This series is written by an author who wishes to remain anonymous

Part 1 – A Look at Historical Forces

The Syrian Arab Republic is amongst the most repressive regimes in the region. For decades, it has firmly held onto power, using repression and the rhetoric of resistance to fend off threats against its rule. Until recently, this strategy worked so well that both expert commentators and regime insiders were confident that Syria would weather the current regional uprisings unscathed. But these assumptions proved to be woefully inaccurate. For more than two months, significant demonstrations calling for an end to corruption and supporting freedom and dignity have rocked Syria and remain unabated. While the government has responded by clamping down against protestors, the country, nonetheless, seems to be sliding towards a tipping-point that will vastly alter relations between the regime and its people.

In order to truly grasp the complexities driving the current protests, an overview of the recent history of Syria and the Middle East is necessary. Understanding the forces that have shaped the Syrian state and its relationship with its citizens is key to assessing the factors fueling the current protests. As will be shown, foremost amongst these factors is the growing assertiveness of Syrians, many of whom have long been denied their political, economic, and social rights, as well as the weakness of a political and economic system that have for too long served only the interests of the rich and the powerful.

The Foundations of the Syrian National Narrative

Syria represents a historic amalgamation of political, social, and cultural identities fashioned in response to regional and international politics. It is a nation that thrives upon diversity. The population of Syria, totaling about 22.5 million, is roughly 74% Sunni, 13% Shiite and Alawite, 10% Christian, and also has a small Jewish community.  Ethnically, the population is predominately Arab, although there is a significant minority of Assyrians/Syriac, Armenians, Circassians, Kurds, and Turkmen. A large population of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees[1] also reside within the formally secular nation-state.

The capital, Damascus, as well as Aleppo, the largest city and Syria’s commercial hub, are the country’s most important urban centers. Amongst other important cities are the port towns of Latika and Tartus, Deir El-Zor, which lies on top of dwindling oil reserves and has several key petroleum processing plants, and Hama and Homs, two cities located in the center of the country.  Syria is divided into fourteen governorates, with each governorate divided into sixty districts that are further divided into sub-districts. The governorates are headed by governors nominated by the Ministry of Interior, with approval from the cabinet. Each governor is responsible for administrating nearly all the social, political, and economic activities of his governorate with assistance from the Ministry of Local Administration and appointed provincial councils.

Far from an economic powerhouse, Syria’s strategic strength has long rested on historical, political, and cultural grounds.  Historians approximate that historical Syria, which was comprised of the modern states of Lebanon, Palestine, as well as northern Jordan and western Iraq, was originally settled around 10,000 BC by some of the first Neolithic groups to herd livestock and establish elementary agricultural production. The city of Damascus is considered to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.

Over the centuries, the region routinely fell under the control of various rulers including the Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, the Christian Crusaders and the numerous Islamic empires. Ultimately, the region became part of the Ottoman Empire, remaining under its rule from the 16th century until the end of the First World War.  Modern day Syria emerged after World War I, when the French and British governments divided up the former Ottoman Empire into various protectorates. Known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the deal struck by the victors of World War I betrayed war-time guarantees made to the Arabs, which promised Arab independence in exchange for their support of the Allied cause. With that promise in tatters, the Sykes-Picot Agreement transformed “Greater Syria” into the nation-states of Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq. France took control over Lebanon and Syria, while Great Britain exercised power over the rest.

In response to the Allies’ refusal to abide by their previous guarantees, the Arabs instituted a revolt led by Faisal Bin Hussein bin Ali Al-Hashemi. In Syria, the Arab Kingdom of Syria was formed and Faisal was proclaimed king by the Syrian National Congress, which had been established by the Arabs in June 1919 to plan for the post-Ottoman period. It was a short reign, lasting only a few months and ending with a battle between French and Syrian forces that led to Faisal’s eventual exile to England. In the aftermath, the French formally occupied the country. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the indigenous population continued to resist this foreign occupation, which French forces brutally attempted to quash.[2] Eventually, however, these uprisings bore fruit and, in September 1936, a treaty of independence was negotiated, a president was elected, and a new constitution was created. Although the French government refused to ratify the treaty, the events of World War II dramatically weakened France. In response, the Syrians unilaterally proclaimed independence in 1941, which was formally recognized by the French on January 1, 1944. It was not, however, until 1946 that the last French troops left Syrian soil, capitulating to pressures from British and Syrian nationalist groups.

