Syria disfigured – options for the West

To understand what a militarily-inspired democratic transplant might achieve in Syria, one might look at what happened when the Iraqi Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

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Conflict Background


By Matthew Parish

Modern Syria is not a country with natural geographical boundaries. For bearing this curse it has intermittently paid with blood. The historical region of Assyria covered an extended region including some parts of what are now Jordan, Israel and Iraq. When the Levant fell under Ottoman rule it became a buffer zone between Persia, an empire fuelled by what the Ottomans perceived as Shia heresy, and the Sublime Porte’s heartland territories. The region was divided into various units of Ottoman local government, but the current national borders were not settled until Anglo-French domination of the region as a series of League of Nations “mandate” territories in the aftermath of World War One. As the victorious European powers conspired to carve up the Ottoman Empire between them, the British and the French decided that the Ottoman provinces now corresponding to Syria and Lebanon would fall under the French sphere of influence, while Iraq, Jordan and Palestine would go to the British.

The end of the Second World War saw the mandate system collapse. The European Empires suffered from overstretch after vast expenditure of resources in the course of conflict. Syria’s independence emerged chaotically from the war. Vichy France initially ran Syria after Paris’s capitulation to the Nazis. The territory was then captured by British and Free French forces in a short but fierce campaign in June and July 1941, in which French fought French. The Free French forces occupying Syria subsequently recognised Syria’s independence, but the relationship between colonial overlords and nascent nationalists was fraught: Damascus was bombed by the French in 1946 while the country’s democratically elected prime minister was in San Francisco negotiating the UN treaty. Only  later that year was formal French influence over Syria’s government abandoned in the light of American pressure and French weakness in the aftermath of war.

In light of the chaotic circumstances in which the French had lost control of the country, the institutional structure left behind upon their departure was primitive. Syria’s new birth was marred by the country’s entanglement in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, in which Israeli victory precipitated a 1949 Syrian military coup. Between 1949 and 1970 the country suffered from an extraordinary eight successful military coups, and countless further failed uprisings, amidst a variety of regional upheavals including the failed United Arab Republic, the rise of the pan-Arab secular Ba’ath political movement and the Six Day War with Israel in 1967. Newly drafted constitutions and revolving cabinets of government ministers came and went. The final 1970 coup, known as the Corrective Movement (because it “corrected” prior Ba’ath Party political misjudgments and removed ineffective Ba’ath leaders from politics) installed the most important political figure in Syria in modern times, Hafez al-Assad. He remained in power until his death in 2000.

The regime of Hafez al-Assad is now largely neglected by contemporary western policymakers. But that government was extraordinary for the level of control it managed to exert over a fractious and divided people with scant sense of common national identity. As in Iraq and Egypt, an ostensibly secular government disguised the profound ethnic and religious division existing in Syrian society. The Ba’ath Party is a phenomenon again now widely forgotten. Ba’athism was a pan-Arabist secular national socialist movement, in principle ethnically and religiously neutral, that emerged in the 1940s in opposition to British and French mandatory control of the Levant. The two principal Ba’athist regimes were those of Hafez al-Assad and of Saddam Hussein. At first blush, one might be surprised to discover that these ostensibly ideologically co-aligned governments stood in a relationship of profound animosity to one-another. This was not merely a matter of mutual personal dislike by the two regimes’ leaders. Instead it was a consequence of how Ba’athism was implemented in practice, which proved to be a world away from what the movement purported to represent according to the writings of its founding scholars.

In practice, Ba’athism was a pretence at secular government, embraced to provide cover for a minority religious group governing over a majority without its consent. In Iraq, the minority group in power were Sunnis though the majority of the population is Shia. In Syria, the minority group in power, including the Assad family, are Alawites, a heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam. The country’s population is predominantly Sunni. Until shortly before al-Assad’s rise to power all of Syria’s ever-changing military leaders had been Sunnis, reflecting the country’s dominant ethnic group. The Alawites are a 12% minority group. There had always been tribal or ethnic tensions, which accounted for France creating an autonomous Alawite region within Syria during its mandatory rule and encouraging Alawite enrollment in the Syrian army. Alawites were perceived as less hostile to French rule in the country, because they saw the French as providing a measure of protection against discrimination by the country’s Sunni majority. Ba’athism was ostensibly blind to religious differences of this kind. But once the first Alawite Ba’athist came to power in Damascus in 1966 the political influence of the Alawite sect, traditionally perceived by the country’s Sunni majority as backwards, hailing from a mountainous region and close to the former colonial power, would be exponentially augmented.

