Posts Tagged Syria

Political Islam in Syria

This is an excerpt of the section on Syria from my 1980 monograph Political Islam (pp. 66-70).

24517931800_011db22af8_nSyria, once an example of post-colonial instability, has now known nearly a decade of continuous rule by President Hafiz al-Asad and his Baath Party. It is a remarkable achievement, unprecedented in the modern history of Syria. And yet few regimes are so vulnerable to the Muslim appeal; the foundation of Asad’s rule is constant vigilance.

Asad and many of his lieutenants hail from a religious minority. The Alawis, centered in Latakia in western Syria, are an underdeveloped community that constitutes roughly 11 percent of Syria’s population. Like many other provincial Syrian minorities after World War I, the Alawis had been encouraged by the French to press for separate statehood, and at several points Alawis did resist integration into the Syrian state. Eventually they gave up any separatist ambitions, but they were not to be ruled by others. Their rise to disproportionate power in the united Syrian state is a result of their primacy in the armed forces, to which they flocked (earlier with French encouragement) in order to escape the dead end of a depressed and static community. As Syrian politics increasingly fell within the military domain, the Alawi quest for upward mobility was richly rewarded: Alawis stand at the summit of the Syrian political structure.

This sudden and unanticipated rise bred resentment. For at the forefront of the struggle for independence had been the Sunni Muslims populating the major cities of Syria’s heartland. They had enjoyed the preference accorded Sunnis under Sunni Ottoman rule; they had fought for greater privileges in the Arab Revolt; they resisted the French; they, along with Syrian Christian intellectuals, had developed the guiding principles of Arab nationalism; and they had stepped into positions of authority with the departure of the French. Then—following a series of coups d’etat—Sunnis found themselves on the political doorstep as the prime qualification for political leadership became military rank.

The injustice in Sunni eyes was compounded by the fact that Alawis had emerged on top after the bloodletting had ended. Syria’s Sunni ulama had considered the Alawis heretical, beyond the Muslim pale; Alawi beliefs and doctrines were ridiculed, and were no more than tolerated under Ottoman rule. This should not have mattered: Sunni Arab nationalists had long avowed their secularism. That avowal, however, was at least partially a device to reconcile others to Sunni rule, while now it was being used to reconcile Sunnis to the rule of others. Enough Sunnis had identified their nationalist aspirations with their Islam and confused Syrian independence with the rule of their own community to leave a bitter taste of disappointment with this ironic turn of events.

These are the sorts of prejudices with which Asad has had to cope. His predecessors in power faced Sunni disturbances during the 1960s, but Asad hoped to avoid the same problems by adhering to a judicious Muslim policy. Despite his own secularist disposition, Asad made public displays of piety: he prayed at a major Sunni mosque in Latakia, where he kissed the Quran; his portrait was inserted in a government edition of the Quran (the famous “Asad Quran”); he trekked to the Lahore Islamic Summit in 1974 where he publicly prayed alongside the other Muslim heads-of-state; and he made the pilgrimage. The Alawis, too, were rehabilitated. The regime circulated theological tracts which declared that Alawis constituted an integral segment of the Islamic community. Since the more ecumenical Sunni ulama recognize Shi‘is to be Muslims, the regime went to the trouble of having a notable Shi‘i dignitary in Lebanon declare that the Alawi faith was, in fact, a branch of the Shi‘a. Finally, Asad took pains to assure Sunnis of ministerial portfolios and positions in the civil bureaucracy.

This did not, however, prevent a recurrence of the violence that plagued Asad’s predecessors. The Sunni merchants in the bazaars of Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, and Homs were being made to feel the pinch of socialist policies they found spokesmen in those Sunni ulama who remained independent of state control, in an alliance not unlike that in Iran. Their resentment was touched off in January 1973 when the government released the text of a new draft constitution that omitted the customary article prescribing Islam as the religion of state—almost certainly a triumph for secularist ideologues in inner-Baathist circles. A group of Sunni ulama proclaimed, however, that the new constitution wiped out fourteen centuries during which Syria had been the pride of Islam, a theme that they repeated in the mosques. Asad could not retreat—he might have caused too much ill-feeling within the Party—but he did attempt to reach a compromise by proposing that the new constitution require a president of the Muslim faith. In accord with this decision, a public referendum was scheduled on the proposed amendment. But the situation actually deteriorated after Asad’s offer: at issue was not the constitution, but Alawi primacy.

