"It is my pleasure to meet with you in the new Middle East," said Syrian President Bashar al-Asad in a speech to the Syrian Journalists Union on August 15, 2006. Yet Bashar's new Middle East is neither the one hoped for by many since Saddam Hussein's 1991 defeat in Kuwait, nor is it actually new at all. Actually, it is a reversion, often in remarkable detail, to the Middle East of the 1950s through the 1980s. The Arab world, now accompanied by Iran, is re-embracing an era that was an unmitigated disaster for itself and is extolling the ideas and strategies that led it repeatedly to catastrophes. No Arab state had more to do with this important and tragic turnabout than does Syria. It was the main architect and beneficiary of this change. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other Arab states wanted quiet; Iraq needed peace to rebuild itself. Even Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi, pressed by sanctions and scared by his Iraqi counterpart Saddam's fate, was on his best behavior. Only Syria remained as a source of instability and radicalism. Thus, a small and not particularly wealthy country proved the fulcrum on which the Middle East shifted and which, in turn, shook the globe. Is Syrian President Bashar al-Asad a fool or a genius? That cannot be determined directly. What can be said is that his policy is beneficial to him, simultaneously brilliant and disastrous for Syria, and just plain disastrous for many others.
To understand Syria's special feature, it is best to heed the all-important insight of a Lebanese-American scholar, Fouad Ajami: "Syria's main asset, in contrast to Egypt's preeminence and Saudi wealth, is its capacity for mischief." Mischief is in the service of regime maintenance, the all-encompassing cause and goal of the Syrian government's behavior. Demagoguery, not the delivery of material benefits, is the basis of its power.
Why have those who have governed Syria, under some very different regimes, followed such a pattern over a half-century? Precisely because the country is a weak one in many respects. Aside from lacking Egypt's power and Saudi Arabia's money, it also lacks internal coherence due to its diverse population and minority-dominated regime. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein used repression, ideology, and foreign adventures to hold together a system dominated by Sunni Arab Muslims who were only one-fifth of the population. In Syria, an Alawite regime rules based on a community that is only half as large proportionately.
To survive, then, the regime needs transcendent slogans that make this problem disappear. Arabism and, in more recent years, Islamism, are its solution. In this light, Syria is ruled not by a rather inept, corrupt dictatorship, but by the leaders of all Arabs and the champions of all Muslims. These battle cries are very effectively used to justify oppression at home and aggression abroad. No other country in the world throws around the word "imperialism" more in describing foreign adversaries, and yet no other state on the globe follows a more classical imperialist policy.
In broad terms, this approach is followed by most, if not all, Arab governments, but Syria offers the purest example of the system. As for the consequences, two basic principles are useful to keep in mind:
First, the worse Syria behaves, the better its regime does. Syrian leaders do not accept the Western view that pragmatism, moderation, compromise, an open economy, and peace are always better. When Syria acts radical (up to a point of course), it maximizes its main asset--causing trouble--rather than its weakness in terms of a bargaining position. As a dictatorship, tight control and popularity achieved through demagoguery work better.
Second, success for the regime and state means disaster for the people, society, and economy. The regime prospers by keeping Syrians believing that the battle against America and Israel, not freedom and prosperity, should be their top priority. The state's control over the economy means lower living standards for most, while simultaneously preserving a rich ruling elite with large amounts of money to give to its supporters. Imprisoning or intimidating liberal critics, means domestic stability, but without human rights.
This pattern might be called one of brilliantly successful disasters. The policy works in the sense that the regime survives and the public perceives it as successful. Objectively, however, the society and economy are damaged, freedom is restricted, and resources are wasted. This pattern is the bane of the Arab world while also being the basis of its ideologies and governance.
Syria, then, is both the most revealing test case for the failure of change in Middle East politics and the key actor--though there is plenty of blame to go around--in making things go so wrong for the Arab world.
