Syria: Tribalism

Note: This lecture was first delivered in August 2011, but has certainly stood the test of time

One of the most frustrating things for me as I read through the press reports about the revolts in the Arab world is the failure of journalists and commentators to put the events into some sort of historical perspective. They treat the mass protests as some sort of spontaneous movement that just happened by itself. But, invariably, major political and social upheavals, unless they are caused by some sort of natural disaster—and sometimes precisely because they were triggered by a natural disaster that could have been foretold—are inevitably the product of processes that have been underway for some time.


That is why sometimes trivial events end up leading to social explosions. All the mass protests need is a seemingly-insignificant event to act as a trigger. In the Israeli-occupied territories, the first intifada broke out in 1987 in the wake of a traffic accident after an Israeli truck driver had rammed into a car from Gaza, and the Tunisian revolt broke out after a municipal worker had handed out a ticket to the owner of a cart for having sold vegetables without a permit.


Nowhere is this axiom about major events being the product of long-tern processes more true than in Syria. And nowhere in the Arab world are current events, including the government’s response to the protests, more shaped by the country’s past than in Syria.


Syria is the Arab country that is most riven by historic ethnic, tribal and religious disputes. If you think that Lebanon is a political basket case because of inter-communal competition for power, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.


For centuries, Syria prospered, not so much because of what it produced indigenously, but because it was on the main caravan route between Asia and Europe. Two events at the end of the 19th century turned the country’s economy into a basket case. I have never seen either of these events mentioned in any of the recent news reports about the country.


The first was the opening of the Suez Canal, which disrupted the main trade route running through the country. This led to the abandonment of whole towns and villages that had lain along the trade route and that had depended on supplying the caravans with supplies for their living. The economic crisis then led to the country’s first mass exodus of people, to new commercial centres such as West Africa and Brazil. This also led to a change in the country’s demography because many of the emigrants were Christians.


However, the crisis also strengthened the position of the urban  Jews and the Christians because, unlike the Moslems, who lived in closed communities based on clan and tribal relations, the Jews and many of the Christian groups, especially the Armenians, had extensive economic contacts abroad and were able to rebuild their commercial positions.


The second event is almost totally unknown in the West. Most of you have probably heard about the genocide of the Armenians undertaken by the Turks during World War I. But I very much doubt that you have ever heard of the Assyrian genocide that also took place between 1904 and 1921. During that period, the Turks, employing Kurdish soldiers, slaughtered an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 indigenous Christians, who could trace their ancestry back to pre-Biblical times, and the initial rise of Christianity.


This led to yet another mass exodus of Christians—largely to Brazil. Thus, within 40 years, the country lost a large proportion of its entrepreneurial and commercial class. Today, there are an estimated 6 million people of Arab origin living in Brazil—a large portion of them of both Christian and Syrian extraction.


The twin genocides naturally led all the minorities in Syria to welcome the protection of outside forces.


Modern Syria was established out of the old Ottoman Empire after World War I, when the British and the French carved up what had been called the “Levant” between them. In keeping with French colonial policy everywhere, Paris tended to favour minority groups over majority groups in order to divide and rule. That, in fact, is why Lebanon was created—as a homeland in which the minority Christians would be in control. All the entrepreneurial minorities in Syria, whether they were Assyrians, Armenians, or Jews welcomed French protection and became ardent Francophiles—thus increasing the suspicions of the Sunni Moslem majority.


One of the after-effects of Ottoman rule was that the country had become a conglomeration of petty fiefdoms. Under the Ottoman Millet system of governance, all the religious and ethnic groups were given a significant measure of self-governance in return for those groups imposing discipline on their followers, ensuring that taxes were paid, and preventing political challenges to the Sultan’s court.


At the time that the French took control, the Syrian elite consisted of two groups of wealthy Sunni Moslems—the rural landowners and the urban businessmen who had made their money because of their close ties to the Ottoman throne—and Jewish, Armenian, and other Christian businessmen and traders who were centered in Allepo and Damascus.


