Thursday, May 18, 2006

Syria Gets an "A" on Security

Camille-Alexandre Otrakji has started an on-line think Tank at his site: Creative Syria. He has asked a number of Syrianists to contribute articles. His stable of contributors include Ambassador Imad Mustapha, Reem Allaf of Chatham House, Ammar Abdulhamid - Syrian oppositionist and novelist extraordinaire, and me, who will be writing this week on the topic:

Compare the Assads' achievements to those of their neighbors. Consider the following areas: economics, international relations, security, national pride, human rights.
Other Syrianists who have accepted to write in the future are: Sami Moubayed, Ibrahim Hamidi, Murhaf Jouejati, and Patrick Seale. Go to his site to read the short essays. You may also grade them the essays to show who is up and who is down.

My contribution this the following:

Syria Gets an "A" on Security
by Joshua Landis
May 18, 2006
“Syria Comment”

If the Assad regime has prided itself on anything, it has been security. Many Syrian social goals have been sacrificed on the alter of security – economic growth, freedom of speech and assembly, and openness to the rest of the world – to name just a few. Most recently, Bashar al-Asad announced during an interview on Sky TV that considering the conditions Syria finds itself in, his number one goal was security and that reform would have to come second. In retrospect, this was clearly a warning to Syria’s reformers that Syria’s policy toward the opposition had changed. It presaged the crackdown we are now witnessing. It is worth evaluating, then, how well the Asad regime has done in comparison to its neighbors in protecting Syria and Syrians.

The first measure we might use is the dead body count. Although crude, it is instructive. Here Syria gets a “B”. The question is: since 1970, has the government killed or allowed to be killed more of its own citizens than its neighbors have?

Syria is part of the Levant, which is distinguished in the larger Middle East by its ethnic and religious diversity. This diversity, although potentially an asset, has presented the Levant states with serious challenges during the course of nation building, which is far from complete. At one end of the spectrum, we have Lebanon, the central government of which was too weak and underdeveloped to withstand the intense pressures that overcame it. The government could not hold its competing sectarian communities together. In 1975, the government failed, leading to the long civil war and the death of at least 150,000 of Lebanon’s 4 million inhabitants. Many more were displaced and millions left the country. In total, roughly 1 out of ever 27 Lebanese was killed during the war. Lebanon gets an “F”.

The Baathist regime of Iraq stands at the other end of the Levant spectrum. It became so muscle bound in its attempt to destroy sectarianism that it became totalitarian and produced an extreme form of fascism or nationalist intolerance. Both Kurds and many Shiites were ultimately labeled foreign and subversive elements. They were slated for elimination. Saddam killed hundreds of thousands in his drive to hold the country together under his intolerant rule. It is hard to quantify the number he killed, but let’s say 300,000 were killed in the war with Iraq, 200,000 Kurds were killed in the Anfal campaign and other massacres. Perhaps and equal number of Shiites were killed in the elimination of al-Dawa and the suppression of the southern uprising in 1991. One can add to these numbers: the Iraqis killed during the period of foreign sanctions, the suppression of the Marsh Arabs, the routine killings in his prisons, etc. Should one also blame him for the US invasion and subsequent deaths in the ongoing civil war? Let us put the conservative number of 700,000 on the Iraqi deaths caused by Saddam. The real number must be higher, but if we stick with 700,000 out of 24 million Iraqis, Saddam’s government killed 1 out of ever 34 Iraqis. Iraq gets an “F”.

Israel also does not do as well as Syria. The main ethnic division is between Arabs and Jews. Since 1967, the Jews have ruled over Palestine’s Arab population, acquiring juridical responsibility for them. Although some will say it is not fair to include the Arab population of the occupied territories in Israel’s body count, I think we must. The Israeli government is the master of Palestine, and Arab Palestinians are the subjects of the Israeli government not unlike the Iraqi Kurds who have been the subjects of Saddam’s government. I don’t know the number of Palestinians killed by Israel and will not hazard a guess because it will only provoke an unproductive argument, all the same, as a proportion of total dead it is significantly lower than the proportion killed in Lebanon or Iraq. But if one adds to it the number of displaced Palestinians and those who have been wounded or fled their homes, the trauma of nation building in Palestine is high, certainly much higher than in Syria. Israeli nationalism is exclusionary and cannot provide equality for its religious minorities. By expanding over the largely Arab inhabited regions of Palestine, the Jewish state has created a problem of nation building that it will not easily solve and is bound to lead to many more deaths.

