One of the many hidden gems in Jamal Barout’s groundbreaking four-part series on Syria’s political economy is the brief story of the three meetings that took place between former Syrian president Hafez al-Asad and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Based on archives he accessed from the Presidential Palace, Barout narrates that Gorbachev met with Hafez Al-Asad three times, in June 1985, April 1987, and April 1990. In the first two meetings Gorbachev was full of “determination, bravado, and will to implement his programs of ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost.’” By the last meeting, however, poor Gorbachev was reportedly despondent and gloomy complaining to Asad about the downturn of events, even asking the latter how he managed to rule Syria for so long.
It is possible that the dramatic collapse of the socialist bloc taught Asad and the Syrian “inner circle” that even minor political reform may lead to catastrophe. That is to say, the structure of the Syrian regime, which relies on the Presidential Palace-army-security apparatus-Party nexus cannot be reformed without precipitating a total collapse regardless of whether or not the president is willing to reform. At any rate, at the time, and under those conditions, the political reforms promised by the Syrian president in 1989, including major Congresses for the Party and National Progressive Front Congress, as well as amending the emergency law, never materialized. Instead, the regime continued a pattern, started since Hafez al-Asad came to power and lasting until the start of the uprisings, of substituting political reform for economic liberalization or “economic pluralism.” Fast forwarding to today, ten months into Syria’s uprisings, over several thousand dead or wounded and tens of thousands of arrests later, the Syrian regime appears to be still standing.
There has been an impressive cohesiveness and unity within the regime’s structures aside from the defections within the army. Mutual political and sectarian assassinations are on the rise and fatigue and frustration are setting in among some protestors and their allies. The extreme level of violence inflicted by the regime has led to the rise of the Free Syrian Army, which is attempting a dual role of civilian defense and guerilla warfare against the regime. In short, the overall situation is more complex and the mood inside Syria much darker than just a month or two ago. The evolution of the uprising and its dynamic is in danger of robbing Syrians themselves from agency over their future. The Syrian revolutionaries are caught between a killing machine and its allies. On the other hand they are receiving the proclaimed support from what one brave journalist recently referred to as one of “the most autocratic, misogynistic regimes on the face of the earth” and its allies. Many activists are no longer hopeful but are thinking along the lines of least-worst options.
Drawing on recent Syrian history as well as academic and non-academic writings on Syria before and after the uprising I try to answer the following questions in a three-part series: What have the uprisings accomplished? What explains the dynamics of the Syrian uprisings? What explains the evolving strategy of the regime? And what are possible directions or endgames for the crisis in Syria? In Part I, I focus on the accomplishments of the uprisings. Part II focuses on evolving regime strategies as well as internal and external complications, which includes a critical reappraisal of opposition strategies and mistakes. Part III tries to draw on the first two parts to suggest possibilities for the path forward. My goal is not a comprehensive history of the Syrian uprising but to focus on certain issues that contain direct relevance for thought and action today.
Part I: Accomplishments
As the bloodshed continues and the regime appears to be still standing, many people are wondering if the revolution might fail. However, the reality is that the revolution has already succeeded in ending the regime’s effective power and ability to govern, including among other issues, the very fact of territorial control over the country. Ending the regime is not the same as consummation of the uprising into a democratic transition. Nevertheless, before discussing the complexity of the current and likely coming situation—and there is plenty to be pessimistic about—it is worth noting other aspects of the uprisings.
Just a few days into the uprising, with the destruction of the first statue or tearing down of the first pictures of the current president or his father (and late brother), the revolution succeeded not just in destroying the so-called “fear barrier” but also in what political scientist Lisa Wedeen refers to in her book on Syria Ambiguities of Domination as the façade of “acting as if.” Ridicule and contempt for the regime inside Syria did not start on March 15, it has always existed. The difference is that it was kept secret, behind closed doors, among the closest confidants. Wedeen argues that the Syrian regime did not enjoy legitimacy in the traditional “consent of the governed” sense but that a collection of regime practices, including the use of spectacle and mass mobilization, gave it a sense of inevitability in the eyes of each citizen. For example, she argues that no one truly believed in the cult of Asad—developed and refined by former Minister of Information Ahmad Iskander Ahmad in the 1970s—which gave the president godlike status and accomplishments. However, while no one would believe that Asad was, for example, the First Pharmacist, people acted in public “as if” they did.
This process gave the regime a sort of strength despite the fact that people were well aware of themselves and of others performing this lie. The regime thus achieved a hegemony of sorts, with individuals being in awe of a regime that could get these masses to publicly profess the ridiculous. The regime did not care whether or not people really believed the lie. All that mattered was that they publicly perform it. In fact it was even better, from the regime’s perspective, if they rebelled against this lie in the safety and privacy of their household because this would give each citizen the illusion that “no, the regime does not own me,” which in turn allows the process to continue. In fact, in this scenario, the most dangerous people would be those who took regime rhetoric seriously—particularly on social justice—and would try to publically contrast its rhetoric with its actual actions. Or those who appropriated regime slogans but used them in a way that would subvert the regime rather than support it. Wedeen provides numerous examples in her book but I recall a famous one, perhaps an urban legend, of a group of people arrested in the early 1990s after chanting, “Ya allah hallak hallak, bidna al-Asad mahallak” [God, your time is over over, we want Asad in your place].
