The US organization Women Against War held a symposium in Chicago on 23 April 2014, to which researcher and scholar Bassam Haddad, Co-Founder and Co-Editor of Jadaliyya and Director of the Middle East Studies at George Mason University, was invited, alongside Rana Khouri, researcher and PhD student at Northwestern University, Chicago. The symposium was organized on the theme of refusing militarization of the conflict and US military intervention in Syria. Women Against War believes that any US military intervention in Syria would not benefit the people of Syria or the Middle East. As the continuous militarization of the conflict and the constant use of violence against women and children will only lead to more killing and destruction as happened in Iraq and in each country in which America intervened militarily. The organization called for an immediate ceasefire and a political solution to the conflict that respects the democratic and human rights of the Syrian people and guarantees genuine participation for Syrian women. It also launched an appeal for the international community to act now and meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the Syrian people.
At the start of his trip to Chicago, Haddad gave a lecture in Illinois University on 22 April 2014, titled “The Syrian Uprising After Three Years: The Regime, the Opposition, and the Foreigners.” In this lecture, he addressed the current situation in Syria and how the uprising has deviated from its initial course and was turned into an internal conflict fueled by international and regional parties. This conflict aims in good measure at settling scores and destroying the military capacity of those parties who might pose a danger to western interests and their allies in the region, primarily Israel, but also conservative Arab states.
The discussion also addressed the issue of minorities in Syria, the dangers to which they are subjected, and the contradictions in which they are lodged. In Haddad’s opinion, the stance on the uprising in Syria has brought about various splits within society, starting with family and friends. Rivalry, rather than dialogue, has become dominant. It became evident that one of the serious problems is the refusal of the different “other” and of the principle of coexistence with those one disagrees. This is reflected in the structure of the opposition itself, where division and rupture prevail and different agendas dominate. As for the situation of the Syrian uprising, Haddad stated that not supporting the opposition does not necessarily mean taking sides with the regime, but rather reflects the fear of a grim and unpredictable future, the search for something better, including an opposition which is more effective, independent, and principled, and/or the fear of potential acts of revenge and sectarian genocide. Haddad also stated that the Alawi sect is the most endangered sect of all in the ongoing conflict in Syria. Its siding with the regime does not mean believing in its position and methods, but rather that the narrative of the opposition is not reassuring to minorities in Syria, especially after al-Qa‘ida-type methods/approaches dominated major parts of it. By the same token, he continued, we should not overlook the fact that the regime was able to highjack the fate of Alawis and employ it to serve the regime’s objectives in continuing to rule regardless of that community’s support or lack thereof.
The second lecture was held at the Red Palace restaurant, which hosted a special fundraising campaign for Syrian refugees. The fundraiser was sponsored by US civil organizations connected with leftist groups and groups defending the rights of African-Americans, and peace; they included: American Friends Service Committee, Council on American Islamic Relations in Chicago, FAIR, and Social Justice Initiative in the University of Illinois, Students for Justice Organization in the University of Illinois, Eighth Day for Justice Center, and Iraqi Volunteers Against War, in addition to others. The purpose of the symposium, which was run by the well-known US activist Bernardine Dohrn and the feminist researcher Nadine Naber, was to critique foreign and external intervention and the reliance on this intervention in order to reach a solution in Syria. Rana Khouri, researcher and PhD student at Northwestern University, gave a lecture in which she criticized foreign intervention, stating that the US President Barack Obama is pursuing a military policy based on the lack of direct intervention and added that America and the West in general do not want direct military intervention in Syria.
Haddad presented a counter-perspective to various widespread narratives, especially those of the opposition and the political and cultural voices that support it in international forums—but also those produced by regime supporters. First, he stated that the regime bears the main responsibility for the current situation in Syria due first and foremost to its decades-long repression and refusal to reform long before international intervention, foreign schemes, and foreign fighters meddled openly in Syria. Haddad also pointed out the naive and disingenuous voices that were mobilizing for foreign intervention in Syria on the basis that the United States has a humanitarian and charitable tendency, and that through its intervention it will transport Syria to an oasis of democracy. He clarified that this narrative aims to overthrow power in order to seize it. Thus, this action sacrifices the civil component of the Syrian uprising and the sentiments of those who launched it. It also reduces the uprising to a singular task; to overthrow the regime, instead of mobilizing a capable and broad opposition. The purpose of all of this seems to be to destroy the country by locking it in a state of equilibrium between the fighting factions, a purpose that is guided by an anti-resistance geopolitics that serves the traditional enemies of Syria’s foreign policy.
Haddad’s approach cannot be regarded in a superficial manner, nor can it be explained, on any level, as appeasing the regime or flattering the opposition. But rather, it is a dismantling critical approach based on a deep understanding of the country and the region and on a concept of change that prioritizes Syria’s and Syrians’ future in the broad, not narrow, sense. It adopts what we can call, with reference to the Moroccan intellect Abdul-Kabeer Al-Khateebi, “dual criticism,” i.e. criticizing the regime and criticizing the opposition in order to uncover the facts, background, and the essence of the narratives, which in turn will lead to a more accurate understanding of the nature of the struggle, in Syria and over Syria. It is an approach that distances itself from a “elimination” outlook that reflects a sectarian and ideological mentality and which is based on exclusion and seeing only what it desires, and that also distinguishes itself from the binary narratives that monolithicize this or that faction—as though the entire opposition is one unit or as though all those who oppose the opposition are one unit. Haddad perceives that both the fragmented and dependent opposition and the brutal regime are both at fault and neither, however configured, can serve the interests of the Syrian people as a whole. The suitable solution for Syria, according to this perspective, is a united, civil, and independent opposition, which all sectors of Syrians participate in forming; but this option was eliminated early on, primarily by external meddling that prioritized defeating Asad at any cost.
