How did despotism succeed in subjugating Syria during the Hafez Al-Assad era

Ziad Majed

Monday, January 2, 2012


How did despotism succeed in subjugating Syria during the Hafez Al-Assad’s era?

This article attempts to analyse the foundations of a despotic regime in order to understand the reasons underlying its success in exerting its control over a country, crippling political life, taming people, and maintaining its rule for many years. The article will take the Syrian regime between 1970 (the year of the “Correction Movement” which led Hafez Al-Assad to presidency) to 2000 (the year the president died) as a case study.

It is important to note that several aspects concerning the analysis of the father’s era and the study of the Syrian society under his rule are outdated and no longer relevant when analysing Syria during the last few years. In addition, the Syrian revolution brought into the light new events with regard to the regime’s alliances and the structure of society, which have been dealt with by a number of Syrian writers (and some of them still do), and whose documentation and analysis will require additional time.

On the origins of the “Baath” regime rule of Syria

The leading reason that explains Syrian regime’s success in taming public life, including all forms of political participation, social activities and civil conduct, is its ability to

gradually take over public debate and all avenues of expression, and all opportunities for political gathering and organization through either banning of such activities or incorporating them under its wings. The Syrian regime applied Michel Foucault’s definition of domination as “an action upon action” to the extreme, such that it controlled all avenues in society from which political action could originate by enforcing the 1963 emergency law and other legislation which the Baath rule was founded upon. It tightly controlled the unions, parties, newspapers, and coerced professionals working in the judicial system, intellectuals, and all constituents of civil society and rendered them incapable of participating in formulating policies or political decision making.

Nikolaos van Dam and a number of researchers explained the sectarian and ethnic components of the regime and the competitive clashes between those components within the military institution and the ruling Baath party ever since it did a coup and assumed power. However, their explanation though accurate in its portrait of the regime, does not cover all aspects of its alliances. In this regards, the point raised by Elizabeth Picard, that the study of the social components and classes upon which the regime relies, and their inner workings and dynamics helps further our understanding beyond the central (sectarian or ethnic) leadership and the mechanisms of competition for power within it.

Since its rise to power the regime mirrored many social dynamics, despite the fact that it relied in its coup upon sectarian (in particular the Alawites), military (the army), and party (the Baath) bases and managed to interconnect all three by consolidating the centers of power within each one of them (Baathi officers mostly from the Alawite community). According to Hanna Batatu, the coalition which led the Baath in its early years (1963-1968) was formed between groups within the army, most of which share a common rural background (in later stages they eliminated each other). Initially these groups consisted of: “Alawites from the governorate of Latakia, Druze from the Mountain of the Arabs, Sunnis from the Houran district and the governorate of Der Al Zour and several small rural towns. All of them were sons of small scale farmers who used to sell their produce in markets dominated by Damascene merchants, who always succeeded in lobbying governments to promote their interests and thus were able to impose commercial transactions on their own terms and conditions to further their interests. Their relationship with the farmers (especially farmers from Houran) became one of lenders and loaners… and similar relationships occurred between Aleppo, Der Al Zour and Hama, on the one hand, and their rural surroundings, on the other”…Thus the revenge on the “city” which characterised the Baathi era in the sixties (through exerting pressure on the cities’ merchants and its industry and taking over their assets) was not surprising; a revenge which took other forms in later years, i.e. after Al-Assad assumed power in 1970. The new ruler, who launched his “corrective” movement, changed the methods of taking revenge from the cities, following the Machiavellian advice which advocates occupation and takeover of cities as an alternative to strangling it. In order to achieve that, he promoted rural migration to central neighbourhoods and outer suburbs of cities. He then formed close knit relationships with city merchants and businessmen and made sure they understood that their commercial interests will only prosper if they ensured loyalty to him and stayed away from politics.

Elisabeth Longuenesse notes that the cities which experienced high levels of rural migration, i.e. those cities whose fabric was penetrated by the “new prince”, along with its inhabitants, for example the capital Damascus, yielded to his rule and were more easily managed compared to those cities whose social fabric remained more coherent. The question is why did all cities decline later on? The lesson came about in 1982 from the experience of another city, which was made an example of, in Hama the “prince” reconsidered the Machiavellian advice of occupation and moved on to the option of destruction. The fire in Hama, along with many other fires around the country, and the waves of arrests and dispossession which affected tens of thousands of Syrians and which accompanied and followed those fires, gave the regime’s army and its security apparatus their reputation of extreme violence that will not stop short at anybody if it is threatened or challenged.

