In the 1890s a twenty-year-old Englishman was in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He had been travelling for a year in Palestine and Syria and was deeply affected by all he saw. He told an elderly official of the mosque that he wanted to embrace Islam. The old man advised against such a move. ‘Wait till you are older,’ the old man said, ‘and have seen again your native land. You are alone among us . . . God knows how I should feel if any Christian teacher dealt with a son of mine otherwise than as I now deal with you.’
Twenty years later that young man did embrace Islam. He was Marmaduke Pickthall, and he went on to render the Holy Qur’an into English, deliver khutbas at mosques in London, and was finally buried at the Muslim cemetery at Brookwood.
Twenty years before Pickthall’s first visit to Damascus, another very different British traveller came to that city. He was between visits to Najd in the Arabian Peninsula. Charles Montagu Doughty later wrote an account of his travels in Arabia Deserta. That book opens with an encounter between Doughty and a Damascus friend:
A new voice hailed me of an old friend when, first returned from the Peninsula, I paced again in that long street which is called Straight; and suddenly taking me wondering by the hand ‘Tell me (said he), since thou art here again in the peace and assurance of Ullah, and whilst we walk, as in the former years, toward the new blossoming orchards, full of the sweet spring as the garden of God, what moved thee, or how couldst thou take such journeys into the fanatic Arabia?’
These two testimonies of the century before last bear witness to a tradition of openness and inclusiveness in Syria, of a legacy of accepting religious difference. The Muslims, Christians and Jews of Syria were sure of their faith. Syria in general and Damascus in particular were important to each of the Abrahamic religions. Indeed local legends maintained that the first murder, Cain’s slaying of Abel, was committed on Jabal Qasiyun overlooking the city. His tomb, forty kilometres to the west, is guarded by Druze and is a place on the Iranian pilgrimage route. Another legend claims that the second coming of Jesus will take place in Damascus. He will descend from the Isa minaret of the Umayyad Mosque. The Prophet Muhammad himself is believed to have approached Damascus, and his footprint was preserved to the south of the city in the suburb, Qadam.
This plurality – and many more examples could be cited – demonstrates that the current civil war, where all sorts of unbelievable atrocities are being committed daily, often in religion’s name, is an aberration of Syrian history. The traditions of openness harmonise with the practice of Syrians themselves and the observations of countless visitors.
What has gone wrong?
In the next few pages I would like to tease out the reasons for the openness. I wish to show how it was reflected in the practice of the Ottomans, who controlled Syria for four hundred years until 1918. I will show how the balance between communities was undermined under the French Mandate of 1920–46, with consequences neither the French nor anybody else planned or were able to predict. I will touch on the rise of the Alawites to political prominence over the last seventy years, reaching its peak in the last ten. I will then assess the strengths and failings of the regimes of the Assads, father and son, compare the political skills of the two, and consider how the present ghastly situation has been arrived at.
At present over a tenth of the population are refugees in neighbouring countries. In total, over forty per cent of Syrians have been displaced. Tom Hill’s encounters with refugee children – part of a lost generation who have missed years of education – in the Atmeh camp in northern Syria, provide a flavour of the tragedy. Thousands of others who have foreign passports, or who have friends, family or connections elsewhere, have emigrated. Meanwhile the Assad regime seems to be in control of only parts of the country and certainly not all of the major cities. Other areas are controlled by organised opposition groups, but many parts of the north and centre are under the control of perhaps hundreds of small groups. Sometimes it seems as if local warlords are controlling a village, a quarter of a town, perhaps just a block of flats. The government has been in possession of most of the heavy weaponry, and unprecedented havoc has been wreaked on residential areas believed to have sheltered opponents of the regime. The Free Syrian Army, a loose association of rebel forces commanded by defected army officers, has been eclipsed by the Islamic Front and more extreme Islamist militias. Sam Hamad, in his essay on the armed opposition, shows how ‘the lack of material support for the moderate rebels has led to the over-representation on the battlefield of forces that are not necessarily ideologically popular’.
