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August 28, 2011

The Syrian revolution: A revolution in complexity

By Arthur Scott

Last month I discussed the theme of Middle East complexity and wish to explore it further by focusing on the Syrian Revolution through the lenses of geography and religion/ethnicity/politics.

Syria’s geopolitical setting is critical and crucial as it borders Turkey to the North, Iraq to the East, Jordan/Israel to the South and Lebanon to the West.  Because of its geography, its “Arab Spring” sends reverberations not only to the adjacent states but throughout the Arabian Peninsula.  Syria Is home to Damascus/Aleppo, two of the oldest commercial cities in the world dating back 4500 years, and both being significant players in the Silk trade between China and the West.  Damascus and Aleppo today are centers of government and commerce and are dominated by strong governmental/military and commercial/ banking/merchant classes, who are opposed to any change in the status quo.  These cities and their financial elites were enormously benefited by al-Assad’s policy of privatization which occurred at the turn of the twenty-first century.  For instance, Rami Maskhlouf, first cousin of al-Assad, is reported to be the wealthiest person in Syria.  He owns Syriatel, the dominant mobile phone company; Maskhlouf is a classical example of family cronyism that has come to plague the al-Assad government.  Wealthy privileged families and key sectarian groups such as Alawites have benefited handsomely from Bashir’s policy of privatization but wealth has never “trickled" down to the Sunni masses.

Other important cities, Dara’a, Homs, Latakia and Hama, on the other hand, are centers of popular resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in part driven by a youthful population which despairs for its future – a bleakness aggravated by an unemployment rate of 20% and poverty at 30% according to UN Development Program.  Nonetheless, the denizens of these cities are being inspired by events in other Arab/African countries, especially Libya.  Social network reports and the courage of youth in these other countries inspired Syrians to take into the streets demanding al-Assad’s removal.  Aggravating Syria’s economic malaise is that its natural resources are limited to some oil, cotton, vegetables, wheat and meat.  Agriculture is still an important industry representing nearly 25% of the economy although only one/third of the land is arable.  Services, especially tourism are one of the largest sectors at 49% and industry 27.5%.

The Syrian economy is quite vulnerable too as it depends heavily on trade with France, Italy, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Russia, US and China.  America’s decision to freeze Syrians assets, along with the European Union, could have a serious effect on the al-Assad regime.  Syria relies heavily on the water of the Euphrates River which has led to tension with Turkey over its hydrological projects. Relations between Damascus and Ankara have strained even more over al-Assad’s repression against the Syrian protesters.  The other area of concern involves Israel and revolves around Golan Heights which was lost in 1968 during the Six Day War.  The Golan Heights are not only militarily strategic, but also control headwaters of the Jordan River. Relations with Lebanon too have been strained with Prime Minister Rafik Hariri assassination in 2005 forcing Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, losing face and ending its three decade domination.  Only Iran has remained its constant supporter going back to Iranian/Iraq War of the 1980’s leading in 2006 to a more formal relationship between Damascus -Teheran in which both countries agreed to unite against US and Israel.  Iran has poured billions into the Syrian economy along with extensive military hardware.  The other factor that brings the two countries together is that the Bashar al-Assad family is Alawite which is a Shiia off-shot.  In 2007, Israeli air strike apparently destroyed a nuclear reactor being constructed in Syria. Relations with Washington improved with Barack Obama’ presidency, emphasizing a new “Middle East Dialogue” only to deteriorate in 2011 during the “Arab Spring.”

