Syria: The Next Generation
by Daniel Pipes
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Syrians constitute the youngest people in the Middle East and one of the youngest on the globe. Forty-nine percent of the population is under fifteen years of age. The massive size of the young population makes even more open than otherwise the fundamental political questions about the future course of the country. Which ideology will the young-and specifically those born between 1955 and 1970 -- favor? Will they be caught up in internal politics or engaged in foreign adventures? Are they inclined to pursue the radical experiments of their elders? Or are they ready to settle down to a more routinized public life?
These questions cannot be tackled directly. Instead, we shall flank them by using the information that can be found, most of which is historical and political in nature. Though sometimes fragmented and not always trustworthy, the available evidence does make it possible to reach some tentative conclusions.
THE CURRENT GENERATION
The population of Syria, like that of every country, can be divided in many ways: by region, income, age, sex, education, and so forth. But the key division today in Syria-as it has been for more than a millennium-remains religion. More specifically, communal loyalty based on religious affiliation underlies virtually all aspects of public life. In this regard, Syria resembles Lebanon, though communal allegiances are somewhat less overt in the Syrian case.
Syria also has perhaps the most fragmented citizenry in the Middle East, if not the entire globe-again with the single exception of Lebanon. In the 1980s, Sunni Muslims constitute about 68.9 percent of the population, Christians 14.1 percent, 'Alawis 11.5 percent, Druze 3 percent, and Isma'ilis 1.5 percent. The largest of the Christian groups, the Greek Orthodox, makes up 4.7 percent of the total population.
Linguistically, Syria is more homogeneous, with 82.5 percent speaking Arabic, 8.5 percent Kurdish, 4 percent Armenian, 3 percent Turkmen, and 3 percent Circassian. The Kurds, Turkmens, and Circassians, who together constitute 14.5 percent of the population, are virtually all Sunni Muslims. Their strong ethnic ties separate them, however, from the Arab Sunnis. Combining these figures, the Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims make up about 54.4 percent of the population.
There is also a geographic aspect to Syria's divisions. Roughly 10 percent of the Sunni Arabs are Bedouin and have a different outlook and political needs; they should not be counted along with the sedentary Sunni Arabs. This leaves a core population of somewhat less than half Syria's populace.
An uneven geographic distribution enhances the importance of two small communities, the 'Alawis and the Druze. Sunnis make up a majority in all but two of Syria's 13 provinces, Latakia and Suwayda (the former Jabal Druze). In the first, 'Alawis make up 62.1 percent of the population and Greek Orthodox there number 12.8 percent. Druze dominate Jabal Druze with 87.6 percent and Christians numbered 11 percent, leaving Sunnis with only 2 percent.
Of Syria's many religious groups, two-the Sunni and the 'Alawi-have special importance for public life. Leaders of the future will almost certainly emerge from one or other of these communities. Further, while the many fracture lines among the populace affect public life in Syria, that one separating the 'Alawis from the core population of sedentary Sunni Arabs has had the greatest importance during the past generation.
A generation is most meaningfully defined by major events which shape the political environment and individual consciousness. This can be seen with reference to the Syrian rulers presently in power, a striking number of whom-including Hafiz al-Asad and 'Adnan Sa'd ad-Din-were born between 1928 and 1932. Two formative experiences shaped the political lives of these men.
First, their maturity coincided with Syria's achievement of independence in 1946. They "were the product of the highly political atmosphere which greatly affected high school students. These schools produced a political elite far different in outlook and composition from that educated under the mandate." Politics had never been a very great concern among the educated; now it took first priority for many. Related to this, Asad was among the first members of the Ba'th Party and Sa'd ad-Din one of the first Muslim Brethren; four decades later, they remain closely identified with these organizations.