The Truth About Syria, Barry Rubin
Winston Churchill is reputed to have described the Soviet Union as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Syria presents an easier puzzle: why does the world in general--the US and Israel in particular--tolerate an inherently weak and unpopular regime that is brutally repressive toward its own people and the chief sponsor of terrorism and instability in the region? In fact, as I write--in May 2008--Israel is negotiating a peace deal with Bashar Assad even as they and we charge him -- quite accurately, it seems -- with developing nukes, conducting assassinations in Beirut, giving refuge to Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraqi Ba'ath extremists, aiding Iran's paraiah president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, etc., etc. etc.... How can Israel even contemplate helping to secure such a regime, that acts so consistently against Israeli, Western, and even Arab interests? Barry Rubin, Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal, does not have the answer to this conundrum, but he does make an overwhelming case that the Syria of the Assad's and the Ba'ath Party ought not be tolerated.
What's especially frustrating in his portrait of modern Syria is that he describes in great detail the inherent weaknesses of the Ba'ath regime and the Assad's. Ba'athism is, of course, anathema to Muslim believers. In a multi-confessional state, with its attendant divisiveness, the Assad's are Alawites, who are at least a splinter from more orthodox Shi'ism, though you can get an argument over whether they represent actual heresy. At any rate, in the absence of totalitarianism it's hard to imagine they could win and hold power internally. Nor do they have any natural allies--Iran, with which they have a loose alliance, is really a natural enemy given this religious tension; Palestine, Turkey and other neighbors are Sunni, and Israel, of course, is Jewish. Meanwhile, the regime backs terrorism in Israel, Palestine, the Lebanon, Iraq, etc., so external pressure should be formidable too. Instead, through double-dealing, lies, seeming concessions, and myriad other negotiating ploys the regime has managed to survive the fall of its Soviet patron, its fellow Ba'athist regime in Iraq, and the American push for liberalization/democratization in the region. It's quite maddening to read about the ruse, feints, and threats with which it has charted this course of survival.
There has been a fad in recent election cycles for suggesting reading to the incoming president or the competing candidates. If we had our way this book would be the required reading and the candidates would have to explain why this evil regime has not been changed yet and just what they'd do about it.
Rubin’s fascinating and often mordant book aims to overcome the cognitive asymmetry between West and anti-West by presenting an objective analysis of the very different rules by which our geopolitical opponents are operating, and to make it clear to the Western reader why they have different rules from us. It is not because they are ignorant of our rules, and need only to be enlightened about them. They are perfectly aware how our rules work, as Rubin insists. Indeed, it is through their intimate familiarity with our rules that they have been able repeatedly to predict how we will react to their moves — an ability that has allowed them to outwit and outfox us over and over again.
Such a situation might be dubbed cognitively asymmetrical, on the analogy of asymmetrical warfare. A grandmaster in chess playing against a patzer is an example of cognitive asymmetry; so too is a poker sharp playing against an amateur whose face reveals his hand. In both cases, the master player can see what his amateurish opponent will do next, but the amateurish opponent cannot see what the master player has up his sleeves. Hence the master player always holds the advantage. The amateur may begin with a much bigger bank, and hold better cards than the master player, but he is always bound to lose in the long run.
This advantage will be especially great if the master player has the virtue that the Arabs call sumud — steadfastness: the patience to wait as long as it takes to wear down his opponent until he is ready to abandon the game. Sumud yields policymaking in terms of generations and even centuries, whereas Western foreign policy, like Western culture in general, is always looking for a quick fix. We want to make a deal now, and we will settle for less; they want exactly what they want, and they are willing to wait the time it takes to get it, which turns out to be exactly the amount of time it takes for their opponents to throw up their hands in despair.
Taken together, sumud and the cognitive asymmetry between Syria and the West explain one of the central paradoxes of Rubin’s book: How can an economically stagnant and militarily weak nation like Syria get away with murder, both figuratively and literally?
