To Barry Rubin, an Israeli scholar who specializes in Middle East affairs, Syria is something of a basket case, a country that, in his corrosive words, is “ideologically bankrupt, economically backward, geographically circumscribed and militarily feeble.”
But why should we lose sleep over a blinkered, underdeveloped Third World nation like Syria?
Because Syria, Israel’s antagonistic neighbour to the north, has played what he describes in The Truth About Syria (St. Martin’s Press) as “a powerful and negative role in shaping the modern Middle East.”
Let us count the ways.
Syria has inflamed the Arab-Israeli conflict by having hosted Palestinian radical organizations at war with Israel.
Syria has supported Hezbollah, which touched off a 34-day war with Israel in the summer of 2006.
And, of course, Syria has meddled in Lebanon’s internal affairs, which has a direct bearing on Israel.
And yet, as Rubin adds in this primer and polemic, Syria is weak, lacking Egypt’s power and Saudi Arabia’s financial clout. In addition, due to its diverse population, Syria lacks internal coherence.
In Rubin’s view, Syria has squandered what seemed like a bright future. Syria has ample natural resources, fertile land and an entrepreneurial middle class. Yet a politicized officer class, driven by militant ideas borrowed from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, pushed Syria down the path of totalitarianism rather than democracy.
As a result, from 1949 onward, Syria was extremely unstable, falling prey to a succession of coups.
Hafez Assad, a general who seized power in 1970 and ruled until his death in 2000, ended that era of instability by exercising ruthless repression.
In 1982, for example, he crushed an Islamic revolt in Hama, levelling whole neighbourhoods and killing about 10,000 civilians.
Assad’s son, Bashar, has perpetuating the family dynasty through a carrot-and-stick strategy.
Syrians who do not question the legitimacy of his Baathist regime – which is philosophically grounded in fascism and communism – have access to good jobs and careers.
Dissenters, however, are scorned and punished. This tactic, Rubin observes, keeps the small opposition isolated and intimidated.
Striking some balance in his narrative, he acknowledges that the Syrian government was never as draconian as the Baathist regime in Iraq in its treatment of its citizens.
The Syrians knew that a gentler but still firm approach would be advantageous in terms of stifling dissent and minimizing damage to Syria’s international image, the fallout of the Maher Arar case notwithstanding. (Arar, who holds dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship, was deported to Syria by the United States and tortured.)
For a while after his ascendancy, following his father’s sudden death, Bashar Assad encouraged reform, but this period was a short-lived one, like a mirage in the desert.
“From the regime’s standpoint, the reform movement was not a group of people trying to make Syria better, stronger and more prosperous, but a malignancy that threatened national survival,” he writes in a typically tough passage.
At best, he notes, Assad wanted only to tinker with the system, seeking “technocratic improvements” that would usher in economic benefits without real political or social change.
Rubin believes that three factors have kept the creaking Syrian economy afloat: revenues from declining oil production; remittances from about one million Syrian workers in Lebanon; and Arab foreign aid, which peaked in 1990 when, in exchange for its participation in the first Gulf War, Syria received between $4 and $5 billion from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
Apart from stability, he credits Baathists such as the Assads with bringing land reform and a measure of social mobility to Syria.
But on balance, the Baathists brought more harm than good, “smothering a vibrant society under a gray authoritarianism,” Rubin writes in one of his harshest indictments.
In a reference to two of the least desirable legacies of the Baathists – who govern on the basis of iron-clad control and incessant indoctrination – Rubin cites rampant corruption and a total absence of freedom of the press.
At the very least, Syrian businessmen can prosper only if they toe the Baathist party line. As for the media, most journalists are employees of the ministry of information, which speaks volumes.
Rubin also takes Syria to task for promoting anti-Semitism through the media and television shows and for harbouring the Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner, who was Adolf Eichmann’s assistant.
On another front, Rubin condemns Syria for its support of terrorism. Syria’s sponsorship of extreme Palestinian factions, ranging from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to Hamas, goes back more than four decades. To avoid incurring Israel’s wrath, he notes, Syria routed attacks on Israel through Jordan and Lebanon in the 1960s and ’70s.
As well, he is critical of Syria’s role in Lebanon, a nation whose sovereignty Damascus did not officially recognize through formal diplomatic relations and the establishment of an embassy in Beirut. Last month, though, Syria announced a readiness to recognize Lebanon under certain conditions.
Since Rubin’s working assumption is that Syria’s objective is Israel’s destruction, he argues that Syria would be better off not signing a peace treaty with Israel.
Claiming that the Syrians have more to lose than to gain in peace, Rubin says that a full-blown agreement with Israel would increase regional stability, raise the profile of the United States in the area and enhance Israel’s position in the Arab world.
These are outcomes presently opposed by Syria, suggests Rubin, whose book was published before the Syrians and the Israelis launched their latest round of peace talks in Turkey several months ago.
Although Israel and Syria have conducted preliminary and indirect talks so far, the Syrians have expressed an interest in elevating them to the level of direct negotiations once the Bush administration leaves the stage and Israel formally agrees to withdraw to the pre-1967 border.
If the Syrians are indeed sincere, Rubin’s grand theory about their lack of ardour in genuine peace would fall by the wayside.