir's wishes.

Bashir al-Assad was able to see off internal opposition, but externally things were a bit more problematic. With the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon in 2000, the Lebanese became increasingly resentful about the continued presence of a Syrian occupation force. Cack-handed Syrian diplomacy and the assassination of politicians hostile to Syrian interests further incensed Lebanese opinion, culminating in a mass protest movement dubbed the Cedar Revolution after the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. This forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, though it continues to exercise influence there through its arming and support of Hezbollah. Iran remained Syria's only real external ally, though there was an increasing rapprochement with Turkey and a willingness by Russia to sell Syria arms.

Domestically, Syria's Soviet-style economy remained sclerotic, underperforming and dysfunctional, for all that the government had introduced a tentative move towards market reforms. Politically, the system remained rigidly authoritarian, far more so than in the likes of Jordan or Egypt. The Muslim Brothers and anything even remotely suggestive of Islamism were completely suppressed, though the secular regime was not hostile to apolitical religiosity. No political grouping with the remotest possibility of gaining a serious following was allowed to organise. The only semi-tolerated opposition groups were a number of tiny leftist and Arab nationalist organisations that were basically relics of the past and unlikely to ever gain any kind of traction against the regime. Even these little parties could only go so far, and would see their activists thrown into jail if they troubled the country's security services.

When the current wave of unrest began to sweep through the Arab world, the Syrian regime hoped that it would be able to ride out the storm. One of the regime's two advantages were its hard-line repression, through which it hoped to prevent even the slightest chink of serious opposition activism from coming into being. The regime's other perceived advantage was its lack of a peace treaty with Israel and ongoing cold war with that country; this enabled the regime to paint domestic opposition as being something that would undermine its firm stand against the enemy that still occupied Syrian territory. Another advantage for the Syrian regime was the spectre of Iraq, where an authoritarian regime's overthrow led to an inter-communal bloodbath, something that would have to be feared in a country as socially plural as Syria.

The regime's other source of strength is that the major Western powers do not want it to fall. Although they have enjoyed often problematic relationships with the Assads, the USA, UK, France, et al know where they stand with them and fear the instability that any change in Syria could bring. After all, a new Syrian regime might be more pliable, but perhaps a political transition would see a resurrection of the Muslim Brothers, perhaps newly fanaticised and willing to throw in their lot with Hamas and Hezbollah to initiate Armageddon.

And that's that for now. If you have enjoyed reading these three posts about Syria, why not compare them to a shorter piece I wrote about that fascinating country a few years ago: I Know All About Syria

From Hunting Monsters

03 April, 2011

Syria part 2 – The Hafez al-Assad years

Hafez al-Assad became Syria's president in 1970, after a "corrective movement" ousted his Ba'ath party rivals. It might initially have seemed that he would prove to be just another here-today-gone-tomorrow leader of Syria. However, he successfully managed to crush his rivals within the Ba'ath and co-opt or eliminate any threats outside it. Assad allied Syria with the Soviet Union and organised the domestic political scene on Soviet principles, with the Ba'ath as the leading party. The country's economy came increasingly under state control, much to the chagrin of the country's traditionally entrepreneurial business elite.

Externally, Syria joined Egypt in attacking Israel in 1973. Although this war saw Syria suffering another defeat, with the enemy ending up occupying more territory than when the war started, the relatively credible performance of the Syrian armed forces went some way to restoring national morale. By focussing on the early, successful stages of the conflict, Assad was even able to present the 1973 war as a kind of victory.

At home, Assad faced a violent challenge to his rule from the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brothers. They had social and religious axes to grind with him. The Syrian Muslim Brothers drew their support from the country's petit bourgeoisie, people who were being squeezed by the increasingly statist economic policies of the regime. On the religious side, they were angered by the secular orientation of the Ba'athists and by Assad's own religious affiliation. Assad was a member of the minority Alawite faith, seen as not truly Muslim by many members of more mainstream Muslim sects. That Assad's regime was seen to be favouring Alawites over the majority Sunni Muslims must have been particularly galling.

The Muslim Brothers waged a violent campaign of assassinations and bombings against Assad's regime, and he repaid them in kind. Violence escalated through the 1970s and 1980s, climaxing in 1982 when the Muslim Brothers staging an uprising in the city of Hama (which they hoped would trigger a mass revolt across the country). Assad crushed the Hama uprising in a bloodbath that saw more than 10,000 people killed. In so doing he permanently ended the Muslim Brotherhood's insurgency and deterred serious opposition for decades by showing how far he would go to retain power.

In retrospect, the Muslim Brothers were probably doomed to fail. Their Hama uprising failed to ignite a wider revolt, and the reasons for this are not difficult to discern. Their narrow social and religious vision meant that they alienated completely the large number of Syrians who are not Sunni Muslim Arabs. Even with the Sunni, they had little to say to people outside the petit bourgeoisie. So that was the end of them. They continue to maintain a ghostly presence as a party in exile (where they belatedly accept that their violent campaign was a mistake), but are believed to have next to no organised presence within Syria.

