Who Rules Syria and How?  Interview with Joshua Landis

Paul Jay: The title of your upcoming book, Syria’s Democratic Experiment, first of all, what is the experiment?  And then talk a little about how we got there.

Joshua Landis: Well, the book really deals with a period at the time of independence — 1946, ’45, ’46 — in Syria, when the French left and Syrian Parliament was active.  There was a president that was elected, and there were a series of three elections in Syria during the ’40s and ’50s when there was a change of government.  We can get a window into Syrian nation and into Syrian society through looking at this period, because most of the serious parties emerged during this time.  They had a very active parliamentary life.  And we can see the forces at work in Syria.  In many ways the thesis of my book is that Syria was not a nation.  None of the political parties accepted Syria’s borders as had been laid down by the French and British after the First World War.  Syrians wanted unity.  Some wanted Arab unity from Morocco to the Gulf.  Others wanted Syrian unity and Syrian nationalism, which is Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine.  So there were many different arrangements that people were proposing other than the one that Syria had.

Paul Jay: So talk just a little bit more pre-World War I, and then after World War I.  I mean, Damascus is one of the most ancient human cultures, cities on earth.  What was there before these artificial —

Joshua Landis: Well, the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the Middle East from 1517 right up to, you know, 1918, when it was defeated by the British in the First World War, had provided a unity.  And Syria was the center of the Arab world in this big Arab part of the Ottoman Empire.  It was a multiethnic society, multireligious.  And there was a degree of liberalism within a multiethnic, dynastic, Islamic empire.  Now, that crumbled at the end of the First World War, and the British carved out Syria, they carved out Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, as we know.  Syria felt that that world, that surrounding world, should all be one.  And Syrians were irredentist.  They felt they had lost much of their hinterland.  Merchants were upset.  Everybody was upset in one way or another.  And this undermined the ability for democracy.  It meant there was no unified plan on how the nation should step forward.  And each region of Syria was quite different from the other.  What I do in my book, to a certain extent, is look at the national identity of different regions in Syria, what they thought of as the nation and what the nation should be.  There were big differences between sectarian groups, religious groups.  There were compact minorities in Syria — the Alawites on the coastal region, up in the mountains, who are a Shiite offshoot, the Druze in the south.  Damascus and Aleppo were major competitors — both Sunni cities, but they had always competed over primacy in Syria.  So there was a deep lack of unity, whether on the supranational scale, whether on the smaller regional, urban scale.

Paul Jay: When is oil discovered in Syria, and how significant is that to its development?

Joshua Landis: It’s not very significant.  Syria’s never had lots of oil.  They’ve had enough oil to help defray some of the government receipts, but it hasn’t been a driver.  Agriculture has been very important.  Minor industry, food processing, textile.  Cotton industry is important.  These things have been the backbone of the economy, plus trade.  Syria is centrally located.  It’s in a natural entrepôt.  Pipelines run across from Iraq to the Mediterranean, north-south, roads, transit trade.  That has been the backbone of Syrian economy: merchant life.  Major Sunni families in the cities are merchant.  Let me explain to you the background for these sectarian problems in Syria — and sectarian problems are at the bedrock of our impasse, democratic impasse today.  The French took over Syria in 1920.  They won it as a League of Nations mandate, which was a colony, for all intents and purposes.  In order to rule Syria, they divided and conquered.  The Sunni elite families who had ruled under the Ottomans expected to rule Syria, and they were nationalistic, and they wanted independence, and they wanted the French out.  In order to keep them down on a farm and suppress them, the French built a local army.  And in that army they drafted minorities of all kinds: Alawites in particular, Druze, Armenians, Christians, people from the rural districts.  They used class.  Lots of people from Dara’a, where you see the uprisings today, joined into this army, poor Sunnis from the countryside.  When the French left in ’46, they left this sort of ex-Ottoman elite, the Arab Sunni families in power in Parliament.  But they inherited an army that didn’t like them and which the Sunni elite distrusted.  Shukri al-Quwatli, the president, called them a disloyal army.  And this was the problem, because when push came to shove, the army took over.  When the army took over in a series of coups, we saw a sorting out within the army.  The first coup was in 1949, when Husni Za’im, the chief of staff, took over.  But there were coups right up to 1963, when the Ba’ath Party took over, the major Ba’ath coup.  But then Hafez al-Assad within the Ba’ath Party took over in 1970, and his family has ruled the country ever since.  And the way he’s ruled it is by using these traditional loyalties.  His family members have surrounded him.  The head of the Republican Guard that defends the presidency is led by the brother of the president.  Under Hafez al-Assad, it was led by Rifaat al-Assad, his brother.  Under Bashar, it’s been led by Maher, his brother.  The head of secret police have often been a member of the family.  Then you go to the village and the Alawite tribes, then you go to the sect, the Alawite religion, and the people from the Alawite sect, which are about 12 percent of the nation.  But of course the Alawites cannot rule alone.  They have to rule through the party, which is a conglomeration of these minorities plus rural Sunnis, and they have to rule through an alliance with the Sunni merchant elite, who have been very faithful to this presidency and government.  And that’s the coalition that runs Syria.  In many ways, the opposition would like to kick out, in a sense, the Alawites and put in Sunnis to rule.  That’s what democracy means for Syria.

