From the Editors
In recent weeks, as the number of casualties in the Syrian civil war has been soaring exponentially, so have comparisons of the situation in the country with the wars that ravaged and, ultimately, resulted in the break up of the Yugoslav federation into several smaller and purportedly ethnically more homogeneous states in the 1990s – a process commonly referred to as Balkanisation.
Such comparisons vary greatly in degree and are often little articulated: from drawing parallels with an ill-defined Balkans – in all likelihood having former Yugoslavia in mind – to designing new ethnic/sectarian lines within the borders of the Syrian state, especially linked to the Syrian President’s ‘Alawi minority, to associating Syria with Bosnia. Nonetheless, it is worth asking how true the claims are, in order to fathom the possible political agendas that may lie behind the catchy headlines.
Far from being a sterile academic exercise, the following analysis intends to contribute to the very concrete debate surrounding the future of the Syrian state and, more broadly, Syria as a country. In other words, I contend that whilst the Yugoslav federation had ingrained the sub-political divisions and, indeed, borders, along which it would break up into separate states, Syria seems instead to be plunging into a deep crisis in the very fabric of its society, thus portending a weakened institutional and political system on the lines of Lebanon and Iraq, but preserving the country’s current borders. The discourse of Balkanisation, it is argued, in itself a vague concept of little analytical value, serves a different purpose than the study of the Syrian crisis.
PART 1: YUGOSLAVIA vis-à-vis SYRIA
On the surface, it may seem plausible to draw parallels between the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (henceforth, Yugoslavia) and the Syrian Arab Republic (henceforth, Syria). Both countries have been ruled under a one-party socialist system with a strong man at the helm, whether Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia or Asad father and – at least thus far – son in Syria. Both countries had to weather several storms in a highly insecure political environment, becoming the leader of the non-aligned movement or, at least nominally, championing pan-Arabism and Palestinian resistance against Israel. Finally, both countries have experienced bloody civil wars at a certain stage of their lifespan.
However, that is pretty much were all similarities end. For a careful study of Yugoslavia after the Second World War and Syria after the advent of the Ba‘th party to power show two countries that followed diametrically opposed trajectories at the political, economic and military levels. Thus, whereas Tito’s Yugoslavia chose the path of steady decentralisation, Syria under Asad followed the opposite direction towards what one Syrian oppositionist once described to me as markaziya shadida, or strong centralisation.
A. The political economy of Yugoslavia: 1948 - 1989
The political economy of post-war Yugoslavia can hardly be associated with the highly centralised systems of Eastern and Central European countries within the former Soviet bloc, which were directly modelled on the policies of statist Stalinism. After the split between Tito and Stalin in June 1948, the Yugoslav developmental path followed quite the opposite course of gradual and constant economic and administrative decentralisation: market-oriented reforms were coupled with socialist ideology of wealth redistribution and social protection in an all-Yugoslav system which came to be known as ‘self-managing market socialism.’
Political stability was achieved by means of ‘a [progressive] reduction in the role of the state in economic management (‘de-etatisation’) and a devolution of remaining state involvement from higher-level to lower-level state agencies (decentralisation).’ This held true even after the ratification of later constitutional amendments where calls for improved coordination in economic policy planning were combined with reinforced self-management mechanisms at the republican and communal level – through the subdivision of firms ‘into smaller decision-making units’ (the so-called Basic Organisations of Associated Labour, or BOALs).
Thus, economic decentralisation created the material underpinnings of further political devolution, at times in direct response to growing national(ist) demands for ever more political authority. Such was the case after the 1971 Croatian Spring, most of whose demands were later incorporated in the 1974 Constitution in line with a well established trend of delegation from the federal centre to the republican periphery. In the words of one legal expert, ‘[b]y granting the federal sub-units [...] a veto power over most federal legislation, the 1974 Constitution provided for a de facto confederated constitutional system in Yugoslavia,’ allowing the republics to develop into ‘mini states.’
Likewise, in the mid 1950s the Communist Party of Yugoslavia changed its name to the looser League of Communists of Yugoslavia, the sum total of six different leagues from the six republics. The republican nomenklatura’s influence was to steadily grow stronger vis-à-vis the central state apparatus, having been entrusted – for instance – with the appointment of delegates to the federal government, which essentially turned it into the main springboard to political power.
Finally, in the military sphere, next to the all-Yugoslav national army, navy and air force – the Yugoslav People’s Army or JNA, Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija – the Yugoslav federation created an extended network of civilian militias in each republic, which came to be known as the Territorial Defence Forces (TDFs).
