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The Road from Damascus

Now that a disengagement agreement has been signed, attention in Washington will surely be distracted from the relations between Syria and Israel. Yet it is on the relations between the two countries that peace in the Middle East may depend.

Why Syria should be so important may on its face seem difficult to understand until we realize that the Syrian-Israeli negotiations lie at the point of greatest strain between Israel and the four Arab principals in the current round of conflict. These are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and the Palestinians. In order to reach peace Israel and the US must deal with each of them in turn; for while King Faisal and the Palestinian commandos have little in common, they are bound together by their relations to the other two powers. And strangely enough, the relations among each of the principals are similar in the sense that Egypt’s interests are just about as important to Saudi Arabia as Syria’s are to Egypt and the Palestinians’ to Syria. Syria, for example, cannot publicly refuse to permit commando raids from her territory any more than Egypt could publicly urge Syria to accept the disengagement agreement. But both countries could make their influence felt privately.

The point could be reached where negotiations are impossible. There is no compromise between the maximum demands of the Israelis and the Palestinians, unless two floors were built over the same small piece of earth. Of course, concessions are possible between peoples. But if there is to be a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it must have the backing of all three Arab states. And negotiations between Israel and Syria will be crucial in deciding whether or not such a settlement can be had.

Damascus, May, 1974

For Americans Syria has always been a largely unknown quantity. Unable to visit there in recent years, we have tended to see it from an Israeli point of view. Damascus, even the looks of the city, is a surprise. When I arrived in early May only the crowds of soldiers in the streets visibly reminded me there was a war on twenty-five miles away. The archways over the road from Beirut announced an international fair to be held later this summer. The civilian officials I met did not engage in polemics. Many of them seemed disappointed I had not flouted their visa restrictions and gone to Israel—they always used that word—before coming to Damascus. They were curious about Israel and, it seemed to me, somewhat uncertain. Two of them compared Rabin favorably with Dayan, and also saw some hope in the fact that Rabin would be the first Israeli prime minister to be born in the Middle East.

A visitor’s impressions of course cannot provide conclusive evidence about Syrian attitudes to war and peace, but if one also considers the political and economic changes that have recently taken place, Syria now seems closer to peace than it has at any time during the last decade.

To look at the Assad government without taking account of Syrian history is to see a fabulous, contradictory creature—a seeming impossibility. From a distance the regime is at once a military dictatorship, a socialist party, an esoteric sect, a Pan-Arab movement, a family fief, a police state, and a liberal political coalition. The strangest thing about it is that it seems to work. In power since 1970, it is in fact the most stable government that Syria has had for the past two decades. But at close hand, the regime is not quite so contradictory as it would appear. It has lasted for four years because to a great extent it reflects the diversity of Syrian society and the conflicts within it.

It takes only two hours to drive from Beirut to Damascus. The new road, crowded with tourist taxis from Lebanon and produce trucks bound for Kuwait, climbs two mountain ranges before descending into the river-fed oasis at the edge of the Syrian plateau. It’s a pity that the old road through the mountain passes is too narrow for modern traffic, for on the cliff wall at the entrance to the first gorge there are stone tablets carved by all the armies that marched through it, from the Roman legions to the British regiments that liberated Damascus during the Second World War. Both roads, however, remind one that Syria is a part of that passageway called the Levant—a passageway for the world’s great empires. For nearly 1,200 years Damascus was not the capital of a country but a station on the pilgrimage routes and a trading port for merchants crossing between three continents. In spite of national boundaries, it remains similarly connected to the outside world and similarly vulnerable.

The Syrian republic is only as old as Israel and even more illogical as a piece of geography. When the French carved up their mandated territories after the First World War, they excised half of the Mediterranean coastline to form Lebanon; then they drew straight lines enclosing a few mountain ranges and valleys, a fertile plain, and a triangle of the great desert that extends to Arabia. This new “country” had economic potential—its population was not too great for the amount of arable land—but it had no political raison d’être.

The lines the French drew surrounded a few million orthodox Muslims who were settled in the cities and the central plain, a number of Bedouin tribes that had roamed the Arabian desert, and a wide assortment of religious sects and ethnic groups that had settled in the cities and narrow valleys of the Levantine passageway. There were Druzes, Alawites, Armenians, Syrian Christians, Kurds, and Jews. From the point of view of all these people the new “country” was either too big or too small to define a community of language, religion, or culture. Its boundaries were to them an artificial European division in the open passage of the Middle East.

