Syrian Exceptionalism and Revolution

It has been argued that Syria, because of its political structure, population diversity, and regional alliances, presents an exceptional case, one where revolution is impossible. However, the yearning for freedom and dignity, the quiet dynamics of human nature trump any exceptionalism. The events in Syria today are not simply political; they represent an attempt to recast the meaning of Syrian national identity.


Syria is a diverse society with the majority of its population Arab (90%) and with the Kurds representing the largest ethnic minority. In terms of religion, Sunni Muslims form 74% of the population, Alawites and Druze 16%, and Christians 10%. Therefore, there are crisscrossing identities in Syria: most of the Kurds are Sunnis, while the Alawites, Christians, and Druze hold on to Syrian or Arab nationalism. Unlike Lebanese politics, the structure of Syrian politics is not sectarian, and Muslim-Christian friction is virtually nonexistent. In the post-independence era, Arab nationalism poised to replace the Islamic ethos as the common social thread attracting people from all groups. Until today, such intellectual bent is considered by some Syrians as nothing less than enlightenment; other see it as the departure point that betrayed the historical identity of the Syrian people who have always lived in the larger context of an Arab-Muslim region. The Kurds represent an anomaly in Syrian politics as their issue is related to the larger problem of Kurdistan. Kurdish organizations once showed significant communist tendencies, but popular sentiments revolve mainly around the allegiance to traditional leadership.

The idealism of Arab nationalism reached its zenith in a rare event in the history of politics. In 1958, the highly respected president of Syria, Shukri Quwatli, stepped down from his position to form a new state unifying Syria and Egypt under the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. This “Unity” period lasted about four years, and it accentuated class conflict, mainly along rural-urban lines. Ambivalence toward Nasserism still lingers in Syria today. The intelligentsia and Christians were markedly attracted to secular liberal utopias, while mainstream Muslims could hardly differentiate between being a Muslim and being an Arab. The Kurds, who once had a space in the Ottoman millet system, were automatically disenfranchised during the unity period.

Internal contradictions were not simply ethnic or political. The realities of prosperity in urban Syria after independence could be sharply contrasted with the poverty in small towns and rural areas. Not only did the big city centers exploit the economic vulnerability of agriculture, they also did not extend its population due respect since their lifestyle felt incongruent with the modern sensibilities that city dwellers were proudly assuming. It is no wonder then that people in villages and towns gravitated toward the discourse of socialism. It is this social base and its grievances that drove Syrian politics toward socialist ideals.


Syria took the road to a security state even though the early system of governance established after independence had a democratic structure. The Baath Party considered this democratic system as merely a reflection of the interests of the privileged middle class. Meanwhile the Alawites, who were the most disenfranchised groups yet were overrepresented in the military, used the Baath Party to usurp power. The Baath leadership adopted the ideology of revolutionary Marxism and readily sought the help of the military to achieve its goals. The grip of the military tightened, and the party’s intellectuals had to flee the country for their safety. A totalitarian political system was put in place, and the anchor of legitimacy was the power to suppress dissent with a vengeance.

The party’s internal bickering allowed a small group of officers to play a decisive role. The once secretive but now well documented “military committee,” formed of five minority members, three Alawite and two Ismailis, represented a cohesive core within the party. Through it, the Baath second coup of 1966 gave the Alawites near full control of the country. The political figures that this coup installed declared the old Baath as the “rotten right” and pushed the country farther left toward the Soviet Union. After the expansion of the “military committee,” Hafez Assad managed to move against his Alawite partners in the committee. Muhammad Omran, who was the most intellectually-minded in the committee and informally in charge of monitoring the government’s agencies but failed in his confrontation with another committee member, strategist Salah Jadid. Omran was exiled and later assassinated, replaced by Assad’s brother, Rifat Assad. In 1969, Hafez and Rifat Assad moved against Jadid, putting him in jail where he eventually died. A fourth important member in the committee, the Ismaili Abdul Karim al-Jundy, committed suicide. The tough and pragmatic Hafez Assad thus became the president; he carefully eliminated potential rivals and attracted weak non- Alawite members to various governmental positions. When Hafez was later admitted to the hospital for several days, Rifat tried to extend his power, bringing Damascus to the brink of a disaster as forces loyal to both brothers clashed. Ultimately, Hafez prevailed and negotiated his brother’s exile to France. Before Hafez died, he managed to purge any individuals capable of challenging him or undermining loyalty to the president.

