Syria: Autopsy of a Regime

Nadia Aissaoui and Ziad Majed

21 March 2012

More than a year has passed since the start of the Syrian revolution demanding freedom, dignity and the departure of the Assad family. Over ten thousand dead, a hundred thousand injured and more than 40 thousand refugees fled to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordon as well as about a hundred and fifty thousand citizens who were arrested, twenty thousand of them are still in detention. All this in addition to damages to property and infrastructure and the systematic destruction of many regions.

The original article in French can be read here. An Arabic text is also available here.

Tens of reports have been published by various human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the United Nations Council for Human Rights, and Médecins Sans Frontières documenting verified cases and eye witness accounts. All these, as well as films and interviews conducted with doctors, activists, and defected soldiers ascertain that atrocities and violations are being carried out in Syria which can be classified as crimes against humanity.

On the ground, the demonstrations have continued and their numbers have increased to exceed an average of 600 demonstrations every Friday and have reached new areas in Damascus and Aleppo. Also in the last few weeks, the demonstrations spread to al Raqa and al Hasakeh in the North Eastern part of the country. Meanwhile, the number of defections from the army has risen as well as people volunteering to join what is known as the “Free Syrian Army”, leading to a doubling of military operations and clashes between this army and the pro-regime forces in Damascus Suburbs (“Reef Damascus”) as well as in Daraa, Homs, Idlib, and Deir Ezzor.

None of the (international and regional) initiatives or mediations efforts so far has succeeded in reaching a solution or settlement even if it is similar to the Yemeni one (i.e. hand over authority and power to the vice-president or to a military council to lead a transition period until elections are held and a new government is formed)…..

Therefore, the situation in Syria remains in a state of deadlock due to the divisions and confusion in decisions and approaches towards the situation. The regime is trying to benefit from this deadlock, hoping for a decisive security solution that will, from then on, suppress all forms of revolution in the cities and limit the demonstrations to a few rural areas, and crush the “Free Army” groups standing against it, in order to force outside players to negotiate with it and impose its continuity. The evolution of the revolution and its ongoing ability to gain greater momentum every week does not appear to show that the regime is succeeding in its security approach, even though it has now regained control of most of the areas which it had lost previously in Homs, Damascus Suburbs, and Jabal Zawyeh (in the North West).

Film: This is not an advertisement for a film. This is exactly what is happening in Syria.

In addition, some of the opinions and reactions to what is happening seem unable to comprehend many issues, more specifically, unable to try to think outside prebuilt attitudes that are naive and are based on a belief in conspiracy theories, or repetition of foolish phrases that can now be easily anticipated and expected, and raising questions about issues irrelevant to Syria to avoid taking a stand and condemning the regime’s crimes.

The following paragraphs discuss the “obvious facts” that are forgotten or deliberately ignored by some when it comes to Syria, the Syrian revolution, and the questions raised about the revolution and the regime.

How long has the Assad family been in power?

It is helpful to always remind readers that Syria is a republic (and not a kingdom), which has been ruled by a single family for 42 years. In this regards it is the only state in the Arab region and internationally, second to North Korea, that has been ruled by a father who passed down the rule to his son. Hafez al Assad assumed power following a coup in 1970 (when he was a defence minister in the Baath government) and ruled Syria until his death in 2000, when the constitution was modified to set the minimum age for the president to 34 years (it was 40 previously) to allow his son Bashar to nominate himself and bequeath the presidency to him. It has been 12 years since the son assumed power. However, the family rule is not limited to al Assad the father and his son. There is also Maher, Bashar’s brother, the head of the Fourth Army Brigade (the army’s best equipped and trained) and one of the leaders of the Presidential Guards. There is also Zoulhima Chaliche and Hafez Makhlouf, the paternal and maternal cousins, respectively, of the president who are responsible for the State Security apparatuses. There is also Asif Shawkat, the president’s brother in law and a senior Intelligence official. There is Atif Najib, the president’s maternal cousin who was responsible for Daraa governorate where the first massacres were committed and children were tortured, at the beginning of the Syrian revolution a year ago. There is also Rami Makhlouf, Bashar’s maternal cousin, the owner of the most important economic and financial privileges and agencies in the country. There is also General Mohammed Makhlouf, the president’s maternal uncle, and one of the architects of regime’s ongoing repression operations.

