The Zero-Sum Game of Syrian Politics

On September 28, 1961, Syrian military officers led by Abdul Karim al-Nahlawi altered the course of Syrian and Arab history. With a military coup, they ended the political union between Egypt and Syria known as the United Arab Republic (UAR). Enacted in early 1958, the UAR had been the first step towards the ultimate Arab nationalist dream: the unification of Arab countries into a single state after Ottoman occupation and European colonial division. The 1961 coup ended that dream on a practical level; never again would anyone seriously attempt to unite two major Arab countries. The move also upended the political consensus that had governed Syria since the earliest days after independence in 1946: the desire to create a pan-Arab state. But one other aspect of this coup lives on in Syria to this day, reflected in the political maneuverings that followed the coup.

The coup’s success was short-lived, and after the Baath Party took over the country in its own coup in 1963, one of the plotters, Haydar al-Kuzbari, was put on trial. During the trial, Fareed Aqeel, the presiding judge, questioned al-Kuzbari’s motives for participating in the coup. Aqeel accused him of wanting to put his cousin, former prime minister Ma’moun al-Kuzbari, into power, and that therefore al-Kuzbari’s motives were family ambition, not patriotism. Al-Kuzbari responded that he had intended to put well-known Arab nationalists in power, not his cousin Ma’moun. He named Abdul Salam al-Ojeili, Jalal Sayyid, and Abdul Karim al-Fayad as potential candidates. Aqeel responded by asking al-Kuzbari what evidence there was that al-Ojeili was even Arab, by which of course he meant an Arab nationalist. Al-Ojeili read about his own supposed candidacy in the newspapers and had no relation to the coup. He would mention this incident a number of times in essays he wrote. He did indeed join a subsequent government in 1962 as minister of culture, foreign affairs, and media, which was in itself controversial for an Arab nationalist, as those participating had their “Arab” credentials questioned by joining a government perceived as opposing Arab unity. Al-Ojeili recounted the incident always with a funny anecdote of mistaken identity, and ended with the plea, tongue-in-cheek: “I wish that Fareed Aqeel would prove to me that I am not an Arab, so that I can rest from all these concerns, and I will give him whatever he wants!”

While al-Ojeili’s reaction to the incident is interesting enough on its own, Aqeel’s is of greater interest here. It is indicative, unfortunately, of a strong trend within Syrian politics to treat one’s opponent as outside the body politic simply because of their opinions, sparing not even an avid Arab nationalist like al-Ojeili. It isn’t just al-Ojeili’s political affiliation at question or his loyalty to the Arab cause, but rather his entire identity as an Arab. If he takes the wrong position, Aqeel feels he can write him out of his Arabness altogether. You don’t have to dig very deep into Syrian history to see that Syrian politics indeed has always been a zero-sum game: me or my opponent, and only one will survive. But Aqeel’s accusation shows an intellectual foundation lurking behind the practicalities of power politics.

The practice of the zero-sum game of Syrian politics well predates the Baathist takeover of the country. For example, Syria’s first president, Shukri al-Quwatli, died in exile in Beirut. The second president, Hosni al-Zaim (who ended al-Quwatli’s first term with a coup), was executed just after he himself was ousted in a coup led by Sami al-Hinawi. Al-Hinawi was ousted in a coup led by Adib al-Shishakli, Syria’s third coup during the year of 1949, and al-Hinawi was assassinated on the streets of Beirut where he was in exile. Al-Shishakli launched another coup in 1951 to further solidify his power, instituted military rule, and lasted until 1954, but was eventually ousted in a coup, fled to Brazil, was sentenced to death in absentia. He was assassinated on the streets of Ceres, Brazil, by a Syrian named Nawaf Ghazaleh, who was resentful of al-Shishakli’s treatment of the Druze minority. This unfortunate trend of coups and counter coups plagued Syria until 1970, when Hafez al-Assad’s rule replaced the chaos of early Syrian independence with dictatorship and totalitarianism. He avoided the fate of his predecessors, holding onto power until his death in 2000.