Turkey is not technically a Levantine state. It has been spared some of the trauma of nation-building because of the ethnic cleansing that took place during WWI and its aftermath, when the entire Armenian community of 1.5 to 2 million was wiped out or expelled and 1.5 million Anatolian Christians were transferred to Greece. We also cannot hold the present state responsible for the devastation caused by the Young Turks’ mishandling of WWI. The population of Anatolia declined 25% during the war years, dropping from 13 million in 1914 to 10 million in 1922, when the war with Greece ended. The problems of nation-building faced by the modern Turkish state have been diminished by the unprecedented scale of killing and ethnic cleansing that took place during the final years of Ottoman rule. We also cannot include the large numbers of Kurds killed during the first decades of Atatürk’s regime, when the Shaykh Said rebellion and other largely Kurdish rebellions were suppressed, but it is worth remembering that seventeen of the eighteen military engagements in which Turkish military fought from 1924 to 1938 occurred in Kurdistan. We will also not count the 60,000 or so mainly Christian and Alawi refugees from the Hatay, or Alexandretta, who fled their homes for refuge in Syria, when that province was annexed to Turkey in 1938. It can also be added that in 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, Turkish forces entered Iraq in order to suppress and contain Kurdish nationalist and guerilla groups. In the last 20 years alone, some 30,000 Turks, mainly Kurds, have been killed in ethnic fighting in the East of the country. The many Armenians, Orthodox and Syriac Christians, and Kurds expelled to Syria by Turkey during the first decades of the 20th century have found a home in Syria that has been, by and large, tolerant and welcoming. On the whole, the Arabism of the Syrian state, even that of the Baathist regime under the Assad family has been more tolerant of its ethnic minorities than has the Turkish nationalism of Ankara. The death toll in Turkey over the last 35 years as a proportion of Turkey’s large population is small when compared to its Levantine neighbors, all the same, Turkish nationalism has been ethnically blinkered and integralist. According to the last count of Turkish political prisoners by Amnesty international in 2001, Turkish prisons held over 10,000 prisoners of conscience, a number more than 5 times as high that held in Syrian prisons. If one considers the sweep of 20th century history, Syria comes off better than Turkey on the dead body count, whether in absolute numbers or as a proportion of its population.

Finally, we arrive at Jordan, the one state that has clearly done as well as Syria in the neighborhood at protecting its own subjects from death. One might argue that Jordan has had less to contend with in nation-building because its is a large Muslim country with few ethnic or religious minorities. But this would be to ignore the difficulties of integrating the majority Palestinian population. During the Black September incident in 1970, when Palestinians tried to assassinate King Hussein and overthrow the Hashemite state, some 3,500 were killed out of a total population of 1,7 million, a mere 1 out of 486 Jordanians, much less than its other Levantine neighbors, save for Syria. Jordan is the only state in the region to get an undisputed “A”.

Syria has managed its nation-building process with few deaths in comparison to its neighbors and with very little ethnic cleansing. The Jewish population of Syria has cleared out and underwent serious discrimination. Anti-Jewish sentiment in Syria is high. Other minorities have faired quite well. Kurds, most particularly those who were denied nationality under the Qudsi government of 1962, have been most subject to unfair treatment, but even then, it must be said that Syria, in comparison to the other countries that have large Kurdish populations – Turkey, Iraq, and Iran – has treated its Kurds with the least amount of discrimination or persecution.

