SAT 3 - 12 - 2022
Date: May 14, 2011
Author: Ziad Majed
Reforming a despotic regime

Mardam-Bey, Ghalioun and Hadidi:
It is impossible to reform a despotic regime and the popular will of change is becoming deeply rooted
Roundtable discussion chaired by Ziad Majed
For five weeks now, protests and popular upheavals in Syria have been calling for freedom and democracy. Over the past couple of weeks, slogans went as far as calling for regime change and protests widened to include most Syrian regions from the coast to the east, center and south of the country. From Day One, the Syrian authorities responded to these movements with tremendous and increasing violence: hundreds were thus killed and thousands were arrested. This violence went along with a media campaign accusing “the outside” of conspiring against Syria and its stability, and justifying the recourse to the security solution as being the only adequate response.


Against a backdrop of this movement and the Syrian people’s extraordinary courage in the face of an extraordinarily barbaric machine, those involved are wondering about the reasons, courses and parties to the current events and their relations to a religiously and ethnically pluralistic country, which is ruled by a regime that believed it could rise as an exception among Arab regimes in the spring of transformations we have been witnessing since January.

The following dialogue attempts to shed a light on the situation in Syria nowadays, and to analyze the ruling regime’s structure and policies. It is a meeting with three of the most prominent Syrian (and Arab) intellectuals exiled in Paris: Historian and publisher Farouk Mardam-Bey, university professor Borhan Ghalioun and literary critic/political analyst Sobhi Hadidi.


ZM: In the days that followed the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, some said that Syria’s specificity is supposed to spare it the popular movement that was expected to spread from one Arab country to another. In this context, a key factor to this specificity was highlighted, namely the adherence of the majority of Syrians to the regime’s foreign policy. What do you think about that? What roles does foreign policy play for the regime? How can its performance be interpreted since the amplification of the popular upheaval against it?
Farouk Mardam-Bey: Those mentioning Syria’s “specificity” aim to focus on the so-called “rejectionist” approach the regime is adopting, one that is contrary to the approaches followed by Tunisia and Egypt. A closer look at their statements reveals how shallow their reasoning is, not to mention that the current structure of the Syrian regime is, upon closer perusal, genuinely specific, albeit in a totally different manner than the one implied with regard to its foreign policy.

For the past 40 years, the Syrian regime has been a tribal one, the clannish mafia-like character of which compares to the Libyan regime today. It is the only republican regime that successfully carried out a hereditary transfer of authority. It was established on a personality cult and on the principle of concentrating power in the hands of the president and a few of his family members, which makes reforms impossible because reforms are synonymous with collapse. This also means that a clash with the regime would be extremely costly because it ferociously defends itself while the narrow security circles within it maintain a coherent front in the confrontation with society.

A closer look at the foreign policy mentioned by the heralds of specificity or exception reveals that contrary to their assertions, the regime seeks to join “the international imperialist system” and is the last one to abide by a rejectionist stance for many reasons. Hence, it is legally and politically placing the country in a war situation without any intention to fight a war … Not once since 1974 has this regime crossed any red lines in the conflict against Israel. It is merely supporting Hezbollah and Hamas to move the frontline away and keeping it ablaze or tense in Lebanon and Palestine, before exploiting it to improve its regional functions.


Many issues can be commented on by reviewing the regime’s stances and how it is benefiting from regional developments. With regard to the Palestinian issue, the regime’s equation was based on a widespread joke, whereby “it adores Palestine, but loathes Palestinians.” [Former Syrian President] Hafez Al-Assad thus deprived land troops of air cover during their intervention to rescue the Palestinians in Jordan in 1970. His troops later invaded Lebanon in 1976, hit the Palestinians and contributed to the fall of the Tall al-Zaatar camp. One only has to remember all episodes of the Lebanese war and the role of the Syrian army in it from Tripoli to the wars of the camps.


With regard to regional issues or equations, the Assad regime benefited from Egypt’s receding role in the late 1970s and 1980s following the Camp David Accord and Cairo’s isolation, and from Saddam Hussein’s war on Iran and the receding Iraqi role. Its regional visibility as a result of these receding roles took the shape of tyranny and bloody repression of its people on the domestic level. When Syria’s economy collapsed and the regime went bankrupt from the mid-1980s onwards, the First Gulf War presented itself as a salvation opportunity. The regime thus took part in the US-led Desert Storm operations, enjoyed financial benefits from the Arab Gulf, was commissioned to take control of Lebanon and exported hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers to Beirut in the 1990s to take advantage of the reconstruction there and reduce unemployment in Syria.