Paul Jay: But there’s a class component to this, too.  It’s not simply ethnic.  It sounds like the poor and working class.

Joshua Landis: Now, you know, in many ways what we’re seeing in Syria today is a change, because Bashar al-Assad is not like his father.  He was born in Damascus — well, he was raised in Damascus, let me say.  He went to school in Damascus.  He grew up in wealth and privilege.  And he has much more in common, in many ways, with the Sunni merchant class than he does with the poor Alawites of the coastal mountains that brought his father to power.  Now, his wife is a wealthy Sunni woman who was an investment banker, brought up in London, and has a plummy British accent.  She’s very attractive.  She’s been pushing a lot of reforms.  So the merchant elites of the Sunni cities like Bashar.  He protects them.  He has made a lot of sweetheart deals with them.  He’s brought them to the forefront and given them privilege.  They would have to jump out into the unknown and embrace a revolutionary movement that has no leadership, that has no hero, that is a faceless Facebook crowd, or which has people out in Dara’a, this dusty, poor, largely tribal, rural area.  They’re not going to do that.  They want business.  In the last two weeks, we’ve seen every contract being cancelled, all tourism collapsing.  Foreign investment is collapsing.  This is terrifying.

Paul Jay: And do you get any sense where the urban working class is in all of this?

Joshua Landis: Well, the urban working class in many ways has been subject to the national rhetoric of Bashar al-Assad.  There is a lot of criticism.  There are a lot of poor in the cities.  There are people who want change.  But they’re frightened of civil war.  The army, the military, the security systems, the intelligence systems are run by Alawite officers who are close to the president.  They’re not going to do what Egypt did, which is to turn their back on the president and abandon him.

Paul Jay: Now, is the threat of civil war real?  To what extent is it a card to keep poor and working class down with the threat of civil war versus something?  You know, the actual threat to them is the poor and working class, not the civil war, if you’re talking the elites?

Joshua Landis: You know, that’s the million-dollar question.  The opposition says there is no threat: this sectarian card is something that is manufactured by the regime in order to scare the people and to present this false choice of c’est moi ou le déluge, it’s me or the floods, it’s me or civil war.  Now, they can say that.  That’s what the opposition said about Iraq when they marched in with George Bush and they overthrew Saddam Hussein.  But what did we see in Iraq?  We saw that the Sunnis were cast down from being the top of society, the top 20 percent, to being the very bottom of society.  And today, Anbar Province and the Sunni districts are the poorest and more forsaken parts of Iraq.  The Kurdish regions in the north, Shiite regions around Basra, are going to be much better off than the Sunnis in the middle.

Paul Jay: But a lot of Iraqis say that had more to do with US policy than an internal dynamic.

Joshua Landis: Well, if they hadn’t had America, they would have Saddam Hussein today.  Now, that’s the problem: the choice in Syria is a very stark choice.  It’s between the Ba’athist regime as it stands today or civil war.  The opposition is saying: No, we can have democracy.  The real choice is between Bashar al-Assad and democracy.  Now, you have to decide whom you believe.  If you believe that the demonstrations can unseat Bashar, cause the military to forsake him, and do what Egypt did, then you will support and you will go out on a demonstration and you will risk being shot.  But if you believe that the army is going to stick with Bashar, that the Sunni elites are going to stick with Bashar, you’re going to go out in those demonstrations and you’re going to find yourself shot or arrested.  And every Syrian has to ask themselves what’s the truth.  Is it the regime against civil war?  Or can they overthrow them through demonstrations?  That’s where we stand in Syria today.  And Bashar al-Assad believes that he has won, that the demonstrations that came out in his favor of millions of people have made a very clear and stark example to the demonstrators.

Paul Jay: One final question.  To what extent are there unions?  And to what extent are there demands for more independent unions as part of this struggle?  In Egypt that was one of the central themes.

Joshua Landis: Yes.  Well, there are unions.  There is an agricultural union, a peasants union, workers unions that are run by the Ba’ath Party and that are part of the single-party state.  And by and large they cling to the Ba’ath Party, because the reformers, the economic reformers within the state — Abdullah Dardari and others — want to withdraw all subsidies.  That means subsidies for fuel, which is highly subsidized in Syria, all your heating oil, your gasoline for your taxis, and so forth.  Subsidies for food — wheat, oil, rice.  The basic commodities are highly subsidized by the state.  The poor, the working class, are still dependent on those subsidies.  They’re dependent on a social sector, on jobs that come through state factories that are often inefficient and should be sold and shut down if you’re going to follow, you know, the magic hand of capitalism.  So there is a big working class that is dependent on the state, and they cling to the Ba’ath Party.  The working class is divided in the same way that other people are divided: pro-Bashar, pro-Ba’ath Party; anti-Ba’ath Party.

Joshua Landis is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.  Read his blog Syria Comment at <www.joshualandis.com/blog/>.  This video was released by The Real News on 3 April 2011.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.  See, also, Paul Jay, “What Do the Syrians Want?  Interview with Joshua Landis” (31 March 2011).  Cf. Syrian Economic Society: <www.syrianeconomy.org>; and Cercle des Economistes Arabes: <www.economistes-arabes.org>.

| Print