From External Colonization To Domestic Colonization.
Between Syrian independence in 1946 (when the French were forced out) and 1970, Syria moved from an evolving democracy to a clique dominated brutal dictatorship.
Newly independent Syrian politics was dominated by the struggle between traditional Sunni Nationalist elites for power. This was amplified by superpower Cold War era meddling, and defeat in 1948 in a war with colonialist Zionist Israel. Unification with Nasser’s Egypt in the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961, failed due to Egyptian chauvinism. The Arab Nationalist Ba’arth party then seized power in Syria in a coup in 1963. A further intra Baathist coup and defeat by an expansionist Zionist Israel in 1967, set the stage for a purely military coup by a clique headed by Hafez Assad in 1970.
Popular involvement in politics grew during opposition to the French Mandate. The upheavals after independence were partly due to the lack of subsequent mass involvement in politics.
Hafez Assad was an air force officer who belonged to a previously marginalised esoteric Shia sect the Alawites. His regime’s predominate motivation was the preservation of power by any means, for the benefit of a clique centred on the president. This was not a regime motivated by revolutionary politics, Arab or Syrian Nationalism, anti-Zionism or even Alawite sectarian empowerment.
The internal political failures and external geopolitical pressures of the previous two and half decades, had narrowed the Syrian political stage to a power grab by Assad’s opportunist clique.
Hafez created an enduring Alawite dominated security infrastructure answerable only to the president’s inner clique. It consisted (and still consists) of five isolated security forces, based on the principle that the others will crush any branch that attempts to grab power. These were Political Security Directorate, General Security Directorate, Military Intelligence Service, Air Force Intelligence Directorate and a paramilitary elite the Defense Companies (now Republican Guard). Their principal role was identical, in spite of the difference in names, to protect the regime against all and any internal opposition. The use of systematic torture by these security forces was used to spread a climate of fear among ordinary Syrians.
Hafez Assad’s Regime: Corruption And Reform.
At the same time Hafez Assad’e new regime pushed through state reforms that provided basic food and health provisions for ordinary Syrians. This is the aspect of the Assad Regime that is most often stressed by apologists for the regime. The other apologia being the Assad’s regime alleged opposition to Western and Zionist imperialism.
Alasdair Drysdale wrote in the MERIP journal in 1982 about Syria:
“During the 1970s, economic and social disparities widened. A parasitic new class, which feeds off of the public sector, has come into existence. Fortunes have also been made in a booming real estate market; prices in some sections of Damascus rose tenfold between 1974 and 1976. Housing costs in parts of the capital befit a major European city more than a country in which per capita GNP is still only $1,340 per annum, and many people still do not have access to clean drinking water and electricity. Others have fared less well. For the substantial number of middle and lower level government and public sector employees, salaries have not kept pace with rapid inflation despite large periodic adjustments. In 1980 they were increased 40 percent, for example. Many have to moonlight, or increase their earnings in other ways. To prevent even more serious disaffection as a result of economic conditions, the regime has developed an enormous program of food and fuel subsidies. By one account in 1981, these amounted to $1.53 billion. This is about $150 per capita, and equivalent to what the country earned from its oil exports.”
This egalitarian current ran counter to the other currents designed to secure power for the Assad regime. This was part of a wider pattern among dictatorships in the MENA region. Joshua Landis the rather complacent US academic explains this apparent contradiction:
“Syria is a classic case of the failure of the Arab authoritarian bargain. Many specialists have focused on the economic drivers behind the Arab Spring, and their analysis encompasses Syria.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Arab regimes, whether republics or monarchies, turned to similar socioeconomic measures to buttress their rule. In return for political quiescence, governments redistributed wealth, subsidized food and provided minimal shelter, education and health care. The result was a distinctive ‘authoritarian bargain’. State-owned enterprises and bloated government ministries absorbed tens of thousands of workers and guaranteed stable employment and a minimum wage. These measures solidified autocracy but at a tremendous price. They paralyzed Arab states and saddled them with unproductive economies and unsustainable expenses. Run-away population growth acted as a time bomb, guaranteeing that expenses ballooned in an environment of low growth. This bargain was unsustainable.”