The latter’s existence was motivated by potential threats to the federation emanating from either the West or, most credibly after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet Union. Crucially, these forces were trained in the tactics of guerrilla warfare that Tito’s partisans had honed during the country’s occupation by the Axis powers in the Second World War. Whilst conscripts had the definitive advantage of knowing the local terrain, production and stockpiling of weapons was also decentralised to republican level to ensure a long-drawn guerrilla campaign that would exhaust the invading army.
B. The political economy of Syria: 1970 – 2011
Immediately after taking power in the ‘corrective movement’ of 1970, Hafiz Asad painstakingly strove to shield his regime behind an efficient machinery of coercion, namely the army and several branches of the security forces, whose loyalty was secured by a combination of kinship relations – via their links with the President’s ‘Alawi minority[C1] – and patronage.
Although estimates put the number of ‘Alawi officers at more than 90 percent, thus giving credence to the claim that the ‘Alawi community dominates the security apparatus in general, these figures belie the less than homogeneous social make-up of the armed forces. Since early independence, youths from other religious minorities – especially Druze and Isma‘ilis – ‘flocked to [the army] in numbers far greater than their percentage of the population.’
Crucially, rural members of the Sunni majority population, whose families did not have the financial means to pay for education, found in the army an attractive alternative with the prospect of a better life within its ranks. This trend helps to explain the significant presence of elements from these communities in the army and security forces up until today, with some even featuring at the top of the establishment ladder.
The 17 different security organisations (their names variants on mukhābarāt, istikhbārāt or quwāt al-‘amn) were entrusted with the control of civil society as a whole and particularly its potentially subversive elements, along with the most powerful members of the ruling elites, first and foremost the highest-ranking officers. Asad’s political acumen lay in the fact that ‘[e]ach of these organisations established their own intelligence units, worked independently, and […] were answerable only to the president.’
For a regime based on repression, minority rule and cooptive patronage, political clout necessarily hinged on control of the means of production and, accordingly, the country’s assets and proceeds. Thus, a highly centralised state-led economy appeared as the most obvious choice, allowing the regime to channel resources towards its vital constituencies and, should the need arise, to expand its clientelist policies. Concurrently, outsiders were precluded from developing a considerable financial base from which to potentially put political pressure on, or even challenge the regime.
Likewise, the Ba‘th party was converted into the official mouthpiece of the regime. Founded in the 1940s in Damascus by Michel ‘Aflaq, the Ba‘th advocated pan-Arabism as its main doctrinal tenet, later to be tinged with socialist undertones – ‘particularly after [it] amalgamated with Akram Hawrani’s Socialist party.’ The claim of socialism ensured the loyalty of vast strata of the peasant population, which was mindful of the radical economic policies pursued by previous Ba‘th governments, such as wide nationalisations and land redistributions.
Similar to the army, though appealing to wider sectors of the population, membership of the Ba‘th party in post-independence Syria offered a fair chance of upward social mobility. With the Ba‘th now being a regime monopoly, Asad converted this historical trend into a centrally organised system of patronage, by which loyalty to the regime became the bargaining chip for promotion within the party ranks.
In addition, Ba‘th branches mushroomed throughout the country to reach the popular masses and direct all facets of Syrian social life, producing a sense of awe in the population vis-à-vis the regime’s all-pervasiveness and effectively bolstering its sway over Syrian society. Notably, the party swiftly moved to take control over ‘both the trade unions and the Peasant Union’, which by as early as 1974 had been successfully transformed from ‘syndacalist organisations into quasi-corporatist institutions,’ thus endowing a minority regime with the support of the majority of the population.
Successive waves of economic liberalisation, be it the infitāh (‘opening’) policies of the early 1970s and mid-1980s under the helm of Asad father, or the so-called social market economy enshrined in the tenth Five-Year plan of 2005 under the stewardship of Bashar, have continued to be a regime affair by which rent-seeking and patronage were favoured over economic rationality. The new class, or tabaqa jadida, of nouveaux riches that emerged depended heavily on their relations with members of the regime and, increasingly under Bashar Asad, with the ruling family. In the pointed words of a manager at the Ministry of Industry in Damascus: ‘This regime helped the private sector grow, but it will never tolerate a strong private sector. I am under your control when I am a twig in your hand, but not when I become a palm tree.’
As a result, the political economy of Syria under the Asads can be described as the highly centralised interplay of survival economy and politics of survival, with the latter channelling a disproportionate amount of resources to uphold its networks of clientelism and corruption, along with the burgeoning security apparatus, thus perpetuating the former’s ‘crucial dependence on oil revenues and Arab aid as the major governmental income sources’ – by failing to reinvest in productive activities.
PART 2: THE BALKANISATION OF SYRIA?
