The Syria Conundrum Reconsidered

In a corner

In early summer, I wrote about how the Syrian regime is a hard nut to crack in The Syria Conundrum. I essentially agreed with the reasoning of the New York Times: “Mr. Assad oversees a security state in which his minority Alawi sect fears that if his family is ousted, it will face annihilation at the hands of the Sunni majority. That has kept the government remarkably cohesive, cut down on military defections and left Mr. Assad in a less vulnerable position…” Moreover, I argued that the dominant strata of Syrian society – the affluent class dominated by Alawi and the Sunni business community – has coalesced around the Assad regime as the conflict has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones and raised the specter of chaos. Furthermore, since the regime had firm control over the entire coercive apparatus and a monopoly on heavy weapons, the opposition cannot possibly wrestle power away from it without external support even if it were united and cohesive.

My expectation that Turkey will be central to US’ Syrian policy was borne out by subsequent developments, although the installation of Patriot missile batteries on the Turkish border is sure to be only the beginning of US’ involvement in the Syrian struggle. What I never quite managed to understand is the reasoning of US policymakers. The semi-official argument that it would be militarily difficult to get rid of Assad is a joke. I thought, and still think to some extent, that US policymakers were worried about what would replace the Assad regime and whether or not a revolutionary regime – perhaps led by the Muslim Brotherhood – would keep the peace with Israel. (Would a revolutionary regime be better than that of Assad? At least he has kept the peace in the Levant. Perhaps, it’s best to wait and see.) Astute political commentators argued instead that Washington is not going to make any moves till after the Presidential election. This has also been borne out by recent developments.

The Obama administration gave the green light to the Qataris and Saudis to supply weapons to the rebels even as it sat on the sidelines. This has predictably led to the weapons falling into the hands of Islamist extremists. Now administration officials worry about salafi influence and heavily armed militant Islamists further destabilizing the region. It is pretty clear that the decision to sit this out for so long and outsource the supply of arms to the oil monarchies was not in the interests of either regional stability or US security. If the Obama administration hadn’t blocked Turkey from supplying heavy weapons to the moderate rebels, this situation would not have obtained.

Going back to the argument about Syria “being a hard nut to crack”, we see the following obvious paradox. If the struggle in Syria has become primarily sectarian or confessional, then how is it that non-Alawi, in particular, Sunni elements of the regime core have not split from the regime? That is, why has the Syrian nut not cracked along confessional lines? I found a convincing answer in the frame of a most remarkable book by Volker Perthes, appropriately titled The Political Economy of Syria Under Assad (1995). He followed it up with a special report in the Adelphi papers under the title Syria Under Bashar al-Assad: Modernization and the Limits of Change (2004). In what follows I will try to present a summary of his study in the context of the nagging question about the Syrian nut. Although Perthes’ work is basically unchallenged at this point vis-à-vis the political economy of Syria, he is not much of an expert in terms of regional security and the external context of Syrian policy. It is thus necessary to augment his analysis with readings on international security, which I will summarize first. [All quotes are from Perthes unless otherwise specified.]

The regional security environment

The aftermath of the Suez crises in 1957 was the ‘high tide’ for Nasser’s influence in the region. With US encouragement, the Saudis and the Hashemite rulers of Iraq and Jordan formed a ‘Kings alliance’ to contain the threat posed by Nasser. The Eisenhower administration had announced a major initiative to contain Soviet influence in the Middle East, specially targeting Syria for “going communist”. US supported Iraq’s efforts to subvert the Syrian regime, even as Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan mobilized their forces on the Syrian border. This pushed the Syrians closer to both the Soviet Union and Egypt. Amid an escalating internal struggle for power between the Ba’ath and the Communists, the former sought unification with Egypt to isolate the latter, and the United Arab Republic (UAR) was formed in 1958.

On September 28, 1961, a conservative group of Syrian officers staged a coup against the UAR in Damascus. Their rule – and the return to the ancien régime – lasted barely a year and half. In early 1963, the Ba’ath successfully conducted military coups in Iraq and Syria, and immediately sought unification with Egypt. But the Tripartite Unity Agreement collapsed almost immediately, after a purge of Nasserite officers in Syria.