These Middle Eastern “republics or monarchies” were really dictatorships. The policies of their founders were inevitability corrupted by decades of power. The resources for the kind of development and constructive opportunity that would have checked population growth, were misdirected to the rulers and their “security” apparatuses, who often stashed them abroad.
Joshua Landis goes on to desribe what happened in Syria:
“Syria met the challenge to liberalize later and more hesitantly than most Middle Eastern states. Bashar al-Asad’s efforts to open up the Syrian economy and copy the “China model” were bolder than his father’s during the 1990s but remained hobbled by half measures and caution…..
But, even as Asad sought to boost private initiative, he feared its results. To avoid the emergence of a capitalist class that would be largely Sunni and not beholden to the regime, Asad turned to his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who became “Mr. Ten Percent” of the Syrian economy. He assumed a majority stake in many major enterprises and holding companies and ensured that the Asad family maintained control over the economy. Office holders at every rank of the state bureaucracy replicated this model of crony capitalism, exemplified by the presidential family. A new class of businessmen drawn from the progeny of major regime figures — called the “sons of power” (abna al-sulta) — has become notorious for its wealth and economic assertiveness. The result has been an explosion of corruption and public resentment at the growing inequality and injustice of Syrian life.
A new form of crony capitalism, which has failed to provide jobs or economic security to the broad masses, has replaced socialism. Growth has been skewed in favor of the wealthy. The poor, particularly the rural poor, have been abandoned…..”
Joshua Landis once again gives an overly optimistic view of the past in Syria under the Ba’arth party dictatorship. The suppressed resentment has always been there, together with the sham official statistics pretending to show how much the dictatorship has done for Syrians.
Syria’s Sham Statistics.
The official Syrian State’s Ministry of Health figures present a glowing success story of progress during the Assad regime. Life expectancy increased from 56 years in 1970 to 73 years by 2009. Over the same time period, infant, under 5yrs and maternal mortality all fell by approximately 85%. Access to primary health services increased dramatically, for both urban and rural populations. This was achieved on a lower percentage of GDP than other MENA countries.
Country statistics should always be questioned, especially in dictatorships where comparative independent surveys and polls are difficult to perform. Human development statistics can be a political tool to complete an illusion of legitimacy, or to extract more assistance from development programs.
The United Nations Human Development statistics are not collected by the UN, but rely on national organisations. In Syria this is the regime run Central Bureau of Statistics(CBS). The UN Human Development Report Office (HDRO), just hand down manuals on how statistics should be collected. They say on the issue of statistical validity:
“HDRO actively advocates for the improvement of quality of human development data at all levels – national and international and for an efficient communication and collaboration between national statistical authorities and the UN statistical entities. The Human Development Report Office does not collect data directly from countries.”
The Syrian International Coalition for Health (SICH) made this observation in “Health care in Syria before and during the crisis” (2012), which probably applies to both the Hafez and Bashar eras:
“Despite the apparent improved capacity of the health system, a number of challenges prevail which need to be addressed to reduce inequities in access to health care and to improve the quality of care; these include, addressing validity of the data, overall inequity, lack of transparency ……”
In addition the millions of refugees that have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries since 2011, report that rural health services have always been very poor. It is likely that the Syrian offical CBS statistics have been overstated to some degree throughout the Assad regime era.
Often you will see defences of Middle Eastern dictatorships by so called “radical” Western activists, based on UN human development statistics, as if these figures are definitive. Convenient partisan absence of scepticism usually accompanies the creation of polemics about “benevolent dictatorships”, which are rarely true or enduring.
Syria’s Perpetual State Of Suppression.
The 1963 “state of emergency” legislation, imposed after the Ba’athist lead coup, continued into the Assad era. It justified special courts and blanket censorship. The 1965 “protecting the revolution” law was also kept. It criminalized any expression of opposition to “the aims of the revolution”. A term so vague as to give legal cover to any suppression of dissent. Even the conducting of opinion polls in Syria – whose results were not strictly authorized and controlled by the regime – is illegal.
Syria As The Assad Clan’s Private Estate.