Hafez al-Assad manipulated the Ba’ath label for his own purposes. Perennially aware of the danger of Sunni rebellion against his minority regime, and forewarned by the recurrent political coups that had previously bedevilled the country, al-Assad was a uniquely ruthless and effective politician. He populated the institutions of state with Alawites, Christians and other groups who had as much to fear as his own from Sunni domination. Institutional discrimination against Alawites was long-ingrained; at the time, the Syrian constitution prohibited any non-Sunni from becoming President, a prescription al-Assad simply ignored when he declared himself occupant of the country’s top office in 1971. Alawite domination of a Sunni country catalysed intense resentment by the Sunni majority, and his rule resulted in an extended period of armed opposition and civil strife. This culminated in the Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the city of Hama in 1982, which the Assad regime crushed using massive military force.

Hafez al-Assad was an extraordinary person. A member of a lower caste tribe who fought his way up to the Presidency, he was both exceptionally pitiless and profoundly paranoid. Nevertheless these qualities were perhaps prerequisites to bring stability to so systemically dysfunctional a nation riven with such endemic political disorder. Under Sunni leadership since French abdication of their trusteeship, the country had proven ungovernable. Even under al-Assad’s Alawite predecessor Salah Jadid (1966-1970), Syria found itself immersed in a further costly and unwinnable war with Israel. At the time of his rise of power, Al-Assad was initially perceived by the international community as a force for moderation and stability. He was the one person who demonstrated an ability to bring calm to a country of artificial borders and deeply ingrained ethnic tensions.

The methods he used to achieve this – nepotism, autocracy, development of one of the world’s most deeply entrenched police states, and military violence against political opponents – may make western policymakers blanche. But the historical context in which an Alawite regime came into power in Syria is fundamental to understanding why somebody like al-Assad could reach high political office at all, and why he considered it necessary to use such repressive measures once he became Syria’s leader. In the first decade of his rule, he remained under persistent threat of overthrow. In 1973 there were countrywide demonstrations by Sunnis against al-Assad’s secularisation of the constitution. After Syria’s invasion of Lebanon in 1976, a spate of Sunni assassinations of prominent Alawites plagued the country for several years. The June 1979 Aleppo Artillery massacre was a slaughter of military cadets organised by a Sunni military insider. In March 1980 nationwide strikes degenerated into street battles with the security forces.

In June 1980 a Sunni insurgency group attempted to assassinate al-Assad, as a result of which security forces massacred Sunni prisoners in revenge attacks. Things were spiralling out of control, much as they did in the early months of the Syrian uprising in 2011. In the second half of 1981 the Muslim Brotherhood organised car bomb attacks across Damascus. After a failed attack upon an Alawite village near Syria’s fifth city of Hama, security forces executed a few hundred Hama residents in April 1991. In February 1982 armed Muslim Brotherhood units assassinated security forces in the city and overran it. The al-Assad government’s response was to shell the city into oblivion. The number of persons who died remains unknown but is estimated at between 10,000 and 30,000. After the massacre, Sunni resistance to al-Assad’s rule was mostly broken. It would erupt again only in 2011.

