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THE SANDS OF TIME: THE SYRIAN CONUNDRUM (PART 1) Brief ancient history To put into proper context the current state of affairs in Syria we need to revisit the past. In all possibilities the history of Syria is intrinsically related to human civilisation and more so to the enchanting and colourful history of the Middle East and the Maghreb. Syria has been home to some of mankind's earliest settlements, villages and, towns, cities and rulers of the ancient world. Its monuments and relics can still be seen today in various parts of the country and remains one of few places on earth to be mentioned by all major ancient world religions which dominated the area around the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Its various ancient cities and town traces their histories to ancient times that pre-dates most western settlements. Syria’s capital Damascus can claim to be the only city to have been continuously inhabited in human history and has served as a strategic crossing point connecting Asia, Africa and Europe. Syria has been the site of numerous invasions, occupations, conquests and rule by the Ebla and Mari (Bronze Age 3000 - 2000BC), the Hittites and the Arameans (1200 - 539BC), the Persians (539 – 333BC), Alexander of Macedonia and the Hellenistic Empire (333 – 64BC), The Romans and Zenobia (64BC - 395AD), The Byzantine Empire (395 - 632AD), The Rashedeen Caliphate (632 - 661AD), the Abbasids (750 - 1199AD), The Mamelukes (1250 - 1516AD), the Ottoman Empire (1516-1918AD) and most recently the French. The colonial rule of the French came after the First World War when the League of Nations decided in 1922 to split the dominion of the former Syria between two countries. The United Kingdom received Transjordan and Palestine, and France received what was to become modern-day Syria and Lebanon. Thus effectively from 1922 to 1945, modern day Syria was under the French colonial mandate until her independence in 1946. Scholars and researcher agree that the events of 1948 that culminated in the foundation of modern day Israel changed the role of post independent Syria. Syria has complex ethnic divisions and majority of Syrians are of Semitic (presumed to be descendants of biblical Shem and whose language is part of the subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic language that includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Amharic). By approximate divisions Syria's population is 90% Muslim (74% Sunni, and 16% other Muslim groups, including the Alawi, Shi'a, and Druze), 10% are Christians and there also is a tiny Syrian Jewish community. The political history From the her foundation, Syria has always been in the middle of a political, religious and historical conflict between Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, the West and the Islamic World. Her colourful past, political posturing and geographical location has made Syria a fundamental part of what makes up the modern Middle East and to a greater extent a major player in the politics of the Maghreb. Post independent Syria has history of experimenting with military regimes of various degrees of brutality and suppression. Syria’s love affair with totalitarianism began in the late 40s and culminated in the most brutal seizure of power by colonel Adib Shishakli's in 1951. Adib Shishakli had good

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relations with the west though he resented the idea of the existence of the state of Israel. Like other military dictators of his era Shishakli was a typical tyrant with a very uncompromising attitude towards the opposition and the media. However, in February 1954, President Shishakli was himself overthrown by elements that comprised of Arab nationalist, communist and socialist allegedly supported by Iraq. It is reasonable to suggest that there are many factors that lie behind a desire for a unified Arab state today but in the 60s it was a strong sense of comradeship, common religious faith, shared culture and uncompromising attitude towards the state of Israel and imperialism that made Syria, Egypt and Iraq attempt a unification. For example, the parallelism of Syrian and Egyptian policies and the appeal of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's leadership in the wake of the 1956 Suez crisis resulted in Syria and Egypt merging into the United Arab Republic in 1958. However, this union meant to establish the new Arab union as a major powerhouse only lasted less than 3 years. In 1963 Syria saw the emergence of the leftist National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC) in principle under the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party or Ba'ath Party. The Ba’ath Party and other political parties who share similar political ideologies by 1960 had already taken power in neighbouring countries such as Iraq and other parts of the Maghreb. With the new found comradeship and parallelism in policies and system of rule the Syrian Ba’ath explored the possibility of federation with Egypt and Ba'athcontrolled Iraq (for the three countries to