The Jews and the Armenians formed two, basically self-sufficient blocs, each united by a common religion and ancestry. However, the Moslems were divided into competing clans and tribes, while the indigenous, Arab Christian Assyrians were split into often-competing church groups.


You have probably never heard of most of these church groups—because most of these ancient churches are local ones that have never had the PR clout of the Vatican or the other major Christian Orthodox denominations.


In addition to the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches, the Christian community in Syria is made up of churches, some of whose earliest texts are written Aramaic, the lingua franca of Christ’s time. The major ones are the Maronites, the Melkites, the Chaldeans, the Syriac Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Syrian Jacobites.


In addition, the country’s population includes Sunni Moslem Bedouin, Kurds, Circassions, Turkmen and a relatively small number of Shias and mystic Sufis, as well as two sects that are viewed as heretics by conservative Sunni Moslems—the Druze and the Alawites.


In order to avoid persecution, both these latter groups had long ago retreated to mountain redoubts where they lived basically self-sufficient lives.


When Syria gained its independence in 1946, and established a republican democracy, the Sunni-run government had enormous difficulty in coping with all these competing interests. The country was essentially ungovernable. Ironically, the situation was compounded when Israel was founded, and most of the Jews left and took with them their international commercial contacts and entrepreneurial skills.


It was at this point that three major political streams, each based on a different demographic foundation, began to take shape. The Moslem Brotherhood, operating from the mosques, began to grow. The Sunni Moslem elite took control of the military. And a new political party that sought to unite all Arabs under the banner of a programme based on Arab nationalist and secular socialist principles—that was called the Baath (or renaissance) Party—was established by a Christian, Michel Afleq and a dissident Sunni Moslem, Salah al Bitar. Both of them were French-educated.


After the elected government failed to get its act together, the Sunni-controlled military launched its first coup in 1949. This led to even greater political instability because the military itself was so riven by clan disputes. Coup followed coup in rapid succession. All told, in the first decade of independence, the country went through 20 governments, which tried 4 times and failed to draft a new constitution that would be acceptable to all.


Because the Sunni generals distrusted each other so much, they began an intensive effort to attract the Druze and the Alawites to join the officer corps by offering them free education and various other perks. One of those afforded such an education was an Alawite named Hafez el Assad.


Neither the Alawites nor the Druze was seen as a potential competitor to Sunni hegemony. The Druze believe in being loyal to whichever ruler is in power. And the otherwise persecuted Alawites were so poor and so despised by the Sunni majority that they were not viewed as a threat.


But the military coups and countercoups continued.


I have tried to total them all up, but failed because historians can’t agree which ones were “real” or not, because some of these efforts lasted only for a few hours. As the political instability increased in intensity, the various minorities, and especially the increasingly educated Alawites, were being attracted to the Baath Party as an escape from their social marginalization and persecution.


One of the reasons for the party’s success is that it was organized in much the same way that an underground guerilla organization is. It was divided up into cells of 5 or 6 members, and the cells had no contact with each other. Within each cell there was one contact man who was in charge of reporting to one single individual from the party’s hierarchy. For that reason, the party was almost impenetrable to the intelligence apparatus. But for the same reason, it is no wonder that the party fostered a culture of conspiracy.


In 1963, the Baath party finally staged a coup of its own, and succeeded. It has been in power in Syria ever since. But by the time it seized power, the Baath Party too had become divided between a more moderate civilian faction and a group of Marxist hardliners centered in the military’s officer corps. To make a very, very long story short, the party became afflicted with intense factionalism. There were constant coups and counter-coups within the party itself. In 1966, there was a particularly bloody coup, after which an extremist military faction took power; and Afleq and al Bitar, the founders of the movement, were sent into exile.


However, at that time, a somewhat more moderate—and I emphasize the word “somewhat”—Baathist faction led by Hafez el Assad began to gather strength within the army. Following the disastrous 6 Day War, this faction grew in numbers quite quickly. Finally, after the Syrian army had been bloodied once again—this time by outnumbered Jordanian Legionnaires—when Syria invaded Jordan in the wake of the so-called “Black September,” of 1970, Assad launched his own, successful coup.


