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Chapter 1: Politics in Syria
from Damascus Courts the West: Syrian Politics, 1989-1991

"Asad is Syria and Syria is Asad." As in all one-man dictatorships, politics in Syria is dominated by the ruler, his goals, and foibles. Hafiz al-Asad unilaterally issues the country's laws and makes most of the life-and-death decisions affecting the twelve million Syrians he rules. To understand Syrian politics, it is therefore crucial to begin with the personality and aspirations of its ruler. One way to approach Asad's character is by comparing him with Saddam Husayn.

Asad vs. Saddam Husayn

The two men have much in common. They are about the same age (Saddam was born in 1937, Asad in 1930) and come from minority backgrounds. Both grew up in an impoverished countryside with a twentieth century tradition of exporting people to the cities. Both experienced Egyptian prisons and have effectively ruled their countries since about the same year (1972 for Saddam, 1969 for Asad). Both represent minority groups in their countries. Both imposed an extreme centralization to create a stable order where turmoil had previously prevailed. Both are far more interested in building their militaries than their countries. Each of them looked to Moscow for primary support, but on occasion wooed the U.S. government. Both rely extensively on the terrorist instrument and have promoted among the most intense personality cults of the twentieth century. They have claimed to represent the Palestinians and sought to control weak neighbors.

In personality, they share vaulting ambitions, a passion for secrecy, and a Manichean outlook that divides the world into agents and enemies. Both tend toward brinkmanship and a readiness to sacrifice the interests of their countries for personal and ethnic interests. Their political systems rely to a strikingly parallel degree on Ba'th Party control, the pervasive use of informants, and brutality. (Middle East Watch found torture in Iraq to be "used routinely"; Amnesty International has termed the Syrian jails "almost a research center for torture".) Though life in Syria is an iota better, the two dictatorships in the Fertile Crescent are about as similar as any pair of governments on the planet.

The two men also differ profoundly. Saddam has the personality of a thug, while Asad is cautious, even retiring. Where Saddam revels in brutality for its own sake, Asad resorts to it as an instrument of power. The one kills with his own hands, the other keeps his distance from such unpleasantries; one depends on terror, the other merely threatens it. Similarly, while Saddam totally controls the press, Asad allows a modicum of free expression. Saddam's ambitions know no limit: he seeks to become both the greatest leader in Iraqi history and a giant on the world stage; his dreams of glory distort practical decisionmaking. In contrast, Asad knows his limitations and acts within their parameters: the conquest of Lebanon and the perpetuation of 'Alawi rule are quite enough for him for now, thank you. Saddam's overt aggression makes him enemies everywhere; Asad's is cloaked in an ambiguity which allows hostile states the luxury of ignoring his trespasses. Both leaders follow policies which the outside world often finds difficult to understand, but while Saddam confuses observers through stupidity, Asad does so through subtlety.

While Saddam and Asad both engage in international brinkmanship, only Asad can reliably locate the brink. Saddam displays an increasingly uncontrollable streak of impatience and has a terrible sense of timing (the invasion of Kuwait could not have occurred at a worse moment from the Iraqi point of view); Asad is infinitely deliberate and has a most refined timing (the seizure of Beirut in October 1990, fifteen years after Syrian military involvement in Lebanon began, was a political masterpiece). More broadly, Saddam Husayn showed in 1990-91 that he may be one of the worst strategists and tacticians of history; in contrast, Asad rightly prides himself on his skills as a military planner. Like his adopted namesake, the lion, Asad is a patient operator. He probes his opponents' weaknesses, waits for the right moment, chooses the most advantageous field of battle, and strikes. In this way, Asad has defeated one enemy after another-the Muslim Brethren, Lebanese militias, American troops in Beirut, Israelis in south Lebanon, Iraqi armed forces. Observers are in agreement as to his impressive skills. Thus, Annie Laurent and Antoine Basbous see his main characteristics as "patience and a taste for secrecy." Dov Tamari concludes that "the Syrian regime has demonstrated patience and restraint on the one hand, persistence and stubbornness on the other."

Imagine-to take this comparison one step further-that Asad ruled in Baghdad, and that he wanted to bring Kuwait, with all its wealth and coastline, under his control. What would he have done differently from Saddam? Everything. He would have prepared the way years ahead of time by hosting Kuwaiti dissident movements in Baghdad and laying repeated but elliptical claims to Kuwait. When the time was right, he would have solicited an invitation from bona fide Kuwaiti leaders to send Iraqi troops into Kuwait. Rather than seize the whole country, he would have taken only some slices of it (the Rumayla oil field, Bubiyan and Warba Islands) and worked to get his allies and agents into power. The outside world would surely have protested, but Asad's salami tactics would have allowed him to take Kuwait without sustained armed opposition. In the end, just as everyone acquiesced to his seizure of Lebanon, so they would have gone along with his control over Kuwait.

