As Syrian president Bashar al-Assad prosecutes his 18th year in office, he is presenting himself as a secular leader in a sea of Islamist extremism and terror. But his record makes a mockery of that claim. However long he stays in office, he will forever be remembered a president who oversaw the devastation of his country and resorted to hideous attacks on civilians in order to remain in power. And as for Assad’s pretentions to secularism, the foundations of his government’s supposed ideology were cast away even before he succeeded his father as president.
The Syrian government’s professed secularism dates back decades, and derives from the school of political thought known as Arab Baathism, the core principles of which were Arab unity, freedom and socialism. In the years after World War II, these were not hollow words, they were political imperatives in the struggle against colonialism and elite rule.
The Syrian branch of the Baathist movement came to power in a coup d'état in 1963. In the 1970s, one of the military officers involved in the coup, Hafez al-Assad, took the helm and steadily entrenched the his family and its political network as the rulers of Syria.
As the Assad family took control, it exploited the infrastructure of the Arab Baath movement and party to retain power. But for all that they paid lip service to Baathist principles, the Assads were less interested in serving the Syrian people than in dominating them. Decades later, the political traditions of Arab Baathism are long dead, and Assadism holds sway in its place.
Government for the few
The gap between these two modes of government is all too apparent. Central to influential strands of Baathist thought was an inclusive definition of what it meant to “be Arab” – a definition that revolved around geographical, cultural and linguistic aspects of being an Arab rather than mere ethnic origin.
Yet the supposedly Baathist Syria was never so inclusive; its Kurds, in particular, have been suppressed for decades. Baathism was supposed to rise above sectarian and ethnic differences among Arabs, but in Assadist Syria, sectarian differences were fanned from the start.
As for notions of equality, the benefits of economic reforms were distributed unevenly and selectively, marginalising communities in the Syrian provinces even as elites enriched themselves.
The older and younger Assads followed similar paths. Where Hafez al-Assad violently crushed dissent in the city of Hama in the 1980s, and nurtured complex social and political allegiances, his son Bashar continued a programme of economic reform that benefited big industry and established a broad patronage network.
In some respects Bashar was a reformist and forward-looking president, introducing the internet and allowing a private media sector to develop. But his reformist agenda ultimately devolved into runaway capitalism and rapacious self-enrichment for a small clique of Syrian families and businesses. Today, it’s these people who are central to the government’s survival.
Locking up power
It didn’t have to be this way. In the early years of Bashar’s reign, there briefly seemed to be a window for civil society to open up – but soon enough, that window was closed. Key opposition figures such as Michel Kilo were imprisoned, and the brief Damascus Spring of 2000-1 was bitterly shut down.
But once we accept that Assadism was never truly concerned with promoting a secular and equal society, it’s easier to understand why today’s government is working so closely with such odd bedfellows as the theocracy in Iran and the religiously conservative Hezbollah.
A longstanding feature of Assadist rule has been a tendency to lock up secular and leftist thinkers and intellectuals. The communists were locked in Syria’s prisons together with the Islamists, and anyone else who spoke out of line. If not imprisoned, anyone who might pose a threat was co-opted. Pockets of space for some Sunni sheikhs to promote their religious thought and practice – notably in the education system – were bartered in exchange for blind loyalty.
Since the 2011 revolution, the government has aligned itself with and promoted a proto-fascist nationalism that encourages an utter disdain for the majority of Syrians, namely the pious Sunnis who live in restive areas of Syria’s provinces and countryside. And any claim the government had to lead a resistance against oppression were severely tested when a new grassroots opposition emerged in Syria’s towns and villages only to be cruelly crushed by government forces.
Claims to resistance and to be the voice of the Palestinian cause merely obscure a politics of pragmatic self-preservation and dictatorial practices. It has always been progressive leftist voices that have posed the most threat to Assad’s rule. The troika of myths about the Syrian state – that it is secular, modern, and leads the resistance against imperial and Zionist threats – simply do not bear scrutiny.
Who actually benefits from the continuation of Assadism? The same people who were embedded in the Assadist networks and enriched themselves before the 2011 revolution and current civil war. They are doing well out of Syria’s war economy, which has made some people very rich. And even as Assad oversees brutal attacks on civilians and one of the world’s worst refugee crises, the war provides disturbing new symbols and ideas to provide a rationale for his continued rule.