This historical experience, of continual occupation and resistance, has left a lasting mark on Syrian national identity and remains potent to this day. This national sentiment has been used by both supporters and detractors of various Syrian governments, particularly the current one, to buttress their particular narratives. In this regard, the fear of external meddling, which has its basis in this historical experience, has played an important role, frequently wielded by different factions within the country to delegitimize their opponents.

A Period of Consistent Instability

Between 1946 and the beginning of Hafez’s Al-Asad’s rule in 1970, Syria was politically unstable.

The roots of this instability lay in the humiliating defeat that Syria, and other Arab forces suffered against a stronger, better-armed, and larger Zionist army fighting for the establishment of an Israeli state. The loss wounded the new Syrian republic and undermined faith in its ability to ensure national security and dignity, and to withstand the Israeli threat. Palestine had always been an important issue for Syrians. As a part of the broader regional fight against colonialism, during the 1920s and 1930s, many Syrians were actively involved in organizing and participating in resistance efforts against the British and Zionists in Palestine.   However, as thousands of Palestinian refugees fleeing the violence poured into Syria, the issue of confronting Israel became ingrained within the national and public psyche.

In the decade following formal Syrian independence, 20 different cabinets and four constitutions came and went. Military coups, which began shortly after the loss of 1948, were a mainstay of the political system. In 1949 alone, three military coups took place. The first coup was led by Col. Husni Al-Za’im,[3] who was then overthrown by Col. Sami Al-Hinnawi,[4] and who, in turn, was deposed by Col. Adib Shishakli.

Shishakli’s rule was marked by an increasing shift of power away from the civilian elite towards the military. While Shishakli allowed a parliamentary system to function, he ensured that its authority was hollow and that absolute power remained with him. Shishakli refused to entertain the possibility of unifying with Hashemite Iraq, often clashing over this issue with a seasoned popular politician named Hashim Al-Atassi. A dispute between Shishakli and the prime minister, Maarouf Al-Dawalibi led to a second “coup” by Shishakli on November 28, 1951. A few months later, the multiparty system was abolished and newspapers that did not reflect Shishakli’s policies were banned. Shishakli exiled major Ba’ath party leaders to Lebanon and persecuted members of the nationalist, communist, and Muslim Brotherhood organizations. Although he adopted a pan-Arab ideology and was seemingly uncompromising towards Israel,[5] Shishakli worked to maintain close ties with Western powers.

In 1953, Shishakli attempted to bring legitimacy to his rule by organizing and rigging an election that he, of course, won. The move sparked unrest against his rule. A revolt in Jabal Druze, amongst members of the Druze minority, was savagely crushed by shelling and mass arrests.[6] In response, public discontent transformed into a full-blown popular uprising. Members of the Syrian Communist Party, Druze, Ba’athists, Al-Atassi and his supporters, amongst other groups, mobilized and successfully overthrew Shishakli in February 1954. Shishakli fled to Lebanon, then to Saudi Arabia, and finally to Brazil and, from there, attempted to conduct an unsuccessful coup in 1958. On September 27, 1964, Shishakli was assassinated in the small city of Ceres in central Brazil by Nawaf Ghazaleh, in an apparent revenge attack for the bombing of Jabal Druze.

In Syria, the period between 1955-1958 was one of remarkable democratic expression. Free elections were held and various political groups flourished. Leftist organizations were particularly popular amongst the peasantry and urban lower class who had traditionally been marginalized from the political scene.

