Syria: A Culture of Fear and Stalemate

A brief excursion in cultural archaeology

Even a casual glimpse of the current developments between Israelis and Palestinians can easily lead to the detection of the ongoing “mobilization” efforts of the two peoples, with each set of leaders hoping to achieve greater popular support for its policies in the unfolding bloody confrontation. But when such “popular” mobilization efforts take place in the neighboring country of Syria, for instance, one is bound to wonder as to the reason and the cause.

For the Syrian government, as any observer of ME politics, no matter how naïve, can tell, would never contemplate the opening of a new front along its borders with Israel (unwinnable wars are not too attractive somehow). Nor is it likely, despite the occasional rhetoric and threats, that Israel could contemplate taking any military action against Syria in the foreseeable future (winnable yet costly wars are not too attractive either). Furthermore, the mobilization taking place in Syria is, as we have noted, popular and not military in nature, that is, it is not accompanied by a parallel military buildup. Its purpose, therefore, cannot be hostile, at least not vis-à-vis Israel. What it is its purpose then?

Attempting to find an answer to this question proved to be a process of cultural archeology of sorts, with deep implications, not only for Syria, but for the region as a whole, and, perhaps, for all Arab and Muslim countries. This is at least the contention presented here. It might be worthwhile to pursue and clarify it a little further.

The Second Correction: “The President is dead, long live the President!”

“We are dogmatic peoples, we live by holding on to [our] constants.” So said the Syrian President in his address to the Arab Summit in Beirut on March 27. But what are these constants to which he was referring?, one may ask. Ah, there is the rub. For what answers may come when we have delved further into our little research would take us straight to the heart of the current identity crisis from which the Arab peoples, Syrians included, are suffering.

It should not be all too surprising that a young and new leader of an Arab country should be quite concerned, in his first few years in office, with an arduous search for legitimacy and stature. Replacing his autocratic father, the late President Hafiz al-Assad, Syria’s new President, Bashar al-Assad, urgently needed to legitimize his situation more so than any other new Arab leader. For the [s]election of Bashar al-Assad to replace his father, within minutes after the latter’s death[1], was simply a too macabre development considering the country’s republican system, despite all the years that had gone into preparing “public opinion” for this eventuality.

Having failed to gain the desired legitimacy through the enforcement of a clear and effective program of internal reform, a matter vaguely alluded to in his inaugural speech, the young President, it seems, had no choice but to try to make up for his domestic failure in the realm of foreign politics, just as his father had done before.

Hafiz al-Assad arrived to power in 1970 in the aftermath of a relatively bloodless coup d’état, in a move officially known as the Corrective Movement.[2] Still, and while Bashar al-Assad may not have assumed power by leading a coup, his emergence as Syria’s new leader was popularly referred to as the Second Correction, at least in some circles. In this, people were simply expressing their wish for a crackdown against the endemic corruption in the ranks of the government, the Baath Party itself and the military, the people having, all too cynically perhaps, accepted the manner in which the transition of power had taken place.[3]

In what can now be termed as the First Correction, al-Assad Sr. attempted to address some issues pertaining to internal reform, but his autocratic style of governance, the crackdown on all political opposition groups, the increasing sectarian nature of his rule[4], and the continued corruption within the ranks of the Baath Party itself, created a situation of internal deadlock that eventually led to a bloody showdown, a showdown that even the 1973 October War with Israel and the ensuing minor war of attrition in 1974, served only to delay for a few years.

In 1977, however, the situation finally came to a head with several opposition groups, including the Islamic Brotherhood, launching an armed struggle against the government, thus setting the scene for the Hama Massacre of 1983, in which several thousands of people were killed, and for a decade of a Stalinist rule that coincided more or less with the eighties.

With the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the late 80s, a development that signaled the loss of Syria’s main backer, al-Assad Sr. realized that he needed to reach towards Western powers once again, which meant that he needed to amend some of his external and internal stands. This led to a thawing of sorts in Syria’s internal politics and an active engagement in the fledgling Peace Process that had, at the time at least, appeared somewhat promising.

