Reform, Repression and the ‘Negative Balance’ in Syria

Hilary Hesse

Before 9/11 and being included in George Bush’s “axis of evil,” Syria and its politics was a subject commanded almost exclusively by Middle East experts. That Syria has become a hot topic among pundits and media alike has to do with both the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and the “War on Terror.” Thus, TV and newspaper coverage tend to focus narrowly on Syria’s shadowy international political maneuverings and its relationship with Hezbollah, Lebanon, and Iran. As a result, most Westerners know less about Syria than they do about other strategically important Middle Eastern countries. But in his book “Syria: Ballots or Bullets,” Carsten Wieland strives to close the knowledge gap by revealing precisely what makes Syria tick.    

Historian, political scientist, and journalist, Wieland has worked and lived in Syria several times, most recently between 2003 and 2004. “Syria: Ballots or Bullets” is the product of long nights interviewing political opposition figures, entrepreneurs, members of government, analysts, Islamic clerics, and friends. What emerges is the somewhat paradoxical portrait of a socially progressive Middle Eastern police state that could crumble if not restructured from within.

Wieland reasonably assumes that grasping Syria’s international political identity requires also understanding its domestic world. Thus, he defines and differentiates between concepts like Baathism and pan-Arabism, giving a brief history lesson in the process. He also explains how government policy has kept Syria in the economic doldrums for decades. We learn about some of the differences in character and ruling style between current president Bashar al-Assad and his “feared and revered” father, Hafez al-Assad. The younger Assad is depicted almost sympathetically as a would-be reformer who has been forced to capitulate to Baathist hardliners in order to survive, both politically and literally.

Intrigues and behind-the-scenes conniving are chillingly regular features of the Syrian political landscape, and it is rarely obvious who is turning the political wheels and to what end. This lack of transparency and accountability further chips away at the regime’s credibility, creating what Wieland terms “the negative balance.”

Added to the mix of corruption and economic woes is Syria’s vitriolic relationship with its neighbor, Israel. Like Jordan and Egypt, Syria has received Saudi petrodollars several times for maintaining a cold (and sometimes hot) war with Israel, prompting analyst Samir Altaqi to quip, “The best export product Syria has is its foreign policy.” But despite having milked its proximity to Israel, Syria has never wavered in its goal to recover the Golan Heights, and will not consider lasting peace until Israel relinquishes the captured territory. This deadlock also prolongs the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since Syria—with its influence on Hamas and upbeat relationship with Iran—could play a key role in its resolution.

The aftermath of September 11th proved both an opportunity and a headache for the regime. Wieland notes Assad’s vocal opposition to the Iraq war, which bought the president some political capital on the Arab street. The Syrian ruler nevertheless spent the next few years juggling between securing his 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, talk in Washington of “regime change” in Damascus had not entirely died down. Wieland goes on to contrast the European tactic of engaging Syria through Bill Clinton’s ideal of “change through trade” to Washington’s present day sticks-only approach.

And then there is Lebanon. For years Syria treated its petite neighbor like a backyard colony, meddling there both politically and militarily. But Damascus overstepped with the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and Syria was subsequently pressured out of Lebanon by the United Nations. Wieland takes us through the events leading up to and following the assassination, assessing the damage done to Assad’s presidency, and to Syria’s economy and international reputation.

An oasis of encouragement is found in a chapter describing positive relations among Syria’s diverse ethno-religious communities. In contrast to the bitter sectarian schisms that plague neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, the peaceful coexistence of Syria’s various social groups is unexpected good news. Also cheering is the fact that radical Islam has not gained a visible foothold in the country, which Wieland only partly attributes to Hafez al-Assad’s infamous massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood in the ancient city of Hama. A short chapter titled “Che Not Usama” even implies that Syria shares some ideals with the West, especially as regards 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.” This social cohesion, with its built-in tolerance of secularism, makes us wonder why the West, and the U.S. in particular, would not consider Syria a natural Middle Eastern ally.

But Wieland’s optimism seems hasty. In spite of the regime’s lip service to populist philosophies like Baathism or pan-Arabism, Syria has been a hard-nosed dictatorship for over 40 years. As was true in Saddam’s Iraq, civil society is ruthlessly suppressed, with the mosque among the country’s only non-governmental institutions. Nor are appearances without their contradictions. For example, though Syrian women seem to have greater freedom and opportunity than those living in many other Middle Eastern countries, data from the United Nations suggests that Syria has one of the world’s highest rates of honor killings – an example, perhaps, of Damascus turning a blind eye in order to appease conservative groups. And while Syrian students are fond of hanging pictures of famous communists on their walls, their government is equally keen on hanging the bodies of communists in its torture chambers; the regime has detained and brutalized thousands of secular protesters over the years, particularly communists.

Notwithstanding these oversights, “Syria: Ballots or Bullets” will give persevering lay readers broader knowledge of Middle Eastern politics. Because the book was published in 2006, some of the information is outdated—the menace of the Bush Administration, for example, has passed, leaving Damascus less edgy. In fact, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have expressed interest in engaging the Syrian regime. This new mood was reflected in a celebrated April 6th article by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker, appropriately titled “Syria Calling.” Signs have also emerged that negotiations on the Golan Heights may soon begin.

There are a lot of reasons to pay attention to Syria. Carsten Wieland’s “Ballots or Bullets” is a timely study that will better acquaint readers with a country of growing international importance.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 62

© Copyright 2011, 2018 AL JADID MAGAZINE


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