The Anti-Syrian Politics
By Ghassan Kadi, 10 June 2011
In this closing chapter of the sequel of articles, it must be emphasized that the objective is not to defend Assad, but rather to explain some truths that are related to the recent history that led to this moment in time.
Some comments received reiterated that the focus must be on the future, but we study the past in order to be able to put the benefit of hindsight into practice.
In the not too distant past, Lebanon and Syria were fairly identical in most respects. Lebanon is the mountain region of the Syrian coast. Its state borders moved back and forth just like the borders of any other countries including super powers like France.
Historically, Lebanon housed a higher percentage of Christian population than Syria. Its mountainous terrain turned it into a refuge for Christians who feared religious persecution. Christianity however is not alien to Syria. In Maaloola and Sidnaya near Damascus, ancient Churches continue to make their prayers in Aramaic; the spoken language of Christ. Damascus itself houses the grave of John the Baptist inside its Grand Omayyad Mosque.
When the young Syrian and Lebanese states received their independence from France in the 40s, there was little difference between the countries. When the census was done earlier in 1932, some citizens were caught on the “wrong” side of the borders and families were split as half Lebanese and half Syrians. This included my family. Back then, no one seemed to care much.
The central bank for both states was the “Bank of Syria and Lebanon” and Lebanese currency had that name on its notes until the mid 60’s.
The 50’s were a tumultuous time for Syria. It was a period of political unrest and political assassinations. In 1958, Syria became a part of the United Arab Republic when it united with Egypt under Nasser as president. On the 28th of September 1960, a military coup ended the union with Egypt. That coup was followed by a series of coups and it became almost impossible to keep track of such developments until the Baath party finally took over by a military coup on the 8th of March 1963.
The Baathist coup was followed by more turmoil and inter-party rivalry which did not end until Hafez Assad assumed power after the “Corrective Movement” in 1970.
The turbulent 50’s continued into the 60’s where Syria experienced a very tough time. The political unrest resulted in an exodus of wealth and entrepreneurs. The natural recipient of that exodus was Lebanon. Even without the Syrian influx, Lebanon was having its golden age. The Lebanese civil unrest of the summer of 1958 was soon forgotten and Lebanon became known as Switzerland of the East.
The Syria that Hafez Assad inherited was poor and corrupt. It had little infrastructure, under developed agriculture and industries, and to top it off, it was in a state of war with Israel.
What contributed more to the Syrian/Lebanese schism was that Syria had an autocratic political regime, and Lebanon was a tax haven that had a political system which was very close to a Western-style democracy.
As Lebanon was getting richer and more open to the world, Syria was getting poorer and more closed up. Crossing the borders from Lebanon into Syria became similar to crossing the borders from San Diego USA to Tijuana Mexico.
Nation-building was paramount on Assad’s agenda. For this to happen, very strict austerity measures had to be put in place. And here is something that the West cannot understand. To put such austerity measures into action, a leader cannot be democratically elected. Democratically-elected leaders are not able to implement severe measures without losing the next elections. The continuity of strict nation-building projects demands either dictatorship or bipartisanism which is virtually impossible to find in a place where party politics dictate that anything can be used as a political weapon.
By the mid 70’s, Lebanon’s golden age was coming to an end. The Western-style democracy soon turned into anarchy, and the country succumbed into a long and bitter civil war that had a strong sectarian foundation.
In the 70’s, as Lebanon was breaking apart and as its people were adopting the law of militia groups, the Syrians were ruled by an iron fist that did not tolerate any sectarian divisions and any form of political freedom that would mimic the neighbouring chaotic Lebanon.
The wheel of fate started to turn the other way, and this time, it was in the favour of Syria.
All the while as Lebanese youth were going to get military training in sectarian militia camps and were fed with sectarian prejudice, Syrian youth were conscripted in the national secular army and given lessons in patriotism.
Whilst Lebanese militia groups were kidnapping, maiming, torturing and killing other Lebanese on sectarian grounds, it became illegal in Syria to even ask another citizen about his/her religion with a mandatory jail sentence in place.
The Lebanese citizen grew up believing that he/she can live his/her own way under his/her own law. The Syrian citizen grew up knowing that there is law and order and severe punishments would ensue if those laws are broken.
The Syrian regime gained its dictatorial notoriety by implementing very strict rules of law and order, and whilst the one-party rule meant a continued grab of power by the Baath Party, it also meant that Syria would not slump into a Lebanese-style multi-party anarchy.
