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Yuri Barmin

Analyst on Russia and its Middle East policy, MPhil International Relations, University of Cambridge, RIAC expert

The Book "History Of Syria - XX century", by Elza Pir-Budagova, is most relevant today, when the very existence of the SAP in the form in which it was known for over a century, is in question. Today, the Syrian conflict actually addresses the issue of how to balance Sunni and Shiite power in the Middle East in the twenty-first century.

The Book "History Of Syria - XX century", by Elza Pir-Budagova, is an analysis of the development of Syria since the beginning of the First World War as one of the Vilayets of the Ottoman Empire until the coming to power of Bashar al-Assad in 2000. Special attention is paid to the period of formation of the Baath party, which radically changed the historical course of the country. In addition, the author analyzes the Arab-Israeli conflict and its implications for the country and observes the dynamics of the formation of the idea of Arab unity, one of the main foreign policy priorities of the Syrian leadership during the second half of the twentieth century. The publication certainly helps put the current civil war in the context of historical development of Syria and the entire Middle East region.

The Book "History Of Syria - XX century", by Elza Pir-Budagova, is most relevant today, when the very existence of the SAP (Syrian Arab Republic -ed) in the form in which it was known for over a century, is in question. Throughout the twentieth century, the political rhetoric of the Syrian leadership was full of desire for pan-Arab unity: firstly, through attempts to preserve the unity of Lebanon in the time of the conclusion of the Sykes–Picot agreement, then after the integration process with Egypt and Iraq. Now we actually are witnessing in Syria the reverse process, and many players on the world stage are seriously discussing the question of the disintegration of the country.

Today, the Syrian conflict actually addresses the issue of how to balance Sunni and Shiite power in the Middle East in the twenty-first century. The most probable division of the Republic is along ethnic lines. In this case, the Alawites and the Shia sect will go to the Mediterranean coast and a narrow strip of Lebanon along the border with Israel, the Kurdish northeast of the country, and the Sunnis supported by the Gulf will go to the North-West and some southern areas. However, such a scenario is unlikely to put an end to the crisis, which has deep historical roots. That is why the attempt to revisit the history of Syria in the twentieth century, the most dynamic period of its development, with an eye on what is happening there today, is very important.

Alternative periodization of the Syrian history of the twentieth century

REUTERS/Sandra Auger

The Book "History Of Syria - XX century" is divided into five chapters in accordance with the periodization of changes in the administrative structure of the state, which is mentioned in each chapter. However, more interesting is the different way of periodization of the Syrian history. In the course of reading the book one gets the feeling that for the last century Syria as a state is constantly in a state of defence against external or internal enemies. If we take as a starting point the nature of the challenges, standing at a particular point in time with the Syrian leadership, Syria's history can be divided into three main periods.

The first, from 1920 to 1946, is the fight for Syria's independence from France and coincides with the framework of Chapter I ("Syria in the first half of the twentieth century"). During this period, Syria and Lebanon were under a French mandate, established in accordance with the Sykes–Picot agreement. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, it becomes clear that the administrative entity, established by France on the site of modern Syria, was artificial and highly unstable. Unfortunately, little attention is given to the book on the differences between the educated Syria Vilayets of the former Ottoman Empire. These differences are partly due to the future desire of the Syrian leadership of Arab unity, which has served as a time bomb for the current conflict in the country.

The second period is associated with the conflict between independent Syria and Israel, which in its active phase, lasted from 1948 to 1973 (corresponding to chapters II and III of the publication). The foreign policy priority of the Syrian leadership was the settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict through armed struggle with Israel. Through the prism of confrontation with Israel, the author traces the dynamics of the complications of the relations of Syria with other countries in the region and its growing isolation on the international arena. As is noted by Elza Pir-Budagova, Syria refused to cooperate with Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries as they did not share the same position to an armed resolution of the conflict.