But while the zero-sum game of Syrian politics is quite obvious in practice, Aqeel’s accusation against al-Ojeili, that he was not really an Arab because of his political views, hints at the ideological foundations of this game. It is not just played by politicians but also by intellectuals. In 2001, Syrian writer Turki Ali al-Rabi’u’s Trial and Terrorism (al-muhakama w al-irhab) argued convincingly that Arab intellectual life has been afflicted by takhween. Better known among English-language readers is the term takfeer, applied by radical jihadists, which means to excommunicate someone from the Islamic community, literally to make them an infidel (kafir). Takhween is the secular version of that: to declare someone a traitor (kha’in) to the nation.

Al-Rabi’u’s book demonstrates that this idea of takhween among intellectuals, writing any opposition out of the body politic, has been as destructive to pluralism in the Arab world as political actions taken against opponents. It has undermined the ability of Arab countries to establish diversity of thought and ideas, and therefore the foundations needed for a democratic consensus. He lays out this thesis succinctly in the book’s first paragraph:

One following the contemporary Arab cultural movement will notice, especially in the final third of the century that has just passed, that there is a tendency in this movement to put ‘the other’ on trial, then to exile and evict him. It can be said that the distinguishing mark of the culture and rhetoric of the end of the century is the culture of trial, the culture of putting ‘the other’ in a chamber to be studied, in a court or prison, with the goal of disciplining and prosecuting him.

Al-Rabi’u puts the primary blame for this situation on the intellectual elites and the dictatorial regimes that have often served the elites’ interests. He believes that 20th-century political violence in the Middle East stemmed from both Islamist political movements and from Arab states, but also that the Islamist violence was a reaction to state violence. Islamist movements of the 19th century, he says, were largely peaceful. Only in the 20th century did they learn the language of political violence from their secular counterparts. This is the center of a major debate in both the Arab world and the West: Is Islamist violence inherent to the movement or is it reactionary?

But as much as the struggle is ideological, al-Rabi’u says, it is also a struggle between the rural, religious majority and the urban, secular elite. The latter have maintained control of the state in most Arab countries, and have used state power to oppress the rural majority. The oppressed majority, meanwhile, is excluded from the state and “prepared to do violence in any form, which is what the Arab street has seen for the last few decades of the twentieth century. . . . From here we see that the germ of violence originated in the authoritarian state and grew. In doing so it created an environment for a counter violence to spread. And thus, has it provided all the necessary ingredients for a coming civil war?” Al-Rabi’u was writing in 2001, but might as well have been writing in 2011, when Syria was indeed devolving into civil war. Al-Rabi’u placed the blame for this violence on the Arab states, the regimes governing countries such as Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. But he recognized the potential for violence on the other side as well. We will never know how al-Rabi’u would have seen the Syrian revolution, as he died in 2007. But he certainly was aware that the seeds of a civil war had been planted, in part by Arab rhetoric that rejects intellectual pluralism.

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, the ongoing Syrian war has certainly been the continuation of Syrian politics by other means. Syria’s modern political history did not begin in 2011 when the uprising began, nor in 1970 when the Assad family came to power, nor in 1963 when the Baath Party came to power. Syria’s democracy arguably lasted only three years, from its independence from France in 1946 to the first military coup that ended civilian rule in the country, carried out by Hosni al-Za’im on March 30, 1949. The next 20 years, as we saw, brought a dizzying string of coups until Hafez al-Assad figured out how to do something no one else had done: maintain steady power after the coup. Launching a successful coup seemed to be relatively easy; staying in power, not so. Al-Assad helped plot the Baath Party’s rise to power in 1963; he helped plan the ouster of the party’s civilian leadership, replacing it with the military wing of the party of which he was a founder; and finally he eliminated his military rivals and established himself as sole holder of power in the party and the country.

Upon his death in 2000, Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar took over as president of Syria. With Bashar still in power, the Assads have run the country for 50 years. The family has governed for most of the independence period, as the pre-Assad era lasted only 24 years from independence in 1946 to Hafez’s coup in 1970. Their rule has not been without internal threat, most notably during the Muslim Brotherhood uprising of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and of course the civil war that started in 2011 and which will likely continue for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the Assads remain in power. Hafez built a state and regime resistant to these internal and external threats, even if it meant destroying much of the country in the process. The Assads have won the zero-sum game. But a close look at Syrian politics since 2011 shows that their opponents, almost without exception, have been playing by the same rules.