The idea of Syria goes back to classical times. It is certainly true that Syria has been a geographical term without any continuity as a political concept – but the same was true of most parts of the world before the concept of the nation-state. There has been a cultural continuity for thousands of years, leaving an archaeological heritage that is second to none, as archaeologist and former Australian diplomat in Damascus Ross Burns argues in his essay on the effects of war on the country’s heritage, and what will need to be done to save what remains when the guns fall silent. Although Syria was part of the Greco-Roman world for a thousand years, from the conquests of Alexander in the fourth century BCE to the Islamic conquests of the seventh century CE, the people of geographical Syria were never culturally and linguistically submerged in the way that southern Europe was. There was a continuity of the Semitic languages – Aramaic the most widely used – that had been the means of communication before the classical conquests.
There were also three other Syrian characteristics that have prevailed to the present day: commercialism, migration and religion. Syria has always traded, and the people of the country were known as keen traders over two thousand years ago. And Syrians have always been on the move. Sometimes it went with the commercialism, but there were soldiers from Palmyra on Hadrian’s Wall when England was a Roman colony. Syrians became Roman emperors and the mothers of emperors. Syrians became popes of Rome. Syrians provided the Byzantine Empire with traders and craftsmen. Until very recently, Aleppo’s ancient textile industry continued to supply European markets – Malu Halasa’s essay on ‘the Bra in Aleppo’ opens a window on this world presently suspended by bombs.
The third feature of Syria has been a strong religious tradition. The early history and development of the three Abrahamic religions have been linked to the land of Syria. Intense religious beliefs have nurtured strong loyalties to individuals and to diverse confessions. Where there has been persecution organised by authorities and practised in the cities, people have migrated to sanctuaries away from the urban areas. So Maronites, Druze, Alawis and Ismailis moved to the mountains. Orthodox Christians managed better under Muslim rulers. There were always significant Orthodox and other Christian communities in the cities, which were generally controlled by Sunni Muslims.
Just as a Syrian authenticity reasserted itself after Greco-Roman times, so it was little affected by the onslaught of the Crusades from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries CE. Outsiders, Ayoubids and Mamlukes, were able to overcome the plains and occupy the cities, wield authority and impose taxation from these bases, but usually had to negotiate with the commercial and religious families of Damascus and Aleppo and other cities for funds and legitimacy.
Such was the historical background to the four hundred years of Ottoman rule, the longest continuous rule of any one authority in Syria’s history since the Islamic conquests. Ottoman rule in Syria was inclusive and generally (but not always) relaxed; insofar as there was a public policy it was that all people were allowed to co-exist under the rule of the Sultan. The diverse communities were seen not as minorities but as elements (anāsīr) of society. Different confessions had their own roles, although there was also the notion that each religious community existed as a separate state within the nation state, with their leaders held responsible for raising taxes and administering personal legal issues. In actual fact, different social classes of different religious communities shared values and spaces regardless (to a great extent) of their confession. It was only when there was a disequilibrium in the balance of different communities that the system broke down. In the early nineteenth century, Maronites in Lebanon migrated to the cities and prospered. This upset in the balance of power and wealth distribution led to the riots of 1860, after which the Ottoman government intervened to re-establish balance. The Lebanese civil war of 1975–90 can be seen as having a similar cause. The balance of communities became skewed by first, an influx of (Sunni) Palestinian refugees, then by the social and demographic emergence of Shi‘ite communities.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Greater Syria had a diverse population under an Ottoman hegemony. Under Sultan Abdulhamid II, who ruled from 1876 to 1909, the Ottoman authorities asserted their rule with a series of measures: larger garrisons, better communications, the cult of the Sultan, improved education. The reforms owed more to the concept of a stronger state than to the notion of a liberal civil society – more Metternich than John Stuart Mill. The emphasis on Ottoman authority was manifested in the new schools where Turkish became the medium of education just as it was for law and government. This clashed with a nineteenth-century revival of Arab interest in the Arab cultural heritage.
Arab society before 1914 was not totally alienated from the Ottoman capital. Many Syrians did well in Istanbul. The dawla or devlet – the ‘state’ – commanded and received deference. Syrians like ‘Izz al-Din al-‘Abid were at the heart of power and influence at Yildiz Palace under Sultan Abdulhamid. Part of the legitimacy of the Ottoman Empire, especially in the Arab lands of the Levant, was based on its patronage of religious institutions and practices, and above all, the pilgrimage. In the first century of Ottoman rule, the chain of khans, staging posts, from Istanbul to the Hijaz, were constructed or renovated. Damascus was the starting point of one of the annual pilgrimage processions to the Holy Land. Muslims from Anatolia, the Ottoman capital, Bosnia, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia gathered in Damascus – stimulating the city’s trade – and set off on the journey, two months there and two months back. An Ottoman-appointed official was in charge. Sometimes women of the Imperial Ottoman family (but, oddly, never the Sultan himself) accompanied the caravan to Mecca.
