April 22, 2009


The Ways of Syria: Stasis in Damascus: a review of The View From Damascus: State, Political Community, and Foreign Relations in the Twentieth-Century Syria by Itamar Rabinovich (Fouad Ajami, May/June 2009, Foreign Affairs)

The rogues and coup makers whose conspiracies have wrecked Syria's history walk out of Rabinovich's pages. Rabinovich provides a full and vivid chronicle of the way the French mandate in the interwar period tried -- and failed -- to shape and order the Syrian state. Other writers may tell in the most general of ways how the Alawis, a community of heterodox, historically marginal mountaineers, emerged as the masters of this fragmented land. But Rabinovich carefully reconstructs their odyssey, as they rode on the coattails of France through service in its colonial troops, then made their way through the Baath Party and the military to the commanding heights of the political order.

In 1970, an Alawi peasant-soldier, Hafez al-Assad, emerged from a rapid succession of coups d'├ętat. On the face of it, there was nothing to suggest that this coup maker would succeed where others before him had failed. But he was to rule for three decades and bequeath to his son Bashar a political kingdom. Rabinovich provides a subtle portrait of Assad senior, no doubt the last century's most consequential Syrian leader.

To most of Syria's proud urban Sunni community, the Alawis are a people of dissimulation and concealment, and Hafez al-Assad was thought to be an embodiment of his community's ways. He was "deliberate, patient, and cool-headed," Rabinovich observes. As a "grey, slow, somewhat awkward politician," he would tame his once-turbulent and difficult country -- and put in a serious bid for hegemony over the Lebanese and the Palestinians as well. He built his authority "stone by stone," getting what he wanted "by stealth." Rivals were struck down, and many perished in Syria's notorious prisons.

Assad died in 2000, at a ripe old age, and was laid to rest in his ancestral village. The vast majority of his people had known no other ruler. They wept for him, and no doubt for themselves as well: he had given them stability.

But that stability was bought at a terrible price. A country of deep and rich traditions -- Greco-Roman, Islamic, Mediterranean -- had become a cultural and intellectual backwater. To rule Syria, Assad had broken its spirit, denied it the culture and possibilities of modernity. The Baathists had once been dreamers at war with the economic and political hierarchies of the Fertile Crescent. Yet the world that Assad left to his son Bashar was mired in sectarianism: a minority of Alawis ruling a resentful Sunni majority. [...]

Nowadays, those who know Syria (and often those who do not) are full of certitude and suggestions about the kind of diplomacy that would "peel off" Syria from the Iranian theocracy and turn it into a normal nation at ease with the world. The new U.S. administration is full of optimism about remaking the world. The regime in Damascus has been identified as a target of opportunity, a brigand regime that was cast aside and needlessly thrown into Iran's orbit by the policies of George W. Bush. American liberals are invested in this view, and the French, with a sense of their special knowledge of Syria and Lebanon, have subscribed to the idea of the urgency of courting and "engaging" the Syrian regime. Rabinovich's inquiry is, on the whole, skeptical of major changes in the conduct of Syria.

To be sure, Rabinovich has a healthy regard for the ability of the Syrian regime to pull off sudden reversals of policy and yet still survive. After all, it is a cold-blooded dictatorship, indifferent to zeal and ideology. Thus it was able to back both the Shiite movement Hezbollah in Lebanon and a Sunni insurgency in Iraq. This is the quintessential "swing state," a regime of Alawi schismatics, secular to the core, yet allied for the last three decades with the Iranian theocrats. In the standoff between the conservative coalition of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia on the one side and the Iranian state and its tributary movements on the other, Syria rides with Iran but always hints that it is open to a deal. Rabinovich provides an important insight into Syria's ride with Iran: whereas Assad senior was able to cultivate a relationship of great convenience to Damascus, the "less dexterous" son has not fared as well. Over the last decade, the alliance has begun to "resemble a patron-client relationship."

Sectarianism and the passions of the Sunni-Shiite struggle have not been the sole (or principal) drivers of this regional standoff. The Iranian-Syrian coalition has made ample room for Hamas and has winked, when necessary, at the most bigoted of Sunni jihadists. The men in control in Damascus know that the Sunni jihadists from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen who land in Syria and then are "escorted" to the Iraqi border are sworn enemies of theirs who see the Alawis as godless heretics. But this kind of doctrinal purity does not detain the Syrian rulers. These are men without illusions: they know that Sunni urban society (both inside and outside Syria) disdains them, but they rule by guile and the sword. Brute military force, papered over by Baathist pretensions, brought them from crushing poverty to supreme political power in their land. The late Assad barely bothered to travel outside his country; he never journeyed to the United States, and successive U.S. presidents, from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, called on him in his capital city or met him halfway, in Geneva. He had no use for the world beyond. For the Alawi peasant-soldier, it had been enough to claim and subdue Damascus.

With all the internal and external enemies arrayed against it, guaranteeing the success of regime change, it's a major blotch on W's record that the Ba'Ath are still in power there.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 22, 2009 9:45 AM
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