With the relative relaxation of socialist policies and after turning Lebanon into a private farm, the Syrian military and security forces slowly became businessmen with guns. The Baath Party, the official governing party, was reduced to a facade. All of that was accompanied with irrational governmental interference in people’s lives: holding a wedding party needs clearance by the security forces. Once, a private kindergarten school, run by a regimesanctioned Sufi women’s group, had to get clearance for a children’s performance; the security office demanded a change to the plot so that the queen bee would not die. In the last decade under the current president, the regime dwindled to a circle of a few families, which happened to be Alawite, supported by secondary beneficiaries from other sects. Despite this, not all Alawites benefited from the regime yet, ironically, they cannot imagine a future without it.


Syrian culture dearly holds to conservative values that have religious expressions, and that is evident among all religious groups. Specifically, the Islamic motif pervades the national culture. Any discussion of Islamic movements should be put in such a context where the Syrian society was always at the heart of the Muslim civilization. Islamic movements are organically connected to the society and do not merely constitute a political phenomenon or a social fad.

There have always been ideological battles between the Islamically-minded citizens on one hand, and the Baathists, Nasserites, and other nationalists of secular persuasions on the other. But after the rise of the Baath, the Muslim Brotherhood was deemed an illegal organization, a front of the West, and an enemy of the regime; consequently, the movement, which once had members in parliament, went underground. Repression of political adversaries, and Islamic activism in particular, progressively increased. This development corresponded with a shift in Arab-Muslim consciousness. The post-1967 Arab mood after the defeat by Israel delegitimized the discourse of Arab nationalism. The turn toward religion was not simply a phenomenon of young people, but of the common people.

The campaign to instill in the nation secular-socialist and anti-Islamic programs took a sectarian meaning in the 1970s after the Alawites assumed power. Symbolic violence increased as insults to ordinary Muslims flared up periodically, including a sacrilegious drawing in a regimesponsored magazine and the president’s brother’s militia forcibly removing the head scarves women in the streets of Damascus. One cannot exaggerate the discontent that the majority of mainstream Muslims felt. As a stark example, the greeting of “Assalam Alaikum” in a formal setting not only became unacceptable, but in certain situations could lead to questioning by the security forces.

Furthermore, being a minority, save for the Kurds, became associated with perks. Those perks include a better chance in acquiring key positions. They also include special protections. With the exception of the Kurds, a minority individual is generally considered unsuspicious, less likely to be imprisoned, and if imprisoned less likely to be tortured. And the more Islamicallyoriented the person, the harsher the punishment might be.

Through the years, the suppression of Islam and a Muslim identity in Syrian society intensified, creating an atmosphere amenable to radicalization. By the late 1970s, the militant discourse of a selfstyled Islamic leader became more appealing. The Fighting Front was formed with a goal to end the regime through the assassination of key officials, Alawites as well as Baathists. The movement attracted some Muslim activists from several Islamic movements. As a result, the regime cracked down on Islamic activities in general and on the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, since its leadership abroad had endorsed the rebellion. Muslim activists were jailed and tortured, some disappeared, and many fled the country. The city of Hama was bombed, leaving tens of thousands dead. Islamic activism was ruthlessly crushed. The regime triumphantly paraded its success over “traitors and CIA agents.” Ironically, the dismantling of Islamic movements allowed Muslim activists to broaden their views and to become more in touch with the world; they are an integral part of the revolutionary momentum today.


The Syrian regime eliminated any meaningful challenge to its total control. Furthermore, the regime was able to continue playing a pivotal regional role, even if it came at the price of isolation. The regime successfully resisted U.S. and European pressures. The strategic alliance with Iran, its support of the revolutionary movements in southern Lebanon and Gaza, and its proximity to turbulent Iraq has provided the regime with valuable cards in the geopolitical game. But the regime that rises on geopolitics, especially when associated with weak internal legitimacy, can be shaken because of it too. The coming of President Bashar Assad, who succeeded his father in 2000, signaled a new phase of openness and reform. People became hopeful, but no major reforms materialized. To the contrary, the country became prey to crony capitalism, facilitated through a handful of personalities tied to the regime. Today, the ambitions of protesters in the 2011 Arab Revolution have naturally resonated in Syria. But the peoples’ yearnings cannot be fulfilled by totalitarian regimes as such yearnings contradict the very basis of despotism. The forces that the Arab revolutions unleashed in the region cannot be contained by political maneuvering as people aspire to wider changes that touch every corner of life, including the cultural and national identity of the society. Such patriotic thrust espouses Arabness, but it is not the worn-out Arab secular nationalism. This new Arab Muslimness is accommodative to non-Arabs and to non- Muslim minorities. Nor are the revolutions simply driven by economic and political demands, rather they represent a longing to reclaim dignity and cultural selves and rights. In the case of Syria, the brutal suppression of dissent excavated the ideological foundations of the regime, depreciated its legitimacy, and pushed the country to a point of no return. To such an end, Syria has already been transformed at the hands of a creative across-the-board opposition. The opposition today represents three layers. First, there is the street opposition consisting of loosely organized groups with minimum but overarching demands – freedom and dignity. Those who march in the streets and expose themselves to the possibility of arrest, beatings, torture, or death have no formal organization, party affiliation, or specific political ideology. They depend on the Syrian society’s dense social networks as well as neighborhoodbased online “coordination committees” that call to action and agree on tactics – such a structure has proven to be effective and is hard to fight. The second tier is minimally connected to the first and can be thought of as providing media and educational services to the revolution: a Web-based archive of protest incidents, YouTube promotional material, rich and sophisticated discussions on strategy, and advice on nonviolent tactics; in addition, two “alliances of coordination committees” were formed, run by known female human rights advocates. The third tier, completely independent, is formed of the intelligentsia inside and outside Syria. Only for this group can we speak of the liberal, the Islamic, and the patriotic-independent, all of whom envision a democratic state rooted in civic institutions accommodating to all groups.