A self-interested clique developed around the president that consisted of the Alawite dominated security elite and wealthy Sunni business class. Increased military support from the Soviet Union allowed the 1973 October War with Zionist Israel to be more of a stalemate than a crushing defeat for the Syrians. This gave Hafez Assad an aura of Arab nationalist respectability abroad, although his regime never intended to seriously threaten Israel or retake the essential water resources associated with the Golan Heights.
At the same time as Hafez Assad was empowering a wealthy authoritarian elite to dominate the lives of Syrians for decades to come (at the time of writing with no end in sight) – surely this is the worst and most restrictive form of sectarianism. Hafez Assad was faking the appearance of a non-sectarian open political shift in Syrian politics.
The Assad military coup was termed the “Correction Movement”. Assad claimed it was a development of the revolutionary Ba’athist movement. A logical reaction to the more radical polices of Syria’s former Alawite Ba’athist strongman Salah Jadid. A Sunni Baathist Ahmad al-Khatib was setup as a token ceremonial head of state for the first four months, until Hafez Assad replaced him as the real centre of power. Similarly a token cabinet was created split between Ba’athists, Socialists, Independents and Communists (a formula that became the “National Progressive Front” in 1976). In March 1971 Assad was elected president by a mere 99.2% of the alleged vote, while a fantastic 95.8% of the population turned out to vote. In August 1971 at the 11th Syrian Ba’athist National congress Assad set out his agenda for a “progressive front”, after the excessive predominance of the Jadid’s followers in Syrian politics.
Posing As The Pious Protector Of Minorities.
Hafez Assad hypocritically presented himself as a pious Muslim, and re-established the connection between the state and Sunni religious administration in Syria. He prayed in Sunni mosques, and made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Sheikh Ahmed Kuftaro was the Grand Mufti of Damascus from 1964 to 2004. He owed his position to his friendship with Hafez Assad. This Sunni Sufi cleric had the ancient Abu Nour Mosque in Damascus rebuilt in the early 1970s as a concrete monolith. It contained an extensive Islamic studies centre as well as a tomb for the Kuftaro family. It is not surprising that Kuftaro confirmed President Hafez Assad as an authentic pious Muslim. A noble traditional of pro regime apologetics and self-advancement that the current Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun also follows.
Hafez established the system of manipulation of minorities. No religious or secular leadership of a religious, ethnic or rural tribal group in Assad regime Syria can hold any position without being both pro-regime and approved by the regime. This means that for small minority communities there in a culture of self-policing by leaders of any members who express anti-regime sentiments. This is one of the principal reasons why most of the active support for the Syrian Revolution has come from the Sunni majority, rather than minority groups.
“[Under Hafez Assad] Sectarianism also became a convenient charge to use against regime opponents. ‘According to many witness testimonies,’ Dibo says, ‘it became a common strategy from the 1980s onwards, for security forces to deck walls with sectarian slogans such as, ‘We want to overthrow the Alawite regime’ a night before they stormed a neighbourhood to arrest members of the Communist Action Party or other political groups.”
A sectarian approach was taken to the allocation of military and government posts:
“To present a façade of religious harmony within the regime, cabinet posts were distributed among the sects. Similar unspoken rules applied to the military – though the sections of the security apparatus most vital to the regime’s survival remained firmly in Alawite hands.”
Also there was a sectarian Alawite “shadow power” structure behind other official regime positions:
“More important than manpower or proportion of Sunnis in upper or lower ranks is the military’s internal, shadowy decision-making structure. The regime has perfected the art of coup-proofing through an intricate web of patronage within the military in which rank does not necessarily correspond to an officer’s actual authority. Defected Sunni officers, even those of a senior rank, complain that their career progression was all too often confined to service or logistical units, while command of elite combat units was more often than not an all-Alawite affair. They also complain of the way that their aide-de-camps were usually Alawites who reported their every movement to Military Intelligence and for that reason were often more influential than the officers themselves.”
This use of Alawites and other minorities as powerful enforcers by the regime, within both the military and government, had the effect of giving minorities less reason to oppose the regime. It also created a network of feared spies within minority groups, to counter anti regime activity. This enabled the regime to claim they had the support of minorities, who feared an allegedly sectarian mainly Sunni opposition.