merge). However, this too failed because of serious disagreements among the parties in reference to distribution of wealth, leadership, autonomy, etc. This did not deter the Syrian Ba’ath party from having another go through a bilateral unity with Iraq which was closer in political ideology than for instance Egypt. However, these plans foundered in 1963 when the Ba'ath regime in Iraq was overthrown during what came to be known as the ‘Ramadan Revolution’ led by general Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr and Colonel Abdul Salam Arif who eventually appointed themselves Prime Minister and President of Iraq respectively. In 1966, president Hafiz of Syria was overthrown by the military backed by the new Ba'ath Party. However, the new regimes of Syria and Egypt were weaker due to internal political divisions and mistrust, lack of strategic direction coupled by eroded morale within the security and military wings. Syria and Egypt had sought to use their combined military force to attack the state of Israel but in 1967 Israel decided to launch its own pre-emptive and decisive strike that only lasted for six days which in essence was the third Israel-Arab conflict. Syria further suffered another defeat at the hands of Israel in the 70s when Syrian forces sent to aid the PLO against Jordan were decimated resulting in a crushing and humiliating blow to the confidence of the Syrian military and the nation. In November 1970, Salah Jadid the Syrian de facto head of state attempted to fire his then Minister of Defence General Hafez al-Assad and his right hand man General Mustafa Tlass. However, Al Assad launched a counter pre-emptive action in form of an intra-party coup dubbed the ‘Corrective Action or Corrective Movement’. Jadid and his supporters were rounded up and brutally tortured and those who survived were sent to maximum security prisons throughout Syria and Lebanon. Jadid himself

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remained a prisoner the rest of his life until his death in 1993. The corrective action firmly established Hafez Al-Assad as the alpha leader and the sole political overlord of the Syrian politics for decades to come. The Al-Assad regime: The Father (1970s-2000) The Ba’ath party is a traditional power base in Syria and has been in power in many forms since 1947. The Ba’ath party in Syrian was founded by two Arab intellectuals Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar. The 1940s was a period of independence for many countries throughout the world and thus it was natural for the founders to choose a term that reflected national rebirth or renaissance, and the motto at the time of its founding was Unity, Liberty and Socialism which refers to Arab unity, and freedom from non-Arab control and interference opposed to Western imperialism. Al-Assad was born on October 6, 1930 into a poor Alawite family in Lattakia. He was the first member of the Assad family to attain secondary school education and he joined the Ba’ath at the age of 16. He graduated from the Syrian Military Academy 1955 as an Air force Pilot and advanced through the army ranks to become a general but what he really wanted to be was a medical doctor. Three years after the ‘corrective action’ Al-Assad decided to join Egypt in a surprise attack on Israel which again ended a humiliating defeat for Egypt and Syria. However, in a twist of fate and political manoeuvring Al-Assad 20 years later participated in peace negotiations with Israel in an effort to regain the Golan Heights, taken by Israel during the six-day war of 1967. Hafez considered Lebanon very important to Syria and thus a large portion of his political life revolved around dealing with the issues to do with the state of Lebanon. Like many Syrians he did not consent to Lebanon being an independent and sovereign state for the simple reason being that the history of Lebanon is inextricably linked to the long history of Syria and at some historical point the two states were one. However, initially Syria regimes did not overtly dictate or appear to influence the political and social direction of Lebanon until the beginning of civil unrest in the country in 1975. There is no consensus on what triggered the civil war itself but it is reasonable to suggest that outside intervention by Syria and militarisation of the Palestinian refugee population especially those in the border close to Syria provided fire to the already volatile political landscape in Lebanon. Initially, Syria intervened after Lebanese Druze warlord Kemal Jumblatt launched a vicious and unprovoked attack against members of Hezb al-Kata’eb al-Loubnaniyya or Phalange party supported mainly by Maronite Christians. Al-Assad defied his Arab brethren by supporting the Christians and sent forces to enforce a cease-fire. However, Al-Assad quickly came under fire from his Arab comrades and countrymen and by 1978, Syria had switched sides and was now supporting a leftist coalition of Palestinians, Druze and Muslims against the Christians. This popular and tactical switch bought Al-Assad popularity and allowed Syria to eventually occupy two-thirds of Lebanon.