Therefore the family controls the backbones of politics, State Security, and economy. It manages the country and its people in partnership with officials from the Baath Party as well as some merchants and prominent businessmen.

What are the most prominent features of this rule?

Since its first coup in Syria in 1963, the Baath Party has enforced emergency law and this law has been in place for 48 years. The law prohibits demonstrations and gatherings, and establishment of political initiatives as well as restricting public and private freedoms and giving full rein to the State Security and military courts in any case classified as being associated with the security of the State. According to the constitution used for 30 years during the father’s rule and 11 years of the son’s rule, the Baath Party is the “leader of the State and society”. The party organises students in scouts and unions, and women as well as farmers, labourer, teachers, and athletes in associations and syndicates, and joining the party is a precondition for nomination to most senior pubic positions. The rule is therefore inspired by the experiences of Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin wall, in addition being a family rule similar to North Korea, and adopting an economic policy directed by government through its public sectors which continues to be inflated year after year. The regime used the minority issue in Syria to lay a foundation for support for it by depending on relatives and appointing a large number of officials from the region and minority which the Assads descend from. As a result, the close circle of senior military and State Security officials around the president became mostly occupied by Alawites. This closed circle in partnership with politicians and financiers from all sects ruled the country. In this regards, the regime is not Alawite in nature as propagated in many media outlets, but is a familial State Security based regime whose main pillars belong to the Alawite community and who tries to convince Alawites that it is the guarantor of their safety and their protector from marginalisation and persecution and that it is in power to represent the Alawites.

After 2000 and Bashar’s ascend to power, the “young” president kept the State Security and intelligence and political bases for the regime and, on the other hand, adopted a privatization economic policy which benefited his relatives and aids as well as some businessmen and investors especially in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Trade relationships with China, and then Turkey were established, though the later declined since the start of the revolution. The regime attracted investments from Qatar and the Gulf States starting in 2004, before they also stopped in 2011. On the issue of oil, a large portion of its revenues is managed directly by the president, by-passing the government and parliament, a tradition established by the father under the pretext of the “strategic interests” of Syria.

 

What is the Assad totalitarianism? 

No Syrian city or town lacks a statue of Hafez al Assad. Since the start of the uprising, the revolutionaries have smashed hundreds of statues. Many organisations, schools, libraries, roads and public spaces are named “al Assad”. Photos of president al Assad, the father, together with his son Bassel (who died in a car accident in 1994) and his son Bashar, the president, are displayed in most Syrian streets and inside offices in public institutions and departments. Even Sunni Islamic schools established by the father in the second half of the eighties of last century after his war with the Muslim Brotherhood and his attempt, after eradicating them, to invest in the religious field in order to control it, were named by him as “Hafez al Assad schools for teaching the Quran”. All these are in addition to al Assad’s speeches and the “famous quotes” attributed to him and his son which form an “educational” material fed to citizens via media outlets and camps, as well as “National Education” classes and the Baath Party principles taught at school. More significantly, today, Syria itself is described by the regime supporters as “al Assad’s Syria”, and a fierce war is carried out between the opposition and the regime over the use of “Freedom” and “al Assad” in their slogans. While regime supporters call for “Allah, Syria and Bashar only” the opposition shout “Allah, Syria and Freedom only”. As the regime supporters chant “Al Assad our leader forever”, the opposition reply with “Freedom forever no matter what you do Assad”.