The Assad regime also amplified its control of Syrian society by physical divisions:
“This control was punctuated further by the intentional policies implemented by the security establishment in Syria to separate people based on sect, religion and ethnic criteria. This is illustrated by the encouragement given to segregated areas like the city of Baniyas, which is divided into an Alawite section and a Sunni one; or the town of Qutayfah, where the Army officers’ neighborhood (which is mostly Alawite) is separated by a fence from the majority-Sunni town. This geographical separation can be seen in many other areas in Damascus like Jaramana (Christian/Druze), Mazzeh 86 (Alawite), Harasta (Sunni). These areas were not completely homogeneous, but they were established in the Syrian consciousness as such, and thus was established a social state of ‘sectarian neighbourly’ relations according to the thinker Yassin al-Hafez. This ‘sectarian formation of society’ allowed the regime the ‘exclusive role of managing interactions between the groups and minimised all other independent interactions’, according to the writer, Yassin al-Haj Saleh. Even if, as some might argue, these social relations were already inherent in Syrian society, rather than actively promoted by the regime, the responsibility remains with the ruling class in not implementing any integration policies to counter this trend.”
There are also important physical divisions set up around professions and financial interests, like the army’s Dahiet al-Assad (Assad Suburb) near Damascus started in 1982. Kheder Khaddour gives an example of this system:
“The fact that a majority of officers are drawn from Syria’s Alawite community has often been noted as the primary, even singular, factor in the army’s cohesion since 2011. But this explanation overstates the role of sectarian affiliation. Army officers have access to a benefits system that links nearly every aspect of their professional and personal lives to the regime, and this places them in an antagonistic relationship with the rest of society. Dahiet al-Assad, or ‘the suburb of Assad’ northeast of Damascus and the site of the country’s largest military housing complex, reveals how this system works. Known colloquially as Dahia, the housing complex provides officers with the opportunity of owning property in Damascus. As many army officers come from impoverished rural backgrounds, home ownership in the capital would have been beyond their financial reach. Military housing has offered them an opportunity for social advancement, but the community that officers and their families inhabit within Dahia also fosters a distinct identity that segregates them from the rest of Syrian society, leaving them dependent on the regime. The benefits Dahia provides come at a steep cost. With the move into military housing, officers effectively complete their buy-in, linking their personal and familial fortunes to the survival of the regime. All the trappings of an officer’s life, and the social respectability it provides, are thus granted by and dependent on the regime.”
The Hama Massacre.
In 1982 the Muslim Brotherhood led an uprising in Hama. The pious Muslim Hafez Assad then levelled large parts of the centre of the City, killing around 40,000 Syrians. The regime “Defence Companies” security force lead by Rifaat al-Assad were responsible for most of the deaths. A similar tactic was used by the French colonialists in Damascus in 1926 in opposition to the Great Syrian Revolt. Since 2011 Bashar Assad has repeated this technique in pacifying Homs and Aleppo.
Terror And Destruction In Lebanon.
The Hafez Assad regime intervened in the long Lebanese Civil War that lasted between 1975 and 1990. The principal motivation was that Assad did not want a change in Lebanon that would threaten his regime. At times this involved supporting the Christian Maronites, and fighting Palestinians. Israel in a last gasp of its expansionist phase was pushing to divide Lebanon up between themselves and the Maronites. Lebanon was after all a state formed from the Greater Lebanon mini state formed by the French Mandate’s division of Syria in 1920.
In the late 1970s Assad faced both mounting opposition from Syrian Sunni groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, and the need to exert control in Lebanon. This led to a particular harsh reign of terror in the 1980s that extended from Syria to Lebanon. The regime kidnapped Lebanese citizens and imprisoned them in Syria. Family members could then be controlled by threatening relatives with torture.
Torture At The Kernel Of The Assad Regime.
The human rights group “Amnesty” produced a report in October 1987 that makes extremely grim reading, but shines a necessary light of the reality of the regime Hafez Assad created. It explains why – among people in the region – the Assad regime has the worst reputation for bestial brutality.
