In April 2016, the UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, estimated the death toll of the Syrian crisis to be as high as 400.000.[1] Most people in the West appear to be pretty confused. The major Western news outlets are telling them that all this suffering has been caused by a brutal dictator that refused to step down when thousands if not millions of Syrians took to the streets to demand democracy. Yet, at the same time, fragments of atrocities committed by foreign-backed opposition fighters occasionally reach their television screens. Nevertheless, they are told that however ruthless the armed opposition may be, supplying these insurgents with even more weapons is the best the West can do to help the Syrian people. After five years of relentless warfare, these alleged democracy-seeking revolutionaries – armed with sophisticated weaponry, joined by hordes of foreign fighters and supposedly having the full support of the Syrian people – still have not succeeded in overthrowing Assad, however. Doesn’t this all appear very strange and even contradictory? And if so, isn’t it our duty to humanity to find out what is really going on, even if there is but a tiny chance that there is more to the story? We all know it would not be the first time that we would be deceived into supporting a war that serves no one but a small but powerful elite. In this five-part series, I will try to dismantle all this confusion and take you on a journey in search for the truth.

The long history of imperialism in Syria

Although Syria is a melting pot of different religions and ethnicities and has been ruled over by an Alawite minority for multiple decades, it has a strong tradition of secular governance. Yet, according to the Western press, arming Islamist militants who want to abolish this tradition and replace it with one based on the principles of Wahhabi and Salafi Islam is exactly what is best for Syria’s religiously diverse population. Looking back at the fairly recent examples of Iraq and Libya, however, we know that overthrowing a strong Arab leader – how much of a dictator he might or might not be – without any logical thinking of what will follow, results in a power vacuum in which the seeds of sectarianism can and will take root.

Fortunately, this much is increasingly being understood. What is less known in Western circles, however, is the historical background of imperialism in Syria, and in the Middle East in general. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the British and French carved up the Middle East during the First World War in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which they divided the Arab world in spheres of control and influence, completely disregarding earlier promises to Arab leaders that Arab territories would be free to rule themselves. Consequently, Syria was under French rule in the interwar period, in which popular uprisings demanding independence were crushed by French military interventions. In 1946 finally, the French were forced to evacuate, and Syria became an independent state overseen by a government which had been democratically elected in 1943.

As the US took over a leading role on the world stage after the Second World War, it did not last long until they fixed their imperialist eyes on the Middle East. Direct US involvement began in 1949, when the CIA sponsored a coup that overthrew President al-Quwatli, after the latter had hesitated to approve the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, an American project intended to connect the oilfields of Saudi Arabia to the ports of Lebanon via Syria. The parliament was dissolved, and a CIA handpicked dictator was installed but was already overthrown after 14 weeks. After this first attempt to succumb the Syrian people to American will, US interventions are almost too numerous to count. In 1956 as well as in 1957, for example, the CIA planned once again, but this time failed, to overthrow the re-elected al-Quwatli, the latter attempt which included supplying weapons to the Muslim Brotherhood.[2] This piece of history is crucial in understanding why the Syrian government, as a direct consequence of paranoia of foreign involvement, evolved from democratic beginnings to a controlling authoritarian state, resulting in the nationalist coup of Hafez al-Assad’s Ba’ath Party in 1970.

After the rise to power of Hafez al-Assad, internal stability followed. As a consequence, important social advances, like substantial improvement in health, education and women’s rights, drove the country’s human development well ahead of many of its more wealthy neighbour states. Nevertheless, while the system built by Hafez al-Assad was socially inclusive, it also remained bound by an authoritarian one-party system. The feared Syrian secret police were ever vigilant for Zionist spies and Muslim Brotherhood conspiracies but also harassed a wider range of government critics.[3] One such Muslim Brotherhood insurrection is important, as it reveals a lot of similarities with what is happening today. After years of sectarian attacks, the Brotherhood initiated one last final uprising in Hama in 1982, which at the same time marked its defeat as a real political force in Syria. Just like in the events of Daraa in March 2011, which sparked the current crisis, the Islamist militants were backed by foreign countries, and rooftop snipers targeted both police and civilians.[4] After the US-backed insurgency was crushed by Syrian security forces and thousands of Islamists, soldiers and civilians had lost their lives, US intelligence dryly observed: “the Syrians are pragmatic [and] do not want a Muslim Brotherhood government.”[5] As will become clear in this series, the Syrian population has thus far not changed its mind.

The Bashar al-Assad presidency

In 2000, after the death of his father Hafez, Bashar al-Assad was effectively conscripted to the presidency by the ruling Ba’ath Party. Contrary to what has been asserted, Bashar was, at least to some extent, seen as a reformer, who was expected to maintain his father’s secular and nationalist legacy, while improving social and economic conditions. Progress in health care was especially substantial under Bashar al-Assad’s presidency. From 1970 to 2009, life expectancy rose from 56 to 73, infant mortality dropped from 132 to 18 per 1000 births, and maternal mortality fell from 482 to 52 per 1000 births.[6] Moreover, both healthcare and education remained virtually free in Syria. This includes state universities, which are, to this day, almost free of charge, with several hundred thousand enrolled students every year.[7] Finally, in line with Syria’s secular tradition, women felt far safer and freer than their counterparts in most Arab countries. That’s why it is no exception to see Syrian women walk the streets unveiled, and why they often hold high positions in government.[8]

Despite the turmoil in Iraq and Lebanon and the existence of the Israeli threat on its southwestern border, Syria remained an island of stability, and its regional and foreign policy were a hit not only among Syrians, but among Arabs in general.[9] Gallup, a renowned research and opinion poll company based in the US, even found Syria to be the fifth safest country in the world in 2010.[10] Although Syria has always been an ethnically and culturally diverse country, minorities as well as secular Sunnis enjoyed freedoms that were declining in other previously secular Arab countries like Egypt and Iraq and that were already practically nonexistent in most Gulf countries.[11] Bashar al-Assad was especially popular among young people, most of whom did not like the regime because of widespread corruption, poverty and the political police but saw in their young new leader someone who wanted to transform the political system away from the old guard of the Ba’ath Party, whom they generally blamed for the corruption.[12] Possibly because of the strength of this old guard, Assad nevertheless failed to effectively fight corruption, and the one-party rule remained in place.

