Syria’s Pandoran Box

In 1971, I was a Fulbright Hays Faculty Grant recipient based in Beirut doing research on the impact of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict on Arab Nationalist States. I was returning with a Palestinian friend from Damascus to Beirut after one of my interview excursions in Syria. We were joined by a group of three Syrian freelance workers in the Damascus to Beirut Service (transportation by ancient used Mercedes-Benz cars and the cheapest way to travel). As we approached Chtuara in the Beka’a Valley of Lebanon, the car broke down. It was clear that we would be in for a long wait. The three men stared at each other in deep frustration and mental anguish. We entered a local caf? to get something to eat and to wait out the repairs. My friend and I sat at a table and ordered some food and water. I noticed that the men ordered nothing. I understood immediately that they did not have funds to purchase food. They were going to Beirut to pick up some goods to take back to Syria to sell. They were expecting to get to Beirut, pick up the goods, and return by Service to Damascus the same day, a trip of some 60 miles taking about two hours each way including border customs checks. It was clear that they would have to spend the night in Beirut since repairs would delay us for hours. My heart sank for them as I looked at their tired eyes, unshaven faces, and frayed clothes.

I did something I knew would offend their dignity ? a cultural trait deeply embedded in Arab psyches, but especially among the poor. The thought that they would go without food for more than 24 hours and would have to sleep outdoors in Beirut overcame my understanding of how important dignity is to hardworking but poor Arabs. I asked the waitress to serve them some simple dishes and bottled water. Immediately, they rejected the food and glanced over at me. I asked if I could join them for a minute. They were polite and said “yes”. I explained to them my own Syrian Arab origins and my understanding of dignity. I told them that I and my siblings were all born during the depression, and we had been poor. When relatives came to visit, my mother told us not to sit at the table or try to eat anything. We were to say we already ate and were full if the relatives asked. My parents did not want to be pitied. They put out the best they could ill afford. I and my siblings watched relatives we did not like consume the food with gusto ? my mother was a terrific cook ? while each of us prayed they wouldn’t eat up everything. The men instantly identified with this story. I also reminded them of the religious duty of caring for all members of the community. They again nodded with recognition of this duty. Still they were hesitant to accept the food offered. I realized how hard it was for them not only to accept my gesture, but also to accept it from a woman. After all, men were supposed to provide for women and children!! In the end, the men accepted some food, but left more than half of it, insisting they were not hungry but ate what they could as a courtesy to me. This left their dignity intact. I thanked them.

The more important part of this story is that the forced idle time encouraged conversation. I asked them about their lives in Syria. They looked down and in quiet, resigned but frustrated tones, they said Syria could be rich and prosperous, but with fifteen coups in twenty years and corrupt leaders, the majority of Syrians were struggling to make a living. They went on pointing out how prosperous Lebanon was, how free and how lively its people were. I empathized with them and said perhaps one day Syria would recover from the present conditions. One of them looked at me philosophically and offered a saying with which I was quite familiar: “water that is spilled cannot be retrieved.” Little did they know then that their newly “elected” president, Hafez al-Assad, would change Syria significantly over his thirty year reign. Nor did they know that Lebanon would slip into a 15-year civil war in 1975.

Historical Context

Syria has been governed for the past 48 years by the Ba’ath Party, and since 1970-71, has been officially headed by the al-Assad (meaning in Arabic “the lion”) family: Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000) and now his son Bashar (2000-present). They originate from the Alawite sect of Syria, now recognized as an offshoot of Shi’a Islam. However, Alawite religious practices were earlier considered to be almost a nondescript Islamic anomaly with conceptual features, such as a trinity, likened to Christianity. They are one of the largest minorities, as are the Kurds, in what is today recognized as Syria. They number approximately two million or more in a total population of 22 million. Historically, the Alawites have met with adverse discrimination, despised by Sunnis (Orthodox Muslims) and earlier as well by mainstream Shi’a (followers of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed) alike. Alawites are found throughout the region though not all share the same religious and cultural customs. For example, the Alevis of Turkey share some aspects of their faith with the Alawites, but they are really distinct from each other. The Syrian Alawites are located primarily along the Mediterranean coast of Syria with Latakia generally recognized as their “capital” city.

After WW I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria which included Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan) was split up by Britain and France. France got the League of Nations Mandate over Syria and Lebanon while Britain gained control of Palestine (and Iraq) and the area that became Jordan. France split Syria into six “states” or provinces (see map below) which included Lebanon until France expanded and separated Lebanon from Syria. Eventually, France also gave Alexandretta to Turkey, known as Hatay today. When Syria gained independence in 1946, the Alawites wanted to remain a separate state, but they were nonetheless politically a part of Syria. Independent Syria suffered from the divisions created by France, not the least of which was the competition between Aleppo (which included the Syrian Kurdish area primarily in the northeast) and Damascus.