The Syrian system urgently needed a perestroika, but the response of the regime so far has only insulted the populace and its cosmetic changes have done nothing to change the well-established oppressive and corrupt Baathist system of government. Given the regime’s stubbornness and the protesters’ persistence, the future may hold one of three scenarios. First, we may eventually see the involvement of Western powers and their allies, including possibly military intervention, in a regional realignment, using the Syrian revolutionary moment as an opportunity to rid the area of hawkish regimes and Iran’s influence. Second, we may see a greater rise in the revolutionary tide in the coming months, which could potentially paralyze the country and ultimately precipitate the downfall of the regime. The third scenario could be longer and bloodier, but no less important. We could see a persistent level of revolutionary pressure and continuous regime decay, partially driven by deteriorating economic conditions. In this case, the protests could worsen the economic situation and threaten the government’s stability, forcing a radical change in power or even the fall of the regime. The first scenario is the least likely as Syria is incapable of igniting a regional conflict, nor do regional and global powers have an appetite for such a costly proposition, especially given the deadlock in Libya. With the security apparatus tightly under the control of the regime, the second scenario is possible but difficult to achieve. The third scenario is more probable exactly because the regime has driven itself into a dead corner. The regime can never recover its legitimacy after such an awakening of the national consciousness. Furthermore, the extreme violence of the regime failed to stop agitation as the opposition accepted paying the price. The regime has to institute “reforms” to quell the revolutionary momentum from coalescing. But any reform would be too little and too late, and there is no reform that would not chip away from the oppressive power of the regime. This slower process of change might be the best for Syria, as the contending political groups move from the theoretical agreement on principles, though elaborate, to reconciling interests and answering to those who made the revolution possible.

Dr. Mazen Hashem is a sociologist who studies social change.


3/20/11 Crowds set fire to Baath Party building in Daraa, after the Syrian military cordoned off the city and killed at least five people a day earlier.

3/23/11 Syrian forces kill six people in Daraa and open fire on youths marching in the streets.

3/25/11 Protests take place in Homs, Latakia, Damascus, Hama and Aleppo. At least 23 people are reported killed by security forces.

3/29/11 Government resigns.

3/30/11 Syrian President Bashar Al Assad blames foreign elements for unrest and sets up committee to look into replacing emergency law with anti-terrorismlaw.

4/01/11 Demonstrators protest on day dubbed “Friday of Martyrs”.

4/08/11 Demonstrations take place across Syria and at least 37 people killed.

4/19/11 Government passes bill to lift emergency rule and Assad signs into law two days later.

4/22/11 Syrian forces and gunmen kill at least 100 protestors nationwide.

4/28/11 Members of the ruling Baath Party resign in protest to use of force and killing of demonstrators.

4/29/11 The US imposes sanctions on key Syrian figures.

5/07/11 Syrian tanks surround the town of Banias in a new crackdown.

5/09/11 EU imposes sanctions and arms embargo on Syria. Tanks enter the town of Homs.

5/23/11 The EU adds Assad and others to list of sanctioned figures.

5/31/11 The mutilated corpse of Hamza Al Khatib, a 13 year old boy, is seen on video worldwide. He becomes a hero for the revolution.

6/05/11 Israeli troops clash with Syrian protesters for the second time in three weeks.

6/26/11 Syrian authorities allow opposition figures to meet in Damascus to discuss demands.

6/28/11 Syria’s ambassador to the UK is called in and warned against intimidating Syrians in the UK.

7/10/11 Activists boycott meeting with the regime in Damascus due to continued attacks on civilians.

7/31/11 Syrian forces besiege the city of Hama, killing up to 140 people a day before the holy month of Ramadan.

8/03/11 The UN Security Council Passes resolution condemning Syrian authorities use of force against demonstrators.

8/04/11 Syrian President Bashar Al Assad passes a decree allowing a multiparty system of government.

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