• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Road from Damascus

The history of Syria in the 1960s seems to show a steady swing to the left. But that is not entirely the case. As is true in many other countries, the Syrian officers came from a very different social milieu from those who hoped to make use of them. The young men who went to the military academy tended to have neither the education nor the wealth to advance themselves by other means. Because of the French divide-and-rule policy during the mandate period, they also tended to come from the religious minorities, and particularly from the mountain peoples, the Druzes and the Alawites, who had long suffered under Sunni (orthodox Muslim) rule.

The impulse of these officers was naturally to pursue Nasser’s “radical” policies by dividing further the landed estates, nationalizing more industries and services, and further secularizing the state. But the younger army officers had no interest in organizing and educating the masses. What they wanted was not the dictatorship of the proletariat, but state—or army—control; and what the senior officers wanted was to keep their juniors happy with something more than military rank. The result was that the trend of the 1950s continued: both the army and government domination of the economy grew larger and larger—the army today runs chicken farms and glass factories in addition to rather more conventional supply industries—while at the same time becoming less and less efficient.

The economy stagnated, and there was not enough money to keep all the officers content. Military coups were frequent, each one stripping away a new layer of trained officers. The officer corps became less competent and, as it happened, less representative of the country. The survivors of these internecine struggles tended to come from the most cohesive social groups: that is, from the Druzes and from the Alawites—the latter an esoteric Shiite sect with a hierarchical organization that follows certain doctrines and practices from outside Islam.

The junta of Ba’thist military officers that preceded the Assad regime, between 1966 and 1970, was entirely Alawite; in taking power it got rid of the important Druze officers. That junta was also, and logically enough, by far the most radical in its rhetoric. It talked about the “collective leadership” of the Ba’th party; it decreed that the achievement of socialism must precede the achievement of Arab unity; finally, it used much more violent language in its abuse of Israel.

Each of these rhetorical arguments was only a mask for the junta’s own failures, including its defeat in the 1967 war. The regime had no popular base; the country was losing its educated people and its private capital.1 Unable to get along with Nasser, the regime had no allies in the Arab world. Once isolated, it could no longer maintain the policy of nonalignment begun in the mid-Fifties; it became more and more dependent on the Soviet Union for economic, diplomatic, and military support. Combined with Syria’s military failings, this dependency made the regime incompetent to make war and incapable of making peace with Israel.

In November, 1970, the Syrian defense minister Hafiz al-Assad carried out a quiet, bloodless coup against Salah al-Jedid, the leading member of the junta. That coup might have been seen as a successful attempt to narrow the regime even further: Jedid came from a rival Alawite clan, and the important military security post he had held now belonged to Assad’s own brother. But the coup could also be seen as a move to do just the reverse. An air force officer by training (and therefore a part of the most modern and elite part of the armed forces), Assad was known to have serious disagreements on policy with Jedid. During the 1967 war he had urged cooperation with Egypt and protested when Jedid had kept his crack troops in Damascus in order to defend the regime rather than the country.2 He had, furthermore, always favored regular troops over the guerilla forces that were so fashionable at the height of the Vietnam war and so useful in distracting the Syrian public from the failures of the regular army. Just before the coup, during the Jordanian civil war, he refused to send his air force in support of the Syrian troops deployed on the side of the Palestinians; he would not bomb another Arab country. When Jedid attempted to oust him because of this, Assad brought off his coup.

Since 1970, Assad—now President Assad—has run a government that paradoxically seems more liberal politically while being more boldly dominated by one man than were previous Syrian regimes. No longer is there talk of “collective leadership,” and Assad’s picture—the picture of a gentle-looking, somewhat portly man in civilian clothing—appears in parades and in the wallets of soldiers. On the other hand, Assad usually seems to make decisions by consulting committees. On important issues he meets with a group that, reportedly, ranges between fifteen and forty-five people, all of them officers. His insistence on consensus appears to be one way of protecting himself from the kind of plotting by dissidents that has been endemic in Syria; it probably accounts for the various changes that unexpectedly take place in his negotiating positions. (His call for an Arab summit during the disengagement talks was, apparently, typical of his modus operandi.)

While Assad and his associates belong to the Ba’th party, his inner councils, according to most sources, have much more the look of a regular officer corps than they do of a party apparatus.3 No one should have any illusions about the toughness of Assad’s treatment of dissenters or of those whom the regime considers to be foreign agents. The security police are known to have used torture. The small Jewish community is under very rigid control. Still, in civilian politics Assad has ended the exclusive rule of the Ba’th by creating a “National Progressive Front” that includes the Communist party as well as a few socialist parties. He has allowed some elections for local and national councils to be held in which Ba’th party members have faced opposing candidates. While his Alawite relations dominate the military intelligence and security forces that form a kind of nest around Assad, he has taken pains to reassure the Sunni population that orthodox Islam retains an important place in Syria.4

Assad has also changed the trend of the Sixties in economic policy and in relations with other Arab governments. For the benefit of the middle class, he has relaxed restrictions on travel and on the import and export of goods and currency; he has also unfrozen some private assets. According to the civilian planners I talked to, the government will continue to control basic industries while allowing private capital to move into such businesses as building materials and construction, luxury textiles, household appliances. The regime has promised not to nationalize Arab capital coming from abroad.

