A Syrian joke goes like this. Two Syrian mukhabarat officers are competing in the Secret Police Olympics. The spooks are supposed to go into a wood and catch a rabbit using nothing but their bare hands. The other countries’ teams have caught their rabbits, but the Syrians have not returned.
The judges go into the wood and find the two secret policemen beating a donkey. They are shouting, “Confess you are a rabbit! Confess you are a rabbit!”
1920-46: France administered Syria
1948: Syria defeated in war with Israel
1958-61: Syria unites with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic
1961: The two entities separate; Syrian Arab Republic re-established
1963: Baath Party seizes power
1967: Syria looses the Golan Heights to Israel
1970: Hafiz al-Asad, a member of the Socialist Baath Party and the minority Alawite sect, takes power
2000: Following the death of President al-Asad, his son, Bashar, becomes president
2005: Syrian troops, stationed in Lebanon since 1976, are withdrawn
The story tells us not that the Syrian secret police are stupid, but that they are free to redefine reality in any way they want.
Everything about this nasty, rickety state run by Bashar al-Asad stinks of “double-speak”, stagnation and corruption. The Syrian state plays a contemptible role at home and abroad. The regime uses vicious repression inside Syrian borders and — because of its weakness, and to avoid direct confrontations — uses proxies to meddle, poisonously, across the Middle East. The government’s staggering unscrupulousness and shamelessly contradictory policies have simple aims: what will keep the regime in power? what will strengthen and extend its grip?
2008 was a good year for the Syrian regime. It emerged from a period of isolation, having been targeted by George Bush’s administration as a rogue state. It had avoided immediate, direct consequences from its involvement in the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.
Following Hariri’s murder, and under enormous pressure, Asad had removed Syrian troops from Lebanon. In 2008 Syria normalised diplomatic relations with Lebanon and began talks with Israel (under Olmert) over the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan heights. The regime was rewarded with visits from European leaders, including French President Sarkozy and UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband. That wing of the ruling class that wants to “constructively engage” Syria appears ascendant.
However, given the right’s victory and the return of Binyamin Netanyahu in the recent Israeli elections, it is unlikely Syria will get a deal on the Golan. During the campaign Netanyahu made a point of pledging to keep the Golan. However, as al-Asad notes (repeating a phrase of Kissinger’s), “there will be no peace in the Middle East without Syria.”
Syria is a prison. Syrians have lived under a State of Emergency — formally limiting the right to free assembly — continuously since the Baath Party came to power 46 years ago.
The various branches of the vast security network often step outside Syria’s already draconian laws. According to the US State Department (2007) there are probably 1500-3000 political prisoners in Syria. Amnesty International notes 38 methods of torture that have been used by the regime.
Amnesty comments, “Any peaceful acts or expression deemed critical of the authorities can be suppressed under a legislative decree that penalises opposition to the socialist [sic] system or state, and criminalises ‘opposition to the actualisation of unity between Arab nations or to any of the revolution’s objectives or their obstruction through carrying out demonstrations, assemblies, riots… or by dissemination of false news with the aim of creating uncertainty and shaking the confidence of the masses in the objectives of the revolution’. These offences can be punished by sentences ranging from imprisonment with hard labour to death.”
Those advocating basic human rights are at risk. Muhammad Bedia’ Dekalbab, for example, a member of the unauthorized National Organization for Human Rights, was sentenced by the Military Court to six months’ imprisonment in June 2008. He was found guilty of “spreading false or exaggerated information… that may undermine the prestige of the State”.
Syrian law prohibits independent trade unions. All workers’ organisations must be affiliated with the country’s sole official trade union federation, the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), which is strictly controlled by the ruling party.
The Ministry of Labour determines the composition of the GFTU congress and sets the conditions for the use of trade union funds.
“The right to strike is severely restricted by the threat of punishment and fines. Strikes involving more than 20 workers in certain sectors, and any strike action which takes place on the public highways or in public places or that involves the occupation of premises, are punishable by fines and prison sentences.” (ITUC, 2007)
Forced labour can be imposed on anyone who causes “prejudice to the general production plan”.