Hama and the mini-civil war of the early 1980s between Sunni extremists and the Alawi dominated state stands out as the great blemish of Asad rule. Some where between 10,000 and 20,000 Syrians are believed to have been killed during this period. If we take the higher estimate and divide it into the total population in 1982 of 10 million, we get 1 out of 500 Syrians killed. This is on a par with Jordan’s 1 out of 486. We can bring Syria’s numbers down if we add in Syrian deaths in Lebanon, but the number will remain on a par with Jordan’s. It is also worth mentioning that Syria has one of the smaller ratios of political prisoners to total population in the entire Middle East. I have already given estimates of these on Syria Comment.

Syria’s brand of Arabism, although chauvinistic in its privileging of Arabs over other ethnic groups, has been much less bigoted or discriminatory than the nationalism of most of its neighbors. Armenians, who made up 4% of the Syrian population in 1948 were treated well and allowed to have their own schools and teach in Armenian. Minorities of almost every stripe have been protected – sometimes privileged – under Syria’s Baathist state, in large measure because the dominant Alawis are themselves a religious minority in the region; enforcing tolerance in a region that is not known for its religious and ethnic tolerance during the modern nation-building era, is in their own best interest. Syria is now home to many different refugee groups, chased from neighboring countries. We have already mentioned the Armenians, Orthodox Christians, Alawis, and Kurds who fled Anatolia, but we can add to them the Iraq Assyrians, the half-million recent Iraqi refugees, the 400,000 Palestinians, Iraqi Shiites of the 1980s, all of whom have found a home in Syria.

In conclusion, it is fair to state that Syria over the last 35 years has done as well as or better than all its neighbors at protecting its own subjects. The state has not collapsed into civil war. By preserving a stable central government without allowing it to become overly muscle bound and fascist, it has also minimized the number who have been killed or been displace due to state-sanctioned discrimination and violence. This is something that Syrians can be very proud of. It is something worth protecting.


At 5/18/2006 05:34:00 PM, Blogger George Ajjan said...

This comment has been removed because it linked to malicious content. Learn more.

At 5/18/2006 09:29:00 PM, Blogger norman said...

Well done Joshua.

At 5/19/2006 12:15:00 AM, Blogger zamzami said...

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At 5/19/2006 12:25:00 AM, Blogger zamzami said...

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At 5/19/2006 12:26:00 AM, Blogger zamzami said...

Tombs and cemeteries are more secure than makhlouf-asad farmhouse So why not droping A bombs on Syrian cities and the things will be better in Landis's eyes.

Behind misleading facade,hatred is growing in silence ,asad regime has created an atmosphere of mistrust between a syrian an another syrian , between neighbors from the same street.Syria was known to be a liberal,peaceful and cosmopolitan country ,after years of tyranny ,most of these values have disappeared.
The question that we should ask is :How can Syria overcome a legacy of dictatorial rule and social time bombs ?

At 5/19/2006 12:37:00 AM, Blogger Frank said...

Thanks Josh for the link to the think tank

The writers are fascinating and the whole group gives an insight into the reality of Syria.

I will read more with great interest.

At 5/19/2006 01:07:00 AM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

Zamzami, Syria was definately more liberal in the 1950s, but it was also slipping toward real instability and possible civil war. I don't get the A bomb suggestion.

The Assad regime needs real change, there is no disputing that. How, is the question.

Thanks to others for their kind comments. For the not so kind comments read those at Ammar's site.

At 5/19/2006 02:35:00 AM, Blogger zamzami said...

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At 5/19/2006 02:49:00 AM, Blogger zamzami said...

Dr Landis,in the 50's and the begining of the 60's the civil society,private or state institutions were strong enough to overcome this "coup d'etat"era (inaugurated by Husni al Zaim) and to restore the parliamentary life until the baath coup in 1963 and the imposition of the emergency law.
Even during this political instability that resulted from the big powers struggle over Baghdad Pact and apart from Shishakli -Druzes conflict,Syria had never seen major social,civil or economic trouble.

At 5/19/2006 09:38:00 AM, Blogger Nafdik said...

Thank you Dr Landis for this lucid comparision that is based on facts rather than rhetoric.

