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Joshua Landis: Regime supported by Syrian elites, Assad says his rule prevents civil war

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PAUL JAY: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. As events unfold in Syria, it’s time to have a look at how we got here, a bit of the modern history of Syria. Now joining us to give his insight to the Real News audience is Joshua Landis. He’s director of the Center for Middle East studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He writes, a daily blog on Syrian politics, and his upcoming book is called Syria’s Democratic Experiment. And he joins us from Oklahoma. Thanks for joining us again, Joshua.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It’s always a pleasure. Thank you.

JAY: The title of your upcoming book, Syria’s Democratic Experiment, first of all, what is the experiment? And then talk a little about how we got there.

LANDIS: Well, the book really deals with a period at the time of independence–1946, ’45, ‘6–in Syria, when the French left and Syrian Parliament was active. There was a president that was elected, and there were a series of three elections in Syria during the ’40s and ’50s when there was a change of government. And Syria–we can get a window into Syrian nation and into Syrian society through looking at this period, because most of the serious parties emerged during this time. They had a very active parliamentary life. And we can see the forces at work in Syria. And in many ways the thesis of my book is that Syria was not a nation. None of the political parties accepted Syria’s borders as had been laid down by the French and British after the First World War. And Syrians wanted unity. Some wanted Arab unity from Morocco to the Gulf. Others wanted Syrian unity and Syrian nationalism, which is Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine. So there were many different arrangements that people were proposing other than the one that Syria had.

JAY: So talk just a little bit more pre-World War I, and then after World War I. I mean, Damascus is one of the most ancient human cultures, cities on earth. What was there before these artificial [inaudible]

LANDIS: Well, the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the Middle East from 1517 right up to, you know, 1918, when it was defeated by the British in the First World War, had provided a unity. And Syria was the center of the Arab world in this big Arab part of a Ottoman Empire. And it was a multiethnic society, multireligious. And it had–you know, there was a degree of liberalism within a multiethnic, dynastic, Islamic empire. Now, that crumbled at the end of the First World War, and the British carved out Syria, they carved out Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, as we know. Syria felt that that world, that surrounding world, should all be one. And Syrians were irredentist. They felt they had lost much of their hinterland. Merchants were upset. Everybody was upset in one way or another. And this undermined the ability for democracy. It meant there was no unified plan on how the nation should step forward. And each region of Syria was quite different from the other. And what I do in my book, to a certain extent, is look at the national identity of different regions in Syria, what they thought of as the nation and what the nation should be. And there were big differences between sectarian groups, religious groups. There were compact minorities in Syria–the Alawites on the coastal region, up in the mountains, who are a Shiite offshoot, the Druze in the south. Damascus and Aleppo were major competitors–both Sunni cities, but they had always competed over primacy in Syria. So there was a deep lack of unity, whether on the supernational scale, whether on the smaller regional, urban scale.

JAY: When is oil discovered in Syria, and how significant is that to its development?

LANDIS: It’s not very significant. Syria’s never had lots of oil. They’ve had enough oil to help defray some of the government receipts, but it hasn’t been a driver. Agriculture has been very important. Minor industry, food processing, textile–cotton industry is important. These things have been the backbone of the economy, plus trade. Syria is centrally located. It’s in a natural entrepot. Pipelines run across from Iraq to the Mediterranean, north-south, roads, transit trade. That has been the backbone of Syrian economy is merchant life. Major Sunni families in the cities are merchant. Let me explain to you how the background for this sectarian problems in Syria–and [inaudible] sectarian problems are at the bedrock of our impasse, democratic impasse today. And the French took over Syria in 1920. They won it as a League of Nations mandate, which was a colony, for all intents and purposes. In order to rule Syria, they divided and conquered. The Sunni elite families who had ruled under the Ottomans expected to rule Syria, and they were nationalistic, and they wanted independence, and they wanted the French out. In order to keep them down on a farm and suppress them, the French built a local army. And in that army they drafted minorities of all kinds–Alawites in particular, Druze, Armenians, Christians, people from the rural districts. They used class. Lots of people from Daraa, where you see today came from the uprisings today, joined into this army, poor Sunnis from the countryside. When the French left in ’46, they left this sort of ex-Ottoman elite, the Arab Sunni families in power in Parliament. But they inherited an army that didn’t like them and which the Sunni elite distrusted. Shukri al-Quwatli, the president, called them a disloyal army. And this was the problem, because when push came to shove, the army took over. When the army took over in a series of coups, we saw a sorting out within the army. We’re talking–the first coup was in 1949, when Husni Za’im, the chief of staff, took over. But there were coups right up to 1963, when the Ba’ath Party took over, and is the major Ba’ath coup. But then Hafez al-Assad within the Ba’ath Party took over in 1970, and his family has ruled the country ever since. And the way he’s ruled it is by using these traditional loyalties. His family members have surrounded him. The head of the Republican Guard that defends the presidency is led by the brother of the president. And under Hafez al-Assad, it was led by Rifaat al-Assad, his brother. Under Bashar, it’s been led by Maher, his brother. Head of secret police have often been a member of the family. Then you go to the village and the Alawite tribes, then you go to the sect, the Alawite religion, and the people from the Alawite sect, which are about 12 percent of the nation. But of course the Alawites cannot rule alone. They have to rule through the party, which is a conglomeration of these minorities plus rural Sunnis, and they have to rule through an alliance with the Sunni merchant elite, which have been very faithful to this presidency and government. And that’s the coalition that runs Syria. In many ways, the opposition would like to kick out, in a sense, the Alawites and put in Sunnis to rule. That’s what democracy means for Syria.