In the centre of Damascus stands a column that was erected between 1900 and 1908 to commemorate the linking of Istanbul, Damascus and Mecca by telegraph. Under Sultan Abdulhamid the project of the Hijaz Railway was launched; it was completed under his successors and brought prosperity to his city. The Damascene ‘Izzat al-Din al-‘Abid was instrumental in its promotion.
But the cooperation was threatened by the cultural policies of Istanbul, especially by the consciously Turkish Young Turks after 1908. When the Ottoman Empire imploded under the pressure of the First World War, the divergence between Syria and the capital increased. The local governor was deeply suspicious of Arab consciousness and nationalist activity, as a result of which many young men of the leading families of Greater Syria were symbolically hanged in the main squares of Damascus and Beirut. Syria was shattered politically, a situation exacerbated by famine at the end of the war.
The Great Powers decided on the fate of Syria. There were conflicting commitments, but by 1920 the French were awarded a Mandate to administer Syria and Lebanon, ostensibly in the interests of the country.
The French ran Syria for twenty-six years. They were deeply suspicious of the men from the families that had been effectively running the country during the Ottoman centuries. They were an official land-owning class who dominated society in Damascus and Aleppo, and to a lesser extent in Hama and Homs. Some of the families based their legitimacy on religious authority, taking revenues from waqf property (property donated by Muslims for religious or charitable purposes) and holding religious offices. But the French were unhappy with the Arab nationalist rhetoric of the Sunni Muslims, which they feared could undermine their control of the French Empire in North Africa. During the Mandate years the French divided and ruled. They established separate statelets for the Alawites, based in Lattakia, and the Druze, based in Suwaida, as well as another statelet in north-east Syria. Lebanon was also administered separately – a detachment that ultimately led to Lebanon becoming a distinct country. The French built up a local army based on the minorities that hailed from areas far from the cities. The urban Sunni families had tended not to send their sons into the Ottoman army anyway. So the French Mandate armies were largely composed of Alawites, Ismailis and Sunni Muslims from poorer, more rural parts of Syria. Christians and Armenians were also disproportionately represented among the French recruits. These forces, sometimes supplemented by soldiers from other French possessions, were used to suppress popular uprisings in the country. Meanwhile at the political level, negotiations for greater political autonomy were conducted with the political families of the big cities. These negotiations ultimately led, not without setbacks, to independence in 1946.
In the first twenty years after independence, governments were often dominated by individuals from or linked to the old city families. But from 1949 a series of military coups interrupted a pattern of politics that was not totally dissimilar to governance under the Ottomans. The military coups were part of a world phenomenon outside Europe in the decades after the Second World War. As elsewhere, the language of politics was nationalist and increasingly socialist. As we have seen, the Syrian army was disproportionately manned by non-Sunni Muslims. In particular the Alawites were moving up the hierarchy of the armed forces.
The Alawites were a dissident Shi‘ite Muslim community, but their beliefs were, for political purposes, less significant than their role in Syrian society. For centuries they had been a marginalised community, with little clout in social and economic terms. Outside Lattakia, there were no large Alawite communities that made any impact on the politics of Aleppo or Damascus. They inhabited the mountains above the Mediterranean coast and, economically, were largely self-contained. Many of the men migrated seasonally to work on the estates of the Sunni notables, and many of the young women were often appallingly treated as house servants in the major cities.
Recruitment into the army meant a substantial exodus of Alawites from their homelands to the rest of the country. Their isolation ended.
Immediately before World War Two, the French ceded the sanjak (Ottoman administrative division) of Alexandretta, including the city of Antioch/Antakya and the port of Alexandretta/Iskenderun, to Turkey. The area, since called Hatay, had always been a socially and ethnically mixed area, but after the annexation many non-Turks migrated to Syria. These included Arabic-speaking Christians and Alawis who moved in large numbers to the cities of Aleppo and Lattakia. The migration sharpened their sense of Arabness. Socialist ideas also appealed to disadvantaged Alawites emerging from their centuries of marginalisation. The Ba‘ath Party, founded by a Christian and a Sunni Muslim from Damascus, with its ideology of pan-Arabism and socialism, had a particular attraction for Alawis from the region of Lattakia.
