Why do countries like ours’ and those of Western Europe appear to have settled into peaceful political processes that manage a degree of continuity and stability, and others do not?
In countries where modern institutions are weak and poorly developed, and a democratic or participatory political culture based on consensus and power sharing has not had the time or the political, social and economic conditions to develop, older loyalties and obligations trump allegiance to the state and nation and respect for, or at least, acceptance of its institutions and processes. Countries like Syria and Iraq, and much of Africa, were in reality modern contrivances superimposed upon the wrecks of old empires. The cartographical design may have been determined by the presence of natural resources in such and such a place, or the location of a port or river, highway or mountain pass. And often, in wide tracts of desert or jungle, mountains or plains, lines were simply on drawn on maps from point to arbitrary point, sometimes with the agreement or collusion of a rival power or friendly local despot.
In lands such as these, loyalty and allegiance to family, clan, tribe, religious sect, and ethnic group held precedence over the fabricated state and its often transplanted institutions and processes. Patronage, nepotism, corruption, and a network of mutual favours and obligations smoothed the paths of people seeking or seizing benefits or appointments. Old ways were tried and true, compared to aspirations or pretensions to fair and open governance. Political parties which emerged on ostensibly western lines were no more than parochial political machines, whilst gerrymandering, branch-stacking, vote-rigging and even violence ensured electoral outcomes that favoured the powers that be.
The culture of dependence and obligation that characterized pre-modern societies in the West is still the norm in much the world. And it is replicated throughout society, from the humble street-vendor to city hall. Need a license? A school scholarship? A better job? A party post? Want to avoid a traffic fine? A law suit? A jail sentence? Money changes hands. Deals are done. Debts are incurred. And social and political relationships are established. And thus, the creaking wheels of bureaucracy and governance turn, driven by patronage and payola, often greased with cash and the threat or actual use of violence encourages the emergence of and tolerance for the zaim, the strong leader. That leader develops a sense of identification with the country – not in the sense of service, but that of ownership. Family, clan, kinship and sect obligations and entitlements cement the zaim – literally “boss” – in place, whist patronage and brutal security forces beholden to the elite ensure that he is not challenged. Hence the mukhabarat (literally, intelligence) keep watch on dissent and protest.
Once in power, it can be difficult for the autocrat to vacate his seat. Family interests, party, sect and ethnic ties, and economic imperatives, and fear of retribution should the patriarch depart, render it dangerous for what amounts to a family business to relinquish the keys to the kingdom, and the levers of power. As they say, he who rides a a tiger never can dismount. Hence in countries as diverse culturally and geographically as Syria, Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, the central Asian ‘stans of the former Soviet Union, and North Korea, the “dear leader” is strongly encouraged to hang in there by his nearest and dearest.
This is indeed how societies and polities evolved and developed during Europe’s so-called Dark Ages in the wake of the collapse of the western Roman Empire. When authority fails, its place is taken by force. Today, we see it in many places around the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa, where social order is under constant attack from paramilitary thugs and religious fanatics, and violence is endemic. Any large, diverse society includes individuals who do not conform to the law. And it is said that some 10% of us have the potential to become psychopaths. When that society is in a state of breakdown, violence and the resort to force become widespread, these come into into their own as chieftains, warlords, robber barons, and pirate kings rule their parochial roost, commanding mercenaries, militias, and private armies. As the Bard wrote, “Take but order away and hark what discord follows”. Violence breeds violence, requiring a corresponding use of force by the state to maintain order. And if the initial, brutal crackdown fails to stifle dissent and rebellion, to borrow from Shakespeare again, the dogs of civil war are let lose, and all hell breaks loose. The Bard of Avon had his Henry declaim “Cry Havoc”, this being an old English war cry that signaled no quarter, and ensuing rape and pillage.
On the marches of civil wars, the bleeding edges of nations and empires collapse in on themselves like stars to create black holes where roam robber bands, death squads, militias, and drugged and indoctrinated child soldiers deal out death and destruction whilst trading variously in oil, diamonds, heroin, grass, guns, and people, extorting dollars and gold from locals and from foreign donors. Quantrill’s Raiders and Jim Lane’s Red Legs cut a swathe through “bloody Kansas” and Missouri. And other times and places have seen their sad share of jaywalkers and bushwhackers. Swedish and German mercenaries marched back and forth across a devastated Mitteleuropa during the Thirty Years War, just as Reds and Whites ranged and ravaged through Byelorussia and Ukraine during the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. The dying decades of the Twentieth Century saw this in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. And it prevails today in Syria and Iraq, Libya and Yemen, Afghanistan and Africa.
And so, and as clear and present example, to suffering, sad Syria.
Bashar al Assad inherited this patrimony from his father Hafez. He was a reluctant ruler, not expecting to take charge. The heir apparent was his brother, a fast-living hedonist who died in a car crash. He did endeavour to bring about gradualist change in Syria. I saw changes whenever I visited Damascus.