This thawing out was reflected in the relaxation of the grip of the security apparatus on the country (though few political prisoners were freed at the time), and the adoption of some new economic legislation trying to accommodate and reflect the demands of an increasingly capitalistic world economy.

Ever since that time, the idea of arranging for a successor began to emerge as an important and critical issue in the thinking of al-Assad Sr. He eventually resolved the problem by pushing his eldest son, the late streetwise and army-man Basil al-Assad, to the fore – a compromise solution that seems to have suited the members of the country’s shadow government at the time, an all too traditional junta whose history of personal engagements (not always peaceful), and competing interests (mostly economic), would not have allowed for the acceptance of one of their ranks as their new leader. The “martyrdom” of Basil in an accident that took place on the Airport Highway in 1993 led to a minor change of plans, and Bashar, the late President’s next eldest son, interrupted his studies in London, and returned to Syria to begin the long grooming process.

As a President, then, al-Assad Jr. (or al-Assad II, as some are willing to say) needed to gain legitimacy not only in the eyes of the Syrian people, but also in the eyes of the ruling clique, most of whom looked at him as an inexperienced outsider. Naturally, this made the question of internal reforms, political or economic, much more difficult. After a short period (few months really) which witnessed the establishment of popular forums all over the country demanding drastic political and economic reform, and an end to corruption and the Baath party’s monopoly of power, as well as the release of all political prisoners, the young President seems to have turned his back on the idea of internal political reforms, allowing for a crackdown on independent popular activities to take place, a development that soon lead to the closing of all independent forums and the imprisonment, on various spurious charges, of several leading critics, including a couple of MPs.

Thus, the Spring that was supposed to be ushered by the Second Correction proved all too short, much to the disappointment of the country’s leading intellectuals and professionals. And this applied to the political as well as the economic sphere. For all the new legislation that have been passed since the young President’s [s]election, seem to have been framed and timed in such a manner as to serve the needs of the country’s ruling clique and their children and family members. Hence, the economy remains in tatters and the unemployment rate around 40%, this in a country where over 50% of the population is below the age of 18.

Considering this state of affairs, the young President eagerly embarked on pursuit of legitimacy, not to mention stature, in the realm of foreign affairs. And what better than the continuing Arab-Israeli Conflict to help in this matter, especially in the aftermath of the democratic election of someone like Sharon as Israeli’s new PM, a man who had been convicted by his own country, no matter how shyly, of involvement in massacres against civilians during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

The Sharon government, and the war of attrition it declared against the Palestinians, then, could not have come at a more fortuitous time for the young Syrian President, who immediately rushed to embrace the opportunity and issued a series of statements on various occasions condemning the Sharon government and echoing the popular sentiments in the Arab and Syrian Streets.

Those statements by the young President in which he compared Israelis to Nazis and referred to the “persecutors of Christ who are now persecuting the Palestinians,” and which had been deemed as lapses by some observes, on account of their bad reception in Europe and the US, need to viewed in this context. The President was not in reality addressing the leaders and peoples of Europe and the US, he was, in fact, addressing his own people, and the Arab and (Muslim) peoples at large. As such, these statements cannot be considered as lapses, since they resonated well with their intended audience.

In this way, and as the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories continued to worsen, the President began to build a more aggressive and “popular” image for himself in the Arab World, an effort that culminated during the recent Arab Summit in Beirut, when the Syrian President, managing to capitalize on the absence of the Egyptian, Libyan and Palestinian Presidents, among other Arab leaders, delivered a rather provocative “lecture” at his colleagues, in a well-rehearsed self-assured manner, quite reminiscent of his father’s old and somewhat haughty style.