For three years, from 1958 to 1961, Syria was a junior partner of the United Arab Republic. Although the rhetoric of the Republic was socialist and pan-Arab, Syrians were dominated by the senior partner under Gamal Abdul Nasser. The Ba‘ath Party was actually banned during these years. Two years after the failed experiment of union with Egypt, the Ba‘ath Party took over Syria in a coup. It has been in office ever since, though there have been important developments in the manner of its authority. Throughout the 1960s the party’s power was slowly narrowed, during which time Hafez al-Assad worked his way up, eliminating rivals to emerge at the top in November 1970. He was President for nearly thirty years, dying in June 2000. His personality has shaped modern Syria.
Hafez al-Assad was an Alawite from Qardaha, a village near Lattakia. He was a socialist and national student leader at secondary school. His vision for Syria was to emancipate the rural areas. Like many of comparable background, he escaped from poverty and joined the Air Force, passing through Homs Military Academy, and trained as a pilot. Hard working and persistent, he was impatient with others who had a different vision. During the union with Egypt he allied with others from the armed forces to form a ‘Military Committee’ of the Ba‘ath Party that aimed at imposing their vision on the whole country. From the head of the Air Force he became Minister of Defence and, in that office, gave the order for withdrawal from the Golan Heights during the 1967 June War with Israel. The Ba‘ath leader in those years was another socialist Alawite soldier, Salah al-Jadid. Hafez al-Assad pushed him aside in the autumn of 1970. Salah al-Jadid was seen as too ideological, and he spent the rest of his life in the old castle in Mezze, a political prison for senior politicians. He died there in August 1993.
Hafez al-Assad, though from an Alawi background, broadened the regime’s base. Two of his closest allies who were loyal to him and to whom he was loyal were Sunnis from the rural north of the country. ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam was a student Ba‘ath Party activist from the coastal town of Baniyas. He met Hafez al-Assad during the years of Assad’s student activism. His first position was as Assad’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and then as his Vice President. Mustafa Tlas was from Rastan, between Hama and Homs. He and Assad met in 1952 at the Homs Military Academy. He was made Minister of Defence in 1972 and held that post for the rest of Hafez al-Assad’s life.
The Assad years were neither static nor monolithic. The president was popular in the first years when he reached out to the whole country. He built up a political system that drew ideas, willy nilly, from the Soviet Union. The Party made policy, Ministers executed it. There was a People’s Assembly, carefully controlled and without any authority, and ‘popular organisations’ of the professions and the peasants. The Ba‘ath Party was given precedence, though other allied parties – Communist, Nasserist and socialist – were permitted to operate, albeit in a very circumscribed way. Assad was, every seven years, re-elected with 99 per cent of the vote or thereabouts. The background of the ministers and of the members of the People’s Assembly, to a large extent, reflected the national breakdown of communities.
But aside from this formal system of governance there was an alternative informal system, based on the security apparatus. As a former conspirator, Assad excelled in maintaining the security of the regime. The mukhabarat, or secret police, was not the invention of the regime, however. The Ottomans had their spies. The French relied on intelligence services, and the pre-1970 regimes had their secret police. But by allowing Assad to take over power, these obviously failed. And so during the Assad years the security services were vastly expanded. There were half a dozen organisations, each headed by somebody who worked with total loyalty to Hafez al-Assad. The confrontation with Israel was the pretext and excuse for a State of Emergency which gave unrestricted and unaccountable authority to the security services. Public debate was stifled. The mukhabarat had files on everybody and its agents operated in every school, university, workplace, village and town quarter. By the 1990s it was reckoned that there were 100,000 full time members of the security forces. That means one for every 200 citizens. If we consider that over half the population is under twenty and that half is female, then that proportion comes down to one in fifty men. This also meant that every citizen may have had a relation, colleague, old school-fellow or neighbour who was a mukhabarat official at the operational level. However, the more senior a mukhabarat officer was, the more likely it was that he was an Alawite. Everybody was conscious of the power and unchallenged authority of the mukhabarat. Any political independence or potential activity against the regime was noted and perpetrators could expect to be called in for questioning, for rough interrogation, detention, and in many cases torture, disappearance and execution. Syria had one of the worst reputations for the abuse of human rights, though the abuses fluctuated over the decades.