Hama, Tadmour, the Golan Heights, Palestine and Lebanon as addressed by Syrian Regime

Israel occupied the Golan Heights in 1967. Hafez al Assad was, back then, the defence minister. Syria tried unsuccessfully in 1973 (i.e. after al Assad became president) to regain its occupied lands during the war (the only Arab-Israeli war where the Arabs took the initiative) in which Egypt also tried to regain Sinai. Israel continued to occupy the Golan Heights and the two sides reached a ceasefire and disengagement of forces agreement, a ceasefire which has not been broken since 1974. In fact, following this ceasefire the Golan Heights have become the quietest amongst all border regions separating the Arab States and Israel. However the Syrian regime has substituted for the absence of any form of military resistance to liberate its lands with political rhetoric and statements which never failed to include mention of “resistance” and “confronting the enemy and its conspiracies”. The regime also employed this rhetoric and statements to accuse anybody in Syria who opposes the regime as being a participant in the Israeli conspiracy and to justify all its repression again its Syrian opponents as necessary to unify the front to face the occupation.

In 1976 the Syrian army invaded Lebanon, under cover from the Arab League, in coordination with the US State Department, and with the approval of Israel (the conditions and details of this invasion were outlined by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in his memoirs), under the pretence of stopping the civil war that started in 1975 and preventing the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), a participant in the war back then, from “controlling Lebanon”. So, the Syrian regime army occupied its neighbouring country (which also was invaded by Israeli forces in 1978 and 1982) until 2005. The regime controlled politics in Lebanon, and did not stop the civil war but instead directed it till 1992 and supported its allies there and assisted them in the final stages of the war against its remaining opponents. The regime also weakened the PLO and attacked several of the Palestinian camps where Palestinian fighters were present (Tel Zaatar, Beddawi, Bated, Sabra, Shatila, Burj Barajneh, Ein El Hillweh, and al Rashideh).

Following the regime’s alliance with Iran in its war with Iraq – ruled by its twin, but enemy, Baath party – it paved a way for Iran to play a role on the Lebanese stage, with Hezbollah being the most important outcome. After participating in the “desert storm” war against Iraq in 1991, under an American leadership, to liberate Kuwait, Hafez al Assad got a US-Saudi mandate to control Lebanon and form its government after the end of the civil war. He then agreed to peace talks with Israel and participated in the Madrid Conference and all following conferences. While doing all that, the regime continued with its statements broadcasted through its radio stations and its media outlets and its rhetoric about confronting imperialism and Zionism and defending Syria, Palestine, and the Arab World.

The regime also capitalised on Syria’s regional political roles to distract from the massacres it was committing inside Syria. Between 1980 and 1985 the regime killed, in stages, more than 40 thousand Syrians under the pretence of waging war against the several hundred members of the Muslim Brotherhood (and members of the Combatant Vanguard). The Hama and Tadmour massacres are engraved into people’s memories. The regime benefited from the silence (collusion) of the West during that time under the pretext of fighting Muslim extremism, and detained during the same period tens of thousands of Syrians with leftist and Islamic affiliations and forced tens of thousands others to leave Syrian and live in exile. In Lebanon and Palestinian camps, thousands were killed as a result of the wars waged directly by the regime or through its Lebanese proxies.

The Eastern Bloc, Arab Nationalism and Opposition

The Syrian regime benefited from its alliance with the Soviet Union and from the Soviet model it implemented, despite working in many instances with the United States, as we have mentioned, in particular during the invasion of Lebanon in 1976 and during the second Gulf war in 1991. These benefits were related to military aid, educational scholarships, and trade exchange. However the main benefit for the regime was its ability to present itself as the progressive regime in alliance with the leadership of the “working class and revolutionary forces” around the world.

Also, the regime’s persistent talk about the rights of the Arabs, justice, and socialism and the criticism of its media, on a daily basis, of regimes allied with Washington, made many people, who do not know Syria and the Orient and who observe them from a distance, think that such talk has a certain credibility. The regime utilised its ability to forge alliances with parties on opposing sides to limit the impact of its criticism of regimes collaborating with the “West”. Syria’s strategic position bordering Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, all which are countries interrelated with conflicts or suffering from internal wars, as well as Egypt’s receding role on the Arab stage after the Camp David Accords, allowed the regime to play an effective role in many cases or to lure international players looking, now and then, for compromises or settlements, into negotiations. Thus, for example, it negotiated the release of American and Europeans hostages that used to be kidnapped in Lebanon, and later on, negotiated the conditions for stopping the civil war in that country. The regime also negotiated with mediators in the Arab-Israeli conflict, during the Iraqi-Iranian war and then the American-Iraqi war, and negotiated with Turkey in regards to the Kurdish question after allowing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to use Syrian land to launch operations against Ankara despite continually participating in the oppression of Kurds and denying them their rights in Syria.

