“I have been making predictions about the Middle East for 40 years,” political science professor Ian Lustick was saying, “and one of the ones I’m proudest of is an article that I wrote with David Laitin in 1973—our first really professional article—in which I said that even though the Syrian regime has been turning over every few years for decades, this time it’s not going to.”
Lustick was referring, of course, to the rise of Hafez al-Assad to power in that young nation, which had been buffeted by two decades of near-constant regime change and geopolitical interference. The next 40 years bore out that scholarly hunch. Hafez al-Assad held the presidency until his death in 2000, whereupon his son Bashar al-Assad took the reins.
But the future is rather less certain. In a panel discussion co-hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences and Pi Sigma Alpha Political Science Honor Society on September 18—three days after the dramatic and unexpected agreement between Russia and the United States to seize and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons—Lustick took stock of Syria’s recent history, the possible upsides of US/Russia cooperation there, and hazarded some new predictions for what lies ahead.
Among the panelists was fellow political science professor Rudra Sil, who reflected on his own childhood experience of Syria, the prospects for religious or secular governance should the Assad regime fall, and why it might be time for Western nations to get “a little more relaxed” about postcolonial states that depart from the “liberal framework of secular citizenship.” Here are some of the highlights of their observations.
Ian Lustick: Syria is a country where the attachment to the specific area of Syria has been relatively weak, always. Instead, Syrians have prided themselves on being the beating heart of Arabism. Those of you who are familiar with the history of World War I, or the movie Lawrence of Arabia, know the story of the Hashemite Prince Faisal who came out of Arabia and entered Damascus to found a large Arab state with British and American help, only to be ejected by the French—because the British had promised the French Syria as well as having promised the Arabs Syria. So Syrians were very much in the forefront of an all-embracing Arab state. And they didn’t get it.
And because it was known that, from an ideological point of view, whoever controlled Damascus and this prestigious area in the Arab East would have a claim to leadership in the Arab world, Syria was penetrated constantly in the 1950s and 1960s by contending blocks within the Arab world. You had an Arab Cold War, as Malcolm Kerr called it, that was sustained through the ’50s and ’60s and even beyond. On the one hand, the Hashemite block—the kings of Jordan and Iraq … with American and British support and some support from Turkey—were constantly putting pressure on Syria, linking up with friendly army officers, trying to overthrow the regime—if that regime was one of the regimes supported by the Egyptians and the Saudis, who were also doing the same thing …
Then things changed. The Assad regime had learned all the lessons from the previous regimes about how to run Syria … And what did they learn? Not very nice things. They learned that you have to use really cruel repression against the Muslims, but you have to also adopt a kind of Islamic facade to an extent. You have to rely mainly on the minorities, who’ve been endowed with special power in Syria, including the Alawites—because they’re the only ones the French allowed to be in the military, so as to make the majority of Syrians, who are Sunni Muslims, disempowered, and make the regime reliant on the French. So we’re still living with that.
They also learned to be hostile but pragmatic when it came to Israel. To have a very strong secret-police force, which is normal in the Middle East. And all of those things worked. But things have changed. Things have changed throughout the Middle East, as the buildup, demographically and in terms of social media, [has brought the] Middle East [into an era] of mass participation, which almost none of the regimes were fully prepared for.
So what we’re seeing now—with the Saudis arming some dissidents, and the Iraqis arming some dissidents, and Kuwaitis and the Americans now, and the Iranians on the regime side, and Hezbollah coming in from Lebanon, and the Turks involved, and the Jordanians being a face for American intervention—what are we seeing? We’re seeing a return to normality. We’re returning to what Syria was in the ’50s and ’60s before the Assad regime figured out how to control Syria. But we’re in the new world, and that formula is not working anymore …
Rudra Sil: I spent my fifth grade in Damascus. My dad was an engineer. He was working there. My memories of that are very vivid, and very warm, and very fuzzy. My memories are of going on play dates with the son of the Yugoslav ambassador to Syria, and having a good time with him. My memories are of going to school and starting to learn French there, at roughly the same time that Bashar al-Assad was beginning to learn French at his French school a few blocks away. All we talked about was Hafez al-Assad, and the steel bunker on the hill where his opponents are probably being kept. …
My sense of a happy childhood included being in the American School in Damascus—now called the Damascus Community School—set up by John Foster Dulles back in 1957, and having a really good time … until a car bomb blew up next to the school. Luckily it was a weekend, and we weren’t at school, but we lived three blocks away, and all the apartment windows shattered, and we ran out to see. And I saw a car reduced to small black bits. That was theoretically an attack on the Defense Ministry of Syria, which was right next to the school. Americans should learn not to have their schools next to the regime’s defense ministries.