A. Yugoslavia vs. Syria
Decades of progressive decentralisation in Yugoslavia from the federal centre to the republics had effectively created the political, economic and military infrastructures of quasi-independent states. Such developments had not been lost on the various nationalist movements born in the republics out of the ashes of the decentralised Leagues of Communists in the early 1990s.
The socialist-now-turned-nationalist leaderships of the richest republics of Slovenia and Croatia moved fast to declare their independence from the federation and were extremely successful in lobbying the (unwitting?) support of the European Community (EC), especially Germany, Austria and Italy, along with the Vatican. Recognition came in January 1992, followed by the recognition of Bosnia Herzegovina in April 1992 by the EC and the United States, at a day distance from one another.
The Slovene, Croat and Bosnian nationalists’ claims to statehood were thus ‘heard in the world,’ practically ringing the death knell for Yugoslavia. However, these leaderships and their foreign patrons (purposely?) overlooked the specificity of Yugoslavia as a federation of peoples, rather than states, whose internal boundaries ‘were not coterminous with the distribution of the several peoples’ within it.[xii] Recognition thus opened up a Pandora’s box of competing claims for statehood of relative regional majorities within the (now sovereign) states’ borders. A bloody civil war ensued.
Militarily, the JNA disintegrated very soon along the newly established communal lines, despite formally keeping its name. ‘Croatia and Slovenia ceased sending conscripts to [JNA] garrisons outside their republics’ as early as the spring of 1991. The TDFs of the new republics along with JNA deserters from the ‘right ethnic group’ would form the backbone of the future national armies. Yugoslavia was no more.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the highly centralised political-economic system developed in Syria in the last four decades has meant that any rump-entity carved out of its territory would experience serious difficulties in functioning properly as a state. With communities in Syria far from being geographically homogenous, the reasoning behind any such alleged enterprise appears problematic even in relation to its own premises, including when referring to the oft-quoted example of the ‘Alawis[C2] .
Crucially, despite the rise of open sectarianism since the beginning of the uprising in 2011, no Syrian within or outside the country has called – at least thus far – for the partition of Syria along sectarian lines. Rather, and tellingly, both the regime and the opposition within Syria have been engaged in a vicious no-holds-barred fight in order to achieve ‘clear, unmitigated victory..’ In other words, no side to the conflict seems to be willing to give up an inch in either their political posture or their country’s territory. Everyone, so it seems, is going for the kill, namely the whole of Syria.
Otherwise, why would the regime stubbornly strike back at far away border posts now in rebel hands, if it were instead concentrating on creating an ‘Alawi enclave, as is being often suggested? Indeed, whilst calls have been issued in Damascus for minorities to leave the capital unless they had urgent work there, this signals only the heightened sectarian climate within the country that the regime is both igniting and exploiting by presenting itself as the best defence against it.
Thus, far from translating into calls for newly independent entities on the corpse of the Syrian state, sectarianism has instead upped the ante within Syria’s borders by rendering issues of identity and coexistence ostensibly intractable. As a result, the viciousness of the civil war has intensified to the point where total annihilation of the ‘other’ – whether the regime or the rebels – appears to be the only feasible solution, so that in the eyes of some minorities (particularly the ‘Alawis) this is a fight for survival. In a way, whilst Slovene, Croatian and Serbian nationalists in the former Yugoslavia could at least theoretically fall back on the newly born republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and rump-Yugoslavia – respectively – no such back-up plan seems available in Syria.
Finally, contrary to the JNA, the Syrian military and security apparatus – given its social make-up, high centralisation of control-and-command structure, and vested interest in the survival of the regime – has proven incredibly resilient in the face of the uprising, showing a high level of cohesion despite increasing defections and the emergence of cracks along sectarian lines. Once the Syrian army collapses, it will break the backbone of the state and heighten the conflict, with soldiers and security officers joining already existing paramilitary groups or creating their own – rather than enlisting in the national armies of newly formed states, as was the case in Yugoslavia.
B. The Balkanisation of Syria: myth or reality?
Given the stark differences between Yugoslavia and Syria expounded above, one wonders what lies behind the pundits and politicians’ declarations that Syria risks, or is indeed being ‘balkanised.’ ‘Ethnic’ maps of the country are starting to appear on the net, with each community being carefully assigned its percentage points out of the total population of Syria, whilst different colours draw the improbable borders of equally improbable entities to be established as one community’s enclave and/or statelet.
