The Syrian Cauldron

Syria Coming to a Boil

by Eric Margolis

Recently by Eric Margolis: Gadaffi’s Curse Keeps Haunting Washington

Libya, in spite of its oil treasures, is strictly a sideshow in the great game of nations. We should be keeping our eyes on highly strategic Syria, a potentially combustible nation of 22.5 million that lies at the very heart of what we call the Mideast.

Sizeable demonstrations have erupted in the Syrian port city of Latakia, Homs, and in three smaller southern towns, including Daraa, where, during World War I, Lawrence of Arabia was captured and tortured by the Turks. There have been small demonstrations in the capital, Damascus. The tough Syrian army has been deployed in many urban areas.

It was inevitable that the revolutions and uprisings sweeping across the Mideast would reach Syria, which has been ruled with an iron hand by the Asad family since 1970. Now, Syria's neighbors are watching Syria's gathering storm with a mixture of alarm and uncertainty.

Syria has been isolated for over three decades. Damascus is under siege from the United States because of its opposition to Israel and championing of the Palestinians. US trade and arms sanctions have seriously damaged Syria's weak economy and military forces.

Persistent hostility from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq, all three dominated by the US, have further isolated Syria among the Arabs. Until recently, Turkey and Syria were also at scimitar's drawn, but relations have greatly improved.

Israel regularly threatens war against Syria because of the vital support Damascus gives to Lebanon's Hizbullah movement and Palestinians. Israel's virtual annexation of Syria's Golan Heights and expulsion of over 125,000 Syrians from the Heights by Israel in 1967, and land expropriation by 19,000 Israeli settlers, remain inflammatory issues. Israeli heavy artillery atop Golan is within range of Damascus.

Syria's once powerful armed forces are by now almost totally outdated thanks to US sanctions, the collapse of Syria's main arms supplier, the Soviet Union, and Damascus' lack of hard cash to buy modern weapons from abroad. As a result, Syria's 1980's-vintage air and land forces face Israel's mighty military machine that could crush Syria in days.

Syria is a highly sophisticated nation whose rich, though often tragic history, dates back to the dawn of time. Damascus is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. Syria has always been one of the two poles of the Arab world, along with its rival Egypt.

The world-view of Syrians is shaped by the fact that under the Ottoman Empire, Syria, or Shams, as it is called in Arabic, consisted of today's Syria, Lebanon, parts of Iraq and southeastern Turkey, Jordan, Palestine and much of central and northern modern Israel.

More than half of historic Syria was stripped away by the rapacious French and British during World War I. Syria has never accepted this national rapine.

Syrian-Lebanese relations are particularly fraught because France tore away the Mount Lebanon region from Syria as late as the 1920's and created the protectorate of Lebanon to maintain French influence on the Levantine coast.

Damascus refuses to accept Lebanon's independence, insisting it is still an integral part of Syria. The British imperialists did precisely the same thing with the sheikdom of Kuwait, detaching it from historic Iraq. Iraq's late leader, Saddam Hussein, sought to assert his nation's historic claim to Kuwait – with dire consequences.

What makes Syria so dangerous and volatile is its repressive and narrow political system. Former strongman Hafez Asad and his son Basher, the current president, come from the Alawi, a small, secretive religious minority from the mountains near Latakia said to be an offshoot of Shia Islam. Sunni Muslims regard the Alawi, who mix Shia and Christian beliefs, as dangerous heretics, even pagans.

In the 1960's, the armed forces filled up with impoverished Alawis, who had trouble finding work elsewhere. By the time Gen. Hafez Asad seized power in one of Syria's endless coups, the armed forces and many of the eight or nine secret police organizations, had become dominated by Alawis.

To put down growing unrest to Alawi rule, and attacks by Sunni militants, a draconian Emergency Decree was promulgated in 1963, which remains in force until today. A key demand by protestors in Syria is repeal of this hated martial law that curtails all freedoms and allows summary arrest without trials.

The Asad's iron hand gave Syria its first and only stable government since World War II. No one knows what will happen if that steely grip is released.

As of this writing, reports are coming from Damascus that President Basher Asad may repeal the Emergency law and amend the constitution which mandates that the Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party will be the "leader of Syria's regime and society."

Even such an important change might not vent sufficient popular steam to avert a major explosion.

Basher Asad's challenge is to muzzle the Ba'ath Party Old Guard and enacting important reforms without allowing the lid to blow off pressure-cooker Syria where thirty to forty years of anger, frustration and calls for revenge boil just below the surface.

Some 75% of Syrians are Sunni Muslim. Alawis and Druze, another secretive mountain group, make up about 13% of the population, followed by Kurds, Armenians, Jews, and Circassians, whose Caucasian forebears were victims of Russian ethnic cleansing in the 19th century.

Christian Syrians, who make up 10% of the population, can trace their roots all the way back to the birth of the faith. Many support the Asad regime out of concern their often favored status as part of the commercial elite would vanish under a Sunni-dominated government.

Sunni have long chaffed against rule by "heretical" Alawis, as well as under the two draconian Asad regimes and their feared secret police, the "Mukhabarat." Islamists have long been active in Syria's underground, inviting savage repression from the regime.

In 1982, this writer was present when Sunni Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama rose up against the Asad regime. The rebellion was put down by the Army, led by the brother of Hafez Asad, Rifaat. Thousands were killed and part of the inner city leveled by heavy artillery. The Islamists were beaten into submission- at least until now.

After invading Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration's neocon crusaders were eager to attack Syria and overthrow the Asad regime. Israel urged a US attack. Syria was and remains a key ally of Iran, the only Arab one, and Tehran's beachhead in the Levant. Note that Syria's Alawi are close to Iran's militant Shia.

But it soon occurred to even the dullest minds of the Bush White House that if the devil-we-know-Asad is overthrown, who would replace him? The unavoidable answer was the Muslim Brotherhood – and that term frightened Washington a great deal. So Syria was spared, "faut de mieux," as the French say.

This time around, if the Asad regime falls, it could just as well be replaced by Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, that may be thirsting for revenge. A bloodbath could ensue, plunging Syria into political chaos and violence and running the risk of drawing Syria's unloving neighbors and the Western powers, notably France, into the fray.

I had a long talk about this danger with President Bashar Asad's chief advisor, the very smart, and worldly Bouthaina Shaaban, who is much in the news these days. Her view is that Asad the younger and his coterie of technocrats will slowly but surely achieve modernizing reforms and put Syria on the path to democracy. Madame Shaaban told me that Western intrigues against Syria, and Israel threats, have played a major role in keeping the nation under siege mentality and delaying meaningful reform.

A big change in Syria was expected when the youthful Bashar Asad took power. It did not happen. The conservative Ba'ath Old Guard thwarted any major changes.

There are at least two major factions within the Asad regime. The "old guard" wants to crush all dissent, pointing to events in other Arab nations. The younger, reformist camp wants to end martial law and create a real parliament and free press. Syria's important merchant class is strongly in favor of opening the economy and society, and seeing the last of Syria's wretched "Arab Socialism" that mixed the worst of East European economic quackery with Arab inertia and tribalism.

Events inside Syria are far too complex for Washington to understand right now. Ending sanctions against Syria, restraining Israel's interventionist hawks, and applauding democrats from the sidelines is the best thing the US can do for the time being. Syria is no place for the usual US bull in the china shop behavior.