Of course statistics can be used to misrepresent reality, and I have a nagging feeling that what you are saying is fondamentally wrong. I simply can not put my finger on it.

I urge my co-readers to find the holes in Dr Landis presentation, but through factual and numeric analysis rather than emotional and anecdotal rhetoric.

At 5/19/2006 10:58:00 AM, Blogger syrian said...


I think you might be reading more in the piece than there is. The grade of "A" is given relative to other countries in a region that, taken as a whole, get a grade of "F" on minority rights and general respect for human rights. All this article is saying is we, in syria, are among the best of the worst tier of nations.

At 5/19/2006 11:33:00 AM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

Syrian30, that is really all I am saying. If you were born into any one of the 6 countries I write about during the 20th century, your chances of not meeting a violent death would be higher if you were born in Syria. Of course, you cannot chose your ethnicity or religion. If you were born a Jew in Israel or Muslim Turk in Turkey, your life could be very good.

I think the comparison between the countries is important. The terrible situation in Iraq reminds us of how dangerous change the region is and can be again. Wishing for regime change in Syria if fine. We all do it. But it must be under the right circumstances and the people have to be prepared for it. Having an outside force unsettle things is asking for trouble, it seems to me.

At 5/19/2006 12:58:00 PM, Blogger zamzami said...

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At 5/19/2006 01:17:00 PM, Blogger zamzami said...

Dr Landis what u said about refugies integration in the syrian society was true for syria prior to baath,and again, you under estimated the human disaster under asad rule,u ignored the thousands who disappeared and the mass killings in other regions than Hama.(the number of assad victims in Syria is by far more than 50 000).Mass graves ,Massive and blind human rights violations,cities destruction,political elite elimination ,mass rape,sectarian selection, were unknown facts in the syrian arab republic before baath.
As for the armenians and syriac communities that have found home in Syria during the WW1,prior to baath ,they became very active in social ,cultural and economic life and well integrated in the syrian society,then,most of them have fled Syria's asad to America,Canada and Europe.Contrary to what you said ,most the christian schools were closed by the baathists and these schools existed since the ottomans.

At 5/20/2006 07:31:00 AM, Blogger Chase said...

This is an important prospective, thank you Mr. Landis.

We shouldn't forget though, that the security Syria enjoys is temporary and remains a by-product
of the regime grip on power being firm and unthreatened. I think I can positively add that most Syrians are aware of that fact. A body count wouldn't really measure security or ethnic tolerance on the ground (Economic welfare, for example, is a basic part of security anywhere). If the Syrian government could so far protect their power relatively cheaper than their friends in Iraq or Lebanon, that doesn't mean they'd have hesitated to commit crimes on a larger scale if that was necessary for their survival. We must remember that security and ethnic tolerance are there as cornerstones for the status-que, we enjoy them because of a certain policy, and not law.

On another note, I'd point out that the Syrian regime is growing
less related to individuals than before, as we saw it sacrificing some of its most important members, like Kannan or Khaddam. That was part of the power shift from father to son. But it also
means that we will see few or none today enjoying the powers these two once had. Consequently,
the relative tolerance we see today towards opposition, in comparison with Hafez days, is partly a result of power
being fragmented in the regime. So, luckily, there is a little chance we'd see any large scale
oppression against the Syrian people, due to the many conflicting elements in the regime, and to the fact that all these elements have become disposable. Probably including the most senior ones.
This fragmentation of power inside the body of authority is a process that is shifting its shape slowly. Whether it will disintegrate peacefully and gradually into some democratic form, or put up a last fight to add another portion of deaths to the figures, that remains to be seen.

At 5/21/2006 01:19:00 PM, Blogger Bluefloyds said...

A great article, the best part of it is chase_001 comment.
Quite insightful Chase.

At 5/22/2006 02:14:00 AM, Blogger 10452 said...

This is quite intellectually dishonest of you Landis. 1 out of 27 Lebanese died? Did you ever ask yourself who killed nthose 1 out of 27 Lebanese directly or indirectly?

You have stooped to a new low Mr. Landis.


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