The second decisive political event was the first Arab-Israeli war, which served as the death-knell for the old-style political leadership. As Alasdair Drysdale notes: "The traumatic defeat and subsequent discrediting of a corrupt, incompetent, and reactionary ancien régime had a more profound impact on the political attitudes of this generation than on any other." Drysdale argues, with justice, that this event goes far to account for the marked radicalism of the leaders who came to power in 1966.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Which formative events has the Syrian generation of 1955?70 experienced? How have these events influenced them? There have been many important events in recent history-including three wars against Israel in 1967, 1973, and 1982; eight years of Iraq-Iran war, 1980?88; and the economic crisis of 1987?88. While outsiders usually see the conflict with Israel as the dominant event in Syrian politics, the 'Alawi domination of Syria probably has a more profound importance to understand the Syrian mental world. Four major events stand out:
1966 -- the 'Alawi rise to power
1970 -- Hafiz al-Asad's takeover
1976 -- intervention by Syrian forces in Lebanon
1982 -- the destruction of Hama
These events all touch on a single theme: 'Alawis rose to power in 1966, consolidated control in 1970, faced the first great challenge in 1976, and suppressed the challenge in 1982. Each of these requires some explanation.
1966. In itself, the event of a coup in February 1966 was not remarkable, for Damascus had witnessed a change in power every two years since independence from France in 1946; what made this one different was the ethnic composition of the new rulers, most of whom were 'Alawis.
The new position of the 'Alawis can only be understood in light of their historic position. It was ignominy to be 'Alawi. Persecuted and despised, they kept to their own region and avoided the cities. Jacques Weulersse explained their predicament:
Defeated and persecuted, the heterodox sects disappeared or, to survive, renounced proselytism. . . . The 'Alawis silently entrenched themselves in their mountains. . . . Isolated in rough country, surrounded by a hostile population, henceforth without communications with the outside world, the 'Alawis began to live out their solitary existence in secrecy and repression. Their doctrine, entirely formed, evolved no further.
The 'Alawis' ascent took place over the course of half a century. In 1920 they were still a lowly minority; by 1970, they firmly ruled Syria. This stunning transformation took place in three stages: the French mandate (1920-46), the period of Sunni dominance (1946-63), and the era of 'Alawi consolidation (1963-70).
'Alawis profited from French efforts at divide-and-rule in Syria. They joined the military in disproportionately large numbers, forming about half the eight infantry battalions making up the Troupes Spéciales du Levant, serving as police, and supplying intelligence. Henri de Jouvenel, the French High Commissioner for Syria (1925-27), quoted a leading 'Alawi politician telling him: "We have succeeded in making more progress in three or four years than we had in three or four centuries. Leave us therefore in our present situation."
The chaos that reigned during most of the period of Sunni dominance provided the 'Alawis with the opportunity to rise to power. They did so circuitously, without a master plan, primarily by taking power in two key institutions, the armed forces and the Ba'th Party.
The Ba'th Party coup d'état in March 1963 marked the first time when 'Alawis had a major role in Damascus. This role increased over the next three years, until a coup in February 1966 brought 'Alawis solidly to power, ending centuries of Sunni domination of Syrian public life.
This rapid shift in fortunes shattered the easy assumption of inherited power and brought a wide range of new tensions to the fore. It changed the premises of public life in Syria and served as a formative event for Sunnis, 'Alawis, and members of the other ethnic groups in Syria. Michael van Dusen correctly describes the upheaval that followed leading to "the complete social, economic and political ruin of the traditional Syrian political elite." He is also right to see this event as "the most significant political fact of twentieth century Syrian history and politics."
1970. Again, the coup d'état that brought Hafiz al-Asad to power in November 1970 was not remarkable in itself, and it did not attract much attention at the moment. But it was the second most important event in the recent history of Syria, for it transformed the Middle East's most chronically unstable state into its most enduring one.
For twenty-five years, from independence in 1946 until 1970, Syrian political life had been characterized by coups d'êtat, politicized army officers, and debilitating factional rivalries. The military and the Ba'th Party competed with each other and both were riven by ethnic, geographic, and social rivalries. All this ferment came to an abrupt end with the establishment of Asad's primacy. The old free-wheeling forms of political expression disappeared, as did the old-style factions, replaced by a strict, closed, hierarchical chain of command. The military-which had shown its politicized incompetence in the 1967 war with Israel-turned into a respectable force. A dour, omnipresent secret police came into existence. A Soviet-like party came to dominate virtually all aspects of life.
Also, the Asad takeover confirmed the coup of 1966 by solidifying the ascension of the 'Alawis. The era of competition had come to an end; the 'Alawis had won power and were not about to give it up.
1976. The Asad regime's decision to intervene militarily in Lebanon transformed politics within Syria, exacerbating old tensions and creating new ones. This foray caused deep troubles for two reasons.
