Is the current violence in Syria a revolt of “society” against an oppressive state, or should it be read more meaningfully as a full fledged civil war? If we assume the perspective of civil war, then the “state” and its various apparatuses would stand as just one “civil party” among others, protective of its own social and political interests, while revealing the multi-layered relations of power in Syrian society which cannot be solely attributed to a dysfunctional state–society relation. That is to say, even though the violence was originally meant to displace the apparatuses of the state, it has since then sprawled in different directions, not to be restricted to the problems of legitimacy that an authoritarian state has engulfed itself into since the Baathist revolution in the 1960s. It is such hypothesis that we want to explore, first, by contextualizing the antinomies of the Syrian nation-state in historical perspective, since its inception from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and the French colonial state. Second, through a combination of sociological and anthropological approaches, we want to analyze the contradictions that the Baathist state has set itself into once it has opted for a hegemonic takeover of civil society, in particular in the 1970s, with Asad’s “corrective movement” and its aftermath, which led to a massive expansion of the state apparatuses.
The collapse of the old Ottoman order, both in its political and cultural connotations, established, amid the Sykes–Picot agreements in 1916, a British–French colonial order, which implied moving, quite abruptly, from Empire to nation-state. New states with colonial “borders” (“lines in the sand”) were thus formed, such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Kuwait, whose territories were previously set within the “frontiers” of a multi-ethnic empire. The post-Ottoman colonial order was therefore the first attempt to create a modern nation-state with that awkward combination of a sovereign state, supported by a national bourgeoisie of rentiers, manufacturers and financiers (the ex-Ottoman urban notables), which inevitably dominated politics and government. This colonial liberal order, which coopted the nascent national bourgeoisie into its ranks, persevered until the Second World War. The first indication of the displacement of such political and economic order was, indeed, the free officers revolution in Egypt in 1952, which other countries have replicated. With that single event the social roots of a would-be second political and economic order, which still dominates the region until now, and which apparently the current revolts are attempting to displace, was already there.
But are we ready for a third order? With Gamal Abdul Nasser coming to power in 1952, Egypt would opt for a series of statist measures that would ultimately establish themselves as a blueprint for the Arab world at large: the undermining of the power of the colonial bourgeoisie through methods of confiscation or nationalization of rural, urban, manufacturing, financial and educational assets. Which led to a state-controlled economy, where the state’s security is monopolized by an ever growing army, paramilitary groups, and intelligence services.
The dismantlement of the colonial liberal order was therefore quick to happen, and in Egypt that order was already fully reversed by the mid-1950s: by then Egypt, the most populous Arab country, was running under a massive civil and military bureaucracy where the role of the military (as epitomized by Nasser himself) and intelligence services had become paramount; where education and the economy were fully dominated by the statist bureaucracy; and where the peasantry, looked upon as suspicious for its conservatism and subjection to old landlord families, was subject to constant political mobilization. Such drastic processes, irreversibly anti-liberal, would serve as blueprint for the rest of the Arab world, and by the late 1950s other Arab countries would follow suit. In 1958 the coup of Abdul-Karim Qasim, another disgruntled officer, has put a sudden and bloody end to the rule of the Hashimite monarchy which had been ruling Iraq since the 1920s. In 1963 the Baath Party came to power in both Iraq and Syria, whose rule has been further brutally consolidated in the 1970s with Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In 1969, a coup led by an unknown and young officer under the name of Mu‘ammar al-Gadhafi, damaged the long and stable rule of the Idrissi monarchy in Libya. By 1978–79 this “second political and economic order” was locked and further consolidated thanks to the Iranian revolution, which undermined the Pahlavi dynasty, and a tradition of Shi‘i monarchism since the early sixteenth century, instituting an Islamic Republic for the first time in the Middle East and West Asia.
This brief recapitulation of events should remind us of the frailty of the colonial bourgeois order that was established in the wake of the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire: if that order has been reversed all too easily, in a series of coups d’états across the region, and through blunt statist measures intended to weaken the private economies, it was only because of the puniness of that order, which could be attributed to Ottoman times, and to the way the old élites, appended with new professional groups, were integrated into the colonial economy. To begin with, the Ottoman political patrimonial order implied maintaining a close hand on the prebendal urban élite (the a‘yān) through stipends in the form of land rents. But even though the ownership was formally to the sultan and the state, the notables enjoyed de facto full possession, giving them that special status of a group (Stände) of rentiers without, however, much competition from any local or regional economic group. Even though some of the a‘yān invested in other activities than land, such as trade and manufacturing, land was their prime resource. More importantly, the a‘yān as the prime status group in society was neither an “aristocracy” per se nor assigned any political role within their community, beginning with the city which they were supposed to “represent.” Indeed, Ottoman absolutism precluded the formation of local aristocracies, leaving all “political representation” to the center.