JAY: But there’s a class component to this, too. It’s not simply ethnic. It sounds like the poor and working class.

LANDIS: Now, you know, in many ways this is what we’re seeing in Syria today is a change, because Bashar al-Assad is not like his father. He was born in Damascus–well, he was raised in Damascus, let me say. He went to school in Damascus. He grew up in wealth and privilege. And he has much more in common, in many ways, with the Sunni merchant class than he does with the poor Alawites of the coastal mountains that brought his father to power. Now, his wife is a wealthy Sunni woman who was a investment banker, brought up in London, has a plummy British accent. She’s very attractive. She’s been pushing a lot of reforms. So the merchant elites of the Sunni cities like Bashar. He protects them. He has made a lot of sweetheart deals with them. He’s brought them to the forefront and given them privilege. They would have to jump out into the unknown and embrace a revolutionary movement that has no leadership, that has no hero, that is faceless Facebook crowd, or which has people out in Daraa, this dusty, poor, largely tribal, rural area. They’re not going to do that. They want business. In the last two weeks, we’ve seen every contract being cancelled, all tourism collapsing. Foreign investment is collapsing. This is terrifying.

JAY: And do you get any sense where the urban working class is in all of this?

LANDIS: Well, they have been the people who–you know, the urban working class in many ways has been subject to the national rhetoric of Bashar al-Assad. There is a lot of criticism. There are a lot of poor in the cities. There are people who want change. But they’re frightened of civil war. The army, the military, the security systems, the intelligence systems are run by Alawite officers who are close to the president. They’re not going to do what Egypt did, which is to turn their back on the president and abandon him.

JAY: Now, is the threat of civil war real? To what extent is it a card to keep poor and working class down with the threat of civil war versus something, you know, the actual threat to them is the poor and working class, not the civil war, if you’re talking the elites?

LANDIS: You know, that’s the million dollar question. The opposition says there is no threat. This is–this sectarian card is something that is manufactured by the regime in order to scare the people and to present this false choice of c’est moi ou le deluge, it’s me or the floods, it’s me or civil war. Now, they can say that. That’s what the opposition said about Iraq when they marched in with George Bush and they overthrew Saddam Hussein. But what did we see in Iraq? We saw that the Sunnis were cast down from being the top of society, the top 20 percent, to being the very bottom of society. And today, Anbar province and the Sunni districts are the poorest and more forsaken parts of Iraq. The Kurdish regions in the north, Shiite regions around Basra are going to be much better off than the Sunnis in the middle.

JAY: But a lot of people suggest–a lot of Iraqis say that had more to do with US policy than an internal dynamic.

LANDIS: Well, if they hadn’t had America, they would have Saddam Hussein today. Now, that’s the problem is that these–the choice in Syria is a very stark choice. It’s between the Ba’athist regime as it stands today or civil war. The opposition is saying, no, we can have democracy. The real choice is between Bashar al-Assad and democracy. Now, you have to decide who you believe. If you believe that the demonstrations can unseat Bashar, cause the military to forsake him and do what Egypt did, then you will support and you will go out on a demonstration and you will risk being shot. But if you believe that the army is going to stick with Bashar, that the Sunni elites are going to stick with Bashar, you’re going to go out in those demonstrations and you’re going to find yourself shot or arrested. And every Syrian has to ask themselves what’s the truth. Is it the regime against civil war? Or can they overthrow them through demonstrations? That’s where we stand in Syria today. And Bashar al-Assad believes that he has won, that the demonstrations that came out in his favor of millions of people have made a very clear and stark example to the demonstrators.

JAY: One final question. To what extent are there unions? And to what extent are there demands for more independent unions as part of this struggle? In Egypt that was one of the central themes.

LANDIS: Yes. Well, there are unions. There is an agricultural union, a peasants union, workers unions that are run by the Ba’ath Party and that are part of the single-party state. And by and large they cling to the Ba’ath Party, because the reformers, the economic reformers within the state–Abdullah Dardari and others–want to withdraw all subsidies. That means subsidies for fuel, which is highly subsidized in Syria, all your heating oil, your gasoline for your taxis, and so forth. Subsidies for food–wheat, oil, rice. The basic commodities are highly subsidized by the state. The poor, the working class, are still dependent on those subsidies. They’re dependent on a social sector, on jobs that come through state factories that are often inefficient and should be sold and shut down if you’re going to follow, you know, the magic hand and capitalism. So there is a big working class that is dependent on the state, and they cling to the Ba’ath Party. So the working class is not–it’s divided in the same way that other people are divided: pro-Bashar, pro-Ba’ath Party; anti-Ba’ath Party.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Joshua.

LANDIS: It’s always a pleasure.

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

End of Transcript

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Joshua Landis is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and
Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma. He writes "," a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 50,000 readers a month. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis consults frequently in
Washington and Europe; he has spoken recently at the Brookings Institute,
USIP, Middle East Institute, and Council on Foreign Relations.

His recent articles have covered the Syrian stock market, economic reform,
Islamic education, opposition movements, the Peace Process, and his
book, "Syria's Democratic Experiment" is forthcoming from Palgrave-