First, the civil war in Lebanon began in April 1975 due primarily to deep hostilities that ran along economic and communal lines. Unfortunately for Damascus, the communal hostilities that wracked Lebanon resonated in Syrian politics. The two countries shared many features, including rule by non-Muslims and a discontented Sunni population. Already in 1964, Muta' Safadi, a prominent Ba'thist, saw the Lebanese civil of 1958 war as a catalyst for the chain of events leading to Syria's severe "sectarian complex." These parallels came to weigh even more heavily on Syrian politics once Asad intervened militarily in June 1976. In particular, the fighting in Tripoli, Lebanon, which pitted 'Alawis against Sunnis, provided an exact model for strife in Syria.
Second and more important, Damascus allied in Lebanon with the Maronite Catholics against the Sunnis. This aroused anger and fears among Syrian Sunnis. Dark conspiracy theories spread among them about 'Alawis having joined forces with the "Maronite Crusaders" against the Muslims of Lebanon. Sunnis envisioned a grand 'Alawi-Maronite-Zionist alliance directed or they claimed that Asad sent Syrian forces to Lebanon to get non-'Alawi officers and soldiers out of the way. Fundamentalist Muslims, especially the members of the Muslim Brethren, actively promoted this view.
Widespread displeasure about policy in Lebanon, combined with a good many other discontents, spurred the emergence of the Muslim Brethren as an opposition movement intent on bringing down the Asad regime.
1982. The destruction of Hama in February followed on a revolt by the Muslim Brethren. Government troops ruthlessly crushed insurgent strongholds with the help of a whole array of military aids-including field artillery, tanks, air force helicopters, and 12,000 troops (almost all 'Alawi). Up to thirty thousand Sunni Arabs-a tenth of Hama's population-lost their lives. The anonymous author of a book detailing the events at Hama calls it the worst massacre in modern times. Pictures of Hama were then shown throughout Syria as an object lesson for Asad's other enemies.
The Hama massacre ended the immediate Muslim Brethren challenge and won the rulers a new lease on life. Although it did not make the Sunni danger disappear (as the extraordinary number of bodyguards employed by the regime illustrated), it did signal the continued rule of 'Alawis. Those in the opposition who had hoped that a good push would topple the regime now realized otherwise. The Sunni population settled down to wait out its misfortune; for their part, the 'Alawis exploited their power more than ever.
In attempting to determine how the youth of today are thinking, close account needs be taken of the factors that distinguish them from their elders. To the extent these changes can be isolated, they suggest directions in which the generation of 1955?70 will go once it reaches maturity.
How do those born in the 1955?70 era view politics? We shall consider their ideas on a number of topics, then conclude with some predictions.
Islam. For Sunnis, Islam's political role seems to lie less as an end in itself and more as a mechanism for uniting Sunnis against the regime. In other countries, the Muslim Brethren organization represents the goals of fundamentalist Muslims; in Syria, it serves as the main vehicle for rallying anti-'Alawi sentiment. Sunnis join the Brethren because of its proven record as the most durable and effective organization combating 'Alawi rule.
Two forms of evidence support this conclusion. First, there is reason to believe that a substantial proportion of the Brethren membership is not only non-fundamentalist, but not even observant. Thus, a repentant member of the Muslim Brethren, Ahmad al-Jundi, stated in a televised interrogation that he neither prayed nor kept the Ramadan fast, that he knew very little of the Qur'an, and that he drank wine. Second, the Brethren's willingness to work with left-wing and other non-fundamentalist groups in the National Alliance for the Liberation of Syria-including pro-Iraqi Ba'thists and followers of Jamal 'Abd an-Nasir-indicates that its first priority is to destroy the Asad regime, not to impose an Islamic order.
The flexibility of the Muslim Brethren, added to their impressive organization and the dedication of many members, makes it the pre-eminent opposition force in Syria. And while it is unlikely to accede to power in the country, it is likely to remain the major political force.
Corruption. With time, the corruption that pervades Syrian life is becoming more evident, more resented, and politically more provocative. In part, it is the unrestrained swagger of the military which upsets civilians; in part, the hunger of the 'Alawis; and in part the recourse to extra-legal measures made necessary by the growing web of socialist-style bureaucracy.
