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Hamid Dabashi traces the rise of the Assad regime

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

As the Syrian conflict grows more serious, perhaps we should have a look at the roots of this issue, at some of the modern history of Syria. Now joining us to talk about this is Hamid Dabashi. Hamid is a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. His new book is The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism. Thanks for joining us again, Hamid.


JAY: So take us back to the beginnings of the Assad regime, and let’s go from there.

DABASHI: Well, as you know, most of these modern nation states, Paul, in the region are the breakdown or remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Empire begins to fall into pieces early in the 20th century, say, after the Crimean War, and most of these states were provinces of the Ottoman Empire. And the increasing power of European colonial powers—particularly, in this region, the French—is where the modern nation states such as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, etc., begin to emerge. For example, if you start with, say, a major uprising in 1918 against the Ottoman Empire, soon after that, as early as 1920, the French have complete control of the region, and revolts that began against the Ottoman Empire soon metamorphosed into revolts against the French domination.

So this is a period that you have the formation of three kinds of ideological modes of resistance to European colonialism. One is the rise of Arab socialism, one is Arab anticolonial nationalism, and the other is Islamism. These three ideological formations that emerge from confrontation of these states vis-à-vis European colonialism continues well into the middle of the 20th century.

Now, what happened in late 1940s is the formation of the Ba’ath party as a socialist party. A man named Michel Aflaq was instrumental in the formation of the Ba’ath Party. The Ba’ath party is a combination of Arab socialism heavily influenced by, of course, the Russian Revolution and Arab nationalism. The figure of Michel Aflaq and Gamal Abdel Nasser are key figures in this period, late 1940s and after that.

Then what happened as soon—during the Nasser period, in 1958, late 1950s, early ’60s, you had the formation of United Arab Republic, which was combination of Syria and Egypt. That marriage didn’t work out, only for two years. There was a military coup after that. And soon you had the rise of Syrian nationalism that ultimately in 1966 Hafez al-Assad came to power. And the rule of the Assad dynasty continued well into the year 2000, when his son Bashar al-Assad took power.

Now, the key factor in between 1966 and 2000 is obviously the Arab-Israeli wars that consolidated the position of Syria in the context of the Cold War, with Soviet Union and United States having their respective client states in the region. Countries like Syria or Egypt were clients states of Soviet Union, and countries like Israel or Shah’s Iran were clients of United States.

Now, in 1980—what is important about the context of the current uprisings is that early in the 1980s there was massive uprisings in Syria, particularly in Homs and Hama, that Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, brutally, brutally suppressed. Tens of thousands of people were killed. And what—and that uprising, by the way, in 1980 was inspired by the revolution in Iran, paradoxically. But then what polluted it or diluted it was the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which then—. Hafez al-Assad’s attention was drawn to Lebanon, and from early 1980 forward, Syria had a very heavy-handed presence inside Lebanon and part of—integral to the geopolitics of the region.

So throughout 1980s and 1990s, before the collapse of Soviet Union, Syria was located somewhere, and after it also lost the Golan Heights to Israel, was located in a geopolitics that was sided with Soviet Union, repeatedly defeated by Israel, sort of a status quo that with the loss of Golan Heights, domestically brutal and abusive, yet with a heavy-handed presence in Lebanon that in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of 1982 resulted in the formation of substate and nonstate agents like Hezbollah that was fed both by the Islamic Republic and Syria, which became part of a geopolitics of the region with Islamic Republic, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas as a nexus of cooperation and alliance against United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

JAY: Why does the Assad regime, and more generally the Syrian elite, why do they want to adopt this role? After the fall of the Soviet Union, they lose their superpower partner. Why don’t they more readily assimilate into the kind of—like, GCC, Gulf Cooperation Council countries or the West become more? I mean, even Gaddafi kind of in fact—what is it?—in 2003 essentially joined the neoliberal train. Why didn’t the Syrians more wholeheartedly do the same?