The Syrian Ba’ath became increasingly extremist in their social policies and rhetoric. Yet another coup d’état brought a radical faction, the neo-Ba’ath, into power in 1966. The neo-Ba’ath radicals had middle-class, rural, and minority – particularly Alawi – origins. Assad, who had been the chief of the Air force since 1964, became increasingly influential, and was made the Minister of Defense. Ties to the Soviet Union increased to the point of a formal defense treaty that was signed in November 1966. The Soviets supported the faction led by Salah Jadid, but the internal struggle for power continued and caught Syria unprepared for the Six Day War, so that Israeli forces managed to occupy the Golan Heights without much resistance.

Hafiz al-Assad secured a partial coup in 1969, when he managed to place people loyal to him in key positions of the government. During the Jordan crises, after King Hussein moved to crush the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Syrian armored units invaded Jordan to support the PLO. But Assad, who had opposed the invasion, refused to send in air support. Consequently, Jordan was able to repulse the armored units with air power. Assad then used this humiliation to marginalize the delegitimized radical leadership of the Ba’ath, and assumed office in November 1970.

Assad moved to create a strong state and prioritized regime security and stability. Syria enjoyed the patronage of the oil monarchies in the first few years of Assad’s rule, and increasingly close ties to Egypt, even as military and economic aid continued to flow from the Soviet Union. After Egypt made peace with Israel and became a client of Washington, Syria became the principal client of the Soviet Union, thereby enjoying an unprecedented inflow of arms and money. It became a regional power of some weight, as evidenced by its dominant role in Lebanon.

During the 1980s, in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Syria allied itself with Iran, not because it was Shi’ite but because it was isolated in the region, being completely surrounded by clients of Washington (Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia). With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of unipolarity, the foreign policy stance of the Assad regime became much more accommodating. Assad even supported Bush’s war to reverse Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait. The moderation that obtained in Syrian foreign policy has persisted since 1990. Syria’s policymakers believe that with the United States as their neighbor (in Iraq) since 2003, there is hardly any room for maneuver in the regional contest, and have instead focused on getting a workable deal with Washington.

The political economy of Syria

Assad’s military coup amounted to a de facto counter-revolution that marginalized the leftist extremists who had hitherto dominated the Ba’ath in Syria, substituting socialism for étatism. Entrenched interests welcomed Assad and the ensuing moderation in policy. There was little resistance to his takeover bid. Under Assad, Syria developed into a strong authoritarian state dominated by a trinity of corporatist forces. These were the security services, the bureaucracy, and the Ba’ath party. Civil society organizations like trade unions, business associations, and professional organizations were totally penetrated by the state and transformed into docile quasi-corporatist institutions.

Syria followed the classic post-war socialist model of state-led industrial development by import substitution, with a large public sector monopolizing the commanding heights of the economy. This enormous expansion of the state in the absence of institutional foundations and the rule of law, coupled with an authoritarian regime characterized by highly centralized decision-making, resulted in the emergence of an all pervasive patronage network, incubating a ‘state bourgeoisie’.

The following table shows the growth in employment in the state sector:

1965 1970 1980 1991

Public sector employees

70,000 136,000 457,000 685,000

Military and security

65,000 100,000 300,000 530,000

Total state employees

135,000 236,000 757,000 1,215,000

Total workforce (millions)

1.1 1.7 2.3 3.7

The concept of ‘state bourgeoisie’ captures the emergence of

a non-entrepreneurial, self-recruiting ruling stratum that controls the means of coercion as well as a major part of the means of production in highly interventionist Third World countries. This elite cannot be sufficiently understood in terms of its social class or alternatively regional or ethnic origin, as had been implied by concepts of middle class or minority rule, nor can it be convincingly interpreted as an agent or managing committee on behalf of a nascent bourgeoisie stratum having imposed itself on existing state and bureaucratic structures and then developing them – rather than emanating from the state apparatus – [it] does not simply represent the upper echelon of the bureaucracy, and it is certainly not a basically disinterested military-bureaucratic elite led by raison d’état. It has been shown how much state bourgeoisies tend to destroy the economic and administrative rationality of their original plans and projects by subjecting it to their private social interest and to a rationality of control and regime stabilization.