After the ascend of the son to power, the new president continued the same strategy. The 2003 Iraq war and the war on “Islamic terrorism” provided an opportunity to collaborate with international intelligence services to hand over Salafist jihadists who were allowed to enter Syria in order to export them to Iraq. After the rise of opposition to him in Lebanon, and the assassination of Lebanese politicians and intellectuals opposed to his control, and the rise of a popular revolt against him, al Assad, the son, lost his father’s inheritance in Beirut in 2005, and of course accused imperialism of causing that. However, the French reconciliation with him in 2008, after Chirac’s severance of relationships between 2004 and 2007, and normalisation of relationships with Saudi Arabia and the US, and the return of ambassadors to Damascus, stopped the assassinations and security incidents in Lebanon, which by itself is clear evidence of the regime’s responsibility for them.

Thus, the regime formulated, over 42 years, a terminology and a language centred around conspiracies and confronting Zionism and imperialism, despite not taking any actions on the ground expect to allow passage of Iranian weapons to Hizbollah to be used against Israel and then state that it leads the resistance in the region. There is no doubt that some left-winged Western circles or those opposing American policies who have a sketchy background on the Middle East, and who are fond of the dualities of conspiracies and resistances, were influenced by decades of the use of the same terms and language. They became similar to some National and left-winged Arabs who are benefiting from the Damascus-Tehran alliance and who are not interested in the issues of freedom and democracy in their countries.

The Arab Spring, the Syrian Revolution and the “Renewal of the Conspiracy”?

Following the start of the Arab Spring, just over a year ago, in Tunisia and Egypt, followed by Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, leftists and liberals worldwide, including Arabs from various political affiliations, celebrated change in the Arab region. However, with the start of the revolution in Syria- whose president declared in February 2011 that Syria is an exception and is safe from troubles because “the public are with him and because reforms are ongoing and because its foreign policies reflect the attitudes of people on the street”- the initial reaction of those celebrating the Arab revolutions was silence or an attempt to set apart what is happening in Syria from other cases, while others rushed to talk about their favourite topic: conspiracies! Thus those people were able to reuse the language and terms the Assad family regime had repeated for decades, and occupied themselves looking for the centres of power behind the conspiracies and plots. So at times it is a Salafi plot, other times it is American-Israeli, and yet on other occasions its Turkish, or it could be the Muslim brotherhood, or Qatar or all those combined. For example, Qatar and the al Jazeera channel were turned in a matter of days by the very same people who used to praise them for years into centres of plots and American treachery. Erdoğan, who was hailed as a National hero following the Gaza “flotilla incident” with Israel was rendered as a conspirator with Israel and Zionism. And slowly with time, debates about freedom and democracy, turned into debates about neo-colonial plans against the Arab Orient and the Palestinian question. NATO’s military intervention under authorisation of the UN (although it overstepped the intervention guidelines) against the tyrants of Libya all but confirmed this talk about conspiracy and plots despite the fact that all international players involved have stressed that the Libyan scenario cannot be repeated in Syria and in spite of the Russian and Chinese positions which from the beginning did not even allow decisive criticism of the crimes of the regime in Damascus, let alone intervene against it?!