But what is the fallout from the crumbling of this façade? First, it may help to explain the cognitive dissonance some regime supporters had between the alleged popularity of Bashar al-Asad and the actual level of hatred that people had towards the regime. Many people also mistook the level of hatred as coming from the violent regime response to the uprisings themselves and not, as in fact they were, an accumulation of decades of oppression. Second, once the “acting as if” genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be pacified with any amount of reform. Although the regime has not offered any meaningful political reform, there is a certain truth to what many insiders believed: no amount of reform can placate the protestors. Therefore, I do not believe, as many do, that the President’s first speech could have been a dramatic turning point. If the President had come out in favor of an immediate democratic transition, he may have placated the demands of some, but it is unlikely to have altered the way the protests spread across the country. Yes, the President’s arrogant speeches made him increasingly the target of the protests, but the uprising was really an expression of the collective anger against the structure of terror that is the Syrian regime. In that sense, the removal of the Asad family from power as a precondition for a comprehensive post-uprising solution is a result of more than just the crimes the regime committed in the immediate aftermath of the uprising.
An account of Syria that does not contain a political economy analysis that touches upon the structure of material interests, social forces, and ethnic balance cannot capture the complexity of responses to Syria’s uprisings. Many people perhaps did not believe Asad was the “First Engineer,” but they thought these lies or exaggerations were necessary evils to maintain a regime that is allegedly better than its alternative. At the same time, an extreme materialist explanation of people’s dispositions is not convincing either. For example, the simplistic and crude argument that “regime beneficiaries” are supportive while others are not is not really borne out by personal experience and intimate knowledge of these groups. Defining who was a ‘beneficiary’ and who was not is a tricky subject to begin with, and not all who accumulated wealth in the past decades did so due to simply being regime insiders. Many non-‘beneficiaries’ may be ideologically clinging to a certain aspect of the regime’s rhetoric (e.g. “resistance”), while others including even those who had close contact to the upper echelons of power, were in fact at the front lines of humiliation, reminded constantly of the power hierarchy inside the country. In the words of a prominent businessman I spoke with, “they [upper echelons of the regime] always remind you, when you sit with them, that you work for them as if to say, if you’re wealthy it’s because they are allowing you to be wealthy.” Whether this means such “beneficiaries” will speak out, fund the regime or the uprising, or stay silent is a different issue. Despite the fact that the roots of the uprisings lay in part in the economic deprivation of increasing strata of society, the personal disposition of many Syrians cannot be easily gauged by simplistic readings of material benefit. This of course had (and has) direct implications for opposition strategy since it includes a large number of potential allies against the regime (which I will discuss in more detail in part III).
The crumbling of the façade has also had other more complicated implications. One of the nastiest aspects of the regime was the way that it tried to implicate Syrians by making them support its indefensible actions or at least stay silent about them. The uprising has thus provided a chance to be “born again,” a cleansing process or clean break from the disturbing past. However, in the rush to condemn the regime, there were some who increased the rhetorical dosage a bit. It was probably an attempt to perhaps break with a past they do not want to remember, to break with a time in their lives when they could have spoken out more but did not, and to loudly state their opposition to the regime and condemn all those who support it. By contrast, many dissidents who had publicly spoken out against the regime before 15 March were the least rhetorical, despite their unwavering support for the revolution. There is no shame in any of this of course, and this rhetorical overkill is understandable—it is also driven by legitimate outrage at the repression of the regime itself. However, it can and has in many instances become a barrier to debate or to creating consensus on political action, especially when people do not separate political propaganda or media war (which is a necessity of any political struggle) from actual political platforms and constructive paths forward.
Second, the revolution discourse has achieved cultural, political, and economic hegemony. At the political level the Syrian uprising was a militant civil rights movement against the security-party-military nexus. It is worth remembering that as recently as a year ago, merely signing a petition calling for some more freedoms could be punishable by several years in prisons under charges such as “weakening national morale” and other Orwellian phrases. In the first scattered demonstrations that took place in Damascus, even before the incidents at Dar’aa, the main slogan chanted by the demonstrators was “the Syrian people cannot be humiliated.” Political debate was stifled and discussions in public were guarded and reserved. Syria’s authoritarian regime was not just a danger for political dissidents; navigating daily life in Syria was a struggle for most ordinary and lower class Syrians. The state security apparatus had extended its tentacles to all aspects of Syria’s political economy. Everyone, from the taxi driver and street vendor all the way up to businessmen had to curry favor, and to bribe and appease the mukhabarat to get the simplest task done, or simply to be left alone. The grievances against the Syrian state have been well-documented. The more claustrophobic side of daily life in Syria—with ubiquitous security presence—had lessened or improved in the last decade. It is worth noting however that many aspects of regime corruption got worse, not better, under the rule of Bashar Al-Asad. The revolts were thus an expression of anger against economic deprivations, corruption, inequality, and poverty. Jamal Barout found that according to some measures of poverty, the percentage of Syrians living under the poverty line rose from eleven percent in 2000 to thirty-three percent in 2010. That is, about seven million Syrians live around or below the poverty line.
