Across the Bay

Friday, September 23, 2005

Syria: Après Assad Le Deluge?

Josh Landis has replied to his critics with a lengthy post (actually, the only serious and systematic critic was Young. The other two merely engaged in "barking," as Josh put it, and hollow smart-alecky outrage.) explaining his remarks on authoritarianism in Syrian culture (as I noted, it's largely based on the education system, a point of agreement between me and Josh).

I've been meaning to post at length about these issues, but I'm still not finished preparing the post. However, the time is now, and since I will only be getting busier as the semester progresses, I might as well post it now. I apologize if it's not as complete or properly structured as I had hoped it would be.

As David Hirst recently noted, Syria is currently ruled by a single family, through a mixture of brute force and deals with rival "fiefdoms":

Assad is the weak head of a regime built around clan solidarity and the consensus of rival fiefdoms. If he attempts to save himself through the sacrifice of others, Syrians say, he could set off an internal explosion that, in the absence of an effective opposition, has long been seen as the likeliest manner of the Baathists' eventual undoing.

In a sense, it's a mutation of the "control" model, explained by Ian Lustick in a famous 1979 article (for a brief quote and definition, see here). In the aftermath of the latest Baath Party Conference, the Assad family consolidated its grip on power by narrowing the base to its inner-most circles.

Yet, much like Iraq and Lebanon, Syria is a plural society with a large set of minorities. While this regime claims that it has kept stability by preventing inter-communal strife, the reality is that this regime has done much to destroy inter-communal ties and trust in Syria. Furthermore, the regime has used Arabism as the cover ideology, given the fact that the ruling family is from the Alawite minority. Arabism (thus, Sunnism) was also enshrined in the education system. Both elements have played a crucially detrimental role in preventing the proper acknowledgment of the internal reality, and the formulation of an identity and social order based on that honest acknowledgment.

This false appeal of Arabism is what's behind the Syrian people's sticking with the illusion that the regime is the glue that keeps Syrian society from disintegrating, and explains the bizarre, even pathological, blurring of a confused sense of patriotism, nationalism and "faith" in what's little more than a third-rate klepotcrat thug. (See Elie Kedourie, Democracy and Arab Political Culture [Washington, D.C.: WINEP, 1992], 88-90.)

Arabism, as evident from the propaganda of the regime's mouthpiece, Buthaina Shaaban, is presented to the Syrians as the only guarantor of social cohesion. Therefore, it was not only natural, but predictable, that Bashar would not abandon this ideology at the Baath Conference. Meanwhile, he narrows his powerbase even more tightly within his immediate family, while banning the establishment of sectarian or ethnic-based parties.

The other related reason why Bashar will always hold on to this ideology, because it's his way to placate the Sunni Arab majority. Josh actually pointed this out in his excellent paper on the education system (link in his post), where he noted that this supposedly "secular" regime is the prime backer of rigid Sunnism in Syrian schools and in Syrian society in general. In fact, Hafez Assad began the process of "Sunnifying" the Alawites, as Josh explains in the paper.

But here's where Josh's paradoxes start to emerge. Because of his minoritarian status, Bashar will never be able to change this arrangement (see Hirst's quote above) without jeopardizing the foundations of his rule. That's why Josh completely misunderstands Bashar's use of the insurgents in Iraq. That is also why his suggestion was so impossible: the US should help Bashar forcibly subdue the Sunnis! In other words, Bashar, a minoritarian, should use a foreign power, which is perceived to have weakened the Sunnis in Iraq, in order to break whatever semblance of inter-communal stability there is in Syria, and further enrage neighboring Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt! That is supposed to ensure Syrian stability?

Josh's proposal is to tighten the "control" model through the use of more force, and then he tells us that this regime has done much to repair inter-communal relations since his father annihilated Sunnis in Hama 20 some years ago! And all this for what? Because Josh thinks this dim-wit is the best thing for Syria! Based on what? Absolutely nothing.

Furthermore, as Michael Young notes, no one has any confidence in this guy anymore. Not to mention that he may soon be implicated in the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon. Josh would like to blame this on the US and the Lebanese. What he misses is that this is all his boy's doing. This is Syria's guarantor of stability? This is the best Syria has to offer? This is the "least bad" option? The guy who's brought economic ruin, antagonized the entire world, played with fire in Iraq and now risks the fire consuming him and Syria, has blown any Arab cover and brought upon himself the ire of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, both of which want nothing more than to replace him with a Sunni leader? Do we really need to go through the Syrian version of Arafat?