The third period of Syrian history is from the mid 1970's onwards, until the coming to power of Bashar al-Assad in 2000 (Chapter IV and V). It is characterized, in particular, by the reign of the Assad family, the buildup of ethnic tensions in the country and the strengthening of the Islamic opposition movement, which pressured the Arab Baath Socialist Party (Baath). It can be stated that in the acute phase of confrontation, this period is in fact still ongoing.

It should be noted that the issue of inter-ethnic relations without being tied to certain political figures in the book is given quite little attention. Perhaps this approach of the author is due to the fact that the Ba'ath party, the Central political force in Syria in the second half of XX century, had advanced its goal of pan-Arabism, but, unlike the proponents of Arab unity of the first half of the century, sought to secular pan-Arabism and its ideology as the focus on Islam.

The myth of prosperous Syria's twentieth century

EPA / YOUSSEF BADAWI / Vostock Photo
Georgi Asatrian:
The Syrian Zugzwang

Elza Pir-Budagova's book is interesting largely because it debunks the myth of a stable and economically prosperous Syria in the twentieth century, which is so often discussed regarding the protests of the "Arab spring". So, when comparing the Syrian and the Libyan regimes, some Russian researchers claim that the overthrow of Assad will turn the once prosperous Syria into a non-viable political entity (as what happened in Libya). Nevertheless, the author shows the fallacy of such opinions, specifically in regard to the political and economic success of Syria as a state.

The ideological concept of the Ba'ath movement in 1958 for the liberation of Palestine and the achievement of Arab unity has largely determined the economic backwardness of Syria in the second half of the twentieth century. Although the economic development of the country in the book is not analyzed in detail, the author still notes that the military faction of the Ba'ath movement had proposed cutting government spending on the economy and throwing all resources at the strengthening of the military's potential. The Baathists did not see the need to spend public funds for the construction of such objects of national economy which could not provide economic gains in the near term. However, from 1955 to 1958, financial assistance from the USSR to Damascus amounted to 294 million USD, what today is equivalent to $2.5 billion.

Many political problems faced by Syria in the region throughout the twentieth century were caused by the shortsightedness of the leadership of the country. Often it is more interested in cementing their own power than in long-term stability. The most obvious example of such folly is the foreign policy of the Syrian leadership during the Arab-Israeli conflict.

So, the question of the status of the Golan heights was painful for Syria for decades, captured by Israel in the six day war in June 1967. The question for many years remained a key point for political programmes of the Syrian politicians. As you know, the Israeli government had expressed willingness to return the Golan heights under the control of Syria, 19 June 1967, in exchange for a peace agreement. However, the Khartoum resolution, which was signed in September of the same year at the summit of the League of Arab States, completely crossed out plans for the transfer of the Golan to Syria. The resolution, supported by Damascus, proclaimed the principle of the "three no's": no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel.

The Syrian leadership categorically rejected a political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, considering the military option the only one possible. As is noted by the author, "The loss of the Golan heights was one of the most serious of the accusations against the Baathist regime opposition forces, not only within the country but also in Muslim organizations in the Arab East as a whole". Thus, because of their political ambitions, the government of Syria lost the Golan and was forced to abandon its ambitious strategy of military confrontation with Israel, recognizing the UN Security Council resolution on the initiation of peace talks. Such actions by Damascus undermined its credibility in the region and moved it to international political isolation.

Interfaith dynamics of the XX century as a source of the Syrian crisis

In the context of the ongoing conflict in Syria, the question of why the protests of the "Arab spring" were possible in this country, and why the ground was fertile for them, remains key. The book states that Bashar al-Assad declared, in 2000, the policy of democratization was faced with the legacy of the authoritarian regime of his father. In particular, the author cites the evidence unfolding in Syria, the struggle for influence between various factions of the military and political elite, some of which had survived since the reign of Hafez al-Assad. According to Elza Pir-Budagova, it, as well as "the lack of real democratic institutes of power and monopoly of one political organization", has become the reason why Bashar al-Assad failed to implement democratic reforms in the country. Ultimately this has created fertile ground for protests and civil war.