In that sense, Hafez Assad concluded a partnership with the Americans, the Gulf and Iran in return for consolidating the legitimacy of his rule in Syria and his control over Lebanon.

His heir Bashar continued the same policy. Taking advantage of Bush’s war in Iraq, the events in Lebanon and the venality of Lebanese politicians, he expanded corruption and corruptive networks along with the so-called economic overture. The latter amounted, in truth, to distributing bounties among his relatives and aides while the people were, of course, deprived of any means of control or accountability.


Borhan Ghalioun: Allow me to add to Farouk’s statement by saying that the Syrian regime’s specificity is partly due, in truth, to the fact that it is different from other Arab authoritarian regimes insofar as it has stifled any political overture, narrow though it is, in the country. Absolute power is held by the ruling regime. This was the case with Hafez Al-Assad, and is the case today with his son and heir. In Tunisia and Egypt, the dictatorship did not eat up all of the political or civil space. In Egypt, parties and civil society organization were still around and active and newspapers enjoyed relative or conditional freedom. In Tunisia, some syndicates and independent professional groups remained in existence. In contrast, for the past half-century or so, Syria has been devoid of any civil or political organization, and of independent union life. Moreover, there is no political power managing the country in the genuine sense of the word. All there is, especially since the 1980s, are multiple security apparatuses that run everything, appoint people in all positions, move key issues and control all aspects of life. Even when the regime initiated a neoliberal economic overture, it failed to go along with any political overture. Rather, the only change was that some businessmen joined the circle of power, which was composed of security officials and a limited number of individuals – often family members – who were close to the president. In so doing, the regime tightened its grip and squashed any vitality in the country. Its presence became tantamount to domestic occupation of the state and colonization of the society. Hundreds of intellectuals were banned from travelling, 150,000 Syrian nationals were exiled; 17,000 others went missing or became prisoners of opinion, while party committees controlled civil associations and clubs, acting under the impulse of security and intelligence apparatuses. This goes without mentioning a masquerade-like parliament that applauds and hails the president, and cabinets whose members are wholly unknown to citizens.


Furthermore, one can say that compared to most world regimes, the Syrian regime is characterized by the fact that it has no policy in it, but rather a security establishment with no mediators between it and what is supposed to be the civil political establishment. The regime, therefore, is not flexible and cannot negotiate. Even today in light of the protests, crackdown and movements, one cannot fund any Syrian official who could talk or comment on the situation, neither the vice-presidents – Farouk Al-Sharaa and Najah Al-Attar – nor the ministers nor the prime ministers, nor any Syrian official or leader. The president even does not address the people and does not talk about politics. Rather, he addresses the People’s Council, welcomes delegations and merely tackles some services with them. He promises Sheikh Al-Bouthi to establish a religious satellite channel and promises projects to Houran notables, telling a group from Homs that he will remove the governor from office, etc. Yet all of this does not make any allowance to politics and citizenship rights, as he is actually unaware of the meaning of politics or of the existence of an entity called the people. I think the events took him by surprise and because he is not good at dealing with political issues, he did not say anything similar to “I understood you” – like Mubarak or Ben Ali did. It is impossible for him to say “I will neither renew nor extend” [my presidential term], as other presidents have been tempted to say before him, because Syria is, in his eyes, a personal and family property and there is no concept of nation in such a property.


Sobhi Hadidi: Without disagreeing with the previous remarks, I will add to them a few of my own.

Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is an organic extension to the rectification movement led by his late father who based his regime following the 1973 October War on two pillars. The first is represented by security apparatuses that are loyal to him on all levels, knowing that most officers in them belong to the Alawi community. The second is foreign policy as a source of legitimacy and financing for the regime. This included funds from Gulf countries, alliance with and funds from Iran, intervention in Lebanon and extensive corruptive networks there, and cooperation with the United States during the Desert Storm operation to obtain support and consolidate a regional presence, which translates within Syria into a tightened grip over the state and society.

Having taken over power, the regime developed a theory whereby the people are divided into three categories. The first is those who are too preoccupied by earning their daily bread to undertake any kind of political activity. The second is those seeking gains and profits: these can be assimilated, kept busy and bribed, and their loyalty can thus be secured by linking them to a vast network of clientelism. The third is the active intellectuals and opponents whom the regime considers “idiots with principles”: those belong to prisons and for a while, the Mazzeh prison was exclusively dedicated to them.