In his “lecture,” the President advocated the “right of resistance” against all occupiers – “armed or unarmed,” thus coming out in support of the suicide bombings taking place on the margins of the continued Israeli crackdown against the Palestinians, an issue with a wide resonance these days in the frustrated Arab and Syrian Streets. The President also called upon Arab countries with ties to Israel to sever their relations with it, urged for an Iraqi-Kuwaiti reconciliation, called for more material support of the Intifadah, and endorsed Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah’s peace Initiative, all of which, more or less, issues that met popular expectations.

With this lecture, and these demands, the young President emerged as the Summit’s Man of the Hour – a man with vision and deep understanding of the issues at hand. A certain critical amount of legitimacy and stature has thus been gained, and, more importantly, attention was diverted away from any consideration of internal reform, at least for the time being. The mobilization of popular sentiments finally bore the intended fruits.

Moreover, allowing popular independent sit-ins and demonstrations in favor of the Intifadah to take place in Damascus and other Syrian cities, also allowed for the energies of many young people, that had earlier being, partially at least, invested in the activities of the popular forums, to be channeled into a less troubling area, namely: the support of the Palestinian Cause.[5]

The Great Divide: “Once more unto the breach…”  

“Are they really intellectuals?” 
The Syrian President, an interview with al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 8, 2001

The popular forums that sprang everywhere, it seems, during the short-lived “Syrian Spring,” were mostly organized by the old generation of intellectuals and professionals whose credentials in this regard are beyond doubt.

Their main problem, and of course they had to have at least one, was that they had mostly remained silent during the previous thirty years of the reign of al-Assad Sr. The fact that they became quite loud and verbose, all of the sudden, severely undermined their credibility in popular perception, a credibility that has always being too lacking to begin with, considering the leftist leanings of the great majority of them.[6]

Nonetheless, the forums, and the debates they witnessed, did manage to attract the attention of many aspiring young people of all different walks of life and sectarian backgrounds. To say that there was a thirst for such activities in the country is to put things mildly. Syria hasn’t witnessed any such independent activities for decades, due to the strict controls imposed by the intelligent services. These services, then, had a field-day in the early days of the all-too-short Spring. They were caught by surprise, one can assert. But they recovered all too quickly, and when they finally got the awaited nudge, they immediately sprang into action, and managed to deliver the “goods” on a number of key participants and activists, landing some of them, as we have noted earlier, in jail.

There was a difference this time around, however. For the government, and for the very first time in decades, did actually bother to give a semblance of legality to its tactics. Public charges were thus brought against the arrested, lawyers, doctors, and, occasionally, family members were allowed to see the detainees, and the trials were allowed to be held in public, with members of the diplomatic circle in the country in attendance. The Syrian authorities, it seems, have finally recognized the need for a fig leaf to protect the “country’s image.”  After all, the government is actively involved in negotiating a deal with the EU to make the country a new member in the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement, an agreement that demands the maintenance of a certain public façade of “freedom.”

The intellectuals and professionals who took part in the forums, then, received a major blow to their hopes and wishful faith in the postulated liberalism of the young President. To add insult to injury, the Domestic Street did not in any way sympathize with their plight, and the rude awakening they had. The Street was wiser, it seems, and far more cynical.

Nothing could illustrate the Great Divide that separates this country’s people from their intelligentsia than this absolute lack of interest and sympathy. The intellectuals have long snubbed the “masses”, as it indeed behooves the self-appointed spokesmen for “the lumpen proletariat,” now the masses were repaying the “compliment.” The country’s intelligentsia has always lived in a world-apart, it seems, disdained and distrusted by both: the ruling (including the official religious hierarchy), and the ruled (including the popular religious figures) classes.

The only way, it seems, for the intellectuals to regain (or simply gain) some measure of respect was for them to join in the ongoing pomp and circumstance with regard to the development in the Occupied Territories, as had forever been their want. And while, in the preceding decades, there was a certain element of coercion involved on part of the Syrian Authorities, now, the participation of the intellectuals in the game of mobilization reflects their own deep frustration, their own growing despair, and their own continuing sense of alienation. Their young pupils were all too eager to join them, of course, and for very much the same reasons. The Palestinian Cause has, thus, once more provided an avenue for Syrian intellectuals and professionals to vent out some long-held steam.

