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Ziad Majed

Syria in books

The Baath power, clan, cult and bases

Two books had, for a long time, a front-stage importance with regard to “dissecting” the Syrian regime, its sectarian and ethnic components and their rivalries within the military institution and the Baath Party, which has been ruling in Syria since the coup of March 8, 1963. These books are Nikolaos Van Dam’s The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Assad and the Ba’ath Party (1979) and Patrick Seal’s Asad of Syria, The Struggle for the Middle East (1989). The first of these books was one of the earliest to explain the characteristics of the vertical (sectarian) divide underlying the regime, whereas the second one has the merit of highlighting the interdependence between the regime’s policies and its internal/external measures, even though the author often seems fascinated by Assad.

In 1999, Hanna Batatu’s Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of Its Lesser Rural Notables, and Their Politics developed even further the research pertaining to the political sociology of ruling elites. It reminded us how those involved in the coup managed to mobilize sectarian (especially Alawites), military (the army) and party (Baath) bases and to bring them together by unifying power centers (a majority of Alawi Baath officers). Batatu went even further by demonstrating how the alliance that led the Baath “revolution” during its early years (1963-1968) was composed of army groups that shared the same peasant origins. He thus wrote: “There were Alawis from Lattaquieh, Druze from Jabal al-Arab and Sunnis from Houran, Deir al-Zor and other rural centers. They were all sons of small farmers who sold their goods on markets monopolized by merchants from Damascus, Aleppo and Hama … These merchants had sympathetic ears in the government, which allowed them to impose their trading conditions … Their relations with peasants were relations between creditors and debtors …” Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that ruling officers are acting with a certain spirit of revenge from the “city.” Starting with the confiscation of urban properties and the nationalization of industries in major cities, this revenge changed shape a few years later when Hafez al-Assad came to power in November 1970 after having evicted his Alawi rival in the army and the Baath party Salah Jedid, who had been imprisoned with deposed Syrian President Noureddine al-Atassi for almost 25 years … The new master took into consideration the Machiavelian advice of taking and occupying “enemy” cities. In order to do so, he encouraged the movement of population from rural to urban areas and expanded industrialized suburbs. He then developed ties with merchants and businessmen and guaranteed the prosperity of their businesses in exchange for their fidelity and their keeping away from politics.

In order to complete its seizure of power through the “city,” the regime went ahead with the infiltration of the public sector by integrating its loyal supporters in it and placing them in cities, especially in the capital. The number of civil servants almost witnessed a ten-fold increase in 20 years, going from 34,000 in 1960 to 331,000 in 1980. This broadened the base loyal to the regime in public institutions thanks to its management of public affairs and its control over services to citizens. Volker Perthes’ Political Economy of Syria in 1995 sheds a relevant light on the economy under Assad’s regime, its political roles and the “classes” it creates. In order to tell the difference between these classes, Perthes classified them as follows: the “new industrialists,” the “state bourgeoisie” and the “new class,” the members of which got rich through contracts, bribes and traffics covered by officers. These categories broadened the regime’s social base and were referred to as the ruling “military-mercantile complex” in Syria or as an “entrepreneurial phenomenon” within the Syrian state. Another dimension to the analysis of the Syrian power was developed by Lisa Wedeen’s Ambiguities of domination: Politics, rhetoric and symbols in contemporary Syria in 1999. Besides using weapons, intelligence services, the Baath Party and the abovementioned economic and political measures, Assad ruled by establishing a genuine cult. This was not about the citizens’ belief in him or even in their emotional commitment toward him, but rather about defining the form and substance of civil obedience. The Assad cult aimed to impose to citizens a line of conduct compelling them to act “as if” they adore their leader (what Wedeen referred to as the “acting as if” policy). Frédéric le Grand’s saying “I do not care about people’s opinions as long as they obey my orders” thus became a key notion for Assad.

