Containing the Spring

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Review of ’Syria‘ by Alan George, Zed Books £13.95

With barely a pause for breath after Saddam Hussein was toppled, officials in Washington began hinting that Syria would be the next US military target. We were told that Syria too was a ’rogue‘ state that was developing weapons of mass destruction and was also backing Palestinian ’terrorism‘.

This was not the official view in 1991, when Syria was bribed and bullied into the US-led ’coalition‘ in the war to remove Iraq from Kuwait. Nor was it the picture presented in 2000 when Bashar al-Asad seamlessly inherited power in Syria. He was seen as the great hope - a moderniser and reformer entirely different from his dictator father Hafiz al-Asad.

So what kind of state is Syria?

Most of the country‘s 17 million people (half of whom are aged under 19) are poor and becoming poorer. Unemployment stands between 25 and 30 percent. The accumulated losses of Syria‘s state-owned industries reached $1.6 billion in 2001. Real GDP is falling and the oil is running out. The vast bureaucracy and military and security machine that has kept the ruling Ba‘ath (’Renaissance‘) Party in power can no longer be sustained.

Bashar al-Asad recognised that reforms were needed. But the moment he began to lift the lid after decades of repression, the pent-up popular fury exploded into what became known as the ’Damascus spring‘.

The ’Damascus spring‘ of 2000 was a national civil rights movement mainly involving intellectuals demanding modest democratic reforms. Petitioning and debates, organised in thousands of ’forums‘ around the country, flourished briefly. Then the son reverted to his father‘s repressive methods and the movement was suppressed.

Alan George‘s book describes both the movement and what it was struggling against - the omnipresent Ba‘ath Party, the rubber-stamp parliament, the corrupt legal system and media, and the ailing universities - and how nothing much has changed.

The Ba‘ath Party took power in a coup in 1963, a month after the Ba‘athist takeover in neighbouring Iraq. There were constant battles between the more radical civilian wing of the party and its military wing. After Syria‘s humiliating defeat by Israel in 1967, the friction intensified, culminating in another coup staged by the defence minister Hafiz al-Asad in 1970.

The Ba‘ath regime is based on the minority (12 percent) Alawi community - a group fostered by the country‘s French colonisers in a classic divide and rule policy. Alawis took over the key positions in the state and consolidated Asad‘s power through brute force. Power was further consolidated through the Ba‘ath Party structures. Party membership gave access to jobs, power and petty privileges. Membership grew from a mere 400 in 1963 at the time of the coup, to 374,000 in 1981, to 1.8 million in 2001. Branches were set up in every village and urban neighbourhood, making the party machine ubiquitous. All trade unions were affiliated to a Ba‘ath-controlled federation, and strikes remained outlawed. At the same time the state bureaucracy and military and intelligence services exploded, bringing a vast number of families into the orbit of the Ba‘ath-controlled state.

Despite the relentless repression, the Ba‘athists have faced open opposition. The main challenge began in the late 1970s, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, climaxing in a three-week uprising in the city of Hama in 1982 which was widely supported. The military responded by flattening much of the city and killing between 5,000 and 10,000 people.

So the Syrian state is not pretty. Would bombing the country help its long-suffering people? Today‘s Iraq answers that. Does it have WMD? Even the CIA says it doesn‘t. Does it support Palestinian ’terrorism‘? The grim truth is that the Ba‘athists‘ main aim has been to control the Palestinian movement so that it doesn‘t infect the struggle within Syria. A year after the civil war in Lebanon began in 1975, Hafiz al-Asad sent troops into Lebanon to reverse the Muslim/leftist/Palestinian gains. They have remained there ever since.

A measure of the opposition to the war on Iraq was the speed with which the talk of war against Syria was dropped. That may change. If it does, this book, despite a weak political analysis, will be extremely useful.