Even with all the photos and reports and tens of thousands of films which demonstrate unprecedented cruelty, which make Mobarak’s, Bin Ali’s and al Khalifa’s regimes appear to be extremely gentle and compassionate in comparison, the talk about conspiracies and colonialism continue. Some “Pavlovian” left-wing authors who are oblivious to the people in their books and only consider regimes, borders, conflicts and secrets resorted to proposing questions to divert attention from what is happening in Syria, for example asking whether Saudi Arabia is a democratic country or discussing Qatar and its financial resources. As if there is doubt that the rule in Saudi Arabia is not democratic or as if no one knows that Qatar is rich in resources! Of course, those authors have never mentioned how their queries are related to the crimes and massacres that are committed by the Syrian regime in Daraa, Homs, and Idlib? Neither themselves or others sceptics of the Syrian revolution speak of the essence of the conspiracy they propose, and the reasons underlying the Arab failure and the confusion of International community, even working outside the UN’s Security Council and the obstacles presented by Russia and China. Off course, they ignored the Israeli position which is supporting the status quo in Syria and keen on maintaining the Golan Heights quiet and is gambling at isolating Tehran rather than Damascus… only superficial talk about conspiracies while forgetting the existence of the Syrian people who want freedom after 42 years of rule by the two Assad’s, the father and the son, and after decades of emergency law, and the one party policy, and tens of thousands of deaths.

Movie: Funeral of a martyr killed by the regime’s soldiers in Raqqa on the 16th of March 2012

The Islamist and the Minorities?

The regime supporters, who claim to support secularism, raise fears about the Islamic alternative to the Baath regime. In doing so, they avoid the question about despotism and freedom and turn to discussing secularism and Islamism, forgetting that the Assad Baath despotism does not uphold any secular values except for the slogans. The civil law in Syria is based on Shariah laws and the constitution considers Shariah laws as one source of jurisdiction and the new constitution recently proposed by Bashar stipulates the religion of the head of State to be Islam. Also, half a century of repression and banning of political activities does not leave anywhere except mosques as places for gatherings and forming sociopolitical connections.

Even worse than these artificial and fabricated double standards, is the statement whereby they claim to fear for “minorities” which the regime claims to protect. The definition of minorities covers Alawites and Christians in particular (as well as Druze included by some). Fans of this statement manage to combine two deplorable rationales. The first is an ignorant logic whereby issues are confused by the act of classifying people into sects and religious groups, and treating humans as mere numbers with no humanitarian qualities, or attitudes, or interests or values or disagreements all which distinguish between individuals and their choices. Hence, minorities are treated as a single basket case just because of their “moderate numbers”.  The second rational is a moral one; fans of this logic want to defend a regime which crushes the majority of the people presumably because if the majority were successful in attaining their rights and forming a legitimate rule based on their wills, then the “minorities” will be in danger. And therefore the killing of the majority is necessary to protect the minorities! The immoral argument of those following this line of thought does not stop there. Even though they declare themselves to be secular, they are confessional and sectarian dividing the people into minorities and a majority based on religious affiliations. Also advocates of these two rationales oppose the philosophy of democracy (even though they pretend to be civilized and enlightened) and the principle of equality between people of all cultural backgrounds, by law and by their rights to freedom and political affiliation.

The irony is that the position of a number of left-wing individuals identifies with that of the extreme right (this phenomenon is demonstrated in France for example) when it comes to warning from Islamism and support of al Assad and their view that the results of elections in Tunisia and Egypt – after celebrating the revolutions there – prove their fear. Their respect for human rights, which they lecture people on, and their calls for the liberation of people, disappears into thin air when they consider issues taking place on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Nevertheless, if the Islamists assume power following free elections and then possibly lose it again by the ballot boxes, is that more dangerous than despotism, suppression, murders, and imprisonments? If a despotic rule lasts for one, two or three more years, does it mean that the alternative for it will not be Islamic (if we accept that what we see nowadays is truly Islamic)? Is the issue really about fears and stability, or is it in reality a form of racism that considers freedom a value that Arabs and Muslims do not deserve?

Let us for a moment believe the hypocrisy and naivety of those who say that the Syrian revolution is Salafi in nature. Does this justify the murder of thousands of people and pulling out fingernails of children under torture and slaughtering whole families? Is the murder or wounding of any human being, even if he is a Salafi, permissible? Those finding pretexts for the crimes deserve to be put on trial for racism, instigating murder or defending killers. In any case, this is one of the diseases of fascism.

Boredom, Foreign Intervention, Militarism and Chaos?