The Street: “Marching to a different drum” 

“I am passing on to you a people, half of whom think they are leaders and the other half prophets.”
Former Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli, to Egyptian President Gamal Abdul-Nasser on the eve of the declaration of the establishment of the short-lived United Arab Republic in 1959.

Much has been said about the passivity of the Arab peoples, the Syrians in particular. After all, the Syrians were willing, it seems, no matter how begrudgingly, to tolerate the autocratic and corrupt rule of their late President, al-Assad Sr., for over thirty years. Then, they were all too willing to accept the charade that passed for “free referendum” and which allowed al-Assad Jr. to succeed his father as the country’s new President. One can still wonder, however, with regard to the real nature of this passivity. If fear is involved, what is its exact nature? Is it fear of repression? Or some other kind of fear?

Other questions also come to mind in this regard: are the Syrian people really fooled by the show of strength on part of their new President? Don’t they ever wonder how can such a man speak so eloquently, at least during the recent Summit, on the issue of freedom, independence, human rights and justice with regard to the Palestinian people, and work to stifle the mere attempt at introducing such notions into the common political parlance with regard to internal affairs? Are the Syrian people willing to believe that the one and the same person can really be a champion of freedom on one front and repressor thereof on another? Or are the people of Syria simply letting themselves be deceived because they want to be deceived?

This last question is far from being merely rhetorical, of course. Indeed, the Syrian “masses” have been through all this “mobilization” before, all too many times. The memory of it all is carried on in their genes, it seems. They understand all too well how governments use foreign affairs to escape from having to deal with internal problems. Still, they are willing to play along, willing to be “deceived.” This is so, it seems, partly because some of these “foreign affairs” often do hit home with the people, as is the case with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On the other hand, the Syrian people seem to have a vested interest in avoiding the issue of internal reform, or, to put it more bluntly now, they too have a vested interest in avoiding change.

What is the nature of this “internal reform,” or change, anyway? What are its limits?

For the Syrian regime, the reform, it seems, was to be purely economic and was supposed to take place in such a way as to permit for some benefits to “trickle down” to the “masses,” while keeping controls over the overall economic and political systems firmly in the hands of the ruling clique. Still, and while, “trickle-down economics” may not exactly be what the “masses” have in mind, the emphasis on economic reforms seem to be a common goal that unite both the ruling and ruled classes. For, judging from the people’s lack of interest in the activities of the “popular” forums, and their opposition to the mere mention of the possibility of introducing civil law to replace the long established, yet decrepit and outdated, religious law, it becomes quite clear that the “masses” are primarily interested in that which could help them achieve a better living standards, and no more.

This passivity, at least as far as society and politics are concerned, are mainly due to two factors. First, the fact that participatory governance is still a new notion in the mind of most Syrians (who, like other Arab peoples, have been accustomed for centuries, if not millennia, to accepting an autocratic form of rule).

And second, the fact that the issue of social reform is bound to raise certain other issues that remain problematic for most Syrians, issues such as the role of religion in public life, women’s rights, the introduction of civil law, etc., all of which are topics that threaten to shake the very foundation upon which the “common folk,” not to mention many members of the ruling class and the intelligentsia as well, still build their sense of being and belonging. To deal with challenges to these very “constants” in people’s lives at these difficult and insecure times, is not exactly an appealing prospect, though some might insist that these are exactly the times when such things need to be dealt with.[7]

The passivity of the Syrian people, then, is the result of a tacit agreement whereby the government accepts not to dabble too much in social affairs, while the “masses” pledge not to dabble too much in politics. A bridge of sorts, then, seems to exist across the divide that separates “average citizens” from government, this at  time when most intellectuals, and many professionals, continue to live in an internal suffocating exile.