At the discursive level, such assertions draw a sharp dividing line between the audience and the subject under discussion, by dint of reinforcing the long-held belief that such phenomena can only come to pass in places alien to civilised standards, be it the Balkans or the Middle East. As a consequence, these ill-defined geographical spaces are related in that they evoke the equally ill-defined atavistic ethnic/sectarian/religious/what-have-you hatreds that would make coexistence impossible. By relegating history and politics to mere footnotes, the Balkanisation discourse can gloss over the very specific regional environment and domestic circumstances under which the Syrian crisis has escalated to the current point of seeming non-return.
To broach but two key examples, the ascendancy of sectarianism is presented as the Syrian genie in Asad’s bottle, ready to come to the fore as soon as the dictator released pressure at the top. Whilst this may provide part of the explanation, it conveniently overlooks the deep geostrategic and ideological ramifications in the Middle East of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq – to mention just one factor – along with the ensuing Sunni-Shi‘a civil war (itself at least partly the result of US mismanagement of the country). Likewise, domestically, if deep social divides are portrayed solely as the result of Asad’s rule, no foreign regional or international patron on either side of the divide is to blame for the uncompromising stance taken by both the Syrian regime and the opposition, as it appears to be the natural result of irreconcilable differences.
A corollary of Balkanisation is the emerging parallel between President Bashar Asad and former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, whereby once again the complex networks of overlapping national, regional and international responsibilities are forgotten in order to concentrate instead on the schemes of one single evil man – whose community (‘Alawis, Serbs) is demonised by association to him, thus reinforcing the whole narrative.
At the political level Balkanisation offers its proponents the best of both worlds, paradoxically serving the double purpose of simultaneously justifying inaction and action vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis, according to the speaker’s agenda. The former comes in the face of issues so intractable as to warrant horrified disengagement – smacking of condescendence – or, at best, empty condemnation. The latter can instead be used to prepare public opinion for future more robust intervention into the Syrian crisis, whether by increasing the supply of arms to the rebels or by establishing no-fly zones over Syrian airspace. In that case, the argument goes that the world should not wait for another Srebrenica to happen before it puts an end to the slaughter of civilians on the ground.
Whilst every sane person is appalled at the current bloodshed in Syria, making it impossible to rebut to the emotional side of this argument, it is highly debatable whether military intervention would improve the situation for Syrians caught in the crossfire. Indeed, there is a strong case to the contrary: an alien element would be added to the equation of civil war, heightening the stakes for all involved, with unpredictable repercussions. Curiously, in this case the comparison with the Balkans usually stops short of underscoring the huge difficulties that the UN, and then NATO, faced in former Yugoslavia, where they effectively became part of the problem, rather than the solution to the conflict.
Finally, such a narrative appears to substantiate the claims of those actors on the ground that lay all responsibility for the conflict squarely on their opponent’s shoulders, in a mirror-like manner. Thus the regime speaks of armed jihadists (read: Sunni) and the rebels speak of an ‘Alawite regime-cum-militia, leaving no space for compromise. A political dispute is transformed into an intractable issue of identity. In turn, their reading of events finds confirmation in regional and international declarations of Balkanisation pitting Sunnis against a purported Shi‘a crescent, in a self-fulfilling vicious circle. Incidentally, moderate forces across the spectrum are delegitimised and sidelined, stuck in the crossfire at home and deprived of support abroad.
PART 3: CONCLUSION
Far from shedding new light on the Syrian crisis, the fog of Balkanisation clouds the historical and political-economic context in which it is unfolding, by turning an admittedly thorny political confrontation into a non-negotiable issue of identity. Such a reading simultaneously feeds on and perpetuates the discourse of sectarian forces on the ground and their regional patrons on both sides of the divide, silences opposing narratives and makes future reconciliation even harder. It may justify inaction on the grounds that the matter at hand is intractable, but can also pave the way to military intervention à la yougoslave to stop the bloodshed. However, the outcome of such action is far from certain, as it could exacerbate the problem it was supposed to solve.
Instead, a historical comparison between Yugoslavia’s and Syria’s political economy offers a more sobering account of the different paths the two countries have followed for decades, thus giving some insight into the possible outcome of transition. Whereas the former had been devolving ever more authority to the federation’s republics, effectively turning them into mini-states, the latter has been centralising all levers of power to such an extent that makes the success of any alternative state-like entities being carved out of Syria highly unlikely.
Crucially, no Syrian actor on the ground or abroad seems to be keen on such an outcome. Ideologically, the great majority of Syrians – regardless of geographical, communal and social origin – are fervent nationalists, even if the Ba‘ath party under Asad astutely appropriated this discourse and turned it into one of the pillars of the regime. More to the point, the vicious fighting on the ground indicates that both sides are unyieldingly pursuing one and the same aim: total victory over the enemy. The prize: Syria, all of it.