The Syrian Intelligence (Moukhabarat) became a very powerful organization. Styled like the KGB, it did not leave any chance for dissent.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood began to stir anti-Assad passion among the Sunnis. They regarded Assad (an Alawite) as an infidel. They ambushed and killed several top ranking Alawite military personnel and Syria was about to follow the footsteps of Lebanon in its civil war.
Assad crushed the revolt ruthlessly. In an unprecedented move, the Syrian army attacked the brotherhood in a mosque in Hama where the rebels thought they would be safe.
Those rebels were not peaceful democracy campaigners. They were an armed bunch of murderers with a fundamentalist Sunni agenda; similar to what is now known as Al-Qaeda.
One of the biggest challenges that Hafez Assad had to confront was his home-grown corruption. His own brother, Rifaat , established a state within a state. He was a corrupt officer surrounded by a bunch of thugs and looters. Rifaat was eventually exiled to France where he could not cause any trouble.
Assad managed to rid himself of many of the corrupt officers and officials but he never was able to do this fully. Corruption is a universal “disease” and Syria is not immune.
Needless to say that the brutality of the Moukhabarat was invariably unjust and many innocent people were incarcerated some were allegedly never seen again.
Nevertheless, when Hafez Assad died in 2000, Syria had been transformed. The country became a safe haven, a secular model, and a politically stable country with a growing economy and a good foundation of an infrastructure.
When Bashar Assad took over the presidency, he fast tracked the process of reform. The tough austerity measures of his father’s era had already paid dividend and were eased. Imports were allowed to flow in as the economy was able to afford them. The Internet and Mobile phones became a part of Syrian life. The country prospered as private enterprise regained its position in the thriving economy. And last but not least, some political freedom was allowed. Parties such as the Lebanese-rooted Syrian National Socialist Party and the Communist Party, to name some, were given the freedom to operate. The political freedom that Bashar was not to tolerate was the one that had sectarian agendas and/or the one that would call for armed revolt.
Any person who denies that Bashar Assad had embarked on the journey of reform from the day he took office is either ill-informed, or deliberately twisting the truth.
Ironically, the reforms that the West demands of Assad are already getting introduced one at a time. They cannot be rushed in simply because this is what the USA and France demand today.
If anything, France’s biggest promise to the peoples of Lebanon and Syria was to keep them segregated. General Gouraud made this very clear after his troops savagely massacred the outnumbered and ill-equipped Syrian Army led by the gallant Yousef Al Azmeh in Maysaloun in 1920. This same general is notoriously renowned for stepping his foot on the tomb of Salladin in Damascus saying “we have returned”. It was France which bombed Damascus and its famous Hamidiyye Souk (Bazaar). For the French FM Alain Juppe to make claims today that France cares about Syria and Syrian people is quite laughable.
Bashar’s biggest failing is that he did not do a house cleaning like his father did. Bashar is surrounded by a huge number of very good men and women working with him to serve Syria. However, there is a handful of bad apples around him that need to be plucked out. He knows well who they are and they should be on his priority list after restoring peace and order in Syria.
With his failings and short-comings, Bashar Assad and the Assad legacy have created a prosperous and stable Syria, introduced many political and economic reforms, and domestically stood up against sectarianism and fundamentalism while on the regional arena stood up single-handedly against the American/Israeli plots. Last but not least, the legacy secured the defeat of Israel in Lebanon.
Bashar Assad does not display any of the traits of an unpatriotic ruler who accumulates wealth and lives an opulent life like Mubarak or Bin Ali of Tunisia. Reports from people who know Assad consistently maintain that he is a humble man. This is also evident in any of his official appearances. He has been able to holiday and move freely around Syria with his family without the need of protection and indeed live a very normal life. It is hard to believe that he is not distressed at what is happening to his country.
Even if one would stretch a very long bow and assume that Assad is indeed personally responsible for all of the recent bloodshed in Syria, any person with good knowledge of Syria would reiterate that any replacement of Assad will very highly likely lead to much more bloodshed. When this argument was put forward by Mubarak it was indeed an act of scaremongering. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt did not have a violent past like its Syrian counterpart.
If Assad goes down, Sunni fundamentalism is likely to replace a balanced secular system, anarchy will replace stability, economic uncertainty will replace growth, and there is no guarantee at all that democracy will ensue.
There is no valid argument for replacing Assad. Those who are making this call are not offering any better alternatives. They are simply letting off steam and seeking vengeance. How can this be better for Syria or the rest of the world? Do the Arabs need a new Iraq? Does America need a new Afghanistan?