Syrians opposed to the Ba’ath Party thus rightly had a lot of reasons to scrutinise the government, Syria was certainly no model state. Nonetheless, Assad remained very popular. Because there were no real democratic presidential elections until 2014, it is hard to grasp his pre-war popularity. However, a number of opinion polls placed him as the most popular Arab leader, and in 2009 he won the Arabic CNN poll for “person of the year,” leaving then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan far behind at the second place.[13]

When the crisis erupted, propaganda became an integral part of the war, and the “Assad must go” narrative was launched. Polls coming from entities that are actively involved in advocating “regime change” are therefore likely biased, but when we look at them anyway, Assad’s popularity becomes crystal clear. While a Qatar-sponsored poll from late 2011 showed that 51% of Syrians wanted Assad to stay in power,[14] an internal NATO study in 2013 estimated that 70% of the Syrian population supported the president in contrast to a mere 10% support for the armed opposition.[15] After constitutional amendments following a referendum, the first real democratic and competitive presidential elections in decades were held in 2014. Although the Western media were quick to dismiss the credibility of the elections, the over 100 international observers present – coming from allied (e.g. Russia and Iran) as well as more or less nonpartisan (e.g. Brazil, Venezuela and Uganda) countries around the world – issued a statement in which they declared that the elections were “free and fair” and were held “in a democratic environment, contrary to Western claims.”[16] Assad won the elections against his opponents with 88,7% of the vote, with a massive participation rate of 73,4%, which is far higher than any presidential election in the US in recent decades.[17] Indeed, as British journalist Jonathan Steele wrote in the Guardian: “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know [it] from [the] Western media.”[18]

Conclusion

As Camille Otrakji explained in his lengthy article about “the real Bashar al-Assad,” a key element in understanding the popular support the president enjoys, is that many Syrians are more preoccupied with protecting their country’s national interests rather than advocating for the improvement of their own political rights.[19] Syrians know their history and realise that they have to pursue an independent course whilst rejecting foreign meddling. That’s why many Syrians, including but not limited to Assad’s supporters,[20] will not be convinced to sacrifice their national dignity for a coalition of foreign countries in their attempt to control Syria’s decisions and weaken its role in the region. The two Assads, unlike many of the other Middle Eastern leaders in modern history, have not sold their soul and have always been willing to suffer constant pressure, punishment and isolation to protect Syria’s dignity and independence. Most Syrians understand what will happen if Syria loses its independence, because they have seen the consequences of what would happen before, both in their own and in neighbouring countries.

Notes

[1] “Syria death toll likely as high as 400,000: UN envoy,” Middle East Eye, 23.04.2016, http://middleeasteye.net.

[2] Robert Kennedy, jr., “Syria: another pipeline war,” Eco Watch, 25.02.2016, http://ecowatch.com.

[3] Tim Anderson, The dirty war on Syria: Washington, regime change and resistance (Montréal: Global Research Publishers, 2016), 24-5.

[4] Anderson, The dirty war on Syria, 15-6.

[5] US Defence Intelligence Agency, Syria: Muslim Brotherhood pressure intensifies (Washington DC, May 1982), 8, available online: https://syria360.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/dia-syria-muslimbrotherhoodpressureintensifies-2.pdf.

[6] Mazen Kherallah et al., “Health care in Syria before and during the crisis,” Avicenna Journal of Medicine 2, no. 3 (2012): 51.

[7] Anderson, The dirty war on Syria, 25.

[8] Camille Otrakji, “The real Bashar al-Assad,” Conflicts Forum, 02.04.2012, http://conflictsforum.org.

[9] Otrakji, “The real Bashar al-Assad.”

[10] “Top 5 most personally safe countries,” Real Clear World, 27.10.2010, http://realclearworld.com.

[11] Otrakji, “The real Bashar al-Assad.”

[12] Cajsa Wikstrom, “Syria: ‘a kingdom of silence.’ Analysts say a popular president, dreaded security forces and religious diversity make a Syrian revolution unlikely,” Al-Jazeera, 09.02.2011, http://aljazeera.com.

[13] Otrakji, “The real Bashar al-Assad.”

[14] Anderson, The dirty war on Syria, 30.

[15] “Poll: 70% of Syrians support Assad, NATO says,” Before It’s News, 13.06.2013, http://beforeitsnews.com.

[16] Anahita Mukherji, “Foreign delegation in Syria slams West, endorses elections,” Times of India, 05.06.2014, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com.

[17] Anderson, The dirty war on Syria, 33-5.

[18] Jonathan Steele, “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from Western media,” Guardian, 17.01.2012, http://theguardian.com.

[19] Otrakji, “The real Bashar al-Assad.”

[20] In 2005, the largest opposition gathering in the history of the Ba’ath Party rule was held, which resulted in the publication of the Damascus Declaration. In it, the very diverse opposition advocated for democratic reform, but it also confirmed the political opposition’s rejection of change that would be brought in from abroad.