In 2011 the Syrian regime faced an existential threat in the form of the popular protests that called for freedom and dignity, and for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad. There was not a unified political plan to rally behind, nor always a cohesive or coherent movement. But the protests seriously threatened the regime’s hold on power for the first time since the 1980s. The transition from peaceful protests to armed insurgency is widely debated and poorly understood in its full dimensions. The result, however, was a fragmentation of the country into at least four major zones of control: the Syrian government, still led by Bashar al-Assad; rebel armed groups that ranged from moderate to extreme (but whose members transitioned easily between groups and were not necessarily motivated by a coherent ideology); the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS); and the Kurdish-led YPG, which later formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with other allied groups. ISIS has since been eliminated from holding territory, now reduced to carrying out guerilla attacks, but the three others remain. The government controls the major cities and most of the country’s geographical territory. Turkish-backed rebels, and some not backed by Turkey, control swathes of the northwest and north-central parts of the country. The Western-backed SDF still controls most of the territory northeast of the Euphrates River, though Turkey’s October 2019 invasion took a large chunk out of their territory.

These competing zones of control have taken on divergent political dynamics to the point of essentially functioning as separate countries. In government-controlled areas, the Syrian army and the dictatorial state remain in control. In opposition-held areas, including those with a Turkish presence, armed groups have enacted one form or another of Islamic law. In areas under the control of the SDF, Russian and American troops compete for territory, and the Arabization of the Baath Party has been replaced with an official ethnic pluralism that is new to Syria since its independence — an explicit rejection of Arab nationalism. The economy is destroyed in all regions, a victim of corruption, civil war, foreign sanctions, and now the coronavirus. These factors brought down the Syrian currency, the pound or lira. The country is now on the verge of an unprecedented humanitarian disaster, as mass starvation becomes a real possibility.

But it is not just the economic and humanitarian disaster that unites these otherwise divergent areas of control. It is also the unwillingness to accept a pluralism of ideas, as Turki Ali al-Rabiu’s described. To a large extent this is a practical necessity. Nascent political projects with little power could scarcely afford to allow those trying to undermine their authority to operate freely in areas under their control. If your opponent is playing a zero-sum game, it is suicidal not to play one as well. This also meant, however, that no group was actively working towards an intellectual or political pluralism, despite claims to the contrary.

The Syrian government under the Assad family has always been an authoritarian regime, but it became even more difficult for critics to operate within government territory after the war began. For example, the writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh was a political prisoner from 1980 to 1996 in government prisons, and emerged as an important intellectual in Syria after he was released. He remained in Syria, and rightly criticized his peers for writing about the country from abroad, primarily Europe, before the war. When the uprising began in 2011, however, and he supported the protest movement, his position became untenable and he hid with his wife in rebel-held territory in the Damascus suburbs. The slight opening for limited criticism of the regime, starting more or less when Bashar al-Assad took over in 2000, had ended. Al-Haj Saleh eventually went to his native Raqqa in 2013 and finally left the country, sensing that he was in danger, but his wife Samira Khalil was detained along with three other activists by jihadist rebels in the group Jaysh al-Islam after he left. Their fate is unknown. One of the alleged perpetrators was arrested in France earlier this year, where he was living on a student visa.

Which brings us to the opposition. There was never a coherent structure to either the military or civilian components of the Syrian opposition after 2011. But one characteristic that encompasses all the areas that fell under their control is, like other areas, the unwillingness to tolerate dissenters. Samira Khalil is a good example. She was not alone among former political prisoners, who were then targeted by groups that also opposed the Syrian government and claimed to support “freedom” and “dignity,” as the slogans went. It became practically impossible for non-Sunnis to live in opposition areas, a few exceptions notwithstanding. But to take a representative example, a friend of mine from Raqqa who asked not to be named was a political prisoner in the 2000s for a year and locally was well-known as a critic of the Syrian government. After the government withdrew from Raqqa in March 2013, he was immediately threatened, largely because he is not Sunni. Despite being known in Raqqa as a government critic, he had to slip out of the city and eventually ended up in government-controlled areas, where he lives today. The regime that imprisoned him was a safer bet than the opposition, even before ISIS finally eliminated its rivals and took sole control over the city. Slogans demanding freedom did not equate to democratic governance when the government left.