Haddad stated that the regime continues to gain the upper hand on the ground due to the fragmentation of a dependent opposition, the radical narratives of important segments within it, the ascendance of al-Qa‘ida-type Islamists and their spear-heading of the military conflict in various areas, and the conflicts among all opposition factions. Worst of all is that at this point, and so long as the opposition continues to be supplied with arms, it will continue to fight the regime even if this means destroying Syria. Haddad added that this applies to the regime as well, which seems to want to stay in power even if the price is destroying Syria and its people. None of this, on either side is taking place in the name of anything noble anymore, only resembling it to those watching from afar. On a less controversial note, Haddad also criticized the NATO-method of intervention on political and historical grounds. But he stated that this option was never really on the table in a serious manner for the same reason: a continuing civil war serves NATO patrons and allies much more.
Rana Khouri talked about the different factions that are labeled as opposition, and the participation of foreign members, which will prolong the war. Haddad said that any talk about a victory of one side over the other is nonsense; the notion of victory no longer carries much significance as the prize itself is being destroyed. Haddad asserted that there is no substitute to a political solution. Absent that, he addressed the importance of regaining the civil momentum of the uprising, and building an independent civil democratic opposition which recognizes the other, recognizes the rights of all Syrians without any exceptions, all in a framework of creative discussions and consultations that might become the basis of any transition. Instead, Haddad points out that nearly all such post-conflict efforts today are externally-driven and do not represent broad swaths of the Syrian public.
Relying on foreign military intervention, as some factions of the opposition continue desperately working toward, will only lead to more killing and destruction. Haddad also added that the Middle East would be in a better condition without US intervention, with Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Libya, serving as good examples.
Haddad wrapped up his visit to Chicago with a lecture and a seminar with students of political science in Chicago University. He talked about his book, which is published by Stanford University Press, titled Business Networks in Syria (2012). He answered the students’ questions about it, stating that the informal economic networks in Syria, which are made up of government officials and select businessmen, have highjacked the process of economic liberalization in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s and beyond. They then went on enriching themselves from the proceeds of a rentier economy at the expense of the common Syrian consumer, at the expense of the health of the economy, and the medium-term developmental potential in Syria. The structural context in which all of this occurred required two factors: a legacy of lack of confidence between the regime and business people (the regime consisted by large of rural minorities whereas business people were by large Urban Sunni conservatives) and the continuous flow of external rent from oil and aid. There is yet a third factor which was distinguished by its absence: there was little if any external influence and meddling in Syria’s economic affairs from international financial institutions.
Haddad added that the legacy of this lack of trust between capital holder and power holders prevented the government from integrating the entire business community officially into the polity, and at the same time the semi-rentierist status of the economy allowed it to compensate for its economic failures, and postponed collapse. In other words, the model of “embedded autonomy” of East Asia was not an option for the regime because this economic model clashed with the political rationality of the regime. “Embedded Autonomy,” Haddad explained, is a form of complicity between the government and the business sector whereby government provides incentives for business people without undermining the unity and cohesion of the economic bureaucracy—and that, in any case, that model could not have survived well independent of the cold-war context and the attempt of Western powers to supply these governments with inflows of capital to try to stem the tide of communism.
Haddad stated that his book examined the long-term economic recession in Syria, which is characterized by exorbitant developmental costs in one of the longest lasting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. The “winner” in this neoliberal-like economic model in Syria, and in many countries of the Middle East, is a collection of business networks connected to the exclusionary governments that were able to siphon off the benefits of economic “change.” The “loser” is the common consumer (especially workers in the public and informal sectors). Another loser was the health of the macro economy and, by extension, the medium- to long-term developmental potential in Syria.
Haddad added that the topic of his book (i.e., networks) was relatively new at the time of writing and was more connected with political economy literature on Latin America and East Asia.
In conclusion, Haddad addressed his research findings, the most important of which is the complexity of the concept of the private sector, where various private funds are owned and controlled not by the government (because this would be socialism), but rather by government officials. Therefore, changes in the size of the private sector relative to the size of the public sector matters little or not at all. This fact alone renders irrelevant a fundamental part of the literature on the politics of economic reform that pins hope on the private sector.
Another empirical finding is the legacy of a persisting lack of trust between the state and much of the business community. This legacy persists to this day, Haddad contends, due to patterns of promotion and recruitment at the top levels of regime and government that reinforced the social divide between the regime and business sector. This lack of trust shortened investment time-horizons and thus moved the “new” economy from a more industrial and productive one to a more trade-, tourist-, and service-oriented one.
Finally, according to Haddad, this research demonstrated that economic liberalization in Syria reproduced the winners from previous arrangements; a strategy that maintained the dominance of the majority of newly produced capital by allies of the regime, partners of the regime, or regime officials and/or their offspring who themselves went into business.
As for the methodological and conceptual findings, Haddad’s book contributes to three important domains of study. The first such domain is the importance of network analysis, especially regarding agency and autonomy. Networks, he explained, constitute another form of agency that is different from state and community/class, but that includes elements from both, which makes them difficult to research at the same time that much of the explanations of economic outcomes can lie within them.
The second analytical finding is the import of trust for economic and institutional development. While other studies how institutions promote or retard trust, Haddad studied how mistrust informed institutional development in the economic sphere. And, finally, Haddad asserted the importance combining the two fields of economic sociology and political economy to produce sound analytical frameworks for the study of political economy in the region and beyond.
Haddad concluded his lecture by stating that the collusion between business groups and regimes may lead to a modicum of security for those in power; however, this kind of nexus often limits development. This complicity between the regime and the business sector has led to a weak and erratic economy in Syria, an outcome that produced discontent at various levels in Syrian society, beginning in the mid-1990s.