This interview with Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis is well worth watching for background on Syria’s sectarian divisions and their influence on current events. I agree with most of what he says but I differ with his interpretation.
Two basic points of Syrian history come through very clearly. Firstly, Syria is not a unified nation in the way that Egypt is. There has been some form or other of centralised control in the Nile valley for thousands of years. Syria’s geography and demography – it’s a country of mountains, competing market cities and desert oases – means that power in Syria has always been much more divided, and that Syrians would feel more at home in an all-encompassing nation larger than the borders drawn by imperialists. Landis points out that in Syria’s brief democracy (the late 40s and early 50s) not one political party accepted the country’s borders. They sought instead either a unified pan-Arab state or a restitution of Bilad ash-Sham, the zone of enormous diversity between the Taurus mountains, the southern desert and the Euphrates river which nevertheless constitutes one market area and enjoys a common Levantine culture. Bilad ash-Sham is sliced today into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine-Israel, and a sliver of Turkey.
Secondly, Landis identifies the crucial power division determining politics in contemporary Syria. The pre-police state parliament was dominated by the urban Sunni merchant class, the traditional elite. The army which would soon make the parliament irrelevant was inherited from the French occupation. Partly because the wealthier classes shied away from the army, but mainly for the usual divide-and-rule reasons, the French built a military of minorities – Alawis, Christians, Druze, and marginalised rural Sunnis. The victory of the military over the parliament, and of the military wing of the Ba’ath party over all other parties, was a victory of the countryside over the city, of the periphery over the centre, of sectarian minorities over the Sunni majority. The Ba’ath years therefore oversaw a social revolution in the sense that previously distanced and despised rural classes moved to the cities and entered elites.
The Asad regime, while staffing key military and intelligence posts with loyal Alawis, has not however pursued explicitly sectarian policies. State religious discourse and religious education, in tune with the narratives of state Arabism, are Sunni in emphasis. Bashaar al-Asad married into a Sunni notable family. And, since Hafez al-Asad’s ‘correctional movement’ against Baathists with a redistributive urge, the regime has established a kind of power sharing deal with traditional urban merchant families. They are allowed to hold on to their wealth and to operate reasonably freely, the regime guarantees security and sectarian peace, the socialist or fundamentalist rabble (depending on the decade) are cushioned by subsidies and otherwise kept at bay.
Landis correctly argues that most Syrians have accepted the deal until now. Relative to Iraq and Lebanon, there has indeed been a remarkable degree of sectarian peace and religious freedom in Syria. Relative to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Syria’s foreign policy has been brave and principled. The Syrian poor have not actually starved; there’s no comparison between Syrian poverty and the poverty of Egyptian slums. And the influential middle classes of Damascus and Aleppo – the people a successful revolution would have to bring to the streets in their tens of thousands – have been enjoying the liberalisation of the economy.
The ‘silent majority’ of Syrians know the military will not abandon the Asad family. They fear civil war more than they hate the regime. But fear is no longer enough to stifle change. This is where I feel Joshua is too pessimistic, or too pro-regime, or simply not sufficiently aware of the transformation of the Arab mood. In the current context, change seems as inevitable as the tide. It’s certainly out of the hands of activists, organisors and commentators. The Syrian police state is suddenly revealed as an anachronism, and everybody knows it.
Certainly there are many who have grown to love their cage. Several of my Syrian friends and acquaintances, including family members, have changed their facebook profile pictures to portraits of Bashaar. It will take a while for reality to seep in to these heads – that Bashaar’s forces are gunning down young men every day while the people in Egypt and Tunisia are achieving dignity, that they need not be so childish as to believe the Qaddafiesque stories of unknown infiltrators doing the killing, that they could feel a greater Syrian pride free of the symbols that have attached themselves to Syrianness – it will take a while, but the reality will seep in.
Joshua showed that the co-opted classes support the regime because the regime protects their capital. For this very reason, the merchants will waver as soon as their capital is threatened. This will happen very soon: tourism and foreign investment have collapsed in the wake of recent violence. And the demonstrations, and the resulting shootings, are escalating. Syria’s population is growing very quickly. The country is experiencing its most severe drought in history. Time is not on the regime’s side.
Time. More and more Syrians will be asking themselves: If not now, when?
Sectarian hatreds are very real. They coexist paradoxically with an ancient tradition of urbane civility and polite coexistence. The future of Syria like its past will be determined by the struggle between these two traditions. It is entirely justified to dread the victory of the first. But does anyone think the sectarian issue will have eased in ten years time, or in twenty? Could it not rather become much worse? For nothing nurtures irrational hatreds like the social stagnation of a corrupt police state.
But there’s something more concrete to say about the regime’s claim to guarantee sectarian peace. By sending the Shabiha militia into Lattakia in an attempt to provoke fighting between Sunnis and Alawis, the regime has forfeited the claim. It has shown itself willing to play on the country’s most sensitive vulnerabilites, to play with fire. On the other hand, anti-regime protestors have chanted ‘the Syrian People are One’ and ‘Sunni and Alawi – One, One.’
If the fear of fitna keeps Syrians obedient for ever, then there can never be any change. The world will forge on, Egypt will lead, and Syria will not have a future. But of course Syria does have a future. No man can stop time.