The other dimension making Syria politically difficult to unravel lies in its sectarian complexity.  There are five significant groups:  Sunni, Alawites, Christians, Druzes, and Kurds.  The first four are primary Arabs, only the Kurds are not Arab.  Arabic is spoken by all and is the official language of Syria.  The largest group consists of Sunni Arabs who constitute about 74% of the population.  Historically Syrian Sunnis dominated the cities and during the Ottoman rule, shared the same version of Islam as the Turks, and became the dominant ruling elite in Syria.  With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1919, the Sunnis once again emerged as the primary political group under the flag of nationalism only to have their dream of an independent Syria compromised by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between London-Paris during the height of World War I.  The political effect of this was to place Syria/Lebanon under French control/mandates, and to delay independence for all practical matters until 1945.  Sunnis nevertheless resisted French occupation, and with their departure, once again emerged as the ruling elite.  One of the challenges confronting the post World War II Sunni leadership was how to create a Syria which could incorporate its religious diversity. Otherwise Syria would be politically vulnerable to the ancient strategy of playing one group off with another.  Syrian intellectuals led by Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian, answer to this knotty sectarian problem was secularism and the formation of the Ba’ath Party which was a unique blending of nationalism and socialism as the two forces that could free the Arab world from the West.  The irony here is that the Sunnis lost their dominance to an Alawite by the name of Hafiz al-Assad who became the strong man in 1970 creating a single party state based on the fascinating triad of Alawites/Christians/Military.

The Alawites represent about 3.5 million Syrians.  Historically marginalized in Syria, the Alawites have made a remarkable comeback under the aegis of Hafiz al-Assad. The Alawites are a very secretive sect that arose among tribal groups in northwest Syria.  Their status within Islam is mixed.  Some Sunni Muslim scholars look upon them as heretics, others as offshoots of the Shiia “Twelvers” who take their name from the Twelfth Imam who was taken up in occultation in 874 and in their tradition is destined to return to restore peace/justice in the world.  Though committed to the Five Pillars, they follow Ali, and see Jihad as the Sixth Pillar.  They have incorporated many Christian elements including the Trinity and drinking wine.  During the 1950’s/60 when they were being persecuted by the Sunnis, they often received support from Christians who represent 10% of the population.  Orthodox Christians are the largest group. Similarity of beliefs and historical persecutions between Christians and Alawites have brought them together in which persecuted Alawites adopted Christian names/practices to protect themselves.  The other groups that the Alawites are connected to are the Druzes. They too are very secretive and have had a history of persecution for their Shiia beliefs:  blending of neo-Platonism, Sufi mysticism, Ismaili and Shiite.  They number about 3% of the Syrian population today.  The Kurds make up 12% of the Syrian population and are Sunna religiously and Indo-European ethnically who settled in an area described as Kurdistan which includes southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iraq and northeastern Iran.  Kurdistan area is geopolitically rich in oil and water explaining why the Kurds have never been able to organize or create their own independent state.  A lost people, who because of geography are stateless.  In Syria the Kurds have been ethnically profiled, forbidden to speak their language, or to practice their culture because of Damascus’ fear of Kurdish separatism shared by Turkey and Iran.

Syria’s ethnic, religious and economic mosaic is quite complex and explains why its “Arab Spring” is uncertain and difficult to predict.  It also explains the reluctance of the United States and the European Union to follow the Libyan pattern of NATO military/logistic support as it could jeopardize the fragile Syrian- Israel relations and lead to a Balkanization of Syria with unforeseen consequences not only for Syria but for the whole region. What is unfortunate is that most Americans have no idea about Syrian “complexity” and can be easily hoodwinked by Washington policy makers who because of the imperatives of Empire, or national security, or the needs of the military-industrial complex, or the oil lobby be pulled into the labyrinth of another Iraq with devastating results for both the Arab world and on the American economy that can no longer afford another military adventure.

Sources contacted include: “Syria’s Ruling Elite”, Robert Mackey, NYT, and June 14, 2011; “Preventing Civil War in Syria” Elliot Abrams, Wall St.  Journal, August 2. 2011; “Syria’s Alawis and Shiism”; Martin Kramer, Sandbox; Infoplace. Com. Syria; US. State Dept. County Note: Syria.

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the  Dominican University of California and Fellow of American Institute of  International Studies