In 1948 the Syrian army naturally joined the Arab League in its war against the newly proclaimed state of Israel. Having just won a long struggle to evict the French, Syrian leaders saw the Zionist movement as but another case of colonial aggression in a territory that they considered to be just as much “theirs” as the mountains above Latakia in the north. The Arab defeat in the 1948 war did not convince them of the injustice of their cause any more than it settled the question of the composition of their political community. Indeed it intensified their problem by bringing them many thousands of Palestinian refugees. Powerless to change their situation the Syrians have simply resisted accepting it. On one hand they have refused to recognize Israel. On the other hand they have come to live with three separate realities—all of which are something more than just ideas. The first reality is the brotherhood of all Arabs. The second is the state of Syria, and the third is the variety of religious and tribal groups within the country.

The problem of governing Syria is thus very complicated. Syrian leaders have not only to manage sectarian and tribal conflicts, they have to deal with all three kinds of allegiances at once. And conflicts among allegiances manifest themselves both as social forces and as the divided loyalties that people feel. “Assad is a split personality,” said one Syrian who lives in Beirut. “On one hand he is a socialist who believes in secular society, in equal justice, in women’s rights, and so forth. He believes with the Ba’th that the old religious structures should be destroyed for the cause of pan-Arabism. On the other hand he has the spontaneous reactions of an Alawite peasant. There’s an Arab folk saying that goes, ‘Stand with thy brother in justice or injustice.’ Well, he does that, but that’s not the whole story, either. There is a constant dialectic.”

This three-way split personality of Syria reflects not only a political conflict but a social and economic struggle as well. In Damascus, high-rise apartments and multi-lane avenues co-exist with the mosques and the mudwalled houses of the old quarters. Not far from the souks, where craftsmen engrave eighteenth-century designs into huge brass trays, there are billboards with photographs of the Syrian Heroes of Labor. The middle-class school girls of Damascus wear their khaki paramilitary uniforms cut as tight and sexy as a Bloomingdale’s pants suit. To the tourist they seem to be of a different nationality from the city women who are veiled in black from head to knee. But they are not, of course. I saw one girl who wore an army uniform with a veil over her head.

To transfer the European definitions of “class” into the Arab world can be misleading. But class conflict is important in Syria; it has much to do with the political instability and the way the army and party politics are intertwined. When it became independent after World War II, Syria had a middle class consisting mainly of professional people, merchants, and small entrepreneurs. As the active, modernizing force in the country, this relatively small group found allies among the army officers who, with some reason, blamed their 1948 defeat on the corruption and inefficiency of the traditional leadership. In the early 1950s governments headed by soldiers carried out a program of reforms that included such measures as the break up of the waqfs, or religious foundations, and the creation of a monetary and banking system. The power was military, but the initiative remained civilian. The result was that political parties developed in Syria as they did nowhere else in the Arab world; and by recruiting military officers they carried their differences over into the army.

Syria was “progressive” and “neutralist” long before Egypt. But in the mid-Fifties, at the time of great upheaval in the Middle East, it was also very fragile politically. The union with Egypt in 1958 was made less from love than from fear of Western imperialism, of the Soviet Union and Iraq, and finally fear that Syria might disintegrate as a political unit. Rather than resolving these conflicts, Nasser simply suppressed them by dissolving the political parties and ruling Syria almost as an Egyptian province. Three years later, when the United Arab Republic broke apart, the situation remained much the same, except that with his land reform and nationalization measures Nasser had dispossessed the great merchant and landlord families.

By 1963 the most important political party in Syria was the Ba’th or Arab Resurrection, a petit-bourgeois party founded by French-educated intellectuals, whose purpose was to unite the country behind the general goals of independence (from the West), Arab unity, and social justice. The strength as well as the weakness of the Ba’th was that no one knew precisely what this meant. In practice the direction of the party came from those who happened to take power in its name. (One of its founders, Michel Aflaq, reportedly said after his exile, “There is only one true Ba’thist in the world, and I am living in Brazil.”) In practice, with the growth of the Syrian army, the party leaders were more and more frequently officers.

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.

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