Understanding Political Reality in Syria


Robin Edward Poulton, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

In his OpEd of June 3rd entitled The Depravity Factor, David Brooks writes emotionally about a murdered 13-year-old Syrian boy called Hamza Ali al-Khateeb. The descriptions and internet photographs of Hamza’s tortured body are horrible, but Brooks draws from this story a set of political conclusions that are unjustified by anything we know about Syria or the region we vaguely think of as the ‘Middle East’. The journalistic expression ‘Arab Spring’ is unhelpful. Libya’s bloody civil war is ‘Spring’? Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings against 80-year-old military dictators have warped our sense of reality. Syria has nothing in common with Tunisia… but it has a lot in common with Iraq next-door, teetering on the brink of civil war since the American invasion of 2003.

Syria has been a generous host to tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees. Many of these refugees are Christians, fleeing Islamic radicalization promoted by Iran, Saudi Arabia and – yes – the USA. Many more refugees are Muslim families who can no longer live in Iraq, because one spouse is Sunni and the other Shia. Iraq is a land where ‘ethnic religious cleansing’ has become a fact of life. With Sunnis living in barricaded districts on one side of town and Shias living in armed ghettos on the other side, where can a Sunni-Shia family go? Refused entry by the US and UK and French invaders who destroyed their country, they have mostly fled to the tolerant, secular, multi-religious nation of Syria.

The Syrian revolt that began in the city of Dera’a has nothing in common with Tunisia. The Dera’a street protests started with Sunni Muslims demanding that girls attending school should wear veils. The government refused, since veils are not compulsory under secular Syrian law. Unfortunately, the protests grew. Unfortunately, the police reacted badly. Unfortunately, the government gave in: girls in Dera’a are now forced to wear the veil.

Street protests spread to other towns. President Bashir al-Assad’s speech to the nation spectacularly missed a wonderful opportunity to lead the protest movement towards political reform. Bashir is not an 80-year-old army general. He is a 40-something-year-old eye surgeon from London with a beautiful wife and delightful young children. Syrians generally hoped – and believed – he was a reformer whose modernizing instincts had been stymied during his 11 years of rule by the iron conservatism of the regime he inherited from his father (who was indeed an army general). Perhaps we were all wrong; or perhaps this eye doctor simply does not have the political instincts and charisma needed to seize the leadership of a popular revolution.

The Syrian regime certainly needs improving, although American calls for ‘democracy’ sound terribly naïve to anyone watching Iraq. Historians remember that bringing democracy to Europe caused the deaths of 200 million people. The Syrian police and security services are dreadfully effective and efficient, and that is why Syria has mostly been a stable and happy place to live for the past 50 years – the place to which Iraqi Christian and Muslim refugees have fled for safety. Some Syrian police are brutal and repressive, there is no doubt. Perhaps 12-year-old Hamza was unlucky to fall into the hands of one sadistic, pedophile policeman. We don’t know, but let’s hope his killers will be found and put on trial although that seldom happens in states like Syria, where people in uniform enjoy impunity. But replacing ‘strong regimes’ is not an easy thing to engineer. No Syrian that I know wants to replace Bashir with the bloody chaos they see in Iraq next door.

There are definitely people who want Bashir to go: radical Saudi Wahhabites, Iranian Shia extremists; and the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian anti-colonial movement of the 1930s that first brought Islam into modern politics.  The Muslim Brotherhood led the 1982 revolt in the Syrian city of Hama, which was crushed by Bashir’s father Hafez Al-Assad. David Brooks claims that 10,000 people (almost certainly this is an underestimate) were ‘murdered’ in Hama. Perhaps. But how would President Brooks respond to an armed declaration of independence in a major city and the imposition of Sharia religious law, if he were head of a multi-religious, secular state? Hafez responded like Abraham Lincoln: with overwhelming repression of the armed rebellion, and his political logic was irreproachable. When President Bashir Al-Assad blames the 2011 popular uprising on ‘external influences’ he is not wrong: but American consumerism, television, internet and cell phones are exerting as much influence on the hopes and dreams of unemployed young Syrians as are subversive political forces from Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States.

In Damascus last year, I meditated in the small, stone house of St Anastasias – he was the guy sent by God in the year 34 – to the street called Straight (a Roman road crossing the middle of Damascus) – to fetch the recently-blinded Saul, baptize him as ‘Paul’ and restore his sight. This was the birthplace of Christendom. In Aleppo, the second city of Syria, I visited Ibrahim Mar Gregorius Yohanna, a well-known ecumenical peace maker who is Metropolitan of the Syriac Orthodox Church – the church into which St Paul was baptized. To find the Syriac Orthodox cathedral, I had to eliminate a bewildering range of alternatives: the Protestants (various), the Chaldeans, the Armenians, the Roman Catholics, the Maronite Catholics, the Greek Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox … Every one of these myriad religious minorities is more afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood than of keeping the current Syrian regime in place.

President Bashir Al-Assad is an Alawite, which is another minority (this time of Muslim origin, and denounced by Sunnis as ‘heretic’). The Alawites need to find a way to open their regime to more popular participation. The young men and women in the streets of Syria want change and they want jobs. Most of them do not want ‘democracy’ which is another foreign influence. They see in America and in Iraq that democracy offers only the tyranny of the majority in place of the rule of the Alawite minority. Very few Syrians want a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Brooks says he wants to see Assad’s regime toppled; but the pictures of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb have distorted his vision. International policy cannot be determined by emotional responses to one dead boy.  Hillary Clinton has been far wiser and more reflective in her response to the Syrian crisis, saying that Bashir should make himself a part of the solution, or ‘get out of the way’. Hillary sees the complexities of Syria, and the mess America has made of Iraq. Hillary knows that Syria is filled with Iraqi Christian refugees. If Syria is turned over to the Muslim Brotherhood, where will the other 70 percent of Syria’s population flee to?  Brook’s columns in the NYT are more fun to read than OpEd pieces by Clinton, but thank goodness we have Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and not David Brooks.


Robin Edward Poulton, PhD:

Visiting Professor in International Studies 2002-2004 at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Senior Fellow, UNIDIR-United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Geneva.

rpoulton@comcast.net – repoulton@epesmandala.com




This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 13 Jun 2011.

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