Entrenching power, oppression, and the institutionalisation of despotism

To complete “entrenching” power, through the occupation of the city, the regime continued to expand the public sector, attract its supporters, and centralise their jobs in the cities, especially in the capital. The number of public service employees rose from 34000 in 1960 to 331000 in 1983 (according to Batatu), and thus the support base for the regime grew within institutions. It expanded by taking control over public interests and public services. The expansion of the public sector in the mid seventies, in contrary to many cases, was accompanied by increased prosperity of the private sector and its commercial activities in most cities as a result of retracting some industry nationalisation policies in addition to the oil boom, the influx of aid from the Gulf after the 1973 October war with Israel, and the “guaranteed” resources flowing in as a result of Syria’s “intervention” in Lebanon in 1976. This also reinforced the regime’s relations with some urban notables and bourgeoisie.

However, the combination of these factors (expansion of the public sector, improvements to the private sector, the inflow of aid and money as a result of the oil boom and then the Lebanese war) led later on to the appearance of new “bourgeoisie classes”. Volker Perthes distinguishes between them using a classification based on terms such as “new industrialists”, “State bourgeoisie” and “new class” i.e. the parasitical class whose members grew their wealth from deals, bribes, and smuggling operations endorsed by the regime’s key figures. With time, these sectors expanded social support for the regime.

In parallel, the regime controlled most political parties by incorporating them and causing divisions within their ranks. It created the “Progressive National Front” in 1972 to include communist, national, and socialist parties which became a puppet without any real ability to participate in decision making and provided cover for many of the regime’s policies and actions and a medium to reach and neutralize centres of political activity otherwise inaccessible to the regime. The Front also indirectly helped the regime to throw “dissidents” from those parties or those who quit those parties and refused to join the Front in prison (especially in the case of the Communist Party). In addition, the regime took control over unions, forcing 90 to 95 percent of public sector employees to join them (according to Longuenesse), and thus turning the unions into tools of the new “state corporatism”.  The judicial system was made obsolete: special and military tribunals were enforced, and lawsuits were carried out under emergency laws in order to weaken the independence of the judiciary and destroy the credibility of its members.

These factors demonstrate that with time, the ruling regime under the leadership of Hafez Al-Assad, surpassed the form the Baath regime took from the moment it assumed power until the end of its first decade in power (1963-1973), when it was a “military” regime, to become a military-oriented regime, but with alliances and intrusions within social classes and sectors of different backgrounds and origins, which rose with the regime, benefited from it, and established centers of power and influence. It is not so easy to remove these sectors and classes from power due to the alliances among them and also due to their defense of their common interests despite the competitive and antagonist nature of their relationships with each other.

As a result, the Syrian society became obedient to the ruling elite (under the leadership of a single maestro) and stopped “functioning”. It was run over by gangs of corruptions and theft, whose actions have not only become acceptable behavior, but also something necessary to reinforce power and government positions. Yahya Sadowsky describes this situation in his statement “there is no problem with corruption as long as those committing it show their loyalty to the regime. In this context, corruption becomes one of the regime’s networks and a means to attract and gain the support of groups from different sectors and classes”.

But are there other explanations of the reasons underlying the regime’s success in controlling society? And why did this control last beyond the mid-eighties and what explains the death/demise of the society’s resistance to the Baath “government”, which Michel Seurat borrowed the “Hegelian Marxist contradiction” to describe it in one of his articles “The Syrian society against its state”? Is consideration of the touchy relationship between the “political-military”, on one hand, and the “social-economic”, on the other, beneficial to understand what happened? Can we resort to Khaldoon Al Naqeeb’s conclusion that the rule beginning under the leadership of the military is bound to end with “bureaucratization, control, and ruralisation of cities” to find an answer?

Despite its correctness, it is unlikely that these explanations are enough in the Syrian case to provide an understanding of all the reasons to what appears as a taming of that energetic society which in the past produced continual shifts in the political landscape during the first decades following the independence of the Syrian “state” and before it entered the “Assad era”. The next section might provide an additional contribution in answering these questions.