Syrians learned to live with the mukhabarat. Discussion of politics was avoided. Rituals of overt support for the regime were observed, such as public applause at the name of the President. It was possible to lead a full life without politics, and, until 2011, the mukhabarat were interested in dissent rather than enforced assent. There were plenty of exceptions to this, and from time to time there were instances of arbitrary and capricious brutality. People were imprisoned without charge and without knowing why.
In the main cities non-Alawites were conscious of the concentration of power in the hands of this minority, many of whom came to occupy particular areas of those cities. Public policy was to ignore or overlook confessional differences, but an identifying accent or even body language was noted. The Assad years witnessed the emancipation of the Alawites. It is important however to recognise that there was no homogeneity amongst this community. There were clan and tribal differences. There were differences of class, between urban professionals and rural peasantry, between migrants from the sanjak of Alexandretta and the rest. Some religious leaders claimed a following, and it was revealing to discover who owed allegiance to particular religious leaders or their families. But Alawites in general, after centuries of oppression, became confident and assertive. They took to education, and the first generation of educated Alawites displayed a creativity beyond their numbers. For example, writers and intellectuals such as Hani al-Rahib, Sulaiman Ahmad, Sa‘dallah Wannus, Mamduh Udwan and Bouthaina Shaaban achieved reputations that went beyond Syria and owed nothing to any privilege Alawites may have enjoyed. This generation of Alawites was politically active and it is reckoned that there was a disproportionate number of Alawites who were political prisoners.
Many Alawite intellectuals have moved into opposition since March 2011 – among them the writers Samar Yazbek and Rosa Yassin Hassan and the leftist Abdul Aziz al-Khayyar. Rasha Omran, an Alawite poet now living in exile, writes in this issue of Critical Muslim of her daughter’s arrest by the state, and the unexpected responses of her Alawi friends and relatives to her family crisis. Omran was forced to confront the notion of ‘identity’, according to which ‘My daughter and I constitute part of “Us”, the power which protects its followers, a power we must follow simply because we share the sect of its leaders. According to this notion, citizenship enjoys the status of a fallen woman, belonging to the larger homeland means nothing at all, and security must stem from the narrowest sectarian allegiance’.
For some Sunni Muslims, Alawites were not Muslims. This troubled Hafez al-Assad. He showed a strange deference to formalities, and the constitution required the president to be a Muslim. Musa al-Sadr, the Shi‘ite leader in Lebanon, issued a fatwa declaring that Alawites were indeed Muslims. Hafez al-Assad made a point of patronising Sunni Muslim clerics such as the Mufti, Ahmad Kaftaru, and Muhammad Sa‘id al-Buti. In his later years he broke his habitual seclusion to come to the Umayyad Mosque for prayers for the Eid at the end of Ramadan. But for the older classes the simmering resentment of the Alawites and their dominance of the armed forces and the security services owed as much to class consciousness. The servants and peasants had taken over.
Under Hafez al-Assad there were four echelons of political power. The lowest level was that of ministers. They were like civil servants and could be appointed or dismissed at will. Apart from the ceremony of swearing in they may have had no personal contact with the president. But they had a budget and some patronage of their own and could build up their own fiefdoms, especially if they were in office for any length of time. And this was often the case. If people showed loyalty to the president, he returned that loyalty. He was also loath to change. For a well-established minister, his or her ministry became like a state within the state.
Above the ministers was the party. The Ba‘ath Party had its branches throughout the country and the party secretary at any level had precedence over the formal official. The regional command of the party made policy and each ministry was shadowed by a member of that command. By the turn of the century there were a million party members. Membership and loyalty helped with employment prospects, although some Ministers were not members of the party. There were also hierarchies within the Party.
Above the party was the security apparatus which has been discussed. All management lines from the different security organisations led to the president himself.
