Historical Background

Historical Background

At the beginning of the last century, Syria was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which was defeated in World War I and divided into colonial spheres of influence by the British and French. I agree with the assessment of Burning Country that “the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Lebanese civil wars, and the current chronic instability in Iraq and Syria can be traced to this early 20th century bout of imperialist map-making and sectarian engineering. Alongside the political-geographical cutting came a deliberate economic stunting. The French ‘open door’ policy flooded the country with cheap imports, while Syrian exports were heavily taxed. Unemployment soared and traditional skilled manufacturing collapsed. Throughout the French occupation, when 40% of children died before the age of 5, less than 3% of the state budget was spent on health care. And crippling collective punishments caused grievous social and economic ramifications. Example: in order to pay the fine imposed after the Alawi rebellion in 1921, mountain peasants hired their daughters out as domestic servants to the urban rich. This led to mutual resentments, intensifying sectarianism when an Alawi-dominated army (developed from the French ‘Army of Minorities’) later took over the country’s political life.” The Alawis, or Alawites, are an obscure Shia sect in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country. The current Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and his father Hafez al-Assad, who founded the dictatorship are/were Alawites.

“Resistance to the French occupation was constant, and from 1925 to 1927 it flared into a large-scale uprising, including peasants from the Ghouta, aflame with the nationalism of nearby Damascus. The French bombarded the Ghouta’s villages and brought in troops from their colonies in Morocco and Senegal to put down the rebellion. A residential quarter of Old Damascus was burned to the ground by French bombing. Rebuilt, the area, now called Hareeqa (‘Fire’), is where the first Damascene mass protest took place in 2011.

When the French finally evacuated in April 1946, power was inherited by the nationalist elite, a merchant-landlord oligarchy. Elections were held, but there was no secret ballot to protect dependent peasants or any non-elite parties to vote for.” A succession of military coups ensued, beginning in 1949, along with the founding in of the lower middle class Baath (“Resurrection”) party, which encouraged Sunni and Shia, Christians and Muslims, and urban and rural populations to identify as members of the Arab Nation. The secularist Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which also espoused Greater Syrian nationalism, attracted support in minority communities, but it was ruthlessly suppressed after it assassinated a Baathist officer in 1955.

A secret Baathist Military Committee, founded in 1959 and including Hafez al-Assad, staged a successful coup on March 8, 1963. The pro-Nasser street presence was violently repressed, the media brought under absolute state control, and a new influx of rural and minority recruits added to the army.” Israel’s June 1967 defeat of the Syrian, Egyptian, and Jordanian armies, in which Syria lost its air force and the Golan Heights, allowed Assad to oust his co-leader and “build an absolutist regime that would dominate the country’s life until 2011. A purge of the party and army targeted leftists, who were replaced by loyal Alawis. The army suppressed urban uprisings in 1963, ’64, ’65, ’67, ’73, ’80, and ’82, culminating in the massacre at Hama in which up to 25,000 people were killed. The opposition of the late ’70s and early ’80s started as leftist and Islamist, but degenerated under harsh repression into a sectarian assassination campaign by the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which alienated the minorities and most Sunnis.” The Syrian Brotherhood was based in Hama at the time of the 1982 massacre, an example of the collective punishment still practiced by the Assad regime today.

“Assad’s fascist Syria sought to replace class conflict with devotion to the absolute state and its leader. Peasants’ and workers’ unions, professional associations, youth and women’s organizations, as well as the Party and the army, were entirely absorbed into the state machinery, which cultivated a surveillance society in which everyone spied on everyone else and no one’s position was secure.” The atmosphere is captured by these quotes from Bridge: “You had to get security approval even to have a wedding, and you knew that the garbage man or person selling fava beans on the highway were there because they were intelligence agents,” said Hadia, a therapist from Damascus. Ayham, a web developer, also from Damascus: “The brainwashing process started when you went to school: ‘We love the leader, we love the regime, without them the country will collapse.’ But even to an innocent child the whole system just reeked, it was so corrupt, with bribery and preferential treatment for active members of the ruling party. Everything was handled by how loyal you were to the regime.”

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