Regime survival depends on a tight grip on Damascus and a delicate manipulation of regional and international contradictions

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In January 2011, a wave of demonstrations in Tunisia toppled the regime of President Zeinelabedin Ben Ali (r. 1987-2011), sparking the Arab Spring that spread to many Arab countries including Syria. The protests led to the removal of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (r. 1981-2011),  and the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (r. 1978-2011), yet it fell short of ousting president Bashar al-Assad (r 2000- ) in spite of mounting local opposition to his rule, and in spite of western and Arab pressures on him. In this article, I argue that the Syrian crisis was caused by local factors, but acquired regional and international dimensions, due to interference from contending regional and international powers, and that the reasons for Bashar’s ability to stay in office were his ability to remain in control of Damascus, and to manipulate the differences among regional and international powers. Bashar is continuing the strategy of his father Hafez al-Assad (r.1970-2000), mainly to maintain political stability and impose strong authority and control of Damascus, the capital city of Syria, assuring the loyalty of its elite, and to preserve a delicate balance among different regions, tribes, confessions and ethnicities. For this reason, I address the subject of the political geography of Syria, a country that was established in 1920 in the Levant, a region that was subject to competition between major powers since early history.[1]

The axial role of Damascus

The Levant included Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Since early history, this region served as a buffer zone between Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia. The Levant was also vulnerable to Bedouin incursions from Arabia. Syrian politics in the twentieth century was continuously unstable due to the rivalries of three geopolitical powers: Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt.  Lebanon was always the stepping stage of western powers to interfere in the affairs of the Syrian hinterland. We can thus contextualize the various coups d’etats in Syria between 1949 and 1970. Every coup d’etat, starting with the one led by the commander of the army Hosni Zaim in 1949 till the one led by Hafez al-Assad in 1970, aimed to take over Damascus. The chances of every ruler to uphold power depended on his ability to control this metropolitan city.

Damascus has played a leading role in the Middle East since early history, as it was an important mercantile city in the trade of the region. During the Ottoman rule (1516-1918), the city was the entrance of the Sublime Porte to its Arab provinces. Throughout its history, Damascus was able to subordinate its rural hinterland due to its capability to monopolize administrative, judicial and commercial services. Pastoral nomads depended on the city as an outlet for their products, while villages depended on its protection, in addition to the economic and social services that it provided. This important role would be enlarged as Damascus would become the capital of Syria, and eventually a cosmopolitan city. By the second half of the 19th century, the city had started to modernize, giving way to the rise of Arab nationalism. As Philip Khoury finds, “Damascus supplied a disproportionate share of the leading lights leading to the growth of Arab Nationalism in the 19th century and most important Arab nationalists emerged from one single class which is the landowning bureaucratic class that assumed shape in the late 19th century”.[2] This made any political authority that wanted to rule Syria keen on acknowledging the economic privileges of the Damascene elite. Ho

A Fragmented State?

WWI ended with the defeat of Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire, and caused the latter to lose all its Arab possessions. The victorious powers, Great Britain and France, according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), divided the ex-Ottoman Arab provinces: Syria and Lebanon came under French colonial rule, while Iraq, Jordan and Palestine were taken by the British.[3]The French colonial policy in Syria and Lebanon was premised on its bias toward the Christians, especially the Maronites in Lebanon and the Catholics and Alawites in post-Ottoman Syria. In addition, the French perceived Syria as a society fragmented along ethnic, tribal, sectarian and regional lines. Hence, it created a Druze state in the southern part of Syria, an Alawi state on the coast, a Sunni state in Damascus, and another Sunni state in Aleppo. This “divide and rule” policy served the French’s interests and plans in the region and inaugurated a new era in the history of Syria.[4] The struggle against the French mandate, led mainly by the Damascene elite, was able to reunite Syria in one state, and was eventually able to achieve the country’s full independence from France in 1946.