It should be noted that the dynamics of relations between the Alawites and Sunnis in Syria and the ongoing fighting have not received adequate coverage in the book from a historical point of view, even though the mass radicalization of Sunni groups in late 2011 led to a tightening of the confrontation between the government and the rebels. To answer the question of why the Sunnis suddenly found themselves exposed to drastic influence, one should look at the features of the rule of the Assad Regime.

Hafez al-Assad finally had cemented the presence of the Alawite elite in power, although, as the author rightly points out, the Sunnis were appointed to some of the highest administrative and military posts with the aim of preserving the support of the Sunni majority. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, relations between Syria and Sunni Saudi Arabia had been allied, and with Bashar al-Assad they have changed radically. This happened after the assassination in February 2005, close to al-Saud - former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, which was blamed on the Syrian leadership. Since then, the relationship only worsened, and the support of Riyadh to Wahhabi movements in Syria intensified. It is not surprising that after the start of the Syrian conflict, the ultraconservative Wahhabi sect of Islam, funded by Saudi Arabia, quickly crystallized in Syria. Many of his followers now form the ranks of the "Islamic State" and "Jabhat al-Nusra."

The coming to power in the mid-1960s, of the Alawite Baath regime, was a turning point in the modern history of Syria. This event gave rise to the distrust of many Sunnis towards Alawites and the party itself. The Sunni majority regarded the Alawite regime as illegitimate, repressive and, most importantly, anti-Islamic, as it restricted religious education and the Ulema. Most Western scholars assert that the Syrian conflict has nothing to do with questions of religious character and that the only reason is a despotic leader who oppresses all his people: Sunnis, Alawites, Druze, Christians... Although the study of the origins of this conflict is not the aim of the book, Elza Pir-Budagova mentions a number of significant historical facts that make its sectarian nature obvious. For example, the author notes that "military service is ignored in the Sunni majority of the country, so the bulk of the Syrian army consisted of immigrants from ethnic and religious minorities".

In fact, there was a discrimination against Sunnis. Control over the army was entirely in the hands of the Alawites, which was finally secured by the coming to power of the left wing of the Ba'ath party in 1966. "Only reliance on the army and security forces ... gave Hafez al-Assad authoritarian power and authoritative power to control all branches of the government and party apparatus," says Elza Pir-Budagova. Thus, by 2000, when Bashar Assad became President, the country has developed a system that resulted in Alawites at the highest echelons of power and often filter out the representatives of other ethno-religious minorities and the Sunni majority. Sunni, economically and politically marginalized by the ruling elite to 2011, became a breeding ground for extremist movements.

The army's role in the history of Syria

The key role of the military forces in the Ba'ath party and, as a consequence, in the army, as wrote Elza Pir-Budagova, must not be assessed as a unambiguously negative factor constraining efforts to democratize the country (this became evident during the reign of Bashar al-Assad). The coming to power in 1970 of the former Defense Minister of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, meant a decisive victory of the military office of the Ba'ath party over civilian party leadership. The consolidation of power in the hands of the military elite, on the one hand, erected a barrier on the path of democratic reforms that helped stabilize the political regime. Narrating about the history of Syria in the first half of the twentieth century, the author focuses on the problem of instability of the ruling regime. But as we know, only one in 1920 was replaced by four governments, and in 1949 - five. Such "tradition" existed until the coming to power of the Baathists in 1963, whose paramilitary control of the country helped to ensure a stable succession of power.

It can be stated that, historically, to established the consolidation of power in the hands of the top army currently allows the President Bashar al-Assad to rely on it during the civil war. Back in 2012, the Western media believed that the at-that-time desertion from the Syrian army would soon end with the fall of the regime. Nevertheless the loyal elite officers, formed under the Hafez al-Assad, still serve as a guarantor of the survival of the Syrian government.

Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ


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