The results of these concessions to private enterprise are not yet clear. But Assad’s attempts to mend fences with other Arab governments have met with great success. When last year the Soviet Union refused to extend Syria any more military credits, the Persian Gulf states paid in cash for the Syrian war matériel used in the October war. (This exchange of dollars for Russian arms to be used against American weapons in Israel evokes rhapsodies from Chinese diplomats on the contradictions of capitalism.) The Gulf states will also be paying for much of the damage caused by the October war, not only to tank squadrons but to oil refineries, storage tanks, and electric generators.

In the months since the war the Egyptian government has made very obvious public gestures showing a radical change of policy toward the West and toward Israel. Even Israeli officials now take seriously the view that Sadat went to war in order to end an intolerable no-war-no-peace situation; that his aims were to get a territorial settlement, to make peace, and to proceed with the urgent task of development in Egypt. The Syrian government has not, however, made such unambiguous gestures. Its long refusal to release the names of Israeli POWs, the continued fighting on the Golan Heights, and the frequent high-level consultations between Syrian and Soviet officials have been seen as evidence that Syria has not at all the same aims as Egypt.

In Damascus, it struck me that similar currents may run through both countries. The Syrian government has in the planning stage a considerable number of development projects that cannot succeed without peace. Through expensive irrigation projects it plans to double the acreage of land now under cultivation. With the help of European companies it plans to build five large new hotels and to increase the number of tourists from 200,000 to over a million per year. It is no secret that Lockheed, Boeing, and the American oil companies have been bidding on Syrian projects. Syria is looking to the West for high-quality technology; it is also buying from the US to some small degree, and Kissinger has made it clear that he would offer, and Syria would accept, American aid.

Some Syrian officials feel that Sadat may be going too far to the right in his political and economic policies and in his cooling of relations with the USSR—too far, in any case, for Syria. But their rhetoric, like their development planning, has an undogmatic quality, even in such matters as education. (“You know,” one vice minister said, “the constitution says that primary education is compulsory. But we decided that was for the government and not for the people, because a lot of children simply can’t get to school.”)5 To explain the changes that Assad has made—they are officially known as “the correction movement”—one civilian official made an analogy to the period of de-Stalinization in Russia. Had the subject not been so touchy, he might more precisely have referred to de-Nasserization in Egypt.

The connection of all these changes to the question of Israel is not at all tenuous. Indeed, it is one that Syrians make themselves. Their officials have recently been saying in effect to American journalists, “Look, if your Henry Kissinger can put pressure on the Israelis to make an acceptable settlement, Syria is going to change in ways you would approve of.” Specifically they speak of the potential for a more “pragmatic” set of attitudes and policies, the possibility for more independence from the Soviet Union, for diverting at least some of the military budget into development, and for achieving more democracy. Possibly these officials were merely saying things American journalists want to hear. (But even that would be a change for the Syrians, who have never been much good at public relations.)

Conceivably their views did not fully reflect those of the military men who do not normally see the Western press. There are, certainly, other factions within the government and other military men who hope to wreck whatever plans Assad has for the sake of their own careers. Assad himself, according to Kissinger’s staff, left the impression of “split attitudes”—he seems fascinated with the prospect of ending Syrian isolation and yet troubled by the thought of ending Syria’s traditional policy of refusal to recognize Israel.6

Assad himself may not wish to end this dilemma. But it is true, as one official said, that the “objective situation” is moving against those who favor intransigence and continued exclusive ties to the Soviet Union. The money being made by the anti-Soviet Arab oil-producing countries (paradoxically at the expense of the West) is becoming a tidal wave. Syria, like Egypt, can only resist at the price of becoming an economic backwater and having another, or many more, changes of regime. And then, unlike Egypt, Syria has a chance to win the awful race to become a developed country within one generation—if there is peace.

  1. 1

    A Syrian study showed that the country was losing about 57 percent of its university graduates every year from 1956 to 1969.

  2. 2

    In the 1973 war Assad sent his brother’s specially trained troops into some of the most difficult fighting of the war.

  3. 3

    Significantly, Saiqa, the commando group known to be financed and controlled by the Syrian government, now takes its orders from the army rather than the party command. Its one known exploit in recent years was the bloodless Schonau Castle incident that took place just a week before the war and did so much to distract Israeli attention from the possible implications of the build-up.

  4. 4

    The results have been mixed. A year ago conservative Sunni groups in Homs and Hama conducted demonstrations the regime thought serious enough to counterattack with rifles and airplanes. About fifty civilians died, according to reports in Beirut. It is probably impossible for Assad to satisfy both conservative Sunni circles and the religious minorities and the modern-minded who want a secular state. But his reaction then was hardly that of a conciliator.

  5. 5

    Speaking of education, Syrian secondary school students are given the choice of whether they would like to learn French, Russian, German, or English as their second language. Syrian officials were worried this year because 75 percent of the students chose English, 23 percent chose French, and about 1 percent each chose Russian and German. Even though this trend was apparent for years, educational facilities were designed for a more even emphasis on the four languages.

  6. 6

    The New York Times, May 31, 1974.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print