Five years into the Iraq war, most Americans believe they are fairly well-versed in the history of the schism between Shia and Sunni Islam. A bit of a tutorial is, however, in order. In the mid-seventh century, a dispute arose regarding succession of the Caliph, ruler of the Islamic empire. Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, was initially denied the office in favor of Uthman, the third Caliph. Ali’s supporters, the Ali shi’atu Ali (or Shia) protested until, in 656 A.D., he finally assumed the throne. The Shia evolved into an even more powerful political movement in 680 A.D., when Ali’s son and successor, Hasayn, was murdered in Karbala, Iraq. That event, still observed as Ashoura, would polarize the Islamic world for more than 1,300 years.
As Shia Islam spread across the Middle East in the first half of the eighth century, it collided with a tiny sect that is today known as Alawi, named after Prince Ali. The sect was a mix of Phoenician paganism, Greek astrology, eastern reincarnationism, and Christianity. Members incorporated Shia Islam into their belief system by deifying Ali, along with the Prophet Muhammad and Salman of Persia, to form a trinity reminiscent of the triune monotheism of Christianity. The Alawites continued to observe many Christian festivals such as Palm Sunday and Easter, celebrated observances with bread and wine, and held other pre-Islamic beliefs. The result was not Shia or Sunni, Islamic or Christian. It was Alawite.
The Alawites were branded heretics by the rest of Islam and suffered centuries of persecution. To survive, they ensconced themselves deep in the mountains of northwest Syria. They also hid their beliefs and holy scriptures, revealing them only to the faithful, to protect them from the scrutiny of mainstream Islam. To this day, some Alawi beliefs are still known to no one outside of the sect’s tiny enclaves.
Syria fell into the French sphere of influence after World War I. The new colonial officials tried to forge a more inclusive, secular government in Syria by encouraging minority sects to fill government and military positions. The Alawites were coaxed out of their mountain sanctuaries through placement in the Syrian military. Over decades, the sect slowly began to dominate the military.
While the Syrian military gradually became Alawite, a menagerie of regimes controlled Damascus. Following the departure of the French in 1947, a number of weak governments tried to maintain control of the fractious political system. Finally, in desperation, a Syrian delegation asked Egypt to step in and take control of the country. This effort, too, soon fell apart. The effort did, however, bring the Ba’ath Party, with its socialist, Arab-nationalist ideology, to Syria. The Alawites and many other minorities, wary of their history, flocked to Arabism as an antidote to religious persecution. But Ba’athism proved to be only another backdrop against which political turmoil would continue.
The Alawites, now firmly in control of the military, finally stepped in and seized control of the nation. A coup in 1966 brought the first of several Alawite military officers into power. He was quickly swept aside in 1970 by Alawite air force officer Hafez al-Assad, who was finally able to bring stability to Syria. As Daniel Pipes wrote in 1990, “An Alawi ruling Syria is like an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.”
As Assad began to shore up his regime, a new threat was undermining his success. The Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Salifist movement with origins in Egypt, was growing in popularity. The movement sought to restore the world dominance of Islam by establishing Sharia law as the foundation upon which Syria would exist. The Muslim Brotherhood found immediate popularity with the majority Sunni population in Syria. The new Alawite government was an easy target for its charges of apostasy; both Sunnis and Shia had historically seen Alawi as heretical. Moreover, the Alawites, while the largest religious minority in Syria, still only constituted 11 percent, or 1.8 million, of the Syrian population. They were extremely vulnerable in a country of 10.8 million Sunnis.
In an effort to counter the growing threat of Sunni fundamentalism, the Alawites maneuvered to have their faith legitimized. This effort culminated in a 1973 fatwa by the Lebanese cleric Imam Sayyed Moussa as-Sadr, which declared Alawi a sect of Shia Islam. The fatwa, however, was not sufficient to defuse the growing tension.
