Syria: A Showcase of Middle Eastern Disorder
[Originally published on Juan Cole's blog Informed Comment, June 4, 2013]
The influential Egyptian Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi recently issued a fatwa, or religious
proclamation, with regard to Syria. The sheik called for Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East to
join the rebels in their fight against the regime in Damascus. Formerly an advocate of improved
relations between the Sunni and Shiite sects, including the Lebanese Shiite guerrilla organization
Hizballah, Qaradawi's decree further points to sectarian relations moving in the opposite direction.
A week earlier, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah openly declared involvement in the civil war on
the side of Damascus and promised victory. Sectarian lineswithin Syria and across the greater
regionare growing sharper by the minute.
At the geopolitical level, Russia announced its intentions to ship its S-300 surface-to-air missile
system to Syria in an effort to bolster the government's defenses and preserve a balance of power.
Included in Moscow's calculus is the potential military involvement of the United States and NATO.
In trying to follow the news coverage, one is presented with an ever increasing number of narrative
strands having less and less to do with Syria. The question is raised, Is there historical ground
where the different threads meet?
Currently on display in Syria is just about every major issue the modern Middle East has come to
know and be known for. Within the ongoing civil war now raging up and down the country, one can find
how the region was created, how it has been ruled locally, how it has been managed externally, and
the different byproducts of these realities. This conflict is not simply a dark chapter in the Arab
Spring, or just another episode of Middle Eastern violence, but the consequence of policies and
phenomena that have their origins in the twentieth century.
Syria, like its fellow Arab neighbors, was born of Western European scheming. After World War I, the
Great Powers of Britain and France divided up the Middle East into modern nation-states, Syria being
among these new and future countries. Designed by the French, Syria was to exist in the service of
its creator, similar to other French colonial holdings at the time. Simply put, it was to provide a
source of cheap food and materials as well as a place to unload French exports.
Because Syria was conceived as a vassal state, it was kept politically compliant and feeble. Local
landowning political elites essentially governed Syria on France's behalf. One of the principal
concerns was to ensure calm against an increasingly indignant and restless population. This was
achieved with a measure of anti-imperial rhetoricpurely propagandawhile dutifully tending to
French needs; the political relationship with Paris was called "honorable cooperation." At the end
of the day, the unsurprising goal of the Syrian notables was to protect their own wealth and power.
This situation, according to Middle East historian William Cleveland, created an "aura of
This period spanned the two world wars to Syria's independence in 1946. What followed was a series
of military coups, producing leaders such as Colonel Abid Shishkali and others seeking a grip on the
country's future. Yet, these juntas were factionally unstable and produced repeated internal
overthrows. What endured from this era, however, was the military's new role in Syrian political
Out of the tumultuous post-independence years also emerged a nationalist-socialist party called the
Baath (meaning Resurrection or Renaissance). The Baath Party championed Arab nationalism and sought
to unify the Arab world under a singular system. In 1957, the Baath Party achieved power in Syria,
briefly formed a union (as a junior partner) with Egypt, and then lost power. After the union with
Egypt dissolved (1961), a group of military officers sought to reestablish Baath rule. (The party
was originally a civilian, populist movement, but had been co-opted by the military.) Also volatile
and prone to overthrows, this cabal became mired in infighting. After a sequence of coups and power
plays, one member of the military committee running the country rose to stable power in 1970: Hafez
al-Assad. His autocratic regime would last until the year 2000, when he would be replaced by his
son, Bashar al-Assad. Like his father, Assad the younger has operated a regime marked by one-party
rule, secret police, and total authority.
As of the 1950s, the United States had taken over for Britain and France and established a
long-distance supremacy over the prized Middle East. Among Washington's first client states in the
area were oil-rich Saudi Arabia and militant Israelreferred to as the "twin pillars"and remain
so today. Jordan, Iran in 1953, and eventually the leaderships of Egypt, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf
states all became aligned with US interestsin fact, almost the whole of the region.
Up until 1989, American policy in the Middle East was formulated in the context of the Cold War
between the United States and the Soviet Union. While a much overemphasized issue, Moscow did have
regional interests of its own, and included in them was US meddling in an area located in the
Kremlin's backyard. Nevertheless, Russian intrigue and influence in the Middle East has generally
been limited. Among the places the Soviets were able to create a bit of leverageleverage that
still exists todaywas through Damascus.
Unlike most of the Arab states, Syria under Hafez al-Assad steered a course in opposition to the
United States and its regional sentry Israel. Throughout the decades following its independence in
1948, Tel Aviv had made it abundantly clear that it had no intention of living in harmony with its
Arab neighbors. Moreover, in 1967, Israel occupied the Golan Heights located in the southwest corner
of Syria, an occupation that continues into the present. The Assad regime, having Moscow as a
sponsor and source of weaponry, spent the next decade vastly expanding its military. Common to Arab
leaders throughout the modern period, Assad too sought the mantle of leader of the Arab world, and
used enmity toward Israel to establish credibility.