The decades after independence, Syria witnessed some fifteen coups from 1949 to 1970. The first in 1949 was supported by the U.S. and ousted Syria’s democratically elected Government under Shukri al-Quwatli. It ushered in General Husni al-Zaim who was willing to come to terms with Israel. He didn’t last long, nor did other coup leaders. The 1970 Revolution, commonly known as the “Corrective Movement” brought Air Force General Hafez al-Assad into power. The Revolution (coup) was directed against the radical left-wing faction of the ruling Ba’ath Party (Renaissance). Assad became Prime Minister and was then elected President in 1971. Earlier, he had served as Defense Minister during the 1967 war which left a deep impression on him. As President, he immediately stacked the Ba’ath Party, the Security Forces and the Military leadership with Alawite officials faithful to him. He also developed a public works program, improved infrastructure worked on developing and improving universal health care and education for the Syrian population. He promoted opportunities for Sunni merchants as a way of co-opting them, given that Sunnis were the majority of the Syrian population, and affirmed equal citizenship for minorities ? among them Christians and Druzes. A segment of the Kurdish population did not have citizenship rights in Syria, however. To rise in the system, individuals had to belong to the Ba’ath Party. But the main power positions were in Alawite hands. And Hafez al-Assad held the ultimate power in Syria. According to Henry Kissinger, Hafez al-Assad was the kind of man who went into a poker game with a hand of twos and threes, and scooped the pot; the cleverest politician in the Middle East.

Assad sought to build up his military, getting arms, planes and technology from the then USSR. When the USSR ceased to exist, he “replaced” it with Iran to give him regional leverage. He wanted to develop military parity with Israel, although he never did. What he did do was to forcibly integrate Syria’s diverse provinces by using an iron fist. I use to jokingly note after a trip to Syria in the early 70s that Hafez al-Assad solved Syria’s unemployment problem by putting them all in the Security/Intelligence Service to spy on Syrians and maintain political control over them. For his ability to bring stability to Syria after years of dismal coups and chaos as well as his brilliance in dealing with the West and regional actors, he was loved by his people. For his tight control over political freedom of expression and patronage of his faithful Alawite followers, they hated him.

In 1973, Assad joined with Egypt’s Sadat to launch a war against Israel to regain the territories (Egypt’s Sinai, and Syria’s Golan Heights) they lost to Israel in the 1967 war. Their strength was in a surprise attack into the areas of Israeli occupation. Much hailed was Egypt’s crossing of the Suez Canal into its Sinai. After ten days in which the United States sent massive military aid to Israel thereby enabling Israel to reassert its military superiority, a cease fire was called. From 1973 to 1978, Sadat was able to negotiate the return of the Sinai to Egypt and signed a peace treaty with Israel. Syria recaptured the city of Qunaitra in the Golan in the war, but Israel retook it. However, as part of the cease fire talk agreements, Israeli forces withdrew from the city in the summer of 1974, but not before leveling it. They retained their occupation of the Golan, an agriculturally fertile area as large as Delaware. Assad was infuriated by Sadat who went it alone from that point on to regain the Sinai and then make peace with Israel, leaving Syria politically stranded and without leverage. In post-1990-1991 Gulf war negotiations, Assad called for the return of all of the Golan which Israel refused. Israel encouraged colonization of the lush Syrian area. Some 20,000 Israeli settlers live on the Golan. In 1981, Israel annexed the area, although its annexation is not internationally recognized.

In April 1975, civil war broke out in Lebanon allegedly over an incident involving Palestinian workers from Lebanon’s refugee camps. In July 1976, Assad’s army entered Lebanon with the blessings of the US and acceptance of Israel to impose a cease fire between the warring groups. However, the civil war continued to 1989. Initially Assad appeared to favor and protect the Christians from defeat by the Lebanese National Movement headed by the Druze leader, Kamal Jumblatt. Assad himself was playing off the Lebanese groups against each other. According to Syria expert Patrick Seale, Assad was “duped” by Henry Kissinger and the Israelis into believing that if he did not enter the war to rein in the PLO (then headquartered in Lebanon and in alliance with the Lebanese National Movement), then Israel would have to go in to neutralize the civil war. The move was aimed at having Arab control Arab, and causing more divisions between Arab communities to weaken all of them. However, there is another angle to this. Syria at that point had never recognized or accepted the French separation of Lebanon from Syria. Syria feared the Lebanese Christians (predominantly the Maronites who peopled the Phalange Party and Militia) would collaborate, as historically they have favored doing, with the Zionists to undermine Syria. Riad el-Solh, the first Prime Minister of Lebanon after independence, and himself an Arab Nationalist, promised that Lebanon would never become a pathway to Syria for Western imperialism and Zionist machinations.