What are the options? Well, none are easy, pre-packaged, or guaranteed. But at the end of the day, the Syrians need to stop playing ostrich and face their problems and work to solve them (some would add, "peacefully or not!"). In that, the Lebanese and the Iraqis are not better.

Josh says that there are no options other than Bashar. Yet, I found interesting the jump Josh made in his proposal: "I believe Bashar could have been part of the solution. The West should have allied itself with those regime members - such as Dardari and many others, who are struggling for reform within the present system. It must also support the democratic opposition, which it has not done."

What struck me in this proposal is the total irrelevance of Bashar, as evident by Josh's immediate jump to reformers in the regime, that are not of the Assad family, and who are in fact hamstrung by the Assad-Makhlouf-Shawkat kleptocracy. I've noted how Bashar, based on Josh's studies and his latest op-ed, could never have been part of the solution. Josh only deludes himself with the ridiculous and totally unconvincing "Bashar's small doses" excuse. What he willingly blinds himself to is the fact, pointed out by him in his paper and elsewhere, that Bashar is not just unwilling, but incapable of doing anything substantial. As such, his presence will always be a hurdle to any serious change (besides, as I noted, no one is interested in working with him).

So how is this change to come about? Here Josh plays a narrow zero-sum game. The model he conjures up (as does the regime) is Iraq and American-imposed democracy. I.e., he falls back on fears of strife like in Iraq. He also points out that the likeliest outcome would be a government dominated by Sunni fundamentalists.

Yet the latter assumes a purely majoritarian model (and uses that to explain why people might prefer to stick with Bashar, regardless of the various presumptions on the nature and state of the Sunni community). That ought not be the working model. Here's where consensual government comes into play. This rather widespread problematic assumption, and the damage it has done in the political culture of the ME was noted by Elie Kedourie in his excellent essay, "Ethnicity, Majority and Minority in the Middle East" (in Esman and Rabinovich [eds.], Ethnicity, Pluralism, and the State in the Middle East, pp. 25-31. For a relevant quote, see here. See also Amy Chua, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability [New York: Anchor Books, 2004], esp. pp. 273-275, who proposes moving beyond simple "majority rule." Her book isn't necessarily directly applicable to Syria, but it offers helpful insights.).

If one were a believer that Bashar is capable of initiating reform and long-term change, then we should've seen him broadening the base by, e.g., including the various minorities (who might share a fear of a Sunni fundamentalist alternative) around him, as well as the moderate Sunnis and their business elite, and engaging the opposition that was willing to work with him, and presenting himself as a true reformer by initiating a much needed process of inter-communal dialogue. But we've seen what Bashar has done in this regard: the Kurds are still without citizenship, and instead of broadening the base after the Baath Conference, he narrowed it! In other words, if it wasn't before, it's now clear that he cannot and will not deliver on this point. Instead, he has decided to play on fears, ethnic hatred (internally, and externally against the Lebanese), and the empty rhetoric of Arabism. This only shows you how problematic it is to keep this regime/family in power and then talk about solving inter-communal problems.

The solution, therefore, is to adopt that proposal outlined above (the only really workable option) without the ruling family. I think Josh gave us a hint, when he spoke of those associated with reform, who have nothing to do with the Assad family. They should definitely be worked with. And so should the opposition, fragmented as it is (which should also move beyond old Leftist clichés). The rest has to come from credible communal leaders, notables, etc. All these elements, both elites and grass-roots movements, should be brought together under an international and Arab umbrella. Unlike with Iraq, this time Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt (the Sunni power-players) will have an incentive to work with the International Community to secure a peaceful transition, as the majority in Syria is Sunni Arab, not Shi'a. The Kurds of Iraq could also be included to help, in order to reassure the rest of the Syrians (and the Turks), provided that real rights, and perhaps a measure of autonomy through decentralization, are given to them.