This Alawite was initially welcomed by the general public—and especially by the poor Sunni peasantry that saw the Alawites as a suppressed minority like themselves. As well, the public in general was exhausted from years of political and economic instability.


Assad immediately set about consolidating his regime. In effect, he began treating the Baath Party, the military, and the state as one in the same. However, he began his rule with one distinct disadvantage. As I noted earlier, the Alawites were viewed by conservative Sunnis as heretics; and Syrian law required that the president of the state be a Moslem.


As a result, Assad began intensive negotiations with Musa Sadr, the leader of another oppressed minority, the Shiites in Lebanon. It was a marriage made in heaven. The Shiites were seeking a powerful patron to protect them from the predations of the Sunnis and Christians in Lebanon, and Assad was seeking legitimacy. Syria took the Shiites under its wing, and, in return, Sadr, a Lebanese who had been trained as a theologian in Teheran, declared that the Alawites were a branch of  Twelver Shiism—the mystic group led by Ayatollah Khomeini. In order to do so, however, Sadr had to have his decision ratified by the clerics in Iran.


As a result, henceforth, Assad became beholden to the Iranian clerics; and after the revolution in Iran, the Iranians used their clout to influence Syrian policy.


Once the deal with the Shiite leadership was consummated in 1973, Assad, having lived through all those coups and counter-coups, began a massive crackdown on his domestic, political opponents and instituted a reign of terror. According to former Defence Minister Mustafa Tlas, for years, as many as 150 of Assad’s alleged opponents were executed each day in Syrian prisons. The campaign of fear culminated in the massacre in the city of Hama in 1982. After the Moslem Brotherhood had risen up in revolt there, Assad sent in the army and leveled the city, killing 10,000-30,000 people. Significantly, news of the massacre only reached the world a month after the turning of Hama into a parking lot had taken place.


But Assad didn’t just use sticks, he also had carrots to hand out.


He carefully cultivated both the Christians in Aleppo and Damascus, who were deathly afraid of the growing Sunni Moslem Brotherhood underground, and the traditional wealthy, urban Sunni businessmen. The Christians had deep memories of the twin genocides that had taken place earlier in the century at the hands of Sunnis. And the urban Sunni businessmen were quite willing to be bought off with any perks Assad could hand out in the increasingly centralized economy. Moreover, Assad also made it a policy of promoting loyal Sunni officers within the military so that if there was an Alawite commander of a unit, his deputy would be a Sunni—and vice versa.


But Assad relied most of all on his newly-legitimized, fellow Alawite tribesmen.  Not only were they given most of the senior posts in the military and the multitude of secret services, they were also favoured when it came to handing out civil service jobs.


Since most civil service jobs were in the main cities, this led to a slow migration by Alawites from their isolated mountain villages to the main cities, such as Latakia and Homs, where they began to compete with Sunnis for these plum jobs. I’ll be saying more about that in a moment.


Corruption and cronyism, which had always been part of Syrian political and economic life, became entrenched as never before.


Initially, Hafez el Assad was lucky. The 1970s were a time of steady economic growth. Syria’s invasion of Lebanon in 1976, supposedly in order to halt the civil war there, provided Damascus with billions of dollars in new revenues—most notably through unofficial fees leveled by the occupying forces, and the switch from the growing wheat to that of hashish and opium in the Beka’a Valley. The discovery of oil inside Syria, added billions of dollars to the government’s coffers. As well, billions of dollars in aid flowed into Syria from the Soviets, and the Gulf states that were awash in money as a result of the oil shock.


However, very soon, because many of these revenues were being siphoned off by the corrupt elite and were being wasted because of heavy-handed, centralized economic planning. Syria’s economy began to crumble, and there were widespread shortages of even basic foods.


This led the government to inaugurate a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency and even the export of agricultural products. That policy was to have disastrous results.


In particular, the government ordered that arid pasturelands be turned into wheat-growing areas through the use of irrigation. These pasturelands had provided sustenance for tens of thousands of herders from time immemorial. The problem with this policy was that the only water available to grow crops in these desert areas had to come from underground aquifers that had been deposited 40,000 years ago and were non-renewable. Not only that, the soil in these areas was such that it did not absorb water very well, and this led to runoff, waste and the salinization of the soil.