On the culture of the regime, its practices, and effects on society

The most important thing that the regime built in Syria during the era of Al-Assad senior is that mix between “personification”, to which every achievement is attributed  and through which even backwardness was portrayed as advancement, on the one hand, and the “institutionalization” of oppression and surveillance apparatuses that manage the country and its people on the other. By means of the mix alluded to, this regime created two levels to deal with society in rhetoric and interaction between each other. The first is explicit and financial, and the second is symbolic and psychological. In both cases, the regime used the two types of leadership which Max Weber analysed: charisma and organization.

From an organizational perspective, Al-Assad established apparatuses and centers of power which received orders directly from him via loyal appointees (who in most cases are in conflict with each other), such that the number of competing intelligence agencies increased, with the “Air Force Intelligence Agency” leading the way. These agencies infiltrated all organizations in society, and later on started surveying each other. They practice violence by invading the personal lives of citizens, by prohibiting them from public debate and participation, throwing them in prison, or even killing them if necessary. With time, this atmosphere of fear and control succeeded in making violence a symbolic deterrence in most situations. It is enough that people are made to be afraid of each other, and self-censor themselves and their ideas for the agencies to assume control.

Also from an organizational perspective, the Baath party, in parallel to the army, bureaucracy, and different intelligence agencies, constituted another tool in the hand of the regime. This party was able to control public life in Syria through its popular associations, which include trade, student, women, and agrarian unions, and also through assigning party branches the job of surveying schools and their curriculums, media and its programs, and providing scholarships for higher education and providing employment opportunities.

When it comes to the charisma and personification perspective, Al-Assad did not only use them to appear as a leader of his society and regime, but also as a means to convince people of what they are supposed to be convinced of. In other terms, by bestowing titles upon himself and publishing them under his photos that appear all over Syria, he creates facts and “forces” everyone to believe them (focusing more or less on what he considers his successful foreign policy track record). Al-Assad is the “leader and symbol and the hero of the October War, he is the Saladin of the 20th century. He is also the builder of modern Syria who provided her with stability and advancement and turned her to a regional superpower that is aligned with the Soviet Union (i.e. with the workers of the world). He protected Lebanon from divisions and stopped Israel from terminating the Palestinians and stood against all the Imperial and Zionist conspiracies against the Arab people and their countries”. This is how he is presented by the media, and this is how he appears in banners and stickers, and this is what the slogans say the moment his name is mentioned.

The researcher Lisa Wedeen provides a detailed analysis of “Al-Assad cult” phenomenon in Syria. The interesting aspect of her work is that she does not consider that the aim of Al-Assad worship is to provide a belief or a true emotional tie between the people and him, but to specify the nature and content of the civil obedience required of them towards the “idol”: in addition to raw military power and torture chambers, “Al-Assad cult” aims at taming people and imposing a state upon them whereby they are forced to act as though they worship their leader within the framework of “we act as if we believe”. Through this policy of “personality cult” the regime aimed to contain the public and break all bonds between its members, to break them up into small incoherent units. And even when they try to resist that through direct action or indirectly through sarcasm, caricatures with implied messages, or cunning smiles in front of television screens broadcasting official channels in order to re-establish connections between each other, they are actually conceding the power of this cult and the control it exerts over them. That is because they really do not believe it. To explain this Wedeen cites the philosopher Slavoj Zizek “even if people kept their sarcastic space, and even though they do not take what they say seriously, they remain obedient, and obedience is what matters politically”…

To sum up

Therefore, under these conditions of forced obedience, and under the culture and practices and alliances of apparatuses of oppression of the form which we discussed above, president Hafez Al-Assad ruled Syria for three decades and built a regime and structures, some which are copies from the experiences of classical dictatorships, whereas others originate from local dynamics. These were all linked with slogans that went beyond the boundaries of the “state” to include Palestine, Lebanon and the Cold War. It is not necessary to remind readers how these slogans were translated into facts, and how that provided propaganda for the regime and cards on regional and international negotiation tables, as well as great insights that allowed the regime to continue and improve its practices and relations until the death of its founder eleven years ago and the inheritance of the rule to his son.

Ziad Majed

Original Article in Arabic

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