It was around the person, the court as it were, that the top echelon of power could be found. Hafez al-Assad, a workaholic who toiled round the clock, took an interest in every appointment. Sometimes a minister had a direct link to the president or a member of his nuclear family. This link would endow the minister with greater authority, bypassing the party echelon and sometimes even the security apparatus. In his last years, the president rarely left his flat or his office. He was not generally visible and, apart from occasional overseas trips, did not get around the country much. It was reckoned that he did not go to Aleppo, the second city of the country, after the 1970s, and never went to Deir ez-Zor. Damascus and his home village of Qardaha were the limits of his travels within the country. Hafez al-Assad did not extend his circle and the ‘court’ was limited, although in the last years there was greater access to his sons. Other members of the family and his wife’s family, the Makhloufs, were – to some extent – more accessible, extending the nature of ‘court politics’. It was difficult to withstand the influence or requests of members of the families that were linked to the president.
Since the country’s descent into the chaos of the last three years, it is easy to see the years of the two Assads as having always been rotten to the core. But this would be misleading and would also minimise the regime’s achievements even though, under Hafez al-Assad, Syria steadily became a corrupt police state.
The forty Assad years had three remarkable and creditable achievements: socialism, stability and secularism.
The Ba‘athist ideology was socialist. It aimed at a redistribution of power and resources, and the emancipation of the peasants. There was a redistribution programme, with a break-up of landed estates and nationalisations under successive governments, both before the union with Egypt and under the influence of Nasserist socialism. This led to a flight of businesses out of the country. However, under the Assads, and especially and consciously under Hafez al-Assad, Ba‘athist ideology was inclusive. It was determined that every village should have access to fresh water, electricity, a health clinic and education. It could be argued that the quality of these services was often poor, but villages had not enjoyed these advantages before. Nor was this expansion of utilities and services unique to socialist Syria; the capitalist countries of the Arabian Peninsula had a similar positive record. Under the Assads it was theoretically possible for a poor child from a village, if he or she were bright enough, to receive free education from primary school to university. By the end of the century there were plenty of cases of people from poor rural backgrounds reaching the tops of the professions. Before the 1960s, power went to people, usually men, from the major cities. By the turn of the century, the elites included people from the rural west and the Euphrates Valley as well as from the major cities.
Before Hafez al-Assad assumed power in 1970, Syria was risibly notorious for its political instability. The country was subject to military coups – there were two in 1949 alone. It was impossible to plan ahead. It was unsettling, and inhibited people from investing in the country. The Assad regimes changed all that – up to 2011. The stability was gained at a price, as we have seen: the defences of stability restricted human rights in an appalling way. Hafez al-Assad was initially popular but faced challenges – from Islamists between 1978 and 1982 and from his brother in the 1980s. These challenges were faced with either brutal suppression, or with cunning personal diplomacy. The most traumatising of suppressions was the regime’s massacre of somewhere between ten and forty thousand people in Hama in 1982 after the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood took over the city. By the 1990s all opposition had been crushed or exiled.
In her moving essay, Amal Hanano links the story of a woman who played dead under corpses in 1982 Hama to that of Anas, a man who had the same experience in Daraya in 2012. The woman used to write down what she had witnessed, then burn the pages, lest they were discovered. ‘The process of writing and burning, remembering and repressing, speaking then falling silent,’ Hanano writes, ‘is the story of Syria under the rule of the Assad dynasty.’ Of course, this all changed in 2011. Anas, and the new generation, no longer burn their stories:
When, in moments of weakness, you question, was our parents’ silence better, smarter, stronger than our brothers’ and sisters’ chants? When you ask, were we really paying the price of silence, or did silence protect us then from the hell unleashed in Syria today? When doubt contaminates your beliefs, you go back to the woman in Hama who still burns her story. And you go back to Anas, who bravely tells his story over and over, so everyone is forced to listen and never forget.
But back in the eighties and nineties, for those who kept out of politics, the stability became a stasis, and people knew where they were. Syrian secularism drew on a liberal and open tradition epitomised by the two examples at the head of this essay. It was in the regime’s interests to underplay confessionalism. Religious identity was manifest either by where you worshipped or whom you married. People were usually – but not always – aware of the religious identity of others. Aleppo and Damascus had their Muslim, Christian and Jewish quarters, but these were not sealed ghettos. In the countryside there were villages that were Muslim, Christian, Kurdish or Turcoman, but there were no villages or quarters exclusive to people of one confession. The wealthy urban Sunni elite was politically marginalised but prospered economically under the Assads. Hafez al-Assad fostered cordial relations with the largely Sunni business elite of Damascus, while the regime drew its support from poorer rural Muslims. We have seen how, from his twenties, Hafez al-Assad deliberately built his support nationally for ideological reasons. He presented himself as a Syrian Arab, not as an Alawite. When Islamism challenged Ba‘athist rule in the years after 1978 he responded with savage repression. Yet many Syrians found this was a price worth paying when they saw what was happening in Lebanon in the 1980s or Algeria in the 1990s.
Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000. Like Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Mubarak in Egypt – and one may add, like the rulers of all the countries in the Arabian peninsula – he wanted a son to succeed him as President. From the 1980s he was publicly addressed as Abu Basil, and his eldest son, Basil, was presented as heir. But Basil was killed driving at great speed on the way to the airport in January 1994. His younger brother Bashaar returned from ophthalmological training in London and assumed the role of heir apparent. Bashaar seemed more reflective, and was less flamboyant than his brother. He received military training and rapid promotion, travelled around the country and quickly became more visible and approachable than his father.
After the father died, a constitutional process – albeit with expeditious amendment – was launched to appoint a successor. Bashaar was duly elected as Secretary General of the Ba‘ath Party and as president. He seemed a breath of fresh air. He was a computer buff and seemed to be aware of the outside world in a way his father never was. The first months of his presidency were full of hope. He wandered around the city of Damascus with minimum security. He married a dashing London Syrian girl (whose father was a doctor in London but whose family were Sunni merchants from Homs). They ate out in public. He seemed to encourage open debate, a freer press. Political prisoners were released and Damascus saw political forums debate previously taboo issues. Afra Jalabi, who contributes an essay to this issue, was a signatory to the Damascus Declaration, formed in 2005 as an umbrella group to create an indigenous political alliance to push for gradual change.
But the Damascus spring was followed by a Damascus winter. Press restrictions were reinstated. Dissidents were rearrested. Others went into exile. As for Afra Jalabi and her Damascus Declaration colleagues, ‘most of the initial 200 signatories inside Syria were imprisoned, and those of us in the diaspora who signed it found ourselves on Syrian security lists, unable to visit the country again’. Jalabis describes her ‘first visit in years’ to the ‘liberated’ territories of the north, which are certainly not liberated from the threat of air strikes.
Bashaar constantly promised reforms but hinted that political reforms should only follow after economic reforms. He had been under pressure, especially from the European Union, to liberalise the economy, and as a result, in the early years of the century state enterprises were denationalised, private banks were founded, and the public sector monopoly of higher education ended. As in the former Soviet Union, this resulted in greater freedom for a few, but an increased disparity in wealth. The beneficiaries were all people close to the regime. Sons of favoured generals and of others near the court of the President – awlad al-sulta, ‘sons of those in power’, they were called – made massive fortunes. Smart restaurants charging European prices flourished. To the west of Damascus, villas with swimming pools were built behind security walls. For a while there was even a casino.
But there were other developments over which Bashaar had no control. Most Syrians have connections outside the country: migrants who have settled in Europe, the United States or South America; men and women who have studied abroad; temporary, but long term, residents in the Gulf states; the middle classes who have taken holidays in Europe, or closer to home in Cyprus or Turkey; a working class who have worked for US$20 a day in Lebanon. Since the 1960s many men, especially of the articulate middle class, have married foreign wives. Their children, who could be called awlad al-‘ālam (children of the world), were bicultural, unquestionably Syrian, but with an awareness of international standards (if not practices) of liberty and openness. They had grown up with the information revolution that has destroyed the self-deluding propaganda of totalitarian regimes. They could see how Bashaar was failing to meet the expectations of his first few years. The regime’s legitimacy crumbled.
The Arab Spring was delayed in its arrival in Syria. In January 2011 Bashaar al-Assad gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal in which he said that Syria was stable, unlike the surrounding Arab states, because the regime was close to the beliefs of the people. Two months later the southern city of Dara‘a was in revolt and by March there were demonstrations in the capital.