As a consequence, Syria is being dragged into the same sectarian whirlwind that wreaked havoc on the social fabric of Lebanon and Iraq, signaling the country’s steady and ominous descent into chaos. If this is indeed the case, Syria’s political system may come to resemble that of post-Taif Lebanon and post-invasion Iraq, which bear the hallmarks of locked-in confessionalism: paralysed decision making, increasing polarisation and constant instability, the very dynamics it was supposed to prevent. In other words, war by other means – until the next conflagration.
If a lesson can be drawn from Yugoslavia, it is that divisions along so-called ethnic lines have, if anything, heightened conflict in the region, which still lives under the long shadow of civil war. The goal of European integration within the framework of the EU represents the best deterrence against renewed confrontation – along with an EU military presence in Bosnia and a NATO force in Kosovo. Such a supranational structure is lacking in the Middle East, so that those armed with bullets – rather than ballots – are gaining the upper hand, at least for now.
Finally, whilst actors such as the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Qatar seem to believe that chaos in Syria serves their interests by depriving Iran and Hezbollah of a valuable ally in the ‘axis of evil’ (or ‘resistance’, depending on the point of view), events could spin out of control and destabilise the whole region. The recent escalation of violence in Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey stands as a sobering reminder of what may be in store.
Likewise, in the new political landscape ushered in by the Arab Spring, it seems myopic at best, delusional at worst, for the governments of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, and for that matter Iran, Russia and China, to think destabilising Syria or propping up a dictator-ally (again, depending on the point of view) will guarantee political survival at home, either by curtailing the forces of the Shi‘ite crescent or by sending a clear warning to domestic audiences that dissent will not be tolerated.
Thus, stalled diplomacy and war by proxy, the one the consequence of the other, have contributed to the escalation of the Syrian crisis to the present level of viciousness. Syria’s history and political economy share little with former Yugoslavia’s, but the international community’s inability to act as one and put an end to the violence is – twenty years on – all too similar.
My sincere thanks to Dr Denis McAuley for comments on a previous draft of this paper.
 The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY, 1945 – 92) comprised six socialist republics, namely Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, and – since the introduction of the 1974 Constitution – two special status autonomous provinces within the Socialist Republic of Serbia, namely Kosovo and Vojvodina.
 See Mike Haynes, "The Nightmare of the Market," in Lindsey German (ed.), The Balkans: Nationalism and Imperialism (London: Bookmarks Publications Ltd, 1999), pp. 1 – 3. For the initial negative consequences of the split on the Yugoslav war-torn economy, see John R. Lampe, Yugoslavia as History: Twice There Was a Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 237 – 50.
 The definition is Estrin’s. See Saul Estrin, "Yugoslavia: The Case of Self-Managing Market Socialism," The Journal of Economic Perspectives (Autumn 1991), 5:4, pp. 187 – 94.
 World Bank, Yugoslavia: Adjustment Policies and Development Perspectives (Washington: IBRD, 1983), p. 1, para 1.02.
 Susan L. Woodward, "Orthodoxy and Solidarity: Competing Claims and International Adjustment in Yugoslavia," International Organisation (Spring 1986), 40:2, p. 529.
 See Eyal Zisser, "The Syrian Army: Between The Domestic and the External Fronts," Middle East Review of International Affairs (March 2001), 5: 1, p. 5; Eyal Zisser, "Appearance and Reality: Syria’s Decisionmaking Structure," Middle East Review of International Affairs (May 1998), 2: 2, p. 36; Alan Chouet, "L’Espace Tribal Alaouite à l’Epreuve du Pouvoir: la Désintégration par le Politique," Maghreb-Machrek (Janvier – Mars 1995), pp. 116 – 7.
 Mahmud A. Faksh, "The Alawi Community of Syria: A New Dominant Political Force," Middle Eastern Studies (April 1984), p. 143.
 Meliha Benli Altunişik, "The Syrian Army: How Much of an Actor in Syrian Politics?," Review of International Affairs (Spring 2002), 1: 3, p. 86.
 Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798 – 1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 357.
 Volker Perthes, "Stages of Economic and Political Liberalisation," in Eberhard Kienle (ed.), Contemporary Syria: Liberalisation Between Cold War and Cold Peace (London: British Academic Press, 1994), p. 52.
 Onn Winckler, "Hafiz al-Asad’s Socio-economic Legacy: The Balance of Achievements and Failures," Orient (September 2001), 42: 3, p. 463.
 Michael Barratt Brown, "The Role of Economic Factors in Social Crisis: The Case of Yugoslavia," New Political Economy (1997), 2:2, p. 302.
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