Currently there are seven free trade zones, where workers have no union representation. And the situation faced by many migrant workers is so bad that the governments of Sri Lanka and the Philippines have banned their citizens taking employment as domestic workers in Syria because of the abuses and lack of legal protection.
Syria is a country of 20 million people, 60% of whom are under 20. Ninety percent are Arab; other groups include Kurds and Armenians. Three quarters of Syria’s population are Sunni Muslims, 10% are Christians and 12% Alawites.
Syria’s boundaries were drawn up by France and Britain, for their own reasons, after World War One. From the point of view of a rational organisation of the people in the region, the borders make no sense.
After the World War Two and independence in 1946, the defeat of the Arab armies by Israel in 1948 shook the Syrian state. The elite had expected an easy victory, but instead they were trounced.
In the period between 1948 and the intra-Baath coup that brought Bashar al-Asad’s father, Hafiz, to power in 1970, Syria was the most unstable country on earth. Dozens of coups and coup attempts took place — explained by the artificiality of the state, the numerous competing groups inside its borders, its lack of resources and backwardness, and Syria’s disastrous relationships with its neighbours.
Hafiz brought Syria stability, but at a terrible cost. For example, in February 1982, to break the revolt of the Muslim Brothers, Hafiz Asad ordered a full-scale attack on the Syrian city of Hama. Over 10,000 people were killed and a considerable part of the town was destroyed.
The Ba’ath Party which first seized power in 1963 is modelled on Eastern European Stalinist parties. It proclaimed itself for Arab unity, freedom (for Arabs from foreign domination, rather than individual liberty) and socialism. By 2005 nearly 10% of the population, or 1.8 million people, were members. The Party aims to have direct control all key areas of society — the economy, state machine, education and religion. Party cells exist at all levels throughout society.
Ba’ath founders were also influenced by Hitler. Sami al-Jundi, the Party’s Prime Minister in 1963, recalled, “We were racists, admirers of fascism, eagerly reading Nazi books… We were the first to translate Mein Kampf.” After the war several Nazi war criminals found refuge in Syria, including some who were employed as advisors to the Syrian security services. Alois Brunner, an assistant to Adolf Eichmann who had been convicted of the murder of 100,000 people by a French court, lived undisturbed in Damascus until the mid-90s. Brunner declared he would “do it again”, describing the Jews as “human garbage” (The truth about Syria, Barry Rubin).
Anti-semitism is a major strand of state propaganda. Mustafa Tlas, Hafiz Asad’s closest political friend and former Defence Minister, published a widely circulated book claiming that Jews murdered children so they could drink their blood during Passover. Holocaust denial and Jewish-Nazi collaboration are continual state-sponsored themes.
There are only a small number of Jewish citizens left in Syria. They are barred from government employment, serving in the armed forces and contact with Israel. Jews are the only minority group whose passports and identity cards note their ethnicity/religion. Jews have to obtain permission from the security services before traveling abroad (US State Dept, 2007).
The regime is first and foremost a dynasty — the property of the al-Asad family — and beyond the family and clan, it rests on the Alawites, a minority Muslim sect.
The name “Alawite” refers to Ali, the hero of Shia Islam. The Alawites have faced persecution, repression, massacres and, in the nineteenth century, an unsuccessful campaign by the Ottoman state to convert them to Sunni Islam.
After the French colonialists arrived in 1920 the Alawites were promoted precisely because they were an alienated minority group with little reason to back independence led by the Sunni elite. The French brought the Alawites into the army and the army was used to break up Sunni-led nationalist demonstrations and workers’ protests — from where, following independence, organisations based on the Alawite community were in a strong position to organise coups.
There are certain ideological advantages for the Alawite core of the Syrian Baathists to proclaim themselves secularists and for Arab unity. It allows them to appeal beyond their minority — and from a Sunni standpoint, heretic — community, stressing what they have in common with the majority of Syrians. “Arab unity” also provides a cover for Syrian expansionism.
Historically, before 1918, under the Ottoman empire, Syria had been a much bigger unit — including what is now Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. Many Syrian nationalists have regarded these areas as properly Syrian.