The new state would be based on a leading role of Damascus, and would be subjected to the influence of three contending regional powers: Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt. The north-eastern part of Syria, which included Al Hassaka, Al Qamishli, down to Al- Boukamal and the Euphrates in the east, was traditionally under the influence of Iraq. Aleppo had strong mercantile relations with Anatolia that were damaged by the creation of French Syria and hence favored an open relationship with Turkey. However, it was Ataturk’s Turkey that deserted Aleppo and turned westward toward Europe. The Alawites of the coastal region had strong affiliations with the Alawites of East Anatolia, estimated around 15 million. In southern Syria, the Druze of mount Hauran had strong relations with the Hashimite Kingdom based on their traditional economic interests with Jordanian tribes.  On the other hand, the Sunni majority of Hauran envied the Druze’s amicable relations with Jordan, as the latter was their stepping stone to maintain their kin attachments with relatives in Arabia.  The upper Damascene class established a partnership with the mercantile elite of Beirut, while the middle merchant class, upset by the French arrangements in the Levant, expressed its dissatisfaction with the French policy in Syria and tilted toward Arab Nationalism. Thus, the ambiguous historical trajectories and loyalties of the constituting Syrian regions and tribes did not produce a coherent national bonding that would eventually lead to a stable nation state. As Kautsky stated, “the frontiers that resulted from colonialism created nation states in the legal sense but did not create nations”.[5]Arab Nationalism as an ideology served to create a common identity for the Syrians, bypassing their tribal and regional sub-identities, and at the same time satisfying the tendency of particular regions to be affiliated with their neighboring geopolitical centers. Pan-Arabism became highly essential for the survival of Syria, which became the propagator of this ideology while considering that its national frontiers were temporary until the achievement of Arab unity. In my opinion, this had been the reason for the uneasiness of the Syrian Arab Nationalists with what they considered as artificial national frontiers.[6]This was also obvious in the Syrian constitution that asserted that the legitimacy of any government stems from its tendency to achieve Arab unity.[7]Hence, the mission of Syria goes beyond the artificial frontiers and Syrians are expected to fulfill their duty towards their Arab brothers to defend the Arab nation against foreign aggression and schemes.[8]

A System Designed for al-Assad?

During the 1950s a mounting competition occurred between Egypt and Iraq over control of Syria. This explained much of the political instability that prevailed in Syria prior to Hafez al-Assad, who became the undisputed master of the country in November 1970. Upon taking over power, he had to deal with a diversified socio-political map that had multiple implications on the formation of the Syrian society. Syria was a country where the rural population formed the majority, and the urban population formed a minority with a leading role to Damascus and Aleppo. The urban centers controlled the line extending from Deraa in the south to Aleppo in the north, and divided the country between a peasant-based countryside area in the west and coastal areas, and a Bedouin-populated countryside area that controlled the Syrian Desert and separated it from the Euphrates and Aljazira region in the east. In order to ensure its stability, every system had to tighten its grip on Damascus to control the center of Syria, and use the metropolitan city as a base from which it could establish an accurate balance between these geopolitical and demographic variations, also taking in consideration tribal, confessional and ethnic variations.

All rulers (mostly Generals of the army) had played off these contradictions, while tightening their grip on Damascus. All of them lost power when they lost the loyalty of the Damascene elite. For example, in 1958, the Damascene elite played an important role in forging unity with Egypt under Gamal Abdul Nasser (r. Egypt 1954-1970) (r. Syria 1958-1961). Three years later the same Damascene bourgeoisie turned against Nasser due to his socialist economic policies that damaged their interests. The officers that led the coup d’etat against union with Egypt were two Damascene officers; lieutenant colonel Abdul Karim al-Nahlawi, and major Haydar al-Kuzbari. Al-Nahlawi was the director of Marshal Abdul hakim Amer[9] Bureau in Damascus, while al-Kuzbari was the commander of the border protection force stationed near Damascus. Another example; in February 1966, General Salah Jadid led a coup d’etat that rendered him master of Syria until 1970. Jadid followed a socialist agenda that nationalized too many private institutions. This damaged the interests of the Syrian bourgeoisie, and mainly the Damascene bourgeois class, which made it turn to his foe Hafez al-Assad.

The long period of al-Assad’s rule was a result of his ability to tighten his control over Damascus by drawing an alliance with the Damascene mercantile elite, acknowledging their economic interests, and to manage such balance with high efficiency.[10]  When al-Assad confronted opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood between 1975 and 1981, which ended in a bloodbath in Hama in 1982, he was keen on keeping the damascene bourgeoisie loyal by raising its share of imports from about one billion Syrian Pounds in 1975 to 3.63 billion Syrian Pounds in 1976 and to about 4.17 billion Syrian Pounds in 1980, which contributed to neutralizing Damascus and preventing it from joining the insurgency of Hama.[11] Al-Assad had to ensure the stability of his regime, in order to maintain Syrian national interests by preventing or reducing regional and external interventions in the Syrian internal affairs. This stability enjoyed by the Syrians led to the transformation of Syria   to a regional power for the first time in its modern history.[12] On the regional level, al-Assad succeeded in normalizing relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which were strained during the 1960s when radical members were in control of the Baath party.  The rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and Egypt served as a prelude to launching a war against Israel in order to regain the Golan Heights occupied by Israel in 1967, and to find a “just solution to the Palestinian cause”.[13] In addition to that, al-Assad sought to limit Israel within its 1967 borders, since he felt that any “expansion of its influence would surely come at the expense of Syria”.[14]