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The occupation kept the majority of Syrian supporters in check and brought some semblance of peace to majority Muslim population but on the expense of the minority Lebanese Christian population. The deployment of missiles and Damascus’s policy of allowing the PLO and other terrorist groups to attack Israel from inside Lebanon helped trigger a further civil war in 1982. The 1982 civil was the beginning of the rise of another political broker in Lebanon called Hezbollah. It is well known and acknowledged that the rise of Hezbollah is attributed the support of Syria and Iran. Since 1982 the Al-Assad regime not only funded Hezbollah but allegedly provided political, logistical and strategic support that enabled Hezbollah to gain popularity and establish itself as a major powerhouse in Lebanon with a sizeable representation in Lebanese parliament, with a portfolio that includes companies throughout the Middle East, charities, schools, hospitals, TV stations and a well equipped military wing which has been a constant pain and vicious adversary of the state of Israel since 1982. During his rule Hafez Al-Assad increased repression of freedom of speech, dissent voices and operated a vast web of secret police informers and agents. Like his counterparts in Iraq and North Korea and countless dictators before him, Hafez Al-Assad was interested in being the object of national affection in a highly orchestrated cult of personality, with state-sponsored artistic production that focused on his persona and achievement. Just like in times of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler it was common to find portraits of AlAssad and statues cluttered around public areas and within private spheres of every Syrian life. His ever youthful face adorned building facades, garlanded classrooms, coffee shops, cafes and living rooms, decorated wristwatches, books, etc. Syria under Al-Assad came to experience the awesome power of their leader in every aspect and at every moment. He became a ubiquitous and omniscient figure, an unquestionable and unavoidable element of Syria’s daily routines. Just like his old nemesis Sadam Hussein Al-Assad borrowed a lot of social propaganda and techniques of national indoctrination from his idols in the Far East especially from the former ‘dear leader’ of North Korea’s Kim ll Sung. In his 30 year rule, Al-Assad did manage to stabilise Syria be it through a mélange of secret police coercion, threat of torture and arrest, dissent was never tolerated so was political opposition. Despite this Syrians had some semblance of religious freedom and social stability compared to overt intolerance, oppression and suppression in neighbouring Arab countries. He initiated a number of key social reforms and infrastructure projects such as the Thawra Dam on the Euphrates River. It was built with Soviet assistance, and still supplies much of Syria's electricity today. Public schooling and other reforms were extended to larger segments of the population, and a rise in living standards occurred. The government's secularism meant that many members of religious minorities, such as the Alawite, Druze and Christians supported Al-Assad, fearing a return to historic persecution under a Sunni Islamist successor government to Assad. He supported the Western alliance against his nemesis Sadam Hussein during the first gulf war (1990 – 91). It is reasonable to suggest that Hafez Al-Assad leadership was a mixture of perceptive manoeuvring, opportunism, Middle Eastern diplomacy, suppression and careful timing.

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He outfoxed and out manoeuvred his enemies and lived according to his surname which means lion in Arabic. He did rule Syria with an iron fist and positioned himself as a figure of authority and saw himself as the champion of Arab nationalism throughout the Middle East and Maghreb without an equal. It is also imperative to state that Hafez Al-Assad relied on the close relatives, family and friends to keep grip on power and run the affairs of the country. He put them in strategic positions and often turned a blind eye to the abuse of office by his comrades, family and relatives. He died in 2000 and immediately after his death the Ba’ath central committee like many other autocratic regimes appointed Hafez’s son Bashar as the new leader to usher Syria in the 21st century. The Al-Assad regime: The Son (2000-Date) The events that led to the eventual rise of Bashar Al-Assad to power were as a result of very tragic events in the Al-Assad family. Initially it was Hafez first born son and the rising politician Bassel who was favoured, popular among women, macho, more outspoken and groomed as the successor. However, it was his love of fast cars that proved tragic and decisive and tipped the balance towards the soft spoken medical doctor Bashar. According to the Foreign policy Magazine, the family members preferred Bashar’s younger brother Maher because he displayed aggressive and outspoken personality and resembled more Al-Assad the father. However, Maher had a reputation for being excessively violent, cold, calculative and emotionally unstable. For example, it is alleged that in a fit of rage Maher shot and wounded his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat who was the Minister of defence in Bashar’s administration till 2010 and later replaced to become the deputy chief of staff. Bashar as the second son was favoured by the father while Maher was named the chief enforcer and head of the feared Republican Guard. When President Bashar came to power Syrians