This ‘state bourgeoisie’ has accumulated enormous fortunes from an elaborate patronage network.

Patronage, as technique of power, is based on the exchange of resources, or access to them, for loyalty or obedience. Patronage thus establishes a hierarchical relationship by definition. And while the spread of wasta [mediation] may create an egalitarian illusion – namely that everybody can somehow get access to decision-makers and can thereby participate in political processes or even manipulate the state – it is in fact an extremely inegalitarian instrument. Wasta is unevenly distributed, creates dependencies, and individualizes political and social action, thus impeding the development of class-based solidarities and, to an extent, obscuring power relations.

During the seventies, the remnant of the old guard – the established bourgeoisie – found shelter under the Assad regime, even as the ‘state bourgeoisie’ became dominant. After the liberalization of the economy and the expansion of opportunities for profit-making with three decades of reform since 1980, this ‘state bourgeoisie’ and a new class of commercial bourgeoisie closely associated to it, and dependent for its income and fortune on the Syrian state, came to form the hard core of the Assad nut.

With the historic realignment of Egypt with the United States in the late-1970s, Syria became the only confrontation state in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It thereby enjoyed patronage from the oil monarchies and the Soviet Union, even as the Assad regime secured legitimacy for its rule and stabilized the domestic order. Even as it had to give up dreams of military parity with Israel, it has found it hard to back down from its confrontation with Israel in the interest of control and regime stabilization. Let us not exaggerate the legitimacy thus purchased though. The stability of the Assad regime depended principally upon its absolute control over the apparatus of coercion. Syria became and remained a security state. Syrian society has been thoroughly penetrated and controlled by an almost omnipresent surveillance system run by the security services.

Syria’s security apparatus – the military, mukhabarat (security and intelligence services), and police – constitute the most reliable instrument of power at the disposal of the regime. It employs nearly 15 per cent of the total workforce, runs the obligatory military training in high schools and universities, and organizes the militias attached to the Ba’ath party, the Peasant Union, and the trade unions. “Mukhabarat surveillance is generally a pretty open rather than a secret affair. The objective is, apparently, to maintain an atmosphere of fear and compliance rather than to hide the omnipresence of the services.”

Syrians “take it for granted that even petty mukhabarat officials can and will use their position to enrich themselves.” The military is the core of the ‘state bourgeoisie’: “Most of the military and security bosses have become patrons of and partners in private business, or have taken commissions on contracts between the state and international suppliers. Smuggling has, to a large extent, been in the hands of the military…[m]any officers have become conspicuously wealthy.”

Furthermore, “The personal loyalty to the President of officers in leading positions and of much of the rank and file of the Republican Guard and other key units, as well as the balancing of different services, ensure that Assad remains in control of the apparatus.” The military “as a corporation, shares the President’s interest in preventing the emergence of independent power centers or any other threat to the power edifice and stability of the regime.”

Perthes makes a critical observation about the role of the patronage network in regime stabilization: “Given the distributional functions of the a modern state, and the need for practically all members of society to have access to it, patronage also serves as an extremely useful means of control, and it has been cultivated as such. Patronage binds specific groups such as the military and parts of the bourgeoisie to the regime.”

And this is goes to the heart of the matter: “The confessional composition of the regime elite, the strong Alawi bias particularly of the jama’a, the group surrounding the President, has often been described. Confession as such, however, is not the criterion for membership in this circle; loyalty to the President is. All strategic positions, particularly those of immediate relevance for regime security, are occupied by persons with strong personal ties to the President.”

Furthermore, there are many Sunni members of the President’s inner circle, which is the “top of a pyramid of patronage networks that reach through all levels of society. Anyone in the President’s inner circle owes his position to Assad. By being the President’s men, however, the members of this group have become powerful secondary patrons who all have their network of clients and followers in the army, the party, or the bureaucracy.” Indeed, the regime has not pursued policies for the social and economic advantage of the Alawi community or the Alawi dominated Latakia region. In fact, the coastal region’s share of state investment and largess is lower than what one would expect from its population. Syria’s urban bourgeoisie has faced exceptionally well under the rule of the al-Assad.