When the regime started preparing for the succession of power, all security apparatuses and networks were urged to pledge loyalty to Bassel Al-Assad, but his death in a now-famous car accident threw the regime in a vicious circle. Bashar was speedily brought in but he was not ready for power. He had to rely on the military and security establishment in addition to businessmen who joined the power structure in the wake of the economic “overture”. Bashar thus considered it his duty to preserve his “father’s legacy” and secure continuity, hence the Syrian saying that “Hafez Al-Assad is still ruling us from the grave.” The ruling establishment, which was not entirely prepared to pledge allegiance to Bashar, finally relented and he developed a close relationship with its key members, as all of them fed on the bounties of foreign policy under the guise of “rejectionism” and adopted a new theory dividing ordinary Syrians into two categories instead of three. The first was the domesticated/besieged people who either accept the current situation or are serving jail sentences set by military-security tribunals. The second was the silent majority who is afraid that a confrontation with the regime might lead to a wretched Iraq-like scenario or to problems similar to Lebanon’s. Added to foreign policy and the policy of axes, one understands why this regime believed it was immune for a long time and why Bashar emphasized to The Wall Street Journal a few months ago the stability of his regime.


In my opinion, the ruling establishment – from Bashar’s security apparatuses to economic overture networks – was surprised by the Syrian popular upheaval, probably even more so than we were. It was shaken at first because it is not used to facing peaceful popular protests. Likewise, and contrary to its military sibling, the security apparatus, which does not have any real hierarchy, seems lost as to its power reference.  Orders may be issued by lower-ranking officers who are in direct contact with Maher or Bashar Assad. Rami Makhlouf, the president’s cousin on his mother’s side, who is a pillar of the economy and business under the regime and who controls vital sectors, was also taken by surprise. Accounts of the questionings that the early protesters arrested following the Daraa revolt underwent reveal that interrogators went from the usual regime propaganda – Israel and Lebanon’s March 14 forces – to reasons underlying insults against Rami Makhlouf, whom interrogators referred to as “the guarantor of the Syrian lira’s stability.” These accounts bear witness to the importance of the financial factor and to the extent of “fears in this regard.”
In any case, it looks like decision-making in today’s regime is entrusted to a few, namely Bashar, Maher and top officers, all of whom are caught in the security option and have no choice in the first place but to have recourse to violence. They will not yield easily, which explains why confrontation and breaking free from their rule will be extremely costly. In all likelihood, the regime has three defense lines: First, brutal and unlimited violence against protesters; second, instigation of contradictions within the army and limited conflicts within army units to scare the people with the scepter of the military institution’s implosion; and third, driving sectarian tensions to an extreme level and instigating fears of total chaos in the country.


ZM: What about the other part of the equation, i.e. the Syrian society? Are there reasonable fears of sectarian clashes or of a transformation of the Syrian revolt into a kind of sectarian conflict linked to the structures of society and the regime alike? Are Islamists today the backbone of the popular protest movement?


Farouk Mardam-Bey: There is no denying the tension prevailing in a silenced society. Nevertheless, people have steered away from any blatant sectarian slogan in protests and current literature. As for Islamists and their role, the issue is overrated subjected to generalizations, and encompasses extremely different forces and movements under one cloak. It is worth mentioning that the Syrian regime itself encouraged the Islamization of society to the point of fundamentalism. In fact, it decided to beat the Muslim Brotherhood at its own game, i.e. religion. It thus established Koranic schools named after Hafez Assad and decided to overbid some conservatives by adopting a Salafist, non-Jihad Islam.  Bashar Assad’s latest proposal to create an Islamic religious TV channel as a gift to Sheikh Al-Bouthi and clergymen loyal to him is noteworthy as it attests to his support for an obscurantist Islam that is loyal to the regime. This goes without mentioning Jihadist Salafists whom the Syrian Intelligence manipulated and exported into Iraq and Lebanon on several occasions.