and political commentators within the Middle East and throughout the world had high hopes for reform after three decades of his father Hafez's iron rule and in the first few months demonstrated the potential to change Syria for the better. The fast moving events in Syria had demonstrated that Bashar is definitely every bit his father’s son but he is also different in his approach. He demonstrated strong instinct for reform and openness, however he allowed himself to be surrounded by hardliners (his father’s comrades) who possibly participated in the Syrian experiment with coup d’états. Political commentators argue that this powerful circle of his father’s comrades is only interested in maintaining the status quo anything less is contrary to and betrays ‘the corrective action taken by Hafez’ and compromises the influence of Syria in the Middle East. President Bashar’s first major foray into foreign diplomatic negotiations came in form of handling the withdraw of Syrian troops (a military contingent stationed in Lebanon from 1975 numbering more than 20, 000) but critics argue that it was just a way for Syria to support Hezbollah and also served the purpose of reminding their arch enemy Israel that Damascus was the political muscle in Lebanon. In contrast to his father’s participation as part of the military intervention force in Iraq Bashar refused to support a 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq calling it an international conspiracy and barbaric

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aggression against Arabs and the sovereign state of Iraq. This action set Syria in another direct collision course with the EU and United States. However, he did open the borders that allowed over one million Iraqis flee across the border to Syria. The refusal by Bashar to support efforts in Iraq and Syria’s alleged unconditional support for Hezbollah (an organisation declared a terrorist organisation by the EU and US) gave the US further reason to impose direct sanctions on Syria in 2004. Bashar’s administration did try to broaden its appeal by attempting to sign EU and Syrian association agreement but this too failed and was consequently postponed indefinitely. Bashar was tested again by the 2005 tragic assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. A UN investigation into al-Hariri's assassination implicated a number of high ranking Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies specifically elements within Hezbollah secret police. In another twist in 2006, Bashar contrary to his father Hafez resumed diplomatic relations with Iraq after 25 years. Many argue that resumption of relationship was as a result of the leadership change in Iraq post 2003 Gulf war. In 2007 Bashar outfoxed his opponents again by engaging in diplomatic dialogue with the EU and the USA which culminated in the visit by the EU foreign policy chief, and Nancy Pelosi, then the US House of Representatives speaker. In 2008, it seemed that Bashar was eager to get Syria out from cold given that there was a change of leadership in the US and wanted to take this opportunity to repair diplomatic relations with the EU and the US and the first step was a visit to France and the establishment of the four way dialogue to resolve the differences post Rafiq Hariri’s assassination. However, there were tensions between UN nuclear watchdog and Syria as the former accused the latter of working towards acquiring a nuclear bomb by building undisclosed reactor. Consequently, Israeli war plane bombed a suspected site in mountains of Syria in 2007. Furthermore, in 2009 IAEA accused Syria of having undeclared man-made uranium consistent with early phase of enrichment at a second undisclosed reactor in Damascus. In the same year diplomatic relations with Iraq took a negative turn as Syria this time was accused of aiding Iraq insurgents in the pretext of destabilising the country the allegation which the Bashar administration denied. The on and off diplomatic relations with Iraq continued and resulted in the resumption of relations between the two countries and the US in 2010. However, relationship with the EU and US started to thaw again after the US and the EU accused Syria of supporting terrorist groups, and having the determination to seek weapons of mass destruction and also for providing Hezbollah with Russian Scud missiles in violation of UN resolutions. Bashar and the Arab Spring In an act of protest and ultimate defiance against the ruling authority a young Tunisian man set himself on fire on 17th December 2010. However, this was not an isolated incident of self immolation in the world. In fact in the two years leading up to the self immolation by Mohamed Bouazizi more than a dozen young men and women in the Middle East and Tibet had set themselves ablaze in public. What was different about the Bouazizi tragic case was that it happened at a time that allowed a combination of