That said, Hafez nor Bashar managed to regain the Golan Heights. And for all its military
expenditures, Syria remains a second-rate power on the Middle Eastern stage, the rhetoric always
more dramatic than genuine. Furthermore, besides remaining unable or unwilling to address the Golan
issue one way or another, the antagonism Damascus did instigate was usually in the direction of
other Arab states and entities such as Lebanon, the PLO, Iraq, and others. Beyond seeking increased
prestige in the Arab world, the regimes of both Assads have been focused more on domestic threats
and protection of their own internal security.
In addition to the creation, leadership, and foreign influence of Syria over the years, three
intra-regional factors in the current state of affairs, also echoes of the twentieth century, should
First, Iran supports and supplies Damascus. This is one of the first issues one reads about in the
American press. Tehran's actions in this regard oppose the US-Israeli dynamic. This friction has its
origins in the 1979 Iranian revolution, which saw the replacement of the Shah, a US-installed
puppet, with the Islamist leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. The current leadership in Tehran is
merely a successor of his rule and an outcome of Anglo-American intervention in Iran. For the last
thirty years, US-Iranian relations have been kept tense by the United States.
Second, Hizballah supports Bashar al-Assad, is assisting on the ground, and is itself supported and
supplied by the Iranians. The militia, regardless of what one thinks of it, would never have emerged
had Israel not occupied southern Lebanon for almost twenty years (until 2000) after its devastating
assault on that country in 1982. Hizballah is a consequence of Israeli belligerence.
Third, the issue of Islamic extremism has also entered the frame in Syria. The armed resistance
called the Free Syrian Army, far from being a unified front, is a patchwork. Radical Islamic groups
within the FSA such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliated organization, and Ahrar al-Sham are
the heirs of two main ideologies. The first is Islamism, which has its roots in the 1920s and was a
political response to Western domination. The goal here was revolution and overthrow of local
regimes. The second ideology is a more violent, reactionary approach to Islamism that developed in
the second half of the twentieth century, ultimately personified by Osama bin Laden. The idea here
is that overthrowing local regimes fails to address the issue of Western imperialism. These
ideologies have never gained popular appeal in the Middle East; but be that as it may, the different
Islamist and jihadist groupsranging from moderate to terroristtaken in aggregate constitute an
expression of resentment. In other words, this phenomenon is a response to Western European and US
The elements making up the current civil war in Syria were created throughout the last hundred
years. The leadership in Damascus today is a direct result of the country's political history. In a
sense, Bashar al-Assad is a corollary of the French policies put in place over forty years before he
was born. The resistance to his leadershippart of the wider Arab Spring uprisings beginning in
2011is a rejection of both his regime and European-American hegemony, present and past. These are
the core realities of the current violence.
Where does the United States stand given its historical role? Washington is obviously somewhat
concerned about Syria and would like to see a pro-American result. If Bashar al-Assad falls, which
is a distinct possibility, then the White House will use its influence to tip the outcome in its
favor. (This is not always possible, especially in the new Middle East.) If Assad remains, the
United States can deal with him. He is a known quantity, has cooperated with the White House in the
past, and poses little threat the rest of the time. And Syria's general nonalignment with US policy
and its alliance with Iran, Hizballah, and Russiaall overstated foreign policy concernshelps
feed the rationale for constantly weaponizing the Middle East, an enormous gift to the US defense
As mentioned, Syria is located in the region's second tier, which means it is less than a crucial
issue for American planners. Syria has a GDP of $59 billion, economically placing it between Sri
Lanka and the Dominican Republic. Syria does have oil, but not enough to gain it much attention. Its
proven oil reserves measure in at 2.5 billion barrels, putting it on a par with Great Britain. In
contrast, Saudi Arabia has reserves of 262 billion barrels, Iraq 115 billion, and Kuwait 104
What does concern planners in Washington is overall regional stability, which the Syrian civil war
could threaten. Lebanon and Iraq have already been affected. Low grade tensions are tolerableeven
encouragedbut the temperature in Syria might be high enough to warrant top-level diplomacy from
the White House and the office of Russian president Vladimir Putin. (This is currently being
explored but remains to be seen.) Without external diplomatic assistance, regardless of the dubious
records of those involved, the war could possibly grind on for years to come.
In the meantime, it is common to hear facile or racist conclusions drawn because of the bloodshed
and disorder in areas like the Middle East, where patterns of repression and resistance seem to play
out endlessly. Yet, when the different countries became "independent," it would take decades for the
results of the manner in which they were created to fully unfold, to say nothing of the foreign
influence along the way. At this very moment, we are seeing the effects of the twentieth century.
The policies now relegated to history books are, in some ways, on the news every day in grim detail.
The common dismissal of the historical record contained in the assertion "that was then" could not
be more inaccurate.
It is in the present where one can find the historical record: amidst the sectarian strife, the
fatwas, declarations, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, refugee camps, arms embargoes, weapons
shipments, and a list of actorsstate and non-state alikevying for position and influence. As
is common, geostrategic maneuvering tends to converge in smaller, weaker countries, and produce a
range of dire repercussions. At the moment, Syria encapsulates the history of the modern Middle
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