DABASHI: I mean, it is a very important but difficult question. The reason is that every country before the rise of the Arab Spring, including Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the Gulf states, etc., is part of a jigsaw puzzle that coagulates around the central trauma of Palestine. And countries like Syria or the Islamic Republic, what have you, they use and abuse the Palestinian question for their own benefits and reasons. And as result—and all of these Arab Spring uprisings, unless and until the Palestinian question is addressed in a proper and just manner, is really doesn’t mean anything.

So they did not go that direction, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, because they were integral to a jigsaw puzzle that had assigned the Assad regime the role to play, which was for the—a polity—what I call the politics of despair. Nobody was doing anything; nothing was happening; regimes were domestically very abusive and repressive. But part of the geopolitics of the region, that they played game with United States, with Israel, when it—. For example, remember that just before the death of Hafez al-Assad in the year 2000, Syrians and Israelis had started negotiation about the Golan Heights right here in United States. So they were playing politics like everybody else, because the domestic issue, the matter of legitimacy of the states and the civil liberties of their own citizens, was not a factor.

JAY: Now, there’s been a lot of discussion about sectarian issues in Syria, and the, you know, minority Alawites, Assad has their support. The majority Sunnis and—are—we are told they’re the majority in the rebellion are Sunni, but not everyone. There’s apparently Alawites who are opposed to Assad and Sunnis who support him. It’s not straight sectarian or ethnic divisions here. And then, of course, Iran’s always in the picture here. So how does this sectarian issue, the Sunni-Shia thing, break down, and how big a factor is it? Or is it exaggerated in the way the West sometimes talks about it?

DABASHI: In my opinion, it is there, but it is exaggerated. Yes, there is an Alawite Shia minority. Yes, there is a Christian minority in Syria. But it doesn’t mean that what you’re witnessing happening over the last eight months is a Sunni majority as Sunnis rebelling against the Shia minority, despite the fact that, yes, there has been, occasionally, in certain parts of Syria, sectarian violence of Sunnis against Shias or vice versa.

But, again, if you take a distance from these uprisings, the same is compared to, say, with Bahrain. Bahrain you have a Sunni minority ruling over a Shia majority, but it doesn’t mean that the Bahrainis are revolting for their civil liberties against a corrupt client of United States, that they want to pray in a particular Shia manner rather than a Sunni manner. No. The fact of the matter is, after 200 years anticolonial, anti-imperial struggles, you have nationalist, socialist elements within these uprisings. You cannot reduce them to sectarian aspects. Yes, there are sectarian aspects, as there are sectarian aspects to Ireland, United States; there are sectarian elements every part of the world. But they’re only agitated. As the British, for example, agitated Hindu-Muslim hostility in India under colonial pressure, that then they come to the fore and people begin to act in sectarian [incompr.] manners.

But if you reduce everything to sectarian issues, that for example the geopolitics of the region is now a confrontation between the Shia Iran and the Sunni Saudi Arabia, you’re losing a big, big part of the phenomenon. These are massive [incompr.] revolutionary uprising by Arabs, in terms of their civil liberties and civil rights, want to establish democracies, parliamentary rule of law, as you are seeing evidence of it in Syria, in Egypt. And the fact that in Egypt, for example, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has come to the power does not concern me at all. It means that the process of democratization has to go through its stages. We will do ourselves a great service analytically, theoretically, if we reduce these revolutionary uprising to sectarian identities. This does not mean that sectarian identities do not exist, but they are not a paramount factor.

JAY: Right. Thanks very much for joining us, Hamid.

DABASHI: Anytime. My pleasure.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He received a dual Ph.D. in Sociology of Culture and Islamic Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1984, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. He wrote his dissertation on Max Weber's theory of charismatic authority with Philip Rieff (1922-2006), the most distinguished Freudian cultural critic of his time. Professor Dabashi has taught and delivered lectures in many North American, European, Arab, and Iranian universities.
Professor Dabashi has written twenty-five books, edited four, and contributed chapters to many more. He is also the author of over 100 essays, articles and book reviews on subjects ranging from Iranian Studies, medieval and modern Islam, and comparative literature to world cinema and the philosophy of art (trans-aesthetics). His books and articles have been translated into numerous languages, including Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Danish, Russian, Hebrew, Italian, Arabic, Korean, Persian, Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, Urdu and Catalan.