When Hafiz al-Asad died in June 2000 the country was turned over to his son. The constitution, which stated that the president had to be over 40 years of age, was quickly amended to over 34 years-old — Bashar al-Asad’s exact age. Bashar was then endorsed in a nationwide referendum, with 97.29% of the vote, “slightly less than the 99% his father regularly received” (The new Lion of Damascus, David Lesch).
At first, hopes of new freedoms under Bashar al-Asad appeared to being realised. Numerous muntadat (“forums”) emerged, and began to meet in private houses to discuss political matters.
The Manifesto of the 99 demanded the cancellation of the State of Emergency and abolition of martial law and special courts; the release of all political prisoners; and the right to form political parties. Human rights committees were founded, or re-established. However the brief “Spring” ended with arrests, jailings and beatings after August 2001.
Despite repression these groups continued to have some existence, including some Kurdish groups.
Bashar al-Asad has implemented modest market reforms, including opening private banks, raising prices on some subsidised items, most notably petrol and cement, and establishing the Damascus Stock Exchange — which recently began operations.
“Nevertheless, the economy remains highly controlled by the government. Long-run economic constraints include declining oil production, high unemployment and inflation, rising budget deficits, and increasing pressure on water supplies caused by heavy use in agriculture, rapid population growth, industrial expansion, and water pollution.” (CIA report)
The Syrian state is staggeringly unscrupulous. It crushed the Syrian Muslim Brothers (the destruction of Hama in 1982 was much bloodier than Israel’s recent war on Gaza), and jails and tortures Islamists, but allows the Brothers’ Palestinian sister group, Hamas, to operate out of Damascus, where Hamas leader Khalid Meshal lives. Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s leader Ramadan Shallah is also based in Damascus.
“Secular” Syrian leaders also encouraged anti-American Sunni insurgents in Iraq, following the Iraq war in 2003.
And Syria backed the Kurdish PKK in the 1980s and 90s, allowing PKK fighters to use Syria as a base for their war against the Turkish state. Turkey demanded that Syria close down the PKK’s headquarters in Damascus and expel its leader Abdallah Ocalan. Syria finally backed down in 1998 when faced with Turkish troops massing on the border.
However Syria discriminates against its own Kurdish minority. Independent Kurdish political activity, including pro-PKK activity, is repressed. 300,000 Syrian-born Kurds in northern Syria are refused Syrian citizenship.
Aside from economic development the key strategic aim of the Syrian dictatorship is to regain the Israeli-occupied Golan and extend its influence, especially in Lebanon.
Syria has systematically interfered in Lebanon, making Lebanon its semi-colony, only withdrawing its military under real pressure in 2005. It has assassinated politicians and journalists who opposed its role. It has bribed and intimidated the Lebanese elite and forged an alliance with the militarised Shiite party, Hizbollah.
Syria has avoided direct confrontation with Israel across the occupied Golan Heights, with not a shot fired in anger across the armistice line since 1974. Instead Syria confronts Israel through organisations like Hizbollah. Syria was a force behind the 2006 war, arming its ally and urging it on, benefiting from the chaos and destruction in Lebanon. During the war it publically posed as an intransigent “defender of Arabs” while privately continuing peace talks with Israel during the first phase of the war, breaking off only due to Israel’s reluctance.
The allegedly pan-Arabist Syrian leaders have forged an alliance with non-Arab Iran. The alliance originally allowed Hafiz al-Asad to make better links with the Iranian inspired Hizbollah and united Syrian and Iran against a common enemy, Saddam’s Baath-run Iraq. “Revolutionary”, “anti-imperialist” Syria sided with the US anti-Iraq coalition during the first Gulf war, winning some diplomatic concessions and being allowed a freer hand in Lebanon.
Despite the fact that Syria has had some diplomatic contacts with all recent Israeli governments — including, behind the scenes, with Netanyahu previous administration — it is unlikely a deal will be done to return the Golan to Syria soon.
Syria is going nowhere. And that means continued repression at home and self-serving, pseudo-radical, “anti-Zionist” interference abroad.