While all the excitement with the Muslim Brothers was going on, Assad was also beginning a Syrian involvement in neighbouring Lebanon that would go on for decades. Lebanon erupted into civil war in the 1970s. Syria initially intervened in a vaguely peace-keeping role to assist a Maronite Christian militia who looked like they were about to be defeated. Over time, however, Syria aligned with and against every possible Lebanese faction.

Now, why did Syria intervene in Lebanon? I think there were two factors at play. First of all, Assad was probably using the civil war as a pretext for projecting power in a country that he, like many his compatriots, saw as a natural sphere of Syrian influence. Secondly, he wanted to dampen down the Lebanese situation so that its instability did not provoke Israel into intervening there.

In the first of his goals, Assad was to prove remarkably successful, making Lebanese politicians dance to the Syrian tune whether they liked it or not. However, he failed in his second – Israel launched a mini-invasion of Lebanon in 1978 and then invaded for real in 1982. This saw more military defeats for Syria, but Israel was unable to turn military power into political success. Syria retained its hegemonic role in Lebanon and used its Hezbollah allies to harass and ultimately humiliate the Israeli occupiers.

Syria's alliance with the Hezbollah, the radical Islamist party of Lebanon's Shia community, flowed from Assad's alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Secular Syria and Islamist Iran made for odd bedfellows, but it made a good marriage of convenience between two countries otherwise without many friends in the region. The alliance with Iran became especially important to Syria after the disappearance of its other external patron, the USSR.

The fall of the USSR led some to think that the Assad regime would follow it into oblivion. This proved not to be the case. The loss of Soviet support meant that Syria had to abandon the pipe-dream of one day achieving military parity with Israel, but Assad was able to maintain himself in power and continue projecting Syrian suzerainty over Lebanon.

From Hunting Monsters

Part 3 coming soon.

02 April, 2011

Syria part 1 – Before the Assads

The wave of unrest spreading across the Arab World has now arrived in Syria. This is interesting, as Syria is a bit of an outlier in the region and some commentators had assumed that its unusual features would lead it to escape an emergence of people demanding political rights. What are those unusual features? Well, for one, Syria is rigidly authoritarian, with almost no space for political activity not sanctioned by the state. The country has also declined to sign a peace treaty with Israel, with Damascus hosting the exiled leadership of several of the more radical Palestinian groups. The Syrian regime is also a bit of a historical relic, flying the flag for a kind of vaguely leftist, secular, pan-Arab nationalism that largely died out elsewhere with the end of the 1960s. How did Syria get to where it is today? Read on.

Until the First World War, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire, existing as a geographic concept running from what is now Turkey to the borders of Egypt and what is now Saudi Arabia (and so including all of Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel). After the First World War, this region was divided up and modern Syria came into being under French rule. Some people there continued (and continue) to hanker after a restored Greater Syria, with many Syrians in particular finding it hard to think of Lebanon as a truly independent country.

Syria became independent after the Second World War, initially with a parliamentary regime on the French model. The new Syrian state was remarkably plural in its ethnic and religious make-up. Sunni Muslim Arabs made up about 60% of the population, with the rest being Arabs of all kinds of religious persuasion (Shia, Druze, Alawite, varieties of Christian) and there are also ethnic minorities (Kurds and Armenians, notably).

Once independent, Syria fell into a long period of instability in which military coups followed each other every couple of years, with politics in the country being characterised by conspiracy and intrigue. The country even merged with Egypt for a time in the 1960s, to create a United Arab Republic, but the union proved short-lived and was dissolved acrimoniously.

One ongoing feature of Syrian political life in the 1950s and 1960s was the rise of the Ba'ath Party. The Ba'ath (which literally translates as "Awakening") was a party advocating a secular, socialist pan-Arab nationalism. Yet for all its pan-Arabism, the Ba'ath never really amounted to much outside Syria (apart from in Iraq, where the local Ba'athists soon became the bitter enemies of their Syrian comrades) and it never attracted a mass following in Syria itself. It was however influential in the military, the state administration and intellectual circles. However, the Ba'ath was also highly factionalised and much of Syria's period of instability saw different groups of Ba'athists feuding with each other and struggling to suppress their rivals.

In 1967 Syria joined in the Six Day War against Israel and received a sound thrashing in return. After destroying the Syrian air force, Israeli forces overran the Golan Heights. This triggered more instability within Syria, culminating in a 1970 coup led by the Defence Minister, Hafez al-Assad. Assad's new government wished to conduct a more pragmatic foreign policy, avoiding the radical adventurism that had led to the 1967 disaster.

From Hunting Monsters