The parallels with Iran’s violence are striking. The uprising—“a crisis that shook the regime almost to its foundations,” according to Abbas Kelidar—began in the urban mosques with sermons by ulama. The congregations moved from the mosques to the streets. Clashes with police led to exchanges of gunfire, leaving casualties in both ranks. Baath offices (like those of the official Rastakhiz party in Iran) became the target of attacks. The merchants shut their shops in general strikes that affected Hamah, Homs, and Aleppo. In Damascus, a general strike was averted only by last-minute intervention of ulama. The principal shari‘a court judge was arrested for advocating a boycott of the referendum the Shari‘a Judicial Council went on strike in protest. Aleppo College went on strike; Syrian soldiers took the campus and, evoking a charge that later often reverberated in Iran, were rumored to have shaved the beards of arrested theology students before sending them to prison. Slogans proliferated on public buildings: “Islam is the road to victory,” “religion to God is Islam,” and “Islam is our constitution.” The uprising ended only with the despatch of armored units into the cities.

In subsequent years, Asad was far more cautious, and his opponents were driven underground. They began a campaign of assassination directed against Alawi officials and officers, in streets and homes. In June 1979 this campaign reached new heights: a Muslim group engineered an attack on a military school in Aleppo, killing over 60 officers, the great majority of whom were almost certainly Alawis. Asad responded with a spate of executions—not of the perpetrators, but of those convicted of similarly-motivated offenses on earlier occasions. The shift to this kind of operation by Sunni recalcitrants is almost certainly a sign of weakness; it is difficult to imagine any Syrian regime being brought down by terrorism, but the Muslim opposition has managed to create an atmosphere of public insecurity that may embolden others better poised to act.

In any case, the Sunni-Alawi issue has already had a telling effect upon the government’s policy. Eager for wider acceptance, Asad has sought consensus through the Arab nationalist war with Israel. The military ability of the Alawis is their political mandate, and in moments of crisis the regime issues appropriate reminders. In 1967, before Asad’s rise to power, his Alawi predecessor (Salah Jadid) had distracted Syrians from a similar spate of internal violence by aerial duels with Israel which charged the atmosphere for the subsequent June war. In 1973, semi-official Syrian sources announced that the Sunni riots were coming at a time when the Israelis were planning a “new aggression.” In 1979, the attack on the Aleppo school was quickly followed by the Syrian air force’s unsuccessful intervention in an Israeli air raid over Lebanon. The need for this sort of outlet and the pursuit of legitimacy through military achievement have sustained Asad, but have kept Syria out of the “peace process.” Without the conflict with Israel, Asad would be forced to emphasize even further a secular Arab nationalism that remains compelling for many Syrians but leaves a permanent pocket of violent dissent. In Syria, for an Alawi amid Sunnis, Islam remains a rigid constraint, a source of legitimacy upon which Asad cannot draw. He must continue to turn elsewhere.


    Temple of Bel, Palmyra, no more

    This is a screen grab. The original post, with active links, is here.

    The Temple of Bel, Palmyra, no more

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      President Bashar will see you now!

      This is a screen grab. The original post, with active links, is here.

      President Bashar will see you now!

        The Shiite crescent eclipsed

        This is a screen grab. The original post, with active links, is here.

        The Shiite crescent eclipsed

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          Patrick Seale in Israel

          This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on April 14.

          Patrick SealePatrick Seale, journalist and author, best known for his reportage on Syria and his mediation between Hafez Asad and the West, has passed away at the age of 83, after a battle with brain cancer. Here are a few impressions of my few encounters with him, from an Israeli point of view.

          In the world of Israeli Middle East expertise, Seale’s 1965 book The Struggle for Syria had an almost iconic status. When it first appeared, there weren’t a lot of books on contemporary Syria, and Israeli analysts parsed every word. Seale didn’t just rely on published sources, he interviewed all the actors, and he became renowned for his access to otherwise taciturn Arab politicians. Ma’arachot, the publishing house of the Israel Defense Forces, published a Hebrew translation of the book in 1968, and it quickly found its way to every relevant shelf.

          In 1988, he published a biography of Syria’s ruler, under the title Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. There was that word “struggle” again, although this time his book had the flavor of a semi-official enterprise. Indeed, Seale ended it with this sentence: “When asked how he would wish this chronicle to be concluded, Asad replied: ‘Say simply that the struggle continues.'” Footnoted: “Interview with President Asad, Damascus, 18 March 1988.” Of course, this only enhanced the aura surrounding Seale in Israeli eyes, and the biography immediately appeared in Hebrew translation. (In contrast, the book’s distribution was banned in Syria. Seale’s account was fine for Westerners, but some passages weren’t sufficiently obsequious for consumption in Damascus.)