Broken mirrors

In 2007, the publication of Mostafa Khalifeh’s La Coquille, Journal of a Syrian political prisoner provided the political literature on Syria with a new prospect. This time, it is about a Syrian writer who was imprisoned by the regime for 13 years. He was from a Christian Greek Catholic family and was very close to a far-left party. However, he was arrested at the Damascus airport (on his way back from France, where he studied) and accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood! This story, which comes as a journal, reconstitutes Khalifeh’s real-life experience and his years of nightmares and realities. It sheds a crude light on the jailers’ barbarism and the “process of dehumanizing prisoners and, beyond that, of society as a whole.”

The dark years of Hafez al-Assad’s regime and the violence that overwhelmed Syria in the 1980s were also addressed in Khaled Khalifa’s Éloge de la haine in 2011, in which he tells the story of clashes between Islamists and the regime, and rekindles the Syrians’ memory by recalling a period that was passed over in silence.

Bashar’s Syria

When the son succeeded to his father, following the failed Damascus spring in 2001 and way before the current spring and its revolution, several books attempted to look into the political and social realms by comparing Syria under the son’s rule to what it was like under his father.

In Commanding Syria, Bashar al-Asad and the First Years in Power (2007), Eyal Zisser described the young president’s rise to the presidency, his domestic failures (failed reforms) and the difficulties he faced on the international level (9/11, the Iraq war and the withdrawal from Lebanon). For her part, Caroline Donati started in L’Exception syrienne, entre modernisation et résistance in 2009 with a historical overview before analyzing Bashar’s era on the political, economic and social levels. The last chapter of the book is dedicated to matters directly linked to current affairs in the country, such as the opposition, individual resistance cases and the new generation’s search for identity and political reference points.

Syrian writers also came up with their own analyses and gave an account of their real-life experience. In Power and Policy in Syria, Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East (2011), Radwan Ziadeh tackled the “hereditary republic” in its regional context and domestic institutions, i.e. its intelligence services and power pyramid that was established under the father’s supervision. Ziadeh partly dedicated his work to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, to political Islam in general and to the state’s policy with regard to Islamist networks (what he dubbed as “double containment”). Furthermore, he provided us with interesting thoughts on the 2006 July War in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel, which allowed the Syrian regime to stage its great comeback on the regional level following all the difficulties it faced in Lebanon.

Yassine Hajj Saleh, one of the most consistent Syrian writers, explained in 2010 the consequences of the death of politics in Syria in La Syrie de l’ombre, regards à l’intérieur de la boîte noire. He addressed the Syrian crisis as one that is – first and foremost – a national crisis with its share of “domestic” issues (while still making allowance for the regional situation and Middle Eastern conflicts). This book exudes a certain power. It is devoid of anger and bitterness, and reveals a great deal of intellectual honesty. It commands respect when one knows that Hajj Saleh was imprisoned for 15 years, that two of his brothers have been arrested and that, despite everything, he still is one of the most courageous and most lucid (underground) voices since the start of the Syrian revolution in March.

The state of barbarism

In De la tyrannie (1954), Leo Strauss wrote: “Our political science is obsessed by the belief that judgments of any value are inadmissible in scientific considerations, and that referring to a regime as being tyrannical is obviously tantamount to giving a judgment of some value. Political scientists who accept this vision of science will speak of a collective, dictatorial, totalitarian or authoritarian state, etc. Being citizens, they are entitled to condemn all this but in the field of political science strictly speaking, they are compelled to reject the notion of tyranny as being a myth.”

Michel Seurat used this quote to start one of his texts, which he brought together in a book titled L’État de Barbarie (1989). This book was published after his death in Beirut after he was kidnapped in 1985. The book’s title and the first couple of texts in it are still regarded as part of the best descriptions of the regime, its state and its barbaric culture.

The new Syrian generation modified the “urban-rural paradox,” and Syrian society is breaking free a little more every day from the Assad cult. The walls of fear are crumbling, and the country is no longer “the kingdom of silence,” as Riad Turq – a major figure of the opposition since the 1980s – once called it. However, Assad’s declining regime remains that of barbarism and “dehumanization.” Nevertheless, thanks to the Syrian people’s outstanding courage and admirable determination, the world of books will soon be enriched with new arrivals on a new Syria in which the Assad family and its regime will be ancient history, and not just any kind of history …