Even religious authority do not have the power to mount a serious challenge to the social status quo. Their credibility, in fact, is mostly linked to their ability to maintain this very state in the face of changing times, and whatever occasional criticisms issued by the intellectuals. The adoration of the status quo in this case borders on a nihilistic form of religiosity which lies at the very heart of the people’s sense of identity. This state of affairs brooks little tolerance for any kind of dabbling, experimentation, or change.

As such, it is not too unreasonable to wonder as to how free the Syrian President, and the ruling clique, really are when it comes to the making certain key-decisions.

An interesting point arise in this regard. For, due to the way the Arab-Israeli Conflict has been used over the years, namely: as an excuse to ignore the need for internal reform and justify the continued repression of basic freedoms, and due to the national and religious rhetoric that was involved in this matter, the whole conflict acquired significant socio-cultural implications to go with its political and economic ones. To wonder, therefore, as to how free the Syrian President really is to act on issues pertaining to the Arab-Israeli Conflict itself, is an all too reasonable and legitimate line of inquiry.

Decades of defeats, propaganda and ideological frenzy have generated too much hate and suspicion in the minds of the people, encouraged the growth and adoption of too many conspiracy theories, and led to the emergence of too many radical strains of religious interpretations, as to make the possibility of achieving peace with Israel, through acts of government, more like an exercise in futility than anything else. This, without even taking under consideration the complexities posed by the Israelis own mostly ludicrous and uncompromising stands on this issue.[8]

Less than three decades ago, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat chose to go against the public opinion with regard to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and make peace with Israel. The price paid eventually was death. The executioners were Islamic militants. And though peace now does formally exist between the government of both countries, the peoples remain largely at war. Should the Egyptian government hold a democratic vote on relations with Israel, Egyptians, in the majority, will most likely choose to sever ties and go to war. A similar situation could easily occur in Syria. Even the young President knows that. As such, it is not too far-fetched to ask, now that we know the reasons behind the mobilization: who’s exactly doing the mobilization?


In dictatorial regimes: fear and paranoia, even in normal times, are the common denominators for one and all: the ruling class, the intelligentsia and the masses. So how about things when these regimes find themselves in the midst of identity crises that pit them against the pull of an all too long history, on the one hand, and the push of an all too unmerciful, unforgiving and impatient present, on the other?

The search for peace in the ME is in many ways related to how the above identity crises are to be resolved. The ME has simply too many issues and challenges with which it has to deal, all at once, and which need to be resolved in order for peace, stability and progress to set in. And its has to so as the outside world watches, dabbles and exploits. Syria presents a case in point as to how difficult this situation really is.


[1] To be more accurate, Bashar al-Assad was only nominated to replace his father within minutes of the announcement of the Latter’s death on June 10, 2000. The actual referendum took place three months later, with the young ophthalmologist winning over 97% of the votes.

[2] So called  because the coup had taken within the ranks of the ruling Baath Party itself and had not posed any challenge to its hold on power or its supposedly socialist ideology.

[3] They had no alternative but to accept really, political opposition having long been totally crushed due to the arduous efforts of al-Assad Sr.

[4] The late President came from a religious minority known as the Alawite sect, the majority of Syria’s population, however, belonged to the Muslim Sunni sect. The socialist slogans of the Baath Party notwithstanding, the late President relied increasingly on members of his own sect to govern the country and control the army. The higher ranks of the Party and army were thus inflated by Alawites, a fact that did not escape the notice of the average Syrian citizen, to whom religious affiliation was/is still a critical matter.

[5]  Thus, those who think that the major source of worry in the ME is the Arab-Israeli Conflict are quite mistaken.

[6]  Most were and remain ardent communists. The exceptions were/are to be found mostly in the ranks of the professionals, mostly doctors, engineers and lawyers, some of whom had Islamic and/or Nasserite affiliations.

[7] Indeed, some are willing to assert that the kind of challenges posed by modernity and globalization demand the invention of a new sense of identity at the risk of social and even psychological turmoil.

[8]  Democratic or not, Israeli society seems to suffer, to a great extant, from the self-same problems discussed above.

A working paper submitted in an international conference.