In hindsight: The current conflict is not a product of tribal or sectarian warfare, but the result of a decades-long battle for democracy.
A demonstration in the city of Banyas, Syria, May 6, 2011. Photo by Syria Frames of Freedom, source Wikipedia.

by Samer Abboud

Since March 2011, when the current Syrian conflict began, Western pundits and the foreign policy establishment have publicly lamented that Syria lacks a democratic, non-violent opposition that could be supported by Western governments. This conviction reduces the conflict to a clash of opposing militant sects or tribes: Alawi v. Sunni, for example, or Salafis v. secularists. These binaries explain very little — and, in fact, they obscure the origins of the conflict and a history of Syrian democratic politics.

Democratic politics were central to Syria’s state formation in the post-colonial period. Following Syria’s independence from France in 1946, Syrian political parties created a pluralistic landscape that represented various social and political interests. Many of these parties sought to organize and mobilize different interests that increasingly clashed with each other and with the state, which was controlled by a narrow ruling elite remnant from the Ottoman period pre-World War I.

Resistance against the ruling elites came from various sectors of Syrian society: the military, peasantry, urban merchants, and workers. These groups seized control of increasingly fragmented state institutions, and the resulting instability helped created the environment for the rise of the Ba’ath party in the 1940s, a pan-Arab political movement that was committed to Arab unification. With instability threatening the state, the Syrian government pleaded with Egypt to form a union. This union was realized in 1958 in the form of the United Arab Republic (UAR).

On the one hand, the creation of the UAR fulfilled Arab nationalist aspirations. On the other hand, the UAR was an abrupt, ill-conceived response to political instability that concentrated political power in Cairo. Under the charismatic Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the UAR governed Syria from Cairo, often without reference or regard for Syrian economic or political interests. One of his first acts as President of the UAR was to disband all Syrian political parties, forcing them underground. He also imposed radical land reform, initiated a comprehensive plan to nationalize Syrian industry, and subordinated state institutions to the Presidency. Most Syrians, including Ba’athists, resented Nasser’s authoritarianism. Nevertheless, when the UAR disbanded in 1961 there was no attempt to reverse any of these measures.

Syrian democratic politics were central to Syria’s state formation post-1946; yet by 1958 Syria’s political parties had been forced underground by President Gamal Abdel Nasser who governed Syria from Egypt.

In 1963, the Ba’ath party took over Syria. While the pre-UAR version of the Ba’ath party was urban and middle-class, the 1960s version of the party was predominantly rural, drew the majority of its members from minority groups, and was moored in the military. It was also ideologically committed to a fusion of Arab nationalism and socialism. This represented a major departure from the ideas of its founders who had largely eschewed socialism. Internal strife within the party, especially after the 1967 defeat in the war with Israel, led Commander of the Syrian Air Force, Hafiz al-Assad, to lead an internal coup that he called a “corrective revolution.”

Hafiz al-Assad initiated a process of state transformation that incorporated the democratic social forces formerly hostile to the ruling elite, such as the peasants and military. The state worked to mobilize the urban lower classes, minorities, workers, and the peasantry. The party also expanded parliamentary participation by including new social groups in parliament and mandating seats for rural representatives.

This was a version of parliamentary democracy, though an imperfect one. For instance, it discouraged pluralism. And in 1973, a new constitution declared the Ba’ath party the leading party in society, effectively suppressing party politics. It suppressed all other political currents and forced liberal, Muslim Brothers, bourgeois, and various leftist parties underground or into exile. In effect Assad continued Nasser’s authoritarianism — it just no longer ruled from Cairo.

Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, December 31, 1986. Source: Wikipedia.

Hafiz al-Assad ruled Syria for thirty years. When he died in 2000, his son, Bashar al-Assad, assumed the Presidency. He inherited an authoritarian state that was economically and politically exhausted. As the state withdrew its fiscal support for its former social bases by eliminating subsidies, reducing state employment, and reforming the tax code, the political power of the peasants, workers, and bureaucrats similarly began to decline. In its place emerged a new system, largely motivated by what Syrian planners called ‘the China model’, which sought to balance social stability and economic growth while maintaining authoritarian rule: perestroika (economic reform) without glasnost (political reform).

A decade of distributive policies that shifted wealth from the lower and middle to upper classes ensued in the 2000s. Most importantly, the hollowing out of the state and the party that began in the 1990s effectively removed any means of expressing social and political discontent. Student groups, labor unions, small trader associations, and agricultural interests had slowly lost their access to the state and its decision-making. If the authoritarian bargain of the 1970s and 1980s was political acquiescence in exchange for welfare and employment, then the new bargain seemed to expect the former without the latter.

When protests broke out in March 2011, there were no political parties from which to mobilize. The absence was not a function of Syria’s political deficiencies but, rather, an outcome of Syrian state formation that had dismantled political parties and rendered groups subservient to the state.

For many Syrians, then, the suppression of political dissent, the absence of political parties (which essentially remained banned by the constitution), the elimination of fiscal supports and imposition of privatization, and the shrinking of access to the state, meant that any avenues for political activity were severely restricted. When protests broke out in March 2011, there were no political parties, no economic associations such as trade unions, and no social or cultural clubs, from which to mobilize protestors. The Syrian uprising had no institutional representation, voice, or expression until after the protests began. The absence of such institutions was not a function of Syria’s political deficiencies but, rather, an outcome of Syrian state formation that had effectively dismantled parties and rendered social groups subservient to the state.

Discussions about the background and trajectory of the Syrian conflict too often disregard this history, and the decades-long suppression of democratic politics in the country. The current crisis is rooted in the suppression of democratic politics rather than one sect of Islam versus another. To understand why Syrians took to the streets to demonstrate and make their voices heard, one must understand how those voices had previously been suppressed for more than half a century.

Samer Abboud’s column for the Lepage Center this spring focuses on histories of security in the Middle East. He is Associate Professor of Historical and Political Studies at Arcadia University.

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