“The range of torture methods used is such that it led one former detainee to describe a Damascus detention centre as a ‘research centre’ for new torture techniques. Amnesty International has received descriptions of no less than 35 different methods of torture, excluding the routine beatings….”
[pp1 “Syria Torture by the security force”, Amnesty International, October 1987]
“The following are details of allegations of torture and ill-treatment which have been made to Amnesty International over several years by former detainees. It should be noted that not all of the methods listed below are widely used in Syria. Some are said to be exclusive to certain prisons or detention and interrogation centres. They are said to include:
1. Beatings on all parts of the body, involving punching, slapping and/or kicking, administered with fists, feet, leather belts, sticks, whips, hammers, braided steel cables or cables inside plastic hoses with the ends frayed;
2. Dullab (tyre): hanging the victim from a suspended tyre and beating him/her with sticks, clubs, cables or whips;
3. Falaqa: beating the soles of the feet;
4. Bisat al-Rih (Flying Carpet): strapping the victim to a piece of wood shaped like a human body and either beating him or her or applying electric shocks all over the body;
5. Al-Shabah (the Phantom): tying the victim’s arms behind the back and suspending him or her by them or by the feet. In both cases the victim may also be beaten or given electric shocks;
6. Al-’Abd al-Aswad (the Black Slave): strapping the victim onto a device which, when switched on, inserts a heated metal skewer into the anus;
7. Al-Kursi al-Almani (the German Chair): a metal chair with moving parts to which the victim is tied by the hands and feet. The back rest of the chair bends backwards, causing acute hyperextension of the spine and severe pressure on the victim’s neck and limbs. This is said to result in difficulty in breathing almost to the point of asphyxiation, loss of consciousness and, in some cases, the fracturing of the vertebrae. A variation of this device is known as al- Kursi al-Suri or Syrian Chair. In this metal blades are fixed onto the front legs of the chair at the point where the victim’s feet are tied, causing profuse bleeding from the ankles when pressure is applied. Both variations may be used in conjunction with beating or whipping.
8. Al-Ghassala (Washing Machine): a hollow spinning drum similar to that of a domestic washing machine into which the victim is forced to insert his or her arms, resulting in the arms and/or fingers being crushed;
9. Using domestic appliances to burn parts of the body such as the chest, back, genitals, buttocks and feet. The appliances include electric boilers (hot water tanks) against which the victim’s body is pressed; paraffin stoves covered with a metal sheet on which the victim is forced to sit; electric irons; electric welding machines;
10. Placing a piece of cotton wool soaked in petrol on various parts of the body and setting it alight; pouring petrol on the victim’s feet and setting them alight;
11. Piercing the victim’s back or chest with a pointed heated metal rod;
12. Extinguishing cigarettes on sensitive parts of the body; using gas lighters to burn the victim’s beard, moustache or other body hair;
13. Applying electricity to sensitive parts of the body including the ears, nose, tongue, neck, hands, genitals, anus and feet;
14. Applying salts and caustic substances (acidic and alkaline solutions) to the victim’s wounds or burns;
15. Slashing the victim’s face lips, ears, nose – with shaving knives and razor blades;
16. Forcing the victim to stand in bare feet against a wall with the hands tied together above the head. The top of the victim’s foot and toes are then crushed with the heel of a boot in a grinding motion;
17. Administering blows to the same areas of the victim’s body (including the head) for prolonged periods with a long thin rod tipped with a metal ball;
18. Suspending the victim by the hands and feet to bedposts or by the feet from a ladder, and beating or whipping him or her;
19. Al-Farruj (the Chicken): strapping the victim to a revolving wooden bar resembling a roasting spit and subjecting him or her to beating with sticks;
20. Hanging the victim for prolonged periods by the neck in such a way that the neck is not broken;
21. Suspending victims from a rotating fan in the ceiling and beating them as they rotate;
22. Forcing the victim to lie fully clothed in a bathtub filled with water for prolonged periods (sometimes overnight). Water may also be poured onto the victim at the same time;
23. Showering or pouring boiling hot or cold water alternately over the victim;
24. Plucking hair or skin with pincers or pliers;
25. Extracting finger and toe nails;
26. Sexual abuse or assault;
27. Forcing the victim to sit on bottle necks or inserting bottles or sticks into the rectum;
28. Forcing the victim to stand for long periods on one leg or to run carrying heavy weights;