Borhan Ghalioun: The Syrian society is pluralistic and diverse, and this should amount to a source of major cultural and social richness if it is managed in such a way as to preserve unity, diversity and tolerance. Yet the fact is today that the ruling regime denies – as we have already said – the existence of the people in the political sense of the word, thus widening civil divisions in Syria, and is now instigating fanaticism. It has undoubtedly succeeded to a great extent since one cannot deny the existence of sectarian tension. Important though this issue is, it is still not the core of the issue. I believe that most Syrians today want citizenship and political modernism, while a minority within each confession is withdrawn and thinks along sectarian bases. The regime is betting on strife and threatening that it will take place and evolve into war and chaos if the popular movement goes on and people break free from tyranny. In so doing, it is denying the existence of any reform prospects and preserving the security apparatuses’ readiness to prevent the formation of a political society and feed civil divisions. The real challenge, therefore, lies in national unity.


As for Islamists, as Farouk said, the regime sponsored and exploited some of their Salafist movements in addition to the action of its Intelligence services with other groups. The Muslim Brotherhood does not exist in Syria as an organization, since the regime eradicated all its cadres and since each avowed member is handed a death sentence according to the infamous article 49. Yet they are certainly present in the country as individuals, and their political rhetoric has, for a while, transformed into a moderate speech about the civil state, one that is close to the Turkish model. Hence, I do not believe that we are confronted to the threat of fundamentalist control as some are trying to picture things.


Sobhi Hadidi: To be honest, one must admit that the Syrian regime has rather successfully convinced the majority of Alawis that their fate depends on that of the regime. Some members of the Alawi middle class along the Syrian coast say today: “We hate the Assad regime, but … if it were to be toppled, we don’t know what would happen to us.” Such statements bear witness to a growing feeling of sectarian loyalty, which the regime is seeking to entrench in order to deepen vertical divisions. Yet at the same time, one must say that the Alawi community is characterized by its diversity and plurality. Alawi opponents to the regime have paid a dear price for their stances; a high number of Alawi members of our party – i.e. the People’s Democratic Party – has been arrested and are being treated with more brutality than all others. This community is also home to broad social disparities with some extremely rich while others live in misery. Forces at the heart of the regime are even divided into divergent clans and interests, whereas others still are opposed to Alawi notables or sheikhs. In other words, the Alawi community is as diverse and divided as any other civil group in Syria and, despite the sectarian phobia, is as likely to implode as others in the event of clashes.


So far, the Syrian people have surprised us with its courage and determination, but also with its awareness and unity. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya where protests and revolts were confined to several major or middle-sized cities, events in Syria are spreading out on a broad geographical scale today, encompassing Homs, Hama, Deir Al Zor, Banias, Jabla, Douma, Daraa and several other regions. Given the Syrian diversity, this means that Syrians of all confessions, age groups and social classes have joined laymen, Islamists and others, including some who have never had any experience in any party or organization.  I don’t think that the Islamist threat is a serious one, not even in the West, where stances are more linked to Israel’s position vis-à-vis the current events and where Israeli reports and newspaper articles assert they prefer Assad to the unknown.


ZM: My final question is: How accurately do these popular anti-regime protests and movements represent the so-called Syrian sociology, whether with regard to the social fabric or to the rural/urban dichotomy? Indeed, observers cannot but notice the weak participation in Damascus and Aleppo compared to rural or peripheral regions. Is this statement correct?
Farouk Mardam-Bey: The situation in Syria is characterized by a remarkable paradox these days, one that is linked to the so-called “rural-urban paradox.” In the past, academic studies and eminent writings on Syria focused on analyzing the regime’s social bases, since a great number of Baath party members and army officers who supported the coups fomented during the 1960s came, for instance, from the rural regions of Hama and Houran. Analyses of regime policies during the 1970s and 1980s tackled its permanent drive to add a rural cachet to cities or surround them with newly sub-urbanized suburbs and regions by encouraging migration towards them. The underlying assumption was that due to its social composition, the Damascus Rif would look like it was besieging the capital, held as a “hostile” city … The fact is today that the main anti-regime movements and protests spring from the aforementioned regions where they find a reservoir of support and an atmosphere favorable to their action. This bears witness to fundamental changes in Syria, which the regime is assimilating by using violence and revenge as its only arguments to deal with the protesters.

As for the extent of this uprising, I believe that the number of protesters is quite high. On « Good Friday » for instance, monster protests were held in several cities and towns, which witnessed a population swell. The scope of these protests on the political map was equally great, as radical slogans were chanted.

I will leave it up to my colleagues to shed a light on the situation in Aleppo and Damascus. However, I would like to emphasize a point some analyses tend to gloss over, namely that these two cities are home to a higher proportion of Christians compared to the rest of the country. The majority of them are currently worried and living in a state of expectation, having been persuaded by the regime that the alternative to it – in the event that it is toppled – would be an extremist Salafist regime and that, in the best of cases, their fate would be similar to that of Iraqi Christians. This argument, among other things, has so far prevented the Christians’ effective participation in the popular uprisings.