The most significant threat to the rule of Hafiz al-Assad came in 1978-82, when Syria found itself in a situation akin to a civil war. The opposition was led by – but not solely composed of – the Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Like the present one, that conflict also became increasingly sectarian as it dragged on. The regime found it difficult to contain the violent uprisings. Moreover, it lost the allegiance of large parts of society that it thought it could count upon until then: public sector workers, professionals, and the salaried middle class. In fact, just as in the current uprisings, the initial center of gravity was the liberal opposition. In 1980, the committees of the lawyers’, physicians’, and engineers’ unions were dissolved and their members thrown in jail. The regime intensified repression, purged the bureaucracy of persons considered disloyal, and unleashed the security services to round up supporters of the opposition. Only later did the Islamists become the focal point of the uprising. In a dramatic climax, the regime brutally crushed the uprising in a three-week operation in Hama, leveling a third of the town – killing more than ten thousand inhabitants – earning Assad the title of ‘the butcher of Hama’.


By the time Hafiz al-Assad ascended to heaven in the year 2000, Basher al-Assad had already been incubated as the President-in-waiting, and took power in a ‘quasi-monarchical succession’. He quickly consolidated his control and filled key positions in the state apparatus with his personal loyalists. He embarked on a modernization program with much fanfare, prioritizing bureaucratic efficiency and the performance of the economy. He made it clear that the goal was to modernize the authoritarian system, not to dismantle it.

Shortly after his assumption of power, however, there was a brief flurry of civil activism, quickly labeled the ‘Damascus spring’. On September 27, the ‘Memorandum of the 99’ appeared in the Lebanese press (Syrian press is state controlled), which outlined a set of demands to free Syrian civil society and open up the political system. Members of the leadership grew increasingly alarmed, and started warning of ‘red lines’. In March, Assad made it clear that national security, the Ba’ath party, and the “path of the late leader Hafiz al-Assad” were not open for discussion. The editor in chief of the government newspaper al-Thaura was sacked in May. Other prominent journalists, commentators, and intellectuals were arrested and thrown in jail for voicing support for political pluralism and reforms.

The support base of the regime has shifted since the eighties. The middle peasantry – which was the primary beneficiary of the land reforms during the seventies – is still a stable support of the regime. The small peasantry has lost out both on account of the land reforms and the market reforms since the eighties, and can no longer be considered a support base. The ‘lumpen-proletariat’, that is, the large urban underclass, has been the invariant loser of the economic changes of the past four decades. “Under certain conditions, the semi-proletariat may be mobilized against the regime, as was the case during the 1978-82 period, by religio-political movements.”

The working class, the salaried middle class, and the intelligentsia formed a strong base of support for the regime in its first decade. The support has steadily eroded and discontent with the regime has grown as they have lost out with ‘market reforms’ of the past thirty years. The intelligentsia has, in particular, grown dissatisfied and frustrated with what they see as the broken promise of generational change that they thought was implicit in Bashar al-Assad’s accession. In the current uprisings, it is a fair bet that an overwhelming majority of these strata are providing material and rhetorical support to the rebels who probably mostly hail from the ‘lumpen-proletariat’.

The strongest support base of the Assad regime is the ‘state bourgeoisie’, and the grand and petty bourgeoisie – particularly the commercial bourgeoisie – who have been the big winners of ‘market reforms’. Accounting for around 5 per cent of the population and 50 per cent of household income, these are the central nodes of the vast patronage network in the Syrian socio-political edifice. The overthrow of the Assad regime, and the dismantling of large parts of the central components of the authoritarian structure – the security apparatus, the Ba’ath party, and the bureaucracy – would entail a thorough social revolution. In other words, this is a direct threat to the entirety of the entrenched interests who owe their status, revenues, wealth, and power to the specific structure of Syrian authoritarianism.

No wonder the nut is not cracking along confessional lines.

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