29. Complete isolation in a small dark cell without any human contact at all for several days;
30. Switching on the light while the victim is asleep or keeping a bright light on for long or short periods day or night, possibly for several days;
31. Using loudspeakers to transmit noise, such as loud music and screams of people undergoing torture;
32. Subjecting the victim to mock execution, by holding his or her head below water almost to the point of suffocation;
33. Al-Miqsala (Guillotine), forcing the victim to lie on his or her back, facing a blade. A device on the machine ensures that the blade stops just before it touches the victim’s neck;
34. Threatening the victim that his or her relatives or friends are in danger of, for example, torture, sexual abuse, assault, kidnapping, amputation of limbs and execution;
35. Torturing other detainees in front of the victim;
36. Torturing or sexually assaulting the victim’s relatives in his or her presence;
37. Degrading the victim by using obscene language or insults or by forcing him or her to undress in front of guards of the opposite sex;
38. Depriving the victim of sleep, food, water, fresh air, toilet or washing facilities, visits by relatives or medical treatment; “
[pp 18-21, “Syria Torture by the security forces”, Amnesty International, October 1987]
This indictment of the Hafez Assad regime casts a revealing light on the reality of the Bashar Assad’s war crimes since 2011.
Legacy Of The Tyrant.
In 2000 Hafez Assad died. His neo-colonalist regime had managed to divide Syria in a more insidious way than the colonialist French Mandate had done with their attempted division of Syria into geographically defined mini-states. He created a country divided by community pressures, greed and above all fear.
This is not how many in the West saw him.
Insanely both the Zionists and Ideologues in the Palestinian Solidarity Movement (especially those who were also from the hard-left), both saw Hafez Assad as a fantastically popular leader.
To the Zionists Hafez had “brain washed” Syrians into being fanatic racist anti-Semites who see him as their protector. Anti-Semitism is a concept they routinely greatly exaggerate to include any kind of serious criticism of Israeli policies. This racist idea of a country of deluded enemies is commonly used in Political Zionist propaganda to justify aggressive apartheid.
The hard-left section of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, are not really interested in Syria or Palestine. This is about domestic left versus right wing politics, which spills into Israel because of close political and economic interconnections with the country. To them Hafez Assad was fighting against imperialism and colonialism. His alleged popularity was bond up with their approval of his hypocritical public statements.
Barry Rubin writes about the Middle East mixing accessible accuracy with a scattering of Zionist tropes. Here are his conclusions on Hafez Assad’s Syria:
“To make the regime really strong and stable, Syria’s leaders used educators, journalists, intellectuals, and cultural figures to ensure that people didn’t just obey the dictator, they would love him. While far from attaining the psychological completeness of the kind of society portrayed in 1984 or Brave New World – cynicism and quiet antagonism certainly existed – Syria was about as close as anyone could come in practice. Iraq under Saddam was far more dependent on fear and repression; Islamist Iran more riddled with sullen resentment and openly expressed opposition. While it certainly has its own troubles, Syria’s system is a success story from the standpoint of power imposed on a willing populace. The government did not just sit in its offices and issue decrees. It had command of the country’s wealth, information, ideology, and every conceivable institutions. Syrians can only conduct business by making government officials their partners or succeed in most careers by echoing its ideology whether or not they believe it in their hearts. It is a society where all the media are under regime control and adhere to the official line, in which sustained public criticism can lead to torture and imprisonment, in which cell phones and internet use are tightly controlled, private conversations may well be reported to the secret police, and in which any contact with a foreigner is suspect. Yet it is also a society in which the people generally accepted the regime’s stories and the permanent war footing it demands.”
[Chapter 3, page 1, Barry Rubin, “The Truth About Syria”, 2007]
This piece by Barry Rubin is an admixture of truth and political fiction. Factual information is mixed with vague impressions. It echoes those from the hard-left dictator hugging community. The security and torture machine of Hafez Assad described above is the surest sign of a system that never really succeeded in gaining popularity, and never had any legitimacy.
[Originally posted: 8th May 2017]