Borhan Ghalioun: The Syrian revolution is characterized by its massive geographical spread. Compared to the mass demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia, which were confined to 3 or 4 cities at the most, this illustrated the emergence of a new phenomenon given the scope of local or peripheral participation.

With regard to major cities, Homs was home to massive protests from various neighborhoods. Protesters sought to hold a sit-in the city’s main square so that their movement acquires a dimension similar to the events in Cairo or Sana’a, among others. Yet they were unable to do so as they were killed, shot at and attacked by security forces. Still, this did not put an end to protests in the city. The situation in Damascus and Aleppo is, by comparison, different. To begin with, these two cities are home to a class that is benefiting from the regime and to people who would rather wait as they fear what they refer to as “chaos.” Some inhabitants of these cities have even resigned themselves to submitting to an authority that is omnipresent through its power institutions and symbols.


Furthermore, authorities are establishing an impressive security cord around these two cities every Friday and banning access to them. Security forces put up barricades to block access to the Abbasids’ Square in Damascus, and opened fire more than once on convoys coming out of mosques, killing and arresting dozens of participants. They are willing to do whatever it takes to prevent protesters from reaching the heart of the capital so that their presence does not urge others to joint them.  Therefore, field action is not easy, be it in Damascus or in Aleppo.

In any case, increasing repression merely points to its perpetrators’ increasing fears and did not prevent the protests that took place in many neighborhoods of the two cities and the suburbs close to them, especially in Damascus’ suburbs, which are intertwined with it on the urban level.


Sobhi Hadidi: I will add to the aforementioned by saying that major traders in Aleppo and Damascus dominate the trade hierarchy in Syria. Some of them, especially in Aleppo, have trade relations with Turkey that are worth several billion dollars. Turkey wants appeasement and is urging them to commit to it. Still it is worth reminding that the popular movement in Syria and the early slogans of the anti-regime uprising started in the Harika neighborhood in Damascus’ commercial center, followed by the Omayyad Mosque in downtown Damascus.  Based on Farouk’s words regarding the evolving functions of rural-Bedouin-urban relations, one must emphasize that, weeks before protests even started in Syria, security officers were threatening the few protesters in Damascus who were expressing their solidarity with Arab revolutions or with the families of prisoners of opinion, saying that the “Shawaya” would be sent to teach them good manners. The “Shawaya” are Bedouins from the Jazira region who moved into cities, especially in Deir Al Zor, and took part in military operations supporting the regime against the city of Hama in the early 1980s. When the Syrian uprising started and Deir Al Zor joined it, it turned out that the first martyr among the protesters’ ranks was a member of the “Shawaya” … hence, a new generation in all regions is reshuffling past definitions and frontiers.


Going back to the delicate situation in Damascus and the heavy security presence in the city, some measures are taking surreal proportions sometimes. Thus in addition to erecting barricades and blocking access to the city, security forces initiated control measures at the entrances of mosques, especially the Omayyad Mosque and the squares surrounding it, limiting access to it, searching the faithful, harvesting their cell phones and IDs and returning them to their owners on the way out to make sure people will not take part in protests and will not be able to film any potential slogans inside the mosque or around it.


In my opinion, and I will conclude my statement in the following, we are living in a period following which nothing will ever be the same again, neither in cities, nor in rural areas nor in any social or sectarian category. The showdown today is a showdown of wills and resilience, and the regime’s repression will be terrible. Yet the courage displayed by people on the streets, the accumulation of struggles despite tremendous difficulties and the highly-qualified, new generation of Syrian young men and women – as proven by the Internet, social networks, protests and solidarity actions – will help the Syrian people to continue its struggle to break free from tyranny.


Today’s Syria is, thus, different from the Syria we knew in previous years. While this would be a self-evident saying in free countries where people lead normal lives, this is by no means the case in the “Kingdom of silence.” This is probably best illustrated by this discussion with Farouk Mardam-Bey, Borhan Ghalioun and Sobhi Hadidi, which sheds a light on many aspects that might be of use to all of us. In the meantime, let us hope the next meeting with them will take place in Syria, among their friends and families in a café or a house that will have recovered its true soul and spirit …


(Published in French in the May 2011 edition of L’Orient Littéraire)


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