Israel regretted okaying Syria’s entrance into Lebanon. It spent decades looking for ways to remove Syria from Lebanon and pave its own way into controlling the strategically located country. Assad recognized he was no match for Israel’s military, but his army remained in Lebanon and outlived Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 ? the same year in which Assad was massacring thousands of politically threatening Muslim Brothers in the Syrian city of Hama – and its subsequent occupation of Southern Lebanon. Israel was forced to withdraw from Southern Lebanon by the growth and fighting

acuity of Hezbollah in May 2000. Syria had received guarantees from the US in 1990 when it joined the US Coalition in the first Gulf War (1990-1991) that the US would “allow” the continuation of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. However later, given the strong ties between Hezbollah and Syria, and their relationship with Iran, Israel and the US began to pressure Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.

The vastly underpaid Syrian Army was given unofficial license by the Syrian Regime early on in its occupation of Lebanon to loot Lebanon, and loot they did. One cannot help but think back on those hapless Syrians of 1971, powerless and penniless wanting real jobs and compare them to the ugly power of Syria as an occupier of Lebanon “paying” its army on the backs of Lebanese. Anything from toilets to refrigerators to window fixtures made their way to Syrian homes and bazaars. An illegal drug trade developed as well. To all intents and purposes, Syria controlled Lebanon politically and gained economically from it. Local Lebanese were fed up with their occupiers and their local Lebanese collaborators. Israel and the U.S. were concerned about Syria’s pivotal role in the region, especially given its ties to Iran and Hezbollah. Under pressure from the US and Israel (including pressure from pro-Israel Lobby and Lebanese expatriates in the US favoring ties with Israel), the UNSC passed Resolution 1559 calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and for presidential elections. Syria did not budge. President Bush imposed sanctions on Syria, but they were not sufficient to convince Syria to leave Lebanon. On February 14, 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated. This led to an outpouring of Lebanese (Cedar Revolution) calling from the withdrawal of the Syrian Army and its Intelligence officers from Lebanon, believing that Syria was responsible for the assassination. [A Special Tribunal for Lebanon was developed and focus is presently on Hezbollah members as the alleged killers.] Indeed within two months, the Syrian Army receded to the Syrian borders. The Lebanon withdrawal was among the first major crises Syria’s Bashar Assad faced since his ascension to the Presidency in 2000 after the death of his father.

Bashar Assad: Ascendancy to the Office of President

Upon the death of Hafez al-Assad in June 2000, the Syrian Parliament met and amended Article 83 of the Constitution which lowered the age for presidential candidacy from forty to thirty-four, the then age of Bashar. His Republican Guard brother, Maher, was 33 but not considered for the presidency. Once the elites from the Ba’ath party, Security Forces, and the Military agreed on Bashar to replace his father, Bashar was made Secretary General of the Party and was promoted to the position of Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. However, Bashar did not have the power over the elites and the institutions they headed in the same way as his father. As a consensual leader, he was described by exiled Syrian activist, Ammar Abd al-Hamid as being “one of the equals while his father was first among them” (quoted in Joshua Stacher, “Reinterpreting Authoritarian Power: Syria’s Hereditary Succession,” MEJ, 65, 2, p.212. Spring 2011).

Bashar’s initial year witnessed the “Damascus Spring”. Freedom of assembly was permitted, the internet introduced, and Bashar expressed his wish not to have his image appear everywhere as his father used to do. That “Spring” did not last long. The Alawite elites who dominated the power institutions and who were the Regime saw to that. Hafez al-Assad had stacked the power institutions with his trusted Alawite followers. They were given privileges and power that this previously despised community never imagined they would ever see. In the unofficial capital of the Alawite area, Latakia, a powerful mafia developed. As previously noted, the father buttressed his Regime by offering privileges to non-Alawite sectors of the Syrian population. Minority members also held important roles in Government. In the end, a corrupt Regime run by the Assad family and their faithful sectarian brothers and sisters became the face of Syria. In spite of the tight internal political control, Hafez offered enough to the Syrians to maintain stability in the country and also make it a player in the region. Bashar walked into this institutionalized system with its guaranteed assurance of power and privilege for Alawites, all the while making noises that he would reform it but never taking other than baby steps economically and none politically.