Drought in the years before 2011 had led to a migration from rural areas to the outer suburbs of the big cities. Dara‘a, in the centre of an agricultural region, was badly affected, and schoolboys scribbled ‘The people want the downfall of the regime’ on walls. There was an immediate cruel and insensitive response. In the spring the first demonstrations took place in the major cities. At first the opposition was not directly challenging the regime. Specific demands were made, echoing the demands of the Damascus Spring ten years earlier. Demonstrators waved yellow cards, like a football referee giving a player a warning rather than sending him off. Early demonstrations were particularly strong in the neglected rural areas – ironically just those areas from which the Ba‘athist regime had originally derived their strongest support. The demonstrations in Damascus led to state-organised counter-demonstrations in support of the regime. It was observed that the pro-Bashaar demonstrators were smartly dressed, the new prosperous beneficiaries of neo-liberal economic policies (although many were civil servants and schoolchildren bussed in).
Demonstrations were brutally suppressed, suspects were rounded up and tortured. By late 2011 the infrastructure of the country was imploding. Syria broke down into the hell that we have been witnessing ever since.
Why has this happened? Although the President and his court are at the apex of the echelons of power in the country, there have always been multiple power structures. Hafez al-Assad was able to manage these, but Bashaar lacks the cunning of his father. There is another big difference between father and son. The father was a young idealist. He had a vision of a socialist Syria – breaking up the traditional urban powers, and emancipating the peasants. In this he succeeded, albeit at a high cost. He was ready to reward those loyal to him and to mercilessly crush any who got in his way. By contrast, Bashaar was born to privilege. Such vision as he had has been hesitant and inarticulate. But he has been decisive in defending the privileges of his court and of those who are loyal to him, principally the security services and the armed gangs, the shabiha, who have raided, beaten up, tortured and killed on behalf of the regime. Steadily over his first decade of power, the popular support he initially enjoyed was squandered. During the course of 2011 the regime lost control of large swathes of the country. The opposition was fragmented and there seemed to be an increase in the perpetration of atrocities. Insecure borders have allowed adventurers, mercenaries and fanatics to add to the misery of ordinary Syrians. The parts the government did control, or where they were able to re-establish control, faced confident and unrestrained security forces. Apart from the concerted support from Russia and Iran, it has been suggested that the resilience of the regime is because of the extensive work of the mukhabarat spying on the population over the previous forty years, as well as the establishment of a network of air bases throughout the country. It was as if the regime had always been preparing for this crisis.
It is impertinent for a non-Syrian to propose a solution. The civil war has acquired its own momentum. But there has been nothing inevitable about the conflict, which is a repudiation of the habits and traditions in Syria that have prevailed over centuries if not millennia. It is a Syrian conflict and it is for Syrians to find their way out, with the support, help and encouragement of their friends.
The end of all this is obscure, and the present reality a cause of controversy. In the pages to come, Ella Wind finds that ‘a strong tension exists between outside and inside perspectives, between journalistic storylines and anecdotal accounts’. Her essay undermines the stereotypes and false assumptions of media representations by describing two men she knew in Syria in 2011, film-maker Bassel Shahadeh, killed by regime bombs, and Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a prominent Jesuit priest first exiled by the regime then abducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In these pages too, Louis Proyect castigates the failure of Islamophobic left-liberal intellectuals to respond intelligently to the crisis, taking particular aim at the New Yorker and London Review of Books.
In these last years, Syrian culture has been revolutionised, for good and for ill. Maysaloon’s essay for this issue depicts the rise of Syrian drama serials in recent decades, and their hidden complicity with regime priorities. Dan Gorman and Yasmin Fedda, on the other hand, explore the history of subversive documentary production. Frederic Gijsel offers a vision of a raucous Damascene poetry club in the final moments before revolution, and Itab Azzam provides an account of how she persuaded refugee women to participate in a production of Euripides’ Trojan Women. Robin Yassin-Kassab considers the enormous cultural rupture caused by the revolution, the explosion of ‘low-brow’ revolutionary art, of revolutionary newspapers and radio stations, and of experiments in local self-organisation.
What else lies within these covers? There is prose from Zakaria Tamer, master of the Arabic very short story, and poetry from the accomplished Kurdish-Syrian poet Golan Haji, and still much more. For now, the last word must go to Amal Hanano, who sums up the immediacy of today’s Syrian turmoil: ‘We awakened not only to fight the oppression and brutality that had defined us. We awakened to discover who we were.’