But I also remember that Iraq was playing France in soccer. Iraq and Syria were having difficulties at the time over river rights. And what were the Syrians saying? The Syrians were saying, Support Iraq! This is about the French being the bad guys. About having some sort of solidarity with the Middle East. So there was a weird kind of duality, where you’ve got internal sectarian divisions and violence going on, and the Alawites are a minority, but at the same time you’ve got this sense of living in a wider world and looking at that wider world. And Bashar al-Assad was certainly doing all that, because he wasn’t being groomed to be a leader; he was being groomed to be a doctor. He went to England, he was looking at France. His vision of taking over leadership was to stay far away from it, until his older brother died. Then he was pulled back in, given a crash course in dictatorship, introduced to the army, and suddenly he was dictator. And his main vision was, Can we make a Switzerland out of Syria? Obviously not.
Lustick: I think a lot of the intensity of the fighting, and the reason for the chemical attacks, is because the regime knows it’s not going to control all of what was Syria, so it’s putting all its eggs in the basket that links Damascus north of Lebanon to the Latakia area, so he’s trying to ethnically cleanse that area …
I don’t think there’s going to be a united Syria coming out of this. There’s going to be a breakup of the country into trusteeship areas of some sort. And I’m hopeful that it will happen as a result of the unintended consequences of … Obama drawing that red line, which then was not enforced not because he didn’t want to—he made it very clear to the world that he wanted to, and that was enough to get the Russians not so much scared but to see an opportunity to make something out of the situation for them, to change the incentive structure for Putin in a way that dramatically opened the possibilities for an agreement on the control and destruction of Syrian weapons … if you’re really going to go in, say within six months, and control the weapons, you’ve got to do a lot of things to make things safe for the people who go in and do that. And that’s going to entail a ceasefire in a large part of the country, and it’s going to entangle the regime in a lot more negotiations and practical arrangements on the ground that should reduce the amount of killing and violence.
Sil: One of the memories I have of Syria was, in fact, of a lot of women going around Damascus without wearing veils and so on. Damascus has gone through a lot of change under the Alawites. The Alawites are in fact perhaps among the more secular minorities in Syria. And even those who are not Alawites have been shaped a little bit by the tolerant view of where women should be in the public. So I think in some sense, even though the anti-Alawite movement might have a unified Islamist theme to motivate it and organize itself, I agree with Professor Lustick that that movement is going to have a lot of different stripes—some more Islamist, but a lot, not—much more interested in just getting on with life and making the quality of life better. So I think that even if Assad falls and trusteeships are established, I think a good number of them will be a very moderate type of Islamist regime that will not necessarily be rushing to replicate Iran or the Taliban …
I think there’s also a broader argument to be made that the Western nations, since the Treaty of Westphalia, have sort of taken for granted this notion of a liberal, secular state, with internal ethnic groupings thought of as irrelevant or inconsequential, modern citizenship as about moving beyond those kinds of primordial attachments. Our visions of nation states have always been shaped by those expectations of a system of international states. And a lot of postcolonial states are not at all going down those same paths. They didn’t have the long history of warfare and population movement that Europe had.
So I think a broader strategic shift is in order, and not just in the Middle East. I can even imagine Afghanistan with a sort of Pashtun-based southern Afghanistan and a much more evenly divided confederacy in the north. So these kinds of arrangements I think we might want to get a little more relaxed about so that we can in fact avoid bloodbaths of 100,000 people taken out overnight, just like that. So I think that’s our responsibility as old-fashioned Western nation states to recognize that we were lucky, and went through this long, complicated history already, and now these countries are trying to figure out ways to organize the link between populations and states. —T.P.