A decade of sectarian violence culminated in the atrocity at the village of Hama in 1982. Between 10,000 and 30,000 Sunnis were murdered, their town was plowed under, and at the entrance to the city, a large statue of Hafez al-Assad was erected. The Syrian government did not try to deny or hide this slaughter. It was an iron-fisted message to the Sunni majority throughout Syria that the Alawite were in control and dissent would not be tolerated.
The Alawites have survived for more than a millennium by being sensitive to the tides of history. The Alawite regime is only too aware of the growing Shia and Sunni fundamentalism; the regional dominance of either could mean more persecution for their people. The Syrian regime has adopted a two-part strategy to deal with this dilemma: combat the two strains of fundamentalism while simultaneously fostering acceptance of Alawi as a part of mainstream Islam. It is in the furthering of this particular strategy that Syria’s alliance with Iran should be contemplated.
Hafez al-Assad saw Sunni-dominated Iraq as a threat because many of its Sunni tribes sat astride the Iraqi-Syrian border. So, when Iraq was embroiled in war with Iran, Assad believed the time was right to cripple his stronger neighbor and align himself with Iran. Later, when Saddam Hussein was again under attack, this time from the US-led Coalition, Syria eagerly participated in the dismantling of Iraq’s army.
While Assad dealt decisively with the political Salifism of the Muslim Brotherhood at Hama, the 1990s witnessed the rise of Salifist jihadism. This new strain of Salifism merged the Muslim Brotherhood’s desire for a return to governance by Sharia law with the terrorist tactics of Hezbollah and Hamas. Its goals were to drive all infidels from the Middle East and topple apostate regimes and replace them with Islamic states. Following the crackdown on the Sunni at Hama, Assad began to develop a more tolerant form of Sunni Islam for Syria. The regime backed moderate forces such as the Grand Mufti of Damascus, Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, whose modernist Sunni movement ordains women and advocates the uncovering of women in mosques.39 This effort has proved largely ineffective, however, in stemming the spread of the new Sunni extremism.
The Alawites are equally reviled by Shia fundamentalists. The 1973 fatwa legitimizing their faith did little to cool this enmity. Assad engendered yet more hostility by backing the secular Amal movement rather than the fundamentalist Hezbollah in the Lebanese civil war. Syria’s alliance with Iran did provide Shia fundamentalists with a momentary pause from hostilities. When Hezbollah began to emerge as the dominant force in Lebanon, however, Assad was obliged to oppose his new allies and again exert military dominance over the country in an effort to counter the group’s growing power.
The Alawites initiated a number of other steps in addition to the 1973 fatwa to enhance their Shia credentials and “Islamize” the regime. Since the fatwa, a steady stream of Alawite students has traveled to the religious schools in Qom, Iran. Hafez al-Assad also built a number of Alawi mosques in Syria despite the Alawites’ traditional aversion to public places of worship. Posters have appeared throughout Syria showing Assad worshipping at Mecca and his late son, Basil, participating in Muslim pilgrim garb. The policy of Islamizing the regime has continued since Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000 and the assumption of power by his son, Bashar. If continuing jihadist hatred is any measure, however, the strategy of Islamizing the Syrian regime has been an abject failure. For example, as recently as June 2006, Syrian officials narrowly thwarted a jihadist terrorist attack in Damascus aimed at destabilizing the regime.
From Bashar al-Assad’s perspective, the emerging order in the Middle East does not appear to be a stable Shia Crescent, but an approaching tidal wave of Shia and Sunni extremism. Despite its best efforts, the Assad regime has been unable to “rebrand” itself as Islamic. Complicating this task was the defeat of Saddam Hussein that paved the way for resurgent Shia fundamentalism in Iraq. The US-led initiative that forced the Syrian military out of Lebanon also handed the country to the Shia fundamentalist group, Hezbollah, which promptly bolstered its reputation in the Islamic world by shaming the Israeli Defense Force. Sunni jihadists are pouring through Damascus on their way to join the conflict in Iraq. And now a Sunni terrorist threat is developing inside Syria. These events and actions are symptomatic of dangerous times for the Assad regime.