The result would be a kind of Syrian "Taef." A renegotiation of inter-communal ties, in a way that would ensure a variety of the "no victor, no vanquished" formula, i.e., one that would ensure the Alawites play along and not end up like the Sunnis in Iraq. The Alawites awareness of their minoritarian status might be an advantage, in contrast to the Iraqi Sunnis who actually believe they are larger than they really are in Iraq (and have the regional depth to support that mentality). If therefore the Alawites (who control the army and much of the security apparatuses) are not attacked and given proper (even over-) representation, they may very well dump the Assads and their posse and play along.

Obviously this is a crude set of bullet points, but it's the general sketch of a regionally and internationally sponsored consensual agreement that would at once appease and limit the Sunni Arab majority. Additional safeguards for minorities could be the creation of a bicameral structure where they could be over-represented in the upper house, but this is getting ahead of oneself. The basic idea is a form of government that would be acceptable to the Sunnis, and inspiring enough confidence in the minorities not to fear a tyranny of the majority or a religious fundamentalist government. This political renegotiation is the first step towards a social reconciliation. Both are necessary in order to prevent ethnic strife, and both are impossible with the current structure in place, as explained above. The regional backing of Sunni powers could be an additional source of stability in its potential curbing of overzealous Sunnis.

But this requires a fundamental admission on the part of the Syrians of something they've been forced (and grown accustomed) to ignore, even fight, for decades: their identities and their differences. You can see this reluctance in the quotes provided by Josh. The Syrians need to also get over their misplaced condescension towards the Lebanese and the Iraqis, and avoid dismissing this option as "another Lebanon." The reality is, as Michael Young put it:

[F]ear of volatility should not be turned into a prescription for stalemate, or into support for a regime that has in fact become a catalyst for Syrian instability. Such rigidity might well bring about a situation it is intended to avoid.

It's time the Syrians faced their problems and stopped burying their heads in the sand behind an incompetent leader and his posse who will do all they can to perpetuate inter-communal mistrust. The Syrians are only deluding themselves, as everyone knows that these identities are alive (if they weren't then the threat of ethnic strife would be a non-starter!) and predominant, given that this regime and its ideology have not worked on a viable national Syrian identity, and have opted for the pipe dream of Arabism. And Syrians should not delude themselves with the opiate of condescension towards Lebanon. As noted in the post below on Theo Hanf, despite the primacy of communal identities in Lebanon, a Lebanese identity has indeed emerged, and it's one based on the pluralism of the various sects, not based on denying them or fighting them. In other words, the two are not mutually exclusive. That is the lie of Arabism and romantic nationalism. A state is a contract, not an organic Volk. Syria needs a new contract.

Here is where Josh would object. He wrote the following in a private message:

I have not spoken to one Syrian - not one who wants what Lebanon has in Taef. That dog just doesn't walk here. That I why I don't propose it for an immediate solution. Maybe Syrians will stumble into it in 20 years. But they are no where near accepting it today - it isn't even part of their discourse.

But this double talk. When Josh talks about Bashar subduing the Sunnis with American help, or talks about top-down "reforms" led by Bashar and the Baath structure, he is not for one second taking into consideration what "average Syrians" think. When he tells us that their system teaches authoritarianism, he can't turn around and give us samples of public opinion on an inter-communal agreement like the Taef! His assumption is a top-down system. I am pragmatic enough to agree with him! The only difference is that I am broadening the base. He wants it all in the hands of an already discredited Bashar. I'm saying, let's go with a broader, more representative elite (regionally, ethnically, communally, etc.) and let them reach a workable agreement. Even if it's to be a transitional, mid-term agreement, that will be renegotiated once the population is more politically educated and emboldened (and included on a local-government basis, a step that we've heard Bashar promise, and that has not materialized), and the institutions overhauled and reformed, etc.

But, what this arrangement would hopefully plant is the seed of coexistence and tolerance based on power-sharing, compromise, and above all acknowledgment of difference. All these would serve to limit a tyranny of the majority or the possibility of a fundamentalist government. It's not a coincidence that Lebanon has not experienced an Islamist government, despite the presence of Hizbullah. It's due to the mechanisms of the consensual system, and the traditions it can enshrine.

This is not an easy or automatic option, and a lot remains unanswered. Foremost, it will require the Syrians to start to think differently about their options. But the old "head in the sand" passive stalemate under the pretext of fear of "the alternative is worse" needs to be challenged. If that final card is taken away from the Assad posse, then the only thing that the deluge (which may be closer than we think, as Michael noted) would wash away would be the current ruling mafia.