It is in this historical context that we must view current events in Syria. Much had changed since 1982. Hafez al-Assad died in 2000 and his son Bashar, acceding to the Presidency, was perceived as a relatively moderate and liberal political force. Nevertheless the structure of the security apparatus al-Assad Junior inherited had not changed substantially since the apex of his father’s power. The civil demonstrations in Syria that began in March 2011 and developed into an armed insurrection in June of the same year were viewed by that security regime as a renewal of the Muslim Brotherhood insurgency that Hafez al-Assad had snuffed out in 1982. The institutional lesson in the mind of the Syrian security forces was that only the overwhelming violence employed at Hama had successfully repressed the Brotherhood. Prior piecemeal attempts to combat the Sunni insurgency against Alawite rule had been ineffective, and had resulted in Syria’s civil conflict stretching out for some fifteen years. The same mistake would not be made twice, and the success of the Hama massacre would have to be recreated. This uncompromising attitude on the part of the Syrian government, in the context of the country’s post-independence history of chronic political instability, has been a significant driver of the Syrian civil war. Its other principal cause has been an influx of financial, military and logistical support for rebel forces from Sunni Muslim Arab nations in the Gulf, keen to see a Sunni-majority regime restored in Syria.

Hence it is too simple to describe the Syrian conflict purely as an exercise in democratically-inspired resistance against the autocratic rule of a single family and their confidants. It is more in the nature of an ethnic civil war, pitting a long-disgruntled majority population against a minority group that has traditionally dominated them. Alawite rule of Syria has undoubtedly been undemocratic. It has also involved atrocious state violence against the country’s citizens. Yet ferocious repression is the only form of successful government the country knows. Sunni politicians were too fractious and divided to rule the country effectively before the al-Assad era, and current indications of the divided nature of the Syrian insurgency movement suggest the same remains true now. In the interim, Alawites and other regime-sponsored minorities, such as Christians, have entrenched themselves in the top strata of the country’s political and commercial classes and imposed secular values upon Syrian society with which the Sunni majority is profoundly uncomfortable. Syria was always one of the best places in the Middle East to be a minority or a woman, even at the same time as it was one of the worst places to be a political dissident.

To understand what a militarily-inspired democratic transplant might achieve in Syria, one might look at what happened when the Iraqi Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein was overthrown. That government was also a minority secular autocracy, that again held onto power over the wishes of a discontented populace using tools of state repression. It was no coincidence that Saddam and al-Assad used much the same techniques to consolidate their power. They faced parallel political problems, namely preservation of secular minority government over a hostile population. The principle of Sunni minority rule had also been supported by Iraq’s former colonial power Britain, as had Alawite minority rule in Syria by the French. In each case a philosophy of divide and conquer had been embraced in response to majority nationalist movements in the dying days of Empire. After this colonial construction was unpicked in Iraq some 80 years subsequently by US military action, the country dissolved in a tripartite civil war. The Kurds were the first to secede after the First Gulf War. Iraqi Kurdistan now bears most of the hallmarks of an independent state, including its own army. After Saddam’s Sunni and Christian regime in the rest of the country was overthrown in 2003, majority Shias came to dominate Iraqi politics but Sunnis engaged in terrorist violence with a view to preventing them from doing so, and Shias used violence in retaliation. Repressive violence is the predominant mode of ethnic politics in the Levant, and it is difficult to imagine so fundamental a rebalancing of power relations between the region’s ethnic groups without dramatic bloodshed and instability. In the crucible of competing Empires, it is all the people of the region have ever known.

If we conclude that the satisfaction of democratic impulses inevitably leads to shocking violence, this traps the international policymaker in some acute dilemmas. It is virtually impossible, as a matter of deontological foreign policy, to lend one’s support to regimes such as those of the al-Assad family or Saddam Hussein. But the balance of utility may nevertheless lie in upholding the status quo. However oppressive the Saddam Hussein regime was, the number of people that have died since the deposal of his government dwarfs those killed by political violence during his extended reign. The same is true of events in contemporary Syria. That country’s civil war is vastly more costly in lives and economic damage than the country’s government has been from 1970 to 2011, however politically unenlightened Ba’ath socialist oligarchy may have been under the al-Assad family.

If the al-Assad regime wins the country’s civil war, as at the time of writing it appears to be doing, then it is not clear what has been achieved in supporting the Syrian rebels. The country’s chronic ethnic problems will simply have been exacerbated. On the other hand, if sufficient support were given to the Syrian rebels to allow them to beat the Damascus regime in military encounters then the consequences might be all the worse. The country might fragment, as Kurds and Alawites form their own mini-states in the same way as occurred in Iraqi Kurdistan. There might be substantial retaliatory attacks upon hitherto dominant minority groups. Political violence may reach such peaks as to render the country ungovernable. Ostensibly democratic institutions may prove entirely ineffective in the face of intransigent inter-ethnic refusal to compromise. All these problems have infected Iraq. The parallels with Syria are compelling, which may be why the west has been so reluctant to embroil itself militarily in the country. Intervention in favour of the Syrian rebels may simply entail an ethnically inverted repetition of the same unsavoury mess as occurred in Iraq.

