Robin Wright’s Rock the Casbah has little to say about the current conflict in Syria. This is not surprising since most of her research was concluded before the conflict in Syria began, and well before the publication date of the book. I suspect we will hear more on Tuesday. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Syria is nearly a black hole for Western media and the scholarly community. There is a general dearth of public recognized information, sharing an important similarity with both Iraq and Iran. Once again a venerable and distinctive civilization is trivialized in our public discourse.
This last point is of great importance, since it is usually difficult to demonize a country well known to our public. It is relatively easy to demonize a country about which we know little. The campaigns against Iraq and currently Iran demonstrate that point emphatically.
I want to elucidate three factors that the public should be aware of as it attempts to understand the current events in Syria. The first is the very origin of the state, embedded in the politics of the colonial era. Syria (and Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine) were artifacts of colonial interest. The very borders of the states in question were designed to protect the geopolitical interests of Britain and France and not constructed with the intention of creating coherent national communities.
As a result, all of these states are constructed in ways that make national cohesion and identity difficult, if not impossible. Even a brief review of Syrian national politics since its independence reveals dramatic patterns of political instability. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was nearly impossible to catalogue the changes in government, with many governments lasting only a week or so. This structural defect sentenced Syria to decades of instability and conflict.
This instability was terminated with the simultaneous rise of the Syrian Ba’ath Party and the rule of Hafez Al-Assad, a military leader from the Alawite community who ruled with authoritarian technique for over forty years. Syrian national identity was imposed from the top down. A cult of leadership was firmly established. As a result, Al-Assad was periodically challenged by opposition groups (mainly the Muslim Brotherhood) and put revolts down firmly in Hama, Homs, and Aleppo. In 2000, he was succeeded by his son Bashaar , a highly Europeanized ophthalmologist, who now rules in Syria and who conducts the increasingly violent repression of the last year.
The Assad regime(s) reaction to these confrontations is rooted in the very nature of the Alawite community. This community is very much a heterodox branch of Shi’a Islam and only marginally recognized as legitimate by the main Sunni and Shi’a communities in and out of Syria. Small in number, the Alawites constitute around 6% of the Syrian population and are thus very vulnerable to the much larger Shi’a and Sunni communities. They have much at risk in the resistance to their long-standing rule. The stakes of the current conflict are much higher for the Alawite minority and this explains, at least in part, the persistant government efforts to put the opposition movements down.
International actors understand the stakes here as well, and as a consequence Syria currently receives important military and financial aid from Russia, China and Iran, all of whom prefer the current regime to the probable governments that might succeed Alawite rule. Iran, in particular, sees its relationship with Syria as invaluable and key to its geopolitical prospects in the area.
The U.S. and the West European governments are frustrated by their inability to bring relief to the besieged populations. Syria does not present the kind of platform for intervention that was available for Libya. Intervention in Syria is understood to have high potential costs and unknown outcomes. What seemed a clear path to humanitarian intervention in Libya does not present itself in the situation in Syria. As a result, Western diplomatic efforts have been mostly ceremonial and symbolic. This could all change if the U.S. submits to Israeli demands for military action against Iran, in which case all bets are off and the unknown unknowns (to borrow a term from the neoconservative community) become the reality for the region.
Once again, we are confronted with a complex political problem for which we have few immediate solutions. If the recent past is a potent predictor of future policy, we will fairly shortly be up to our resources in Iran and Syria.
We all need to learn a lot more about Syria if we are to avoid the traps and pitfalls that lurk there. Ditto for Iran.