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complex events to converge that acted as a catalyst for revolution in Maghreb and the Middle East. The revolution in Tunisia gave hope and encouragement to millions across the Arab world that it is possible through mass demonstrations to force regime change. For many young people in the Arab world the sacrifice and heroism of the young and the old in Tunisia inspired them to call for protests in their respective countries and Syria was no exception. The Syrian Arab revolution in some way started in the same fashion as those sweeping other parts of the Middle East including episodes of self immolation and hunger strikes. Like in Tunisia another young man Hasan Ali Akleh from the city of AlHasakah set himself ablaze in protest against the Syrian government. With the protests already in full swing in other parts of the Middle East it invoked strong sentiments of freedom, gave the population impetus and cause to finally protest openly against the AlAssad rule and demanded immediate reforms. Two days later after the incident of selfimmolation, an evening demonstration was held in Ar-Raqqah to protest the killing of two soldiers of Kurdish descent but instead of having a dialogue the Syrian forces responded with a show of force and more arrests. On 4 February 2011 a day of protest dubbed ‘Day of Rage’ was called on social networking sites, however, the turnout for the protest was small and largely took place outside of Syria. On 5 February, hundreds of protesters in Al-Hasakah participated in a mass demonstration, calling for Bashar al-Assad’s administration to resign and usher in a new government but the Syrian authorities again responded by arresting dozens of protestors and this marked the beginning of national demonstration. By this time the protests had spread to towns outside Damascus and by April 2011, an estimated 3,000 troops entered into a town of Deraa where the protest was gaining momentum and carried out hundreds of arrests and several people died during the clash with the security forces. This sparked international condemnation against Syria for using heavy handed tactics. Again Bashar tried to out manoeuvre the international community by announcing a series of empty conciliatory measures such as freeing some political prisoner and lifting the state of emergency which had been in place since 1963 while at the same time accusing the protestors of being led by their arch rivals Israel and the US. However, due to the continuing crackdown of protestors and resulting deaths the US and EU decided to tighten the sanctions against the Bashar regime. During this period popular uprising was gaining moment in Syria and so was the heavy handed response by the Syrian authorities. The EU presented and tabled motion for a resolution that called for further sanctions against Syria and the immediate cession of violence against civilians. However, the resolution was vetoed by Russia and China. In November 2011, the Arab League of which Syria is the founding member voted to suspend Syria from the group accusing it of failing to implement an Arab peace plan which was agreed between the league and Syria. In a move that can only be described as stranger than reality some members of the Arab League themselves who are far from being democratic and can only be described as more brutal and oppressive than Syria decided to impose sanctions on Syria for violating human rights. However, instead of dealing with the embarrassment of being booted out of its own organisation, Syria blamed

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subversive elements outside Syria i.e. US, EU and Israel. Pro Al-Assad supporters decided to attack foreign embassies in Damascus. In December 2011 Syria allowed the Arab league observers to visit Syria in the hope of salvaging the pride but this too failed lamentably. An independent assessment during the uprising by the UN human rights commission indicated that the death toll from the uprising had surpassed more than 5000. It is a fair assessment to say that unlike other revolutions the Syrian uprising will take a turn for the worst the longer the Bashar administration takes to respond to the demands of ordinary Syrians and the opposition. So far there have been incidents of suicide bombings in public places which the authorities have blamed on the opposition and protesters. What the revolution has demonstrated so far is that good intentions do not always translate into good governance. Bashar demonstrated good intentions in the first few months of his rule but soon opted for entrenched authoritarian rule rather than promoting good governance, institution reform, greater political freedom and openness. Bashar as a president failed to rise above the challenging Syrian political history due to his inability to shake off his father’s legacy and his father’s powerful comrades who have proved to be an ever constant reminder of Syria’s love affair with totalitarianism. The usual brutal response to demands for political reform has eroded all faith in Bashar’s ability to govern and rule. The regime lost the window of opportunity to turn things around and deliver requested change. This failure to implement genuine political reforms and react to changing times has proved decisive. The option to take the hardline stance of blaming everything on subversive elements from outside Syria rather than having a productive dialogue with the representatives of the protestors and opposition confirmed the protester’s demand that the regime was no longer useful and it was time for change. In the medium to long term it is difficult to gauge where the events will lead given the shifting sands of the Middle Eastern politics but what is clear is that without intervention and change in Bashar’s response the country will descend into an all out civil war which has the potential to engulf the entire Middle East and the Maghreb in the ball of desert fire.

Dr M. Mukanga Email: Mukanga@visumglobal.co.uk
Principal Director of Visum Global UK and Kurgus Investment Zambia and a contributor to the Zambian Economist Blog and a number of other online publications on wide range of issues from Technology, Engineering, Manufacturing to Social Changes and Development in Africa.
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