Communalism. If anything, sectarianism influences the youth even more than their elders, for communal rivalries have come to dominate public life during their life times. Communal tension had always been a factor, but it had been one among many in earlier decades; it had less importance than today, for example, when Hafiz al-Asad was growing up. At present, there is no escaping the confrontation between ethno-religious groups. Though sometimes dismissed as tribal and antiquated, this judgment reflects bias more than understanding. In fact, these passions are as strong as ever. They point to communalism as the first loyalty, and not Syrian or Arab nationalism.
The Arab-Israeli conflict. Though the near-unanimity of hostility that once characterized the Arab response to Israel has been broken, Syrians probably remain most viscerally and consistently anti-Zionist. The strength of their feeling derives in part from the irreducible sense that Syria as presently constituted is incomplete; from the opinion that Israel sits on territory rightfully belonging in Syrian hands; and from the ignominy of repeated defeat. It seems unlikely that the next generation will escape these sentiments, though they may be dimming slightly over the course of decades.
Modernization. Communal affiliation bears directly on attitudes toward modernization. Christians and other minorities have few difficulties learning from the West. Sunni Muslims, who still see themselves in terms of medieval achievements, find this a painful task, and do their best to avoid emulating Europeans and Americans. The Muslim reluctance is hard to escape; even the Ba'th Party, with its large non-Sunni component and its modernizing goals, contains large and emotional anti-Western elements. The youth of Syria must share these reservations. They too can be expected to try to develop the country in half-measures, trying to gain the benefits of modernity without admiring the most modern countries or giving up anything important.
The West. In much of the world, American culture is seen primarily in terms of those lowest common denominators-television serials, movies, rock music, hamburgers, soft drinks, and the like-which travel most readily. While not the exclusive domain of the young, these Americanisms are mainly associated with vulgarity, sexuality, and youth. Young Syrians see the United States as much an emporium of indulgence as their elders see it as the home of individualism and materialism. For both, Western Europe resembles the United States, though its hues are more subdued.
The political universe. Syrians have lived through hardship, extremism, and failure, and these experiences have scorched them. Some analysts see a more serious and liberal order resulting. Hanna Batatu's reflections are worth recording:
The recurring rise to power in the past three decades or so in Syria and other parts of the Arab world of unrepresentative and narrowly-based groups, their discharge of public affairs in manners prejudicial to the general interest, their violent and often bloody suppression of dissenters, their bringing of writers, journalists, and teachers to low esteem, and the sad deterioration of Arab thought have pushed the question of basic freedoms to the political forefront. Through bitter experiences, increasing numbers of politically conscious Syrians have realized that these freedoms are very important human values and have incalculable practical significance. What may have been in the 1940s mere catchwords have become now a living faith."Even though this analysis is probably overly optimistic (especially with regard to the willingness to temper political passions), it does point to a political sobriety induced by years of brutality and militarism.
A legacy of failure. In strict contrast to the sense of optimism and expansiveness that inspired the generation that came to maturity after World War II, today's generation is burdened by experiences of crisis and confinement. The 1955?70 generation is reaching adulthood in a time of ethnic tension, military defeat, and economic stagnation. In particular, the jihad against Israel has hardly a single tangible achievement after forty years. No matter what a young Syrian's vantage point may be, he must feel disappointed.
Gone almost beyond anyone's capacity to remember are those heady days when Gamal Abdel Nasser promised Pan-Arab unity; nearly as distant are those days when oil promised prosperity and a turn in relations with the West; and the Ayatollah Khomeini's plans have shattered as well. Syrian governments have veered the whole way from radical Ba'thism to police state, and it is hard to find reason to call any of them a success. These difficulties are likely to cast as long a shadow on the country's future as did the shock of 1948 on an earlier generation.
Conservative or radicalizing? The combined impact of the legacy of failure and the Sunni-'Alawi split is likely to influence young Syrians in the direction of caution. There seems to be little inspiration for ambitious new projects; and profound divisions within the country make it unlikely that any ruler will have the means to do much more than hang on to power. There are few democrats or liberals coming to maturity in the unhappy country of Syria; but there are many, including the likely members of the future elite, who are filled with fears, motives of revenge, and other strong emotions. These are bleak prognostications, but realistic ones.
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