Some of those following the Arab revolutions might feel bored. In addition, the military intervention in Libya and the lack of detailed information about it as well as the elections in Egypt and Tunisia and the rise of Islamic parties there have all lead to a declining interest in the situation in Syria especially as the revolution has been going on for a while and reports of killings have become daily. However, all these reasons do not justify an absence of interest in the thousands of victims and do not justify talk about settlement with the murders or the absolute rejection of any foreign intervention. Nor does it justify the argument for continuation of despotism as an alternative to chaos. Foreign intervention is not limited to military action. It also encompasses medical and humanitarian aid, and applying political pressure and more sanctions, as well as launching law suits against those responsible and imposing bans on their travel, and expulsion of the regime’s ambassadors. Military intervention as a principle is not always unacceptable. Since the end of World War Two the role of the United Nations and the international community allows for foreign intervention to stop crimes against humanity. Foreign intervention has always been a subject of scepticism because of how it was carried out during the Cold War, previous cases of double standards being applied and many cases of no intervention or mismanagement. However, its necessity in itself is not an insult or accusation. The issue in the Syrian case is divisive even amongst Syrian themselves, even though, at least until now, a military form of intervention has not been proposed in decision-making and executive circles. The other issue is that discussions on intervention are not taking into consideration all previous experiences to produce a clear set of points of what is expected from such an intervention (Kosovo is a noteworthy case that deserves research).

Hypocrisy and demagogy come into mind when addressing the fear from chaos and civil war in Syria. Those fearful are asking hundreds of thousands of protestors demanding freedom and citizenship rights, and the families of more than 10 thousand deceased, to calm down, and accept the injustice and crimes against them and accept the continuation of the Assad family rule for a few more years in order to avoid chaos and for the sake of peace and stability. Therefore, the victims should stop their revolution against the regime to prevent a civil war, and the regime should not have to leave to avoid further bloodshed and to kick start a peaceful transition leading to elections!

The demagogic argument reaches its climax when some “researchers” and those claiming to be experts on the Middle East, whom were totally silent for the first six and seven months of the revolution, now warn from the dangers of militarism. They condemn the victims for trying to defending themselves, they denounce the defection of soldiers, who refused to kill their own people, from the regular army! Today they call for a peaceful revolution, which was/is going for months and which they were totally silent regarding it, or even sceptical of its aims and fearful of.

A point should be clarified here, the peaceful revolution which should be defended and advocated for everyday, and which is the defining and most wonderful feature of the Syrian revolution, has not ceased. The demonstrations are ongoing, even more frequently than before. The strikes and calls for civil disobedience are still ongoing, so are the distribution of brochures, and sit-ins, and the creative works which are regularly organised by the revolutionaries in Syria. Militarism has, unfortunately, become a reality as an inevitable consequence of the criminality of the regime and its refusal to step down. Many Syrians have become supportive of the military option because they think that the regime only understands the language of violence and that it will not stop its massacres and will not be toppled unless it is removed by force. Is their conclusion accurate? This is difficult to answer after all what has happened. The situation is constantly changing and shifting and in any case, Syrians have the right to try all means to emerge out of their long night.

Conclusion: Syria’s People

In conclusion, it is worthwhile to return to an issue forgotten by some of the “anti-colonialism” left-wing or the racists of the extreme right, despite there being not much difference between them when it comes to Syria.  Geo-strategies, Islamophobia, looking for conspiracy plotters in Washington, Paris, Tel Aviv, Doha and Ankara as well as the discussions about minorities and the fear from the majorities all miss the major point. This central issue appears very simple, but entails many complexities and difficulties. It is the Freedom of the Syrian people and their right to live…

Compared to this Freedom and this Right, all the debates, the analysis, the confrontation of so called “imperialism”,  and all the talk about Salafists and conspiracies are all minor details which do not and will not change the moral, or even the political, position: supporting the Syrian people until they are emancipated from despotism. After that Syrians can choose whatever they seek, they have the right to pass through experiences, which won’t be easy, until, after all their great sacrifices and after all what they have given over the long previous months, they achieve what they deserve: Living with Dignity and Freedom and in Peace under the sun of this world.

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