With the colonial nation-state now a reality, that old order was not completely dislodged, but was rather beefed up with all kinds of new forces and realities. To begin with, land rent now intermixed with manufacturing, trade and finance, as the old rentiers have learned how not to make land their sole asset. Secondly, new middle class professional groups, not to mention the nouveaux riches, all of which benefited from the openings of colonialism, and the special attention that the latter accorded to “minorities” (Christians, Armenians, Jews, Kurds and Alawis), were now sharing the benefits of the commercial and manufacturing wealth of the mandate period. Thirdly, the old élites, in conjunction with new entrepreneurial groups, formed political parties, participating in all governmental activities, from the presidency, parliament, and cabinet positions. As a newly formed nation-state, Syria now thought of itself as a territory with internationally acknowledged borders, rather than as a “province” appended to a multi-ethnic empire. But this also implied seeking for a certain degree of homogeneity, which was not there in the world of Empire. The heterogeneous nature of Syrian society was marked by a couple of incongruities. Firstly, the mandate inherited the Ottoman millet system, whereby “communities” lived on their own, in specific neighborhoods of the city, with their own schools, businesses, and “representatives” protecting their rights. Secondly, the nation-state implied the formation of a single political territory, which de facto entailed a minimum degree of cohesiveness among regions. In the Ottoman system, the central axis of the four major predominantly Sunni cities of Damascus, Hims, Hama, and Aleppo, was the one that consolidated the core of the traditional rentier class, the manufacturing of the craft guilds, linking the trade routes and their merchant classes from Jerusalem to Baghdad. With the newly formed nation-state that core economic axis was shared with two additional ones: the western Mediterranean one of Banyas, Jableh, Tartus and Latakia (the predominantly Alawi mountainous and coastal regions), and the northern-eastern one of Hasakeh, Qamishli and Dayr al-Zor. It is safe to say that Syria’s modern history hinges, on the one hand, on the relations between the operational economic hegemony of Sunni and Christian manufacturing and business families, and, on the other, on the imbalance between the central axis of the four major cities and the two regional axes subserved to them.
In a predominantly agrarian society there is that lingering problem of mostly landless peasants, of big “absentee” landlords who invest the bulk of their rents in the city, of lack of adequate infrastructural resources (roads, schools, water and electricity), of peasants being “represented” by their abusive landlords. To elaborate, the power relations are always in favor of the urban areas, but even further, there is that persistent imbalance between the urban axes—the core one of the four major cities, and the ones attached to it by the mandate—which doubles the urban–rural imbalance into one with underdeveloped urban axes.
To proceed a bit rapidly, it is no secret that the structure of the paramilitary factions that downsized the traditional political and economic groups since the 1963 Baath coup, were small to middle class landowners from rural areas. Indeed, the Baath was supposed to bridge that gap between landlord and peasant, city and countryside, the core Sunni axis of the four major cities with the western coastal and mountainous areas, and the north-east. The agrarian reforms of 1963–69 did some of that, by dispossessing big landlords, and transforming peasants into small landlords, with various laws making it harder for the landlord to evict tenant-farmers and laborers. At the same time, the economic assets of what became in the liberal period the “bourgeois middle class” were nationalized in an apparent attempt to consolidate the state monopoly over the economy and its national resources. Quite rapidly, therefore, the early pre-Asad Baath managed to rip off landowning, manufacturing, and financial middle class groups from their core resources, which in itself was a blunt attempt to downgrade them politically in favor of the one-party system that was yet to come. The Syrian paradox—or exception—would consist precisely in the return of the power groups that were weakened in the 1960s. This would take place in the coming couple decades in two different stages. When Hafiz al-Asad assumed power in 1970 in the wake of a coup d’état against his early Baathist companions, he inaugurated what was then dubbed as the “rectification movement,” which in essence meant “correcting” the “extremes” of the early Baath. More concretely, this aimed at a re-opening towards old Sunni and Christian professional groups that always dominated the national economy; but even though they were openly courted to reinvest in core economic sectors (such as textiles, food and chemicals), they did so only reluctantly, leading the whole “rectification movement” into a downward spiral from which it never recovered. The 1979–82 years in particular witnessed a number of urban riots, led by the since then outlawed Muslim Brothers, which culminated in the Hama massacre in 1982, a symptomatic failure of a state-run economy.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the communist bloc left Syria without the “socialist” protective umbrella that it relied upon since the 1960s. An attempt was made to “liberalize” the economy, this time more realistic than the defunct “reforms” of the 1970s, with “investment law n° 10” in 1991. Herein lies the paradoxical dialectic of contemporary Syrian history: firstly, the return en force since the 1990s of the economic Sunni and Christian middle classes; secondly, the failure of the one-party “socialist” state to reduce imbalances among confessional groups, cities and regions; or to incorporate new emerging groups into its entrepreneurial activities (including the Alawis which are supposedly in control of political power via the Asad clan, but which as a whole are an underclass rather than a privileged group); or to drastically improve the status of the peasantry and the redundant surplus in rural labor. In sum, there is a blatant “return” to the Ottoman and colonial eras, with their dominant professional Sunni and Christian urban groups, which look down at peasants, tribes, and rural areas. In one of those iconic historical twists, which may be at the root of the current uprisings, political power is presently in the hands of groups which originally were small to middle class rural landowners, and whose rural origins seem all too forgotten amid four decades in power; while “real” economic power is back to the groups that were displaced in the 1960s by those who are now holding power. It is such an awkward “sharing” of power between well experienced entrepreneurial ancien régime factions that cannot rule, and the political nouveaux riches, who do not have the required entrepreneurial habitus to be fully integrated into the ranks of the traditional economic class, which now delineates Syria in its civil war.