This was not to suggest that Syria was an Arab utopia. There was a large divide between town and country, exacerbated by a a long and ongoing drought that forced many rural folk to migrate to the rundown fringes of the major towns, adding to pressures on resources, housing and employment. Whilst in practice a secular, multi-faith and multi-ethnic society, there was a cultural and spiritual divide between the conservative, Islamic rural communities and a more secular-minded urban middle class. The country was ruled for near on fifty years by a family and elite drawn from a particular, minority sect, which sat atop a pyramid of nepotism, patronage and corruption. And that rule was upheld by a cruel and efficient secret police and military special forces that kept a proactive watch on dissent. There was definitely an air of anxiety and caution amongst those who aspired to a more liberal Syria, with the midnight knock on the door, arbitrary arrest, and detention in one of the regime’s many political prisons being a fact of political life in this secular, socialist country.
But on the other hand, Syria was almost self-sufficient in food and oil products. It had well resourced and efficient health and secular education systems, and a flourishing arts scene. As a nation, Syrians were a tolerant and welcoming people, and within the bounds of religious propriety and political caution, freedom of worship, of expression, of lifestyle, and even of discreet gender preference were given. In the narrow streets of the Old City of Damascus, Thursday night, the eve of the Muslim holy day, was a fairy land of lights and laughter. Courting couples hand in hand, girls in hijab and uncovered alike; families promenading in their “Sunday best”; young goths with spiky hair and black makeup, short skirts and tight jeans. Busy stalls and sweetshops, crowded, street-side cafes – the famous Damascene maqha – or coffee shops.
Foreign observers, friendly and hostile, have noted how well-dressed and cashed-up the refugees flooding into Eastern Europe appear to be. The reality is that these are Syria’s middle class. By local metrics, they were comparatively well-off, and had a strong work ethic and a high wages to savings ratio. These were, and are Syria’s future.
Syrians were genuinely proud of their country, of its status as a centre of Arab culture and Arab nationalism, and of its history. And of its priceless archeological heritage. The Roman cities of Apamea, Palmyra, and Bosra; the Crusader castles of Krak de Chevaliers and Salah ud Din; the Byzantine monastery St.Simeon; the Umayyad mosques of Aleppo and Damascus; the Christian villages of Maaloula and Saidnaya where Aramaic is still spoken; the ancient suqs of Aleppo and Damascus. Syria was a historian’s idea of heaven.
When the revolution broke out, sympathetic commentators wondered whether Bashar would be “Hammersmith Man”, a reference to his former career as a ophthalmologist in London, where he lived for many years with his gorgeous, well connected, merchant banker wife and children, or “Hama Man”, recalling his father’s brutal crackdown on an Islamist revolt in that city in 1981 where in some thirty thousand souls perished at the hands of security forces. In the end, Junior was swept along by the elite’s blinkered but well-tried survival mechanism – force and fear.
Back in the heady days of the Arab Spring, Syrians from all ethic, religious and political groups hoped for a loosening of authoritarian controls. But the regime resorted to form and to repression. Sectarian militias murdered and mutilated initiating a cycle of bloody vengeance as a popular, peaceful and largely secular movement became militarized, polarized, in many areas, Islamized, and as internal and external interests with varying political, religious, and geopolitical motives became involved and embroiled against the regime, against the rebels, against each other. Regular forces, militias, warlords, village defense forces, Kurdish separatists, foreign fighters, mercenaries, foreign air forces, undercover operatives. A war of all against all, as Thomas Hobbes once said. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history might not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.
And now, whilst most of the antagonists have been herded by their foreign patrons towards a crowded and reluctant negotiating table, it all seems like a terminal case of “too little too late”. Syria is in ruins, some half a million Syrian are dead, and countless more maimed.and it its population is scattered, weighing heavily on the consciences and economies of neighbours and of the European Union. Syria as a nation state may in fact be no more. There is talk of partition, and a redrawing of the map that emerged from the peace treaties of The Great War. And the odds are that with Russian military support, Bashar al Assad, bete noir, pariah, lame-duck to those governments who wished him gone, and his Iranian and Hizbollah allies, are going to win the civil war.
He may or may not succeed. Right now, his forces are pushing back the rebels, writing himself a pivotal part in the peace. Right now, the parties talk and walk whilst the killing continues, and the diaspora grows. International forums are but talking shops, stages for self-righteous and self-aggrandizing posturing and stotting, acrimonious gatherings that appear to function in a time bubble that is remote from the brutal reality. If and when the guns fall silent, Bashar may or may not be able to put the country back together. He may or may not be able to recreate the multi-faith, modernizing, cosmopolitan society that existed before the war. He may or may not be able to disarm the hundreds of militias and private armies that have proliferated and even prospered during five years of chaos.
He will need billions of dollars and the help and goodwill of many nations to rebuild the towns and cities, and to restore the shattered archeological heritage. He will never bring back the dead, or the skilled and educated exiles who will chose to make new lives in foreign places of greater safety. Nor will he be able to repatriate the thousands of plundered artifacts and treasures that have disappeared into the international black market. He will not be able to heal the wounds, give solace to the bereaved, assuage the grief, counsel and treat the trauma, and divert the desire for vengeance into the promethean labour of reconstruction.
Putting his own words into the mouth of a conquered British chieftain, an old Roman once said, “solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” – they make a desert and they call it peace.