By Karl Reiner
In 1970, Gen. Hafiz al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, took power in Syria following a long period of political instability. Assad's secular Bath Party portrayed itself as an upholder of Arab nationalism willing to defend the nation and its minorities against foreign threats and Islamic fundamentalism. Remarkably, he was able to hold on to the presidency for 30 years and then transfer power to his son, Bashar.
Under Hafiz al-Assad, the Alawites got an opportunity to overcome their second-class status but not necessarily to become wealthy. Repression was always one of Assad's tools. In February 1982, he was faced with an armed Islamist uprising. The general/president decided to make an example of the city of Hama where the rebellion was based. Estimates put the death toll resulting from the devastating attack on the city at between 10,000 and 30,000.
When Hafiz al-Assad died in June 2000, people believed his foreign educated son, Bashar al-Assad, would institute reforms softening the authoritarian system. There were hopes he would control state corruption, sectarianism and the unrestrained power of the secret police. Although it began with fanfare, Bashar's reforms soon sputtered out. Although political reform was sidelined, changes took place in the economic sphere. The austere, military culture that defined the ruling class under Hafiz al-Assad was replaced by one of conspicuous consumption.
The practice of crony capitalism led to divisions in society as investments in tourism, banking, agriculture and retail created opportunities for those with the appropriate connections. The old Bath coalition of Alawites, rural Sunnis and other minority groups began to breakdown. Those outside the ruling clique found themselves cut off from the network of power. In business ventures, they were preempted by rich entrepreneurs close to the regime. The right connections were also needed to get a job in the bureaucracy. A growing number of restless young people saw a gap growing between a rich minority and the rest of the population.
Syria's population of 22.4 million is made up of various groups: 10% Christian, 16% Alawite and Druze and 74% Sunni. After 10 years in power, much of the public had lost confidence in Bashar al-Assad. He had made many unmet promises, reform had been stifled and the spread of the benefits of economic growth were highly uneven. He and his lieutenants appear to have developed an ingrained belief that they were entitled to rule Syria.
In regional affairs, the Syrian regime had opposed the American invasion of Iraq, supported Hamas, and backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. It staunchly supported the hardline Palestinian position. These policies did not make the government protest proof. The Syrian uprising began in March 2011. The demonstrators were the young, the unemployed and members of the middle class being squeezed downward on the social ladder. The large demonstrations in public spaces were peaceful at the beginning. Events quickly turned violent as the offended regime reacted. Syria's rulers were not reluctant to use force. The protest movement
changed as its own armed groups emerged in response. As the tempo of the fighting increased, the situation stalemated, neither side could prevail.
The warfare is taking a brutal toll on the country as each side publicizes the savagery of the other side in order to excuse its own use of violence. The number of killed is estimated to be over 130,000. The number of refugees having fled Syria is about 2.3 million. Another 6.5 million people have been displaced within the country. The Syrian wheat harvest was estimated at 1.5 million tons, less than half of the prewar average and the lowest in 30 years. Armed looters equipped with construction equipment are pillaging ancient heritage sites, stealing artifacts. Due to the conflict, Syria has more endangered sites than any place else in the world.
The original aim of the protesters to achieve a free and democratic civilian state has become a battered and fading concept. Jihadi fighters are gaining control of the opposition movement as the fighting drags on. As the Syrian state slowly crumbles, the country could fracture into parts or face a future filled with sectarian and jihadi violence. The refugee outflow is straining relief efforts in Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. The Syrian government receives logistical support from Russia and Iran. Money and supplies flow to the insurgents from the West, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Although it has Cold War overtones, the struggle in Syria appears to be turning into a proxy conflict waged by the Sunni Arab States and Shia Iran.
Stung by the fact that hundreds of young Saudis are fighting in the ranks of the radical jihadist forces in Syria, Saudi Arabia has made it a crime for any Saudi citizen to take part in a war outside of Saudi Arabia. We should not forget that a few years ago, the U.S. was urging religiously motivated young Arabs to join the mujahidin in Afghanistan in order to help kick the atheistic Soviets out. Despite the international cooperation on clearing Syria of chemical weapons, the menacing ramifications of the Syrian war will cause problems for some time to come.