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.

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