March 20, 2014
In the early 2000s, Syria Direct’s Kristen Gillespie and Dr. Nerina Rustomji studied Arabic in Damascus together during the early days of President Bashar al-Assad’s tenure.
The death of Hafez al-Assad in June 2000 had created fears for the stability of Syria, particularly among minorities who voiced concerns about persecution by the Sunni majority during an uncertain time. In the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma, for example, homes were shuttered for three straight days with residents saying they feared reprisals for a massacre that happened in the hills of Lebanon in 1848.
It is a telling example of how history casts a long shadow in Syria, and as the war enters its fourth year this week, Syria Direct checks in with Rustomji, now an Associate Professor of History focusing on the Middle East and the Islamic World at St. John’s University in New York City.
Rustomji, author of “The Garden and the Fire: Heaven and Hell in Islamic Culture,” highlights Syrians’ demands for political freedoms over the past century, explaining how what we see today is different. “Now there is a regime that seeks to hold on to power at the expense of the nation,” Rustomji says. “I don’t think we have seen anything quite like this before.”
Q: Three years on, describe the historical moment we’re seeing in Syria. Has Syria experienced anything like this in its recent history that you know of?
We are seeing the breakdown of the nation-state of Syria. The conflict in Syria has gone through three phases. First, the protests began as the Syrian Arab Spring with the aim of democracy and reform in a peaceable fashion. Second, the conflict morphed into a battle between an authoritarian regime that was intent on holding on to power.
And now, the conflict is turning into the ripping apart of the national fabric, destruction of infrastructure and land, the creation of political vacuums, and the consolidation of regime holdings.
Syria has experienced the building of the nation-state in the past century, but in no period have we seen the deliberate, systematic destruction of urban infrastructure, educational institutions and experiences, and the elimination of skilled groups of people who can provide necessary services like medical, engineering, teaching.
The whole undoing of Syria as a nation-state is a tragedy. In the past century, we have seen the real attempts to establish an independent, autonomous state for governance: from the Ottoman province to brief monarchy to mandate, to republic – with its different experiments, such as the United Arab Republic.
The consolidation of the country within the Ba’ath state established a stable foundation, no matter what you think of Ba’ath politics. But that Syria is gone. Now there is a regime that seeks to hold on to power at the expense of the nation. What we are witnessing is a raw play for holding on to power without consideration. I don’t think we have seen anything quite like this before.
Q: The Ba’ath Party established a state, but it spent 25 years beginning in the 1970s with many of the same leaders, civil and military, in place. This created an unnatural freezing process in the Syrian state. Could it really have kept going the way it was? Isn’t the absolute iron fist a temporary model? When you and I studied there in the early 2000s, we saw young men our age without jobs or prospects. The resentment and widespread hopelessness for the future at that time were some of the seeds that led to what happened later.
Yes, I think the problems were there. But you can have still have movement within authoritarian states. You can still have reform. Ultimately, it’s hard to think through counterfactuals, but I do think that the stability of the country was valued.
This played a part of the “as-if politics” that Lisa Weeden discusses in her book Ambiguities of Domination. By analyzing regime representations in posters and jokes, she suggested that there was an inherent play with regime complicity. At the same time as there was reinforcing of regime power, there was also a subtle critique of it.
The way I read her analysis is that Syrians may have been dominated by a regime, but they were aware, sophisticated about it. So is the iron fist a temporary model? Perhaps. It is certainly hard to sustain even though we have seen longstanding examples of it in Iraq and Libya. But we also see how iron-fist regimes morph as well. The USSR is a good example.
Q: I’ve heard from officials, royals, elites and even apolitical people from this region saying that Arabs cannot “handle” freedom, and, as a corollary, democracy. Certainly the Syrian regime would agree. Part of the intractability of this war is the fear that the other side will take revenge after a peace agreement. Thoughts on this internal dynamic?
Ah, the “Arabs cannot handle freedom” line goes along with the “Arabs love killing each other” line. Both these positions justify regimes and violence. From the historical record, though, it seems clear to me that at certain points Syrian wanted and asked for freedom.
We can look as early as the King-Crane Commission of 1919, and we can look as recently as the Syrian protest movements for reform three years ago. The Syrian people deserve the opportunity to shape their political world. But democracy can be messy. It is ultimately an experiment in governance that is rooted in autonomy.
If a population demands the right to have a say in their governance, then good governance requires that their voices be heard. The regime did not do that. As for retribution and revenge, that seems pretty inevitable given the sheer scale of loss. The fear is real, and it is justified. But I don’t think the regime is winning any points these days for creating a safe, secure environment. By the terms of the erroneous line, the regime cannot handle freedom and democracy either.
Q: Did the regime create a justification for its position by going after the moderate activists so intently early on? Most have either been killed or kidnapped or else fled the country. We talk about the regime creating an Al-Qaeda presence for its own purpose. Isn’t part of that making the moderate voices go away at any cost?
It’s a good argument, but I don’t know how to evaluate it. What I do know is the regime is very adept at forwarding narratives, and those narratives shape international perceptions and ultimately Syrian realities.
In a region taken by the conspiracy theories, it’s hard to determine when the regime is the master tactician and when the conspiracy looms larger than reality. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the regime is quite skilled. Far more skilled than most international players, at that.
Q: What forces are behind the destruction of Syria in three years that which took decades, if not centuries or arguably millennia, to build?
It’s a great question. I think the regime’s unwillingness to heed calls for reform and its deliberate destruction of the nation bear special responsibility. Whether you think governments have a moral obligation to its citizens or you think that governments are pragmatic players that perpetuate their own control, governments have powers that citizens do not. Accordingly, they have influence in ways that citizens do not.
If the conflict started, it was not because some school children scribbled graffiti on a wall. It’s because the regime could not handle change. Now that does not mean that other players do not play a part. There is destruction and violence on both sides, and individual rebel forces do not always act in the best interests of the Syrian people. If we tally atrocities, we are going to see them across the divide. Nonetheless, the regime bears the responsibility for the political vacuum that allows al-Qaeda groups to take control. It seems as if the regime would rather lose Syria in order to save itself. It’s the reason that the conflict continues and the destruction continues.
Also, as long as a political vacuum exists, I see the potential for jihadi mobilization coming out of Syria. As we learned from Afghanistan, political vacuums create problems in unimaginable ways.
Q: This circles back to what I was saying before, which is if you keep development of certain aspects of the state in a suspended position, with the same faces shifting only within the key leadership jobs, is this type of result – a vastly violent explosion – inevitable?
It may be inevitable, but it does not have to be so violent. Look at South Africa or the USSR. But it will be different, and power will be diminished. No one group can hold on to power forever.
Q: Keeping in mind the hardline, nihilistic position of both sides and looking at the reality of Syria today, not what should happen, what hope is there that this war will end? Is there any opening to stop this?
I don’t see a way out.
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