The last decade has seen increasing marginalization, especially of the rural areas, that has exacerbated the increasing desertification of the country, most notably the devastating drought. The International Crisis Group report stated that the dispossession of several hundred thousand farmers in the Northeast as a result of the drought should not be thought of as merely a natural disaster. The increase and intensive use of land by agro-businessmen—including land previously kept for grazing—as well as illegal drilling of water wells, facilitated by paying off local administration, has contributed to the crisis of agriculture. Both are a manifestation of the inability of the Syrian government under Bashar Al-Asad to check the power of influential businessmen or to perform basic regulatory functions. So at a more fundamental level, the protests denounced the capture of the state by a few oligarchs. This could be best seen by the level of anger against Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of the President. Makhlouf and his close associates had turned Syria into their private fiefdom over the past decade, building a large economic empire through a mixture of coercion and intimidation, instrumental use of state and judiciary power, and outright fraud. As Bassam Haddad argued in a recent article, the “private sector’s march in Syria is undermining both state and market” due to extreme cronyism and patronage networks which are unable or unwilling to change despite the fast changing pace of events in the country.
Therefore, the uprisings emerged to discipline a corrupt structure unable to discipline itself. Even though the military apparatus has occupied cities, effectively it is the regime itself that is under siege on several levels. The public declarations of a turnaround in economic policy, signaling support for manufacturing and industry, cancelling of free trade agreements, and so forth, was acknowledgement of this fact. So was the attempt to blame all the economic ills in Syria on Abdullah al-Dardari. Undoubtedly, Dardari supervised an economic liberalization process that implemented World Bank or International Monetary Fund-style orthodox economic policies, which increased foreign direct investment but also increased poverty and inequality. However, he is hardly the main scapegoat here. Syria’s economic policies are an outcome of the struggle of powerful social groups to advance their interests, of which Dardari was “the right man for the job.” But if Dardari did not do the job, someone else would have replaced him just as Tayseer Radawi was removed after he voiced complaints about inequality and elite capture of the state.
That is why analytical attempts to explain Syria’s economic policy as a product of a “Trojan horse,” as one account does, misunderstand the structure of decision making in Syria as well as the endogenous process by which economic reform in Syria was produced. After the uprising, the public sector Ba’athist defenders of the regime, who had been gradually losing the battle to defend the socialist public sector model, found themselves rejuvenated—that their time has come. Scholars who held this view included Munir al-Hamsh who was critical of regime liberalization. Yet the tragedy of the Syrian economy in the past ten years lies in the fact that serious developmental policy, of the kind advocated by the late ‘Isam al-Za’im as well as Samir Seifan, fell victim to the struggle between both the “public sector Ba’athists” as well as the “economic liberalizers.” Za’im and Seifan had advocated a model of the Syrian economy that included serious restructuring which retained a role for the state in the economy as well as public-private sector partnerships. This option represented a threat to both the public sector Ba’athists as well as the liberalizers, and was thus eliminated. The current Minister of the Economy Muhammad al-Sha’ar has made several statements along a developmentalist option. I believe this to be a wise economic policy for a future regime, but it is too little too late for this one.
The “cognitive horizon” of all Syrians is now shaped by the uprisings—everyone is thinking, talking, and reacting to the revolution, including the regime despite the increased polarization and demonization of pro and anti-regime sides. However, the cultural hegemony of the uprising is true at the level of art, theater, media, jokes, and satire, even if regime continues to give the illusion that it dictates the course of events and holds all the cards. The deafening sound of regime violence is drowning out these exhilarating developments and the countless debates and discussions taking place daily in cafes and a social media about all sorts of possible directions of every aspect of Syrian society. At a broader level, the revolt has delegitimized the regime’s institutions, all of which are interconnected (presidency, army, security apparatus). This is important to keep in mind when thinking about where the Syrian revolt is at in comparison with that in Egypt and Tunisia—it seems to be far behind, but in fact there is more to the story, and they may be at more similar stages than it first appears. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, there are no semi-independent institutions, which of course is what makes the Syrian uprising more difficult. While the Egyptians toppled the head of the former regime, they are now pushing to dismantle the other hierarchical entrenched institutions. In Syria, the process will happen all at once; the fall of Asad means all of Syria’s main political, judiciary, and economic institutions will need to be rebuilt. This means that Syrians must plant the seeds of the future Syria even while the regime continues to cling to power. It is worth recalling the collapse of the socialist bloc, which I referenced at the start of this article. Although it contains lessons for the regime, it also contains lessons for Syrians wishing to build a better future. Forty years of ideological and political distortion are hard to negotiate through and reverse in a short period of time. Attempting to completely ‘reverse’ socialist era policies, particularly economically, lead to social catastrophe.
I will discuss this in more detail in part III. Part II will focus on “complications,” which include evolving regime strategy over the past ten months, mistakes made by the opposition, as well as the role and reaction of outside powers.