Then came ISIS. The terror group’s actions are well-known and need no elaboration here. They were really a caricature of the intolerance of modern Syrian politics combined with modern jihadist intolerance. No dissent was allowed, even within their own ranks. Had al-Rabi’u lived to see the group, he might have considered them part of the phenomenon he identified: the violent Islamist reaction to state oppression. Of course, a wide range of thinkers have rejected this view that ISIS’s violence is reactionary. Al-Rabi’u himself was responding in his book to Nabil Abdul Fatah, an Egyptian thinker who contended that modern Islamists’ violence is imbedded in their rhetoric, and is not merely a reaction to state violence. But whether or not ISIS’s violence is reactionary, those opposed to their rule had limited choices: fight, flee, or endure. It was easiest to endure if you were Sunni Arab and therefore avoided suspicion based on identity alone. But even some others, such as a few Christians in Raqqa, were able to put their heads down, follow the strict rules imposed on them, and survive ISIS’s rule. They were the exception, however, not the rule. There was little room for those opposed to the caliphate to live in areas under ISIS control, and those who remained did so only because they knew that the group would not last.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish YPG, still control a large swathe of Syria’s northeast. The areas beyond the Euphrates are historically known as al-Jazira, and have always been more ethnically diverse than the rest of Syria. The SDF’s coalition of Arabs, Kurds, Syriac and Assyrian Christians, and other minority groups is a testament to the area’s diversity. The SDF has certainly fostered a pluralism of religion and ethnicity that does not exist elsewhere in the country (the government has maintained religious diversity while rejecting ethnic diversity; the pan-Islamists of the opposition and ISIS have allowed ethnic diversity without religious diversity). On a political level, however, the SDF too have oppressed those opposed to their project. The dominant Kurdish political party, the PYD, initially marginalized the pro-opposition Kurdish National Council, for example, and prevented them from working in areas under SDF control. Recently, under American stewardship, the PYD has signed an understanding with the Kurdish National Council to allow them to resume activity in the area, which would be an important step toward enacting true political pluralism. Likewise, the dominant Christian party in the area, the Syriac Union Party, has made overtures of reconciliation with opposition parties such as the Assyrian Democratic Organization. If these overtures are met, Syria’s northeast could finally see a form of political pluralism not yet seen anywhere in the country. It is too early to judge the results. Even before this agreement, however, the areas under SDF control have had significantly more openness and diversity than other areas — government, opposition, and ISIS — but political opponents have nonetheless been targeted and the area cannot be considered truly democratic. We don’t know yet whether they are on a path to a more inclusive form of governance, which is possible, or if they will slide back into the authoritarian politics — and the zero-sum game — characteristic of Syria’s history since independence.

Writing in 2004 in his history of the Iraqi Baath Party, Lebanese writer Hazem Saghieh wondered about how democracy could be enacted in the region. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was painful for many Arabs, a stark reminder of just how weak their people had become. Even those who had no love for Saddam Hussein couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with how easily a foreign power removed an Arab leader. But Saghieh blamed the region’s people, saying it was the regional failure to get rid of the “regime of mass graves” that opened the door for a foreign power to do so. “The saying is true that democracy cannot be imposed from above,” Saghieh wrote, but this “prompts a bigger problem than it solves: have the correct, serious expressions appeared among us to demand democracy from below?” The Arab Spring was the first real test of that question after the Iraq invasion. If Syria is any indication, the answer must be no.

Nearly ten years ago, almost everyone following the news had a sense of hope that change was finally coming to countries like Syria. Now, it is hard to imagine even a return to the status quo antebellum, let alone forward progress on a path to democracy or some other form of better governance. In retrospect, the origins of the current intolerance were quite obvious (at least for readers of Turki Ali al-Rabi’u and other Syrian intellectuals). When the revolution started in 2011, the voices anticipating positive change drowned out the naysayers. But for now, the naysayers have been largely vindicated. For Syrians who want to resolve the conflict and move forward, the solution is so simple, yet so evasive: build an intellectual and political environment where dissent is tolerated and respected. It must necessarily start with the notion that it is not treasonous to have an opinion outside the mainstream. The Syrian government may be the worst violator of this principle, but is certainly not alone. For outsiders who want to help the country, as many did in 2011, closer scrutiny of both rhetoric and action might prevent destabilizing interventions on behalf of political actors who chant “freedom” without demanding that they clarify whether that freedom applies to their opponents as well.

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