          But when I first met Seale, it wasn’t in connection with his Syria work. The date was February 5, 1992, and the place, the Chicago studio of Milt Rosenberg’s highly regarded talk show, “Extension 720.” I was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, and Seale was passing through town to promote a new book, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire. It was a wretched piece of conspiracy mongering (the Economist called it “ludicrous”), claiming that the Mossad was behind the Palestinian terrorist Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal). Seale didn’t bring a single shred of evidence. I read and annotated the book, and came to the studio loaded for bear. In the waiting room, where we met, Seale seemed almost apologetic: “I’ve written something of a potboiler.” In the on-air exchange, I quoted his claims line by line, pressing him to produce even a scintilla of evidence, of which there was none. At one point, I told Seale that I respected his Struggle for Syria, but each of his subsequent efforts was less rigorous than its predecessor, and with Abu Nidal he’d scraped bottom. Maybe one day I’ll put the exchange online (I have the tape). I remember thinking it was a nice evening’s work; it certainly wasn’t the beginning of a friendship.

          I didn’t expect to encounter Seale again, but later events in the 1990s set in motion Israel-Syria feelers and intermittent peace talks, and when the Labor party prevailed in the May 1999 elections, prime minister-elect Ehud Barak indicated that he wanted to relaunch negotiations. It was Barak who asked my colleague Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s preeminent Syria hand, to invite Seale to Israel to speak publicly. (Seale knew and respected Rabinovich, although the tie had been severed for a few years, after Rabinovich disparaged Seale’s Asad biography in a review.) I headed the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University at that time, and that’s how I came to co-sponsor and co-chair Patrick Seale’s first and only public address in Israel. The date: June 9, 1999.

          Hebrew translations of The Struggle for Syria and AsadI’ll not forget the Seale-fest that ensued in the lead-up and sequel to his appearance. Everyone wanted to know Asad’s real redlines, and everyone assumed Seale was on a quasi-official mission to relay a message from Damascus. The media besieged us with requests to interview him. When he came to the university to speak, more than five hundred people packed the hall. He had audiences with Barak (a “red-carpet reception,” said one source), President Ezer Weizman (who gave Seale a Golan-must-go interview), and former prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. Uri Saguy, a former head of military intelligence and Barak’s expected point man on Syria, took Seale to the Golan, where Saguy told Israeli settlers, with tears in his eyes, that “hard decisions may be coming.”

          Rabinovich was the go-to for these meetings, but I also found myself consumed with the management of Patrick Seale, media star, for the better part of a week. He was charming, diplomatic, and precise in his formulations, and he clearly enjoyed the limelight. Seale genuinely yearned to facilitate a breakthrough—on Asad’s terms, of course. Later that month, Seale published side-by-side interviews with Barak and Asad, in which they signaled hope for this and that. Seale denied being a go-between, but that’s exactly how Israelis regarded him.

          It turned out to be a bridge too far, for reasons that will keep historians busy for years to come. When Asad died a year later and his son Bashar took over, Israelis concluded that Seale didn’t have the same access in Damascus that he’d had under the old man. Failure at Camp David, Intifada II, Barak’s departure, Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush, 9/11, and the Iraq war all pushed Syrian-Israel peace off the agenda, and put Syria on the defensive. Seale slipped into Israel-bashing on a scale unprecedented even for him. Read the columns yourself.

          And that’s where my Seale story ends, but there’s a footnote. Whenever Seale came up in Israeli discussions, there usually would be a fair bit of winking and nodding about his ancestry. His father, a Russian Jew born (I think) in Jerusalem under the name of Ephraim Sigel, converted to Christianity, changed his name to Morris Seale, studied theology in Belfast (where Patrick was born), and became an ordained minister of the Irish Presbyterian Church. Sigel-Seale then went out as a missionary to Damascus, where Patrick spent his childhood. Nothing more excites speculation among Israelis than the discovery that a foreign friend or foe is a blood member of the tribe. (Albright, Kerry… it happens all the time.) Did Hafez Asad and his cronies know that their Patrick wasn’t purely Irish? Did it matter? How could it not? Etcetera—for what it’s worth. (Not much, I think.)

          Seale has left a world in which even the idea of Syria is in peril, as nearly every achievement of Hafez Asad unravels. In the preface to a 1986 reedition of The Struggle for Syria, Seale wrote that Hafez Asad

          seeks to discipline Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians, preventing them from entering into any relationship with Israel without his consent, trying to turn the Arab Levant into a bastion against Israeli expansion… But just as Asad needs to unite the Levant in order to recover the occupied territories, Israel needs to divide it in order to keep them… “Greater Syria” is a sort of mirror-image of “Greater Israel” and its inevitable opponent. Both cannot win.

          It might not be as black-and-white as all that, but if Seale was right, there can be no doubt today who the winner is. Syria is prostrate, an arena for the meddling of others, while the Arab Levant continues to divide and subdivide into its smallest parts. As the old man told Seale back in 1988, “the struggle continues,” but it’s not the one he or Seale envisioned. Theirs will be a sad reunion.

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