Yet there is an element of irony in the foreign policy dilemma now facing the west. The undemocratic and oppressive styles of government we observe in the Levant are a direct consequence of the unhappy way in which the region was divided up by Great Power politics at the end of the First World War. If those unrepresentative political compacts were to be unstitched, it would have been far better had that taken place much earlier than the early years of the twenty-first century. The miscellaneous coups, civil wars and political unrest perforating the region were not previously grounds for interference by western powers, who were content to leave the disorder they had fostered to fester. The desire to overthrow Saddam Hussein might best be viewed as a burst of neoconservative modernism. This was a particularly unwise phenomenon in the Levant, because it created a precedent that led naturally to the Syrian uprising. If the Shias were entitled to majority rule in Iraq, so were the Sunnis in Syria. Unfortunately it appears that this unintended consequence was not anticipated by the western coalition invading Iraq in 2003.

For those contemplating contemporary policy decisions relating to Syria, in the wake of prior mistakes of so grievous a magnitude it is now hard to countenance decisions based upon any rationale but the most ruthless utilitarianism and Realpolitik. That may mandate permitting the al-Assad regime to win the Syrian Civil War and continue in power. There is no evidence that any Sunni government could run the country more effectively or less barbarously. Majority Sunni rule might cause such grievous loss of life as to outweigh any notional advances towards democratic ideals. If Alawite victory is inevitable no matter what the west may do (save invade, which it is clearly not prepared to or it would already have done so), then there seems little value as a matter of international relations in further isolating the al-Assad regime. It is surely better to preserve some notional sense of cordial diplomatic relations with so important a political power in the region. Syria may hold the key to broader peace in the Middle East, in Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and beyond.

As often in the Middle East, the shrewdest political calculations may be reflected in the policy decisions of the Israelis who know the region well because they are compelled to live in such close proximity to it. While publicly never admitting as much, the Israelis are privately reluctant supporters of the al-Assad regime. It is a known quantity, with whom negotiation within established parameters is  possible. The alternative, of divided Sunni Islamist politics presenting a potentially existential danger to the Jewish state and the region as a whole, is all the more destabilising. Amidst the chaos of the world’s most politically explosive region, it is sometimes necessary that an unpalatable political calculus prevails.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland. He is a frequent commentator on international relations and post-conflict reconciliation, and he formerly worked in the Western Balkans on a range of state-building programmes. His third book, Ethnic Civil War and the Promise of Law, will be published later this year. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and Bilan magazine identified him as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland.

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19 Responses

  1. A very useful history lesson. And I agree with the bottom line, that Syria without Assad — if he lost his civil war — might be worse. One might have said the same about Iraq before Saddam was overthrown or maybe even Libya while still under Qaddafi. it requires a hard-headed sense of reality and a firm grasp of own national interests to keep the Western powers from plunging into the midst of any of the instances of the broader conflict within the Arab and Islamic world — that between Shia and Sunni, secular and fundamentalist.

    Having said that, Assad’s use of chemical weapons in the mass murder of civilians requires some sort of limited military response — against his military and command and control elements — to paint a real red line around such unconscionable behavior. That the Russians are able to block the UNSC from acting unfortunately leaves this to another “coalition of the willing.” Indeed, some have been suggesting the NATO Kosovo intervention in 1999 as the model for Syria. It would be good to keep in mind the full Kosovo example. Fourteen years after that intervention, there remain unresolved issues and NATO, UN and EU missions in place there. Even after a limited military response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the West will have to suck it up and resist further involvement. Syria’s political stability — and that of the region — depends on an eventual sorting out of the internal forces according to Syria’s own internal dynamics.

  2. Pingback : Top 15 articles of 2013 | TransConflict

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