As a result, over a decade, the water table in these regions dropped by as much as 500 meters and more. When the latest drought struck our region just over 5 years ago, the farmers no longer had any water in deep wells to tide them over the crisis. Hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats died, and 600,000 families fled to the slums of the main cities in order to survive.


But because modern industry had not been developed, there were few if any jobs available.


So dire did their condition become, that many began to feel that they had nothing worse to fear—not even the power of the Syrian military. That loss of fear would lead directly to the protests we see today.


All the protests were triggered by one seemingly insignificant event—the arrest of a group of teenagers in the southern city of Der’a for having painted some graffiti on some walls. After being arrested, they had had their fingernails pulled out as punishment.


Der’a had been particularly badly hit by the drought—and the government’s failure to provide any relief. The treatment of the children further inflamed passions, and people began to demonstrate. The protests then spread to the slum areas of the bigger cities, where locals had already been in competition for jobs with Alawite newcomers, and to which many of the dispossessed farmers had fled.


The next locus of protest was the desert oil-producing area of Dier el Zahour, which had provided the government with most of its foreign exchange revenues, but which had not been given very much in the way of development funds.


Hama, which had been so traumatized in 1982, joined the protests only at a relatively late stage. However, it did soon become one of the main protest centres.


The government’s response was to employ the army units and the intelligence services that were controlled by Alawite officers—notably the Revolutionary Guards and the 4th army division controlled by Bashar Assad’s brother, Maher. The government feared that if it used units that were primarily manned by Sunni Moslem conscripts, those soldiers might refuse to fire on Sunni civilians—as had happened in Egypt.


The government, however, faced two major problems. The first was that the protests spread so quickly to so many other places that the government could not concentrate its limited number of reliably-loyal forces in one place and deal with one revolt at a time—as Hafez el Assad had done with Hama. The second was that the advent of cellphones and the internet had allowed widely different groups to communicate with each other—and no less importantly with the outside world through video clips.


The government initially tried to deal with small towns on the periphery, but that only led to a well-publicized flight by these refugees over the border into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where they were interviewed extensively by foreign television networks—thus embarrassing the government even more.


This approach also had the detrimental side effect of thinning out the forces available even more. The problem of troop fatigue and the limited number of loyal forces was exacerbated by the protests that erupted in the slums of Damascus and at the University of Aleppo. Fearful of the reaction of the Christians and the wealthy Sunnis, Assad’s forces have effectively divided Damascus into two by setting up what is in fact a cordon between the slums and the centre of the city. Likewise, the university in Aleppo is sealed whenever a demonstration erupts there.


The reason is that the only two groups that have been sitting on the fence throughout the uprising have been these same Christian and the secular Sunni merchants who are based in these cities. Most analysts agree that these two groups both fear the Moslem Brotherhood and hold the key to Assad’s attempts to hold onto power. Should they side with the protesters, Assad would fall soon. As in Iran and Turkey, the merchants are the ones who ultimately decide whether a government will rise or fall; and you should keep in mind that the Christians, as a bloc, and despite emigration, still make up a significant proportion of the population and are about as numerous as the Alawites.


At the moment, there appears to be a standoff. The forces loyal to Assad simply cannot cope with the masses of armed protesters.


But that does not mean that things are static. A dynamic is underway. The government’s costs are getting out of control, while its revenues are dropping precipitously.


As might be expected, security expenses have ballooned. And in an attempt to quieten some of the unrest and retain the loyalty of the civil servants, the government has also hiked civil service salaries and restored subsidies on gasoline.


However, the economy is contracting, and GDP is now expected to drop by about 3 percent this year. Tourism, which had contributed 25 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings, has now dropped to virtually nothing. Exports are estimated to have dropped by 30 percent—in part because Egypt and Libya, significant importers of Syrian goods, are also in the midst of their own crises.


Officially, at least, the country has $18 billion in reserves. But they are falling at an estimated rate of $70-80 million a week. Foreign investment has also collapsed. For example, early on in the protests, the Qataris froze plans to invest $900 million in two electrical power plants; and $500 million in other investments were also been put on hold.