In 1956, Syrian foreign policy priorities shifted towards the USSR, reflecting distrust towards Western governments, particularly because of their support of Israel as well as their colonial and imperial practices. During this period, the Syrian government took an internationalist stance, welcoming rebels from the Global South[7] and was actively part of the Non-aligned Movement. By 1958, ties with Egypt and its President Gamal Abdul Nasser had grown considerably closer and a union was formed, the United Arab Republic (UAR), under Nasser’s presidency.

While Nasser extended symbolic financial handouts and land distributions to the Syrian people, influential individuals within Syria felt that their country had become Egypt’s subservient vassal. The dissatisfaction resulted in a military coup led by Abd Al-Karim Al-Nahlawi, who was supported by the bourgeoisie and elements of the right wing, ending the unstable union in 1961. Another sequence of coups and counter-coups continued for the next two years.

Conclusion:

The factors at play in the initial formation of the modern Syrian state and its first decades of instability are crucial in understanding the narratives involved in the current uprising. For the regime, and its supporters, two prevailing themes have been at the center of their rhetorical opposition to these demonstrations : (1) foreign intervention in creating and enlarging the protests, and (2) the importance of maintaining stability.

The government has raised allegations of foreign involvement in order to devalue and discredit the protestors’ cause. As a part of this tactic, protestors have alternately been labeled as Salafis from Saudi Arabia, disorderly Palestinians, agents of Israel or America, and so on. While fear of a “foreign hand” arises from Syria’s real historical and contemporary experiences, it is currently being used by the state to legitimize its violent attempts to forcefully end the uprising.

With regard to its emphasis on the importance of stability, the government is harkening back to a time in Syrian history of continual upheavals and coups. Whether it is through playing on sectarianism or fears of external occupation, the regime has invoked the memory of this large-scale instability in order to justify its continual control of the Syrian state.

In response, the protesters have emphasized the indigenous nature of their movement, stressing national unity and allegiance to the Syrian nation, rather than the Al-Asad regime. Most of the protesters have continually resisted the possibility of foreign intervention, and have instead called for international political and economic pressure to be used to end the brutal violence and arrests.

In Part II of this series, we shall examine the arrival of Baathist control over the country and the subsequent emergence and dominance of Hafez Al-Asad.


 


[1] According to Syrian officials, there are roughly 400,000 Palestinian refugees and up to 1.2 million Iraqi refugees. UNHCR has, however, only registered 300,000 Iraqi refugees since 2003 and has stated that only 156, 493 were in the country as of April 2010.

[2] The French twice viciously bombed and shelled Damascus, once during massive revolts in May 9, 1926 as well as on May 29, 1945.

[3] Al-Za’im, who was of Kurdish ancestry, was the Syrian Army’s Chief of Staff during the war against Israel. After the defeat, he led a bloodless coup against the Syrian government with backing from the American embassy. During his reign of less than five months, Al-Za’im supported secular policies, made peace overtures with Israel, and signed deals with U.S. oil companies to develop the Trans-Arabian Pipeline. These policies, amongst others, greatly infuriated nationalists within the country and played a major role in his removal. Al-Za’im was imprisoned in the notorious Mezze prison in Damascus and was eventually executed along with Prime Minister Mushen Al-Barazi.

[4] Al-Hinnawi, who was from Aleppo, was installed as leader of the military junta that ruled the country, and worked closely with Shishakli, who held the real power. Al-Hinnawi’s inclination for unity with Hashemite Iraq was used by Shishakli to justify his overthrow. Al-Hinnawi was exiled to Lebanon and was assassinated on October 31, 1950 by a cousin of former Prime Minister Muhsen Al-Barazi, whose execution had been ordered by Al-Hinnawi.

[5] Shishakli refused to accept Western arms and money, especially from the United States as the trade-off  involved resettling Palestinian refugees within Syria. The Palestinian Refugees: Old Problems – New Solutions, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK, 2001, pp. 77-87.

[6] 600 were killed during the air raid.

[7] For example, the Argentinean born Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara was welcomed to Damascus in 1957

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