In short, Asad is the virtuoso politician of the Middle East.

Asad's Goals

Understanding Asad's motives is no easy task, for he is a subtle and highly sophisticated politician whose words only vaguely point to what he thinks; and whose actions only suggest what he actually intends. Even the most basic matters are in question. Does Asad pragmatically exploit anti-Zionism as a means to an end or does he feel, as some argue, an "intense hatred of Israel"?

Part of the mystery results from his readiness to shift policies, quickly, dramatically, and with a nimbleness that never ceases to impress Middle East analysts. On occasion this has lead to stunning reversals of course. He dropped the Palestinian-Muslim-Leftist coalition in the Lebanese civil war in June 1976 in favor of the Maronite-Rightist side. He condemned the Egyptian government for its March 1979 peace treaty with Israel, repeated that condemnation regularly for a decade, then suddenly made up with Cairo in December 1989. Still, it is possible to point to several constant goals. Three stand out. Going from greater to lesser, they are: continued rule by Asad and the 'Alawis; the achievement of Greater Syria; and the desire for strategic parity with Israel.

The single most important goal of the Asad regime is to retain Syria in the hands of Hafiz al-Asad, his kinsmen, and the 'Alawi people. 'Alawis, who constitute about 12 percent of the Syrian population, are a mystery to most of their countrymen. Though sometimes portrayed as a sect of Islam, 'Alawism is in fact a wholly distinct religion. It rejects the sacred law of Islam (the Shari'a), it maintains an elaborate but secret theology, and its rites are alien to Islam. As the impoverished residents of an isolated region, 'Alawis have a long history of being feared and despised by mainstream Muslims. Accordingly, the notion of an 'Alawi ruler in Damascus is repugnant to most Syrian citizens; and this animosity has shadowed Asad and the 'Alawis since completing their ascent to power in February 1966. In turn, Muslim hostility has compelled the regime to recruit heavily among its own community, thereby causing it to take on a distinctly sectarian cast. The years have intensified these resentments, to the point that Asad's overthrow would almost certainly lead to communal violence against 'Alawis. To protect themselves, then, the 'Alawis must stay in power. The result is a vicious cycle of hostility and repression.

Still, the government makes efforts to reach out to the majority Sunni Muslim population. Like many other unpopular regimes, it does so by avoiding the contentions of the domestic arena and stressing issues of foreign policy instead. Foremost among these, at least since 1974, has been the dream of a Greater Syria-a notional territory including the territories of present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the occupied territories, Jordan, and a portion of Turkey. Greater Syria is a new term for what until the fall of the Ottoman Empire was just called "Syria." It is the Levant, a discrete cultural and ecological area east of the Mediterranean Sea. Greater Syria is hardly Asad's invention; quite the contrary, many others-including Antun Sa'ada and King 'Abdallah of Jordan-have sought since 1920 to piece the units together. But Asad, who has made this goal a centerpiece of his foreign policy since about 1974, has had more success at it than any of his predecessors.

Israel is the most prominent of Greater Syria's several regions, and for several reasons. Anti-Zionism permits Asad to atone for the 'Alawi community's (and indeed, Asad's own grandfather's) past friendliness to Zionism. It allows Asad to tap the Sunni Muslims' hostility toward the Jewish state, binding his regime to the disenfranchised majority. (My instinct-and it's not much more-tells me that after Palestinians, Syrians are the Arabic-speakers most reluctant to accept Israel's existence.) The effort to destroy Israel appeals to the Sunnis, giving these disenfranchised elements something in common with the regime. Asad's ambitions toward Palestine take both direct form (he claims Palestine as Southern Syria) and indirect (he stands up for Palestinian rights and tries effectively to control Palestinian organizations). Behind his flexibility of form lies a consistent claim; the future of the region west of the Jordan River should be subject to Damascus.

Since 1978, this goal has taken the form of a doctrine of strategic parity, or the ability to confront Israel from a position of strength. Asad defines parity in the broadest terms: "It does not mean that we should have a tank for each Israeli tank. . . . Strategic parity is composed of many elements. Before parity in weapons, it is parity in the cultural, economic, and political fields." In theory, parity is as much offensive as defensive; in fact, it appears to be a holding posture until Syria's alliances (with Arab and Muslim states, the Soviet bloc) come out of the doldrums and its allies take a more active role versus Israel.