There is also a credit crunch. An estimated 8 percent of all deposits have been withdrawn from the country’s banks, so there is less money available for loans to the government or to anyone else. Some of you may have been following the stories about what will happen if the credit rating agencies such as Fitch, Moody’s and S&P were to lower their credit rating for the US or Europe. But you should know that Syria, because of its closed economy, has no credit rating at all—and therefore can’t borrow any money on international markets to tide it over the crisis.


In the past, the Syrians could always look to the Gulf States for bailout loans, but that safety net now looks less safe. The Gulf States are in a quandary. On the one hand, they have always hated the Baath Party, and view the Alawites as heretics. However, they are also deathly afraid that the protests sweeping the Arab world will reach them too. A success by the protesters in Syria could have a major impact on the small Gulf States own restive populations. So, for the moment, they have chosen to sit on the sidelines—at least where Syria is concerned.


The Iranians have apparently offered billions dollars in aid, but because of Iran’s own economic problems, that kind of funding cannot last indefinitely.


Far more importantly, Syria is now feeling the effects of its economic policies of the past three decades. Syria has had what economists refer to as a rentier economy. In other words, it has been depleting its natural resources, but because of corruption and economic inefficiency and waste, it has not invested enough of the money earned from those non-renewable resources in other forms of economic assets.


Particularly significant is the fact that oil production is dropping, and the country is expected to soon become a net importer of fuel.


But possibly the most insidious threat to the regime comes from a totally different direction.

The country, which had once benefitted from an abundance of water, is now running out of the stuff—and the water that is available is not being brought to where it is needed.


As I mentioned earlier, the country has now wasted most of its ancient underground water reserves. But because of increasing drought, a rapidly-growing population, and water usage by its neighbours, it is now also running out of surface water as well.


Largely because of climate change, the river flow in the Yarmouk River Basin, which among other things, supplies water to the beleaguered town of Der’a, has declined by more than half since 1960—from an average of about 600 million cubic metres a year to about 250 million cubic metres. During the summer months, the flow falls to as little as one tenth of that level.


The same is true for some of the other rivers. One of the country’s most important water sources, the Orontes River, which flows from Lebanon, through Syria to Turkey, has now become a polluted cesspool. In fact, because the government has failed to invest in sewage treatment plants, pollution has become so bad in some areas that epidemics of e. coli and salmonella have become a regular occurrence—which has led the government to ban food production on some river banks that used to be among of the most productive agricultural areas of the country.


Turkey’s decision to dam up the Euphrates River, the biggest river running through Syria, has also had a major impact. The river flow at the border with Iraq is now a bare 9 billion cubic metres a year, down from 27 billion cubic metres per year before the dam projects were begun. In Iraq, the results have been disastrous. 90 percent of the marshes, which used to provide much of the country’s fish protein, have now dried up.


But even if Syria did want to pump more water from the Euphrates to more arid regions, it couldn’t because it has failed to build the necessary pipelines—and if it did take more water, it could invite war from Iraq.


This situation has given the Turks enormous leverage over both Syria and Iraq in the Turks’ competition with Iran for regional hegemony. Turkish Prime minister Erdogan’s self-felt freedom to intensely criticize of the Assad regime was but a warning to the Syrians of the sanctions he can impose. In other words, Turkey is now using water as a political hostage—which seriously limits Syria’s room for political manouevre.


Because of all of these water-related factors, Syria now also faces the threat of desertification over 60% of its land surface area.


The real problem the country faces though, is that, even if the armed revolt succeeds and the government loses power, because of the rentier economy that was in place for so long, no new government will be able to take advantage of what had been a once in a civilization’s lifetime opportunity to build a modern economy. Syria, which once was in the competition for regional hegemony has been reduced to a state with minor political and economic assets, but a lot of arms.


What his means in geopolitical terms is that, in the future, Syria can be a spoiler because of the trove of missiles and rockets it has acquired from the Iranians, but it will never become a regional leader as it long believed it could be.





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