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Reform, Repression and the ‘Negative Balance’ in Syria
By Hilary Hesse
Bashar al-Assad as a young boy
Prior to 9/11 and its membership in George Bush’s “axis of evil,” Syria and its politics was a subject commanded best by Middle East experts. That Syria has become a hot topic among pundits and media alike has a lot to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the “war on terror” (a term the Obama administration has been refraining from using). As a result, TV and newspaper coverage tend to stress Syria’s shadowy political maneuvering and relationship with Hezbollah, Lebanon and Iran at the expense of the country’s internal politics and economy. Even now most Westerners know less about Syria than they do about other strategically important Middle Eastern countries.
In his book, “Syria: Ballots or Bullets,” Carsten Wieland introduces the reader to a country that is a mosaic of peoples and traditions, and to a regime that is teetering between reform and collapse – at least this was the case upon publication three years ago. Historian, political scientist and journalist, Wieland has worked and lived in Syria several times, most recently from 2003-2004. “Syria: Ballots or Bullets” is the product of long nights spent conducting countless interviews with political opposition figures, entrepreneurs, members of government, analysts, Islamic clerics and many friends. The result is a portrait of a deceptively socially progressive Middle Eastern police state that could crumble if the political and economic systems are not revamped from within.
The book’s 12 chapters work to create an overall impression of Syria’s domestic and international position at the end of 2005. Wieland defines and differentiates between Baathism and pan-Arabism, while supplying the reader with relevant historical information. We learn about some of the disparities in character and ruling style between the current president, Bashar al-Asad, and his “feared and revered” father, Hafez al-Asad. Bashar, in particular, is painted in an almost sympathetic light – as a would-be reformer who has been forced to capitulate to Baathist hardliners in order to stay alive, both politically and physically.
The prevalence of intrigues and behind-the-scenes conniving is especially chilling – in Syrian politics it is seldom obvious who exactly is moving the chains and to what end, which Wieland emphasizes in the first chapter. This lack of transparency and accountability helps erode the regime’s credibility – creating what Wieland terms “the negative balance.”
Added to the mix of corruption, economic woes and rampant human rights abuses is Syria’s vitriolic relationship with its neighbor, Israel. Like Jordan and Egypt, Syria received Saudi financial support on several past occasions in return for being a confrontation state or for being in a state of war with Israel, prompting analyst Samir Altaqui to state, “The best export product Syria has is its foreign policy.” Yet, despite having sometimes milked the situation for economic advantage, Syria has never wavered in its aim to recover the Golan Heights and will not consider lasting peace until Israel relinquishes them. This deadlock also prolongs the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since Syria, due to its leverage over Palestinian groups like Hamas, could play a key role in its resolution.
As a quirk of fate, 9/11 thrust Syria into the center of the international stage. Wieland notes Bashar’s vocal opposition to the Iraq war, which bought him some political capital on the Arab street. He also discusses the regime’s juggling act between securing its own interests and pacifying an increasingly hostile Bush Administration, which accused Syria of harboring and supporting terrorists. In fact, as the book went to press, talks of “regime change” in Damascus had not entirely died down in Washington. The European tactic of engaging Syria via Bill Clinton’s ideal of “change through trade” is contrasted to Washington’s sticks-only approach.
And then there is Lebanon, where Syria’s true flair for corruption comes out. After decades of political meddling and military presence there, Syria was forced out by the United Nations following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which pointed to Damascus. Wieland takes us through the events leading up to and succeeding the murder, assessing the damage that was done to Bashar’s presidency, and to Syria’s economy and international reputation as a result.
An unexpected ray of light is the peaceful, communal relationship among Syria’s diverse social and religious groups, which sharply contrasts with the current situation in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq. Nor has radical Islam gained any visible social or political foothold (which Wieland implies is not exclusively attributable to Hafez al-Asad’s infamous massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood in the ancient city of Hamma). In fact, the reader is so impressed by the depiction of Syrian social tolerance, with the abidance of secularism, that he wonders why the West, and the U.S. in particular, would not consider it a natural Middle Eastern ally? Wieland presents a social fabric that is threaded with various Western ideals in a short chapter titled “Che Not Usama.” Most impressive are the statistics on women, who “account for more than half of the students in the universities…and receive equal pay for equal work, which is not always the case even in some Western countries.”
In spite of this optimism, Syrian social calm and cohesion are largely products of the iron fist with which the country has been ruled for the past 40-odd years. As was true in Saddam’s Iraq, there is simply no leeway for any group to assert itself in a fashion that would threaten the social balance, and, in turn, the ruling elite. Also, although Syrian women appear to have greater freedom and opportunity than those living in many other Middle Eastern countries, it is worth noting that, according to the UN, Syria has one of the world’s highest rates of honor killings – attributable to Damascus turning a blind eye in order to appease and gain political clout among conservative groups. Lastly, while Syrian students are fond of hanging pictures of famous communists on their walls, the government is similarly partial to imprisoning them; the regime has detained thousands of secular protesters of all stripes over the years, particularly communists.
Not withstanding these things, “Syria; Ballots or Bullets” leaves the reader with a broader understanding of Middle Eastern politics in general. Though getting through it may at times require patience, the persevering non-academic will come away knowing more about several prominent political issues, movements and players. Because “Syria” was published in 2006, some of the information is outdated – the menace of the Bush Administration, for example, has passed, leaving the regime less imperiled from without. In fact, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have expressed interest in talking with the Syrian regime.
A strong indication of this new mood was a celebrated April 6th article in the New Yorker magazine by Seymour Hersh, appropriately titled “Syria Calling.” There have also been signs that negotiations on the Golan Heights may soon begin. But despite the ever-evolving state of Middle Eastern politics, the book remains a valuable source of information up to 2005 and will aid the reader in understanding future political issues involving Syria and the region.
Decades ago, a British journalist described Syria as holding the key to controlling the Middle East. In his classic book, “The Struggle for Syria,” Patrick Seale makes a strong case for his argument – a thesis that Wieland seems to agree with. There are a lot of reasons to pay attention to Syria, and “Ballots or Bullets” is a timely study of a country whose international relevance will likely continue to grow in the coming decades. One thing the Bush Administration did flawlessly was demonstrate that military might cannot compensate for political and cultural ignorance. Those seeking a better understanding of Middle Eastern politics should familiarize themselves with “Syria: Ballots or Bullets,” as it offers a sound point of departure.