The contrast in general atmosphere, if not in actual political and economic change, was palpably better under Bashar than it was during his father’s period. While the mukhabbarat (internal intelligence) was still there in excess eyeing all local people and tourists, they were not quite as obvious as in earlier days. Upon the death of the “Damascus Spring,” photos of Bashar and his deceased father and brother who had been the heir apparent, appeared everywhere, but they somehow seemed less intimidating than his father’s. Restaurants, boutique hotels, Hip Hop cafes, and a growing tourist industry were evident. Once Turkey and Syria developed warmer relationships, Syria appeared to be on the cusp of economic development, although a recent drought had negatively affected that process. The relationship with Turkey also gave Syria heightened importance in the region. With Turkey, Iran, and Hezbollah as its main political coterie, and with Syria’s politically popular stance on Israel, Syria seemed untouchable in spite of its setback in Lebanon and economically. Additionally, Syria regained influence in Lebanon even though it had finally exchanged Ambassadors with it and appeared to recognize its sovereignty. But then the “Arab Spring” came to Syria in March.

Syria’s security forces, its military, and its Shahiba unleashed an indiscriminate and reckless killing spree on protesters. There is and has been in Syria an authentic desire for real democracy, for real economic opportunity, for elimination of the vast corruption and privilege given to Alawites and particular co-opted segments of the population, for a better quality of life, and above all for dignity. Interestingly enough, the protesters were not calling initially for Bashar’s removal, but for vast reforms, for real elections, for removal of the emergency laws, for release of human rights prisoners, for a multi?party system, etc. etc. Bashar initially ignored these demands in his first Parliamentary speech, and then began to offer but not fulfill some of them. As the killing continued, numbering now some 1300 people, with thousands imprisoned, the demands grew for Bashar to go. Turkey begged Syria to push through reforms immediately to salvage Syria’s political stability and block chaos in the region, but there was no response.

Now as Syria begins to disintegrate, and its Army is witnessing defections, the question remains, is it Bashar Assad who is giving orders to kill his people a la his father’s iron fist approach, or is it the combined Alawite dominated Security, Military, Ba’ath Party and the Shahiba thugs who give the orders? Former Jordanian Ambassador Marwan Muashar says Bashar is in charge; Ilnur Cevik of the New Anatolia newspaper in Turkey says it’s the Security forces, not Bashar, who control Syria and give the orders. Is he just one among the power elites, or has he gained power over them during his eleven years in office. Or has he just embraced their modus operandi as many think? In some ways, it doesn’t matter who is in charge because as head of state, Bashar will be held responsible and accountable. If Bashar was inclined toward reforming Syria but was blocked all these years by the Alawite elites, he had an opportunity during this crisis to confront and challenge them. The Syrian people in large part basically liked and trusted Bashar. He could have used his popularity to call them out to confront and challenge the Regime, but he did not. Did he miss an opportunity or did he simply agree with the guardians of Alawite privilege? Indeed given the Alawites past history in Syria, and their rigid control of Syria under the Assad family, there is no way now that they could expect to have access to power and privilege in a democratic society. Who would vote for them? Given their bloodied hands, loss of power for them implies revenge against them – but hopefully not against innocent Alawites – whether through a judicial system (optimistically) or by violent means. They have written their own sentence which is bound to come if not now, in the near future. The Pandora’s Box of protest has been opened, and it will continue to stay ajar until real changes are made in Syria. What happens to Bashar is still a question. Is there a country to which he could escape, or will he meet the fate of Mubarek? Does his political demise also guarantee the demise of the Regime or not? There are many unanswered questions. The consensus seems to be that Bashar cannot ultimately survive this protest after so many killings, but will this Lion (Assad) somehow overcome the present crisis?

Finally, regarding charges of external intervention in Syria as the cause of the protests, it must be noted that there are external forces that have operated in Syria. The Syrian Muslim Brothers have returned, are the best organized and are getting external support, perhaps from Qatar and Saudi Arabia ? no hard evidence. It is also well known that the US has backed Syrian opposition groups. Wiki Leak Cables verify this. (See, “U.S. secretly backed Syrian opposition groups, cables released by WikiLeaks show” by Craig Whitlock, The Washington Post, April 17, 2011). Still today, various Syrian expatriate opposition groups are receiving U.S. aid).

Nonetheless, these facts do not negate the authentic protest movement in Syria, and they do not excuse the massive and heartless killings and imprisonments of thousands. The real problem after this botched approach to Syrian protesters is who will come after Bashar? Authentic, secular protesters do not appear to be organized. The Muslim Brothers who have a long festering grudge against the Assads and the Alawites are better organized. In fact, in his last interview with Charlie Rose, Rose asked Bashar what his greatest challenge was. He responded, “keeping Syria secular.”

Elaine C. Hagopian is Professor Emerita of Sociology, Simmons College, Boston.

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