Party Rule

Ironically, while Asad has more than achieved a strict military parity (see Appendix A), strategic parity has completely eluded him, precisely because the cultural, economic, and political development of Syria has languished under his rule. Asad has imposed a Soviet-style police state on the Syrian population, with all the poverty and repression such a system entails. The Ba'th party openly runs the government apparatus, which in turn runs the country for the benefit of a small nomenklatura. So heavily is the press censored that one Syrian writer defined its fundamental task being "to prevent information from reaching the people rather than provide it." As a report from mid-1990 made clear, secrecy abounds:

The official inflation rate has not been announced for a year, supposedly because of "computer problems." The last five-year economic plan, due out in 1986, has never been published. There are no telephone books published in Syria-if you don't know the number already, don't try to call. The national budget is published but it's calculated with four totally different exchange rates so no one can make heads or tails of it. When Syrian clocks spring forward and fall back with the seasons, the official change is announced only the day before.

As usual, official secrecy also implies intrusion into every aspect of the citizen's private life. Government agents and informants are ubiquitous, to the point that anyone who would drive a taxi or serve tables in Syria must agree in advance to pass information to the security agencies. Intimacy is eroded and privacy is an almost unknown privilege.

Human rights abuses are legion, and have generally grown worse with time. No less than fifteen security agencies, almost all independent of each other and all reporting to Asad himself, keep order in the country. Consider the judiciary system: hardly a political prisoner arrested in the past decade has had a trial; judges under Asad went from a modicum of independence to utter subservience; and the system as a whole moved from at least some respect for legal forms to none whatsoever. Summing up these problems, Middle East Watch called Asad regime practices "repugnant" and went on to explain why:

Having killed at least ten thousand of its citizens during the past two decades, it continues to kill through summary executions and violent treatment in prison. It tortures on a routine basis and arrests and holds thousands without charge or trial. It persecutes some of its minorities. It denies freedom of expression and association to its citizens and denies them their right to democratic participation in government. It has imposed extremely harsh conditions in its occupation of Lebanon, where its actions are even more violent than those in Syria itself.

Not surprisingly, thousands of Syrians have fled their country; and there is good reason to think that, were the gates opened, many more would follow them.

Economic Troubles

Perhaps the greatest domestic problem facing the Ba'th regime is the economy, which has been stalled for years in the grip of socialist senescence, over-centralization, huge military expenditures, cronyist corruption, and a very high population growth of 3.8 percent a year. Inept government policies have resulted in an annual inflation rate of some 50 percent, a grossly overvalued Syrian lira, and debts of some $6 billion to the West and $9 billion to the U.S.S.R. It gets worse: although 30 percent of the work force is engaged in agriculture, grain has to be imported. Cities routinely experience electricity shortfalls. Computing with the "neighboring country" rate, ordinary civil servants make less than $50 a month. The economic crisis is at times so severe that even Syrian agents in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights have seen their pay cut by up to one-half its former levels.

These problems create a vicious circle: a shortage of foreign exchange leads to missing spare parts, and this in turn leads to factories working at a fraction of capacity; the effect, of course, is less foreign exchange. Foreign currency reserves have at times been down to a mere 20 days' worth. Such ordinary items as toilet paper are missing for long stretches at a time.

Oil is the one bright spot on Syria's economic horizon. The country now produces around 480,000 barrels a day, of which some 220,000 barrels are exported. But, as the Middle East experience of the twentieth century makes abundantly clear, while oil revenues can bring sudden wealth, they do not translate into modernization. Rather, they offer a temporary fix which usually eventually harms the economy in the long term by creating dependent attitudes and distorted institutions.

The Soviet bloc's poor economic record has stimulated increasing eagerness in Damascus for forms of privatization and foreign investment. Privatization has taken the form of mixed (i.e., public and private) joint stock companies in such domains as agriculture and tourism. Foreign investment has been made more welcome, especially with the passage of Law 10 in early May 1991, which allows non-Syrians freely to import and export, to maintain hard currency accounts, and to repatriate profits.

Asad himself takes notoriously little interest in economic issues, with the single exception of oil production. Partially as a result, the regime does not acknowledge the dire state of affairs. In early 1990, for example, Prime Minister Mahmud Zu'bi told an interviewer that "We have never been more satisfied with our economic situation than we are today" -a statement bespeaking indifference mixed with arrogance. Not surprisingly, the Syrian opposition seeks to win support by painting an extremely dire picture of deprivation, even starvation. 'Adnan Sa'd ad-Din, a Muslim Brethren leader in Syria, captured this sentiment in 1990 when he asserted that "Syria has been looted and there is no more to be taken."

Despite these problems, things seemed to be going Asad's way until about 1987. Defying expectations, he turned the Syrian Arab Republic-with its small population, its meager economy of $18 billion, its social tensions and communal conflicts-into a leading player in the Middle East. Indeed, Syria's government is arguably less influenced by economic considerations than any other in the world today. In masterly fashion Asad had by the late 1980's developed a weak base into a state capable of upsetting great power initiatives in Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict, of intimidating the rich oil-exporting states, and of fielding a formidable military force.

Then came Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika, and the decline of Soviet bloc ambitions in the Middle East.

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