From the Kingdom of Assad to the Third Republic - Statehood & Participation

By Yassin al-Haj Saleh

The Syrian republic did not come into being on any fixed date; no date to which all Syrians - or even some of them - can refer to. Modern Syrian history - it hardly has any other kind of history - is a series of struggles for the republic.

The First Republic

Republican Syria came into being under the French occupation, a response to the troublesome absence of kings, or the French mistrust of those emirs that were available, when they took the country over in 1920. The fact that France was itself a republic that tended to reproduce itself, or its surface appearance, wherever it ruled seems to have contributed to the formation of a Syrian republic. Following the expulsion of King Faisal I after the Battle of Maysalun in July 1920, it was not until 1943 that the French Mandate settled on a final political form for the country, i.e. as a separate political entity or state, in other words, not until the mandate itself was in its death throes. It appeared that utter artificiality of the Syrian entity was best suited to a non-traditional or modern form of government, unlike, for instance, Morocco, the only Arab country colonized by the French that was ruled by a royal family.
The political system in Syria was the product of conflict between the mandate authorities and local elites and was formed towards the end of the Second World War as a presidential republic dominated by anti-French patriots. As could be expected, the central demand of the patriotic struggle was independence from the colonizer rather than the establishment of a republic, though there was consensus among the struggling elites, most of whom were drawn from the traditional urban elites, that the political system would be both a republic and a representative democracy.
In 1946 Syria achieved independence, gaining control over its educational system, the army, political parties and a fledgling unified economy. The Syrian people came into being as an entity, individuals enjoying varying degrees of allegiance to pre-existing social groupings (tribes, the urban mercantile population and religious groups) and so it remained until the 1970s when this balance suffered a major setback, as we shall see.
Not three years passed before Syria entered an era of successive military coups, itself evidence of the declining power of the pre-independence elites. This period would climax with two events: the Syrian-Egyptian union of February 1958 and the Baathist coup of March 1963.
The two decades that followed the first military coup were of political conflicts, military coups, sharp ideological polarization and international and regional attempts to woo the young nation. In the background rapid changes were affecting the social dynamics of local and international politics, which were evolving without the institutional and intellectual frameworks capable of absorbing them. Within Syria exclusionary tendencies were growing stronger, nourished by an international political and intellectual environment.
In 1963 such tendencies were elevated to the status of a mode of governance, embedding themselves in the regime and becoming institutionalized in 1970. It was in 1970 that the country fell under the heavy hand of a regime that made its own survival a supreme patriotic priority. This agenda was imposed by naked force and it was successful: the regime secured a survival that stifled all life in the country for more than forty years only to face today a widespread uprising that openly calls for its removal.
If we are labeling the period from 1943 to 1970 the First Republic, then the long years between 1970 and 2011 constitute the era of the Second Republic, while the Third Republic seems an appropriate name for where Syria is being taken by the current, glorious uprising.

A Republic with no Republicans

Because of the confused circumstances of its inception, the Syrian republic contained no republicans when it first came into being, that is to say, no intellectual or political school of thought centered around the principles of active citizenship, the rule of the people, freedom and equality and strong opposition to inherited titles and privileges and the arbitrary exercise of power. The republic had weak intellectual foundations; it lacked self-awareness and was unable to defend itself. There is no Syrian literature dealing with the republic, either as an idea or a historical phenomenon or in terms of its values. There were no political or ideological conflicts over the principle of republicanism. If we take the official name of the country as it has been for the past fifty years or so, The Syrian Arab Republic, we find that most importance is attached to the qualifier ‘Arab’, followed by ‘Syrian’, with ‘Republic’ a poor third.
Until the 1970s ‘republic’ was seen as the antithesis of ‘monarchy’, with all the positive connotations of the former and the negative connotations of the latter. The three Arab kingdoms, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, appeared reactionary and co-opted by their very nature, while the progressive, liberated republics were assumed to be the future of their doomed feudal counterparts. These unfortunate countries were ruled by kings and royal families, while the republics were governed by the people and their representatives, leaving aside the lack of serious debate over the mechanism by which this representation was achieved (an issue that was to become central to the intellectual and political agenda of the Arab democratic movement in the late 1970s). However this distinction between the two systems of government unraveled under pressure from infighting and manoeuvring between the Arab states, and failed to establish a distinctive school of republican political thought.
Prior to this, in the 1950s and 60s, there had been republican and populist elements affiliated with communist and Baathist thought, who gave particular emphasis to the concept of the people and their rejection of inherited privilege. The concept of equal citizenship was, however, non-existent, as was the idea of the rule of law as a check to the exercise of political power.
Successive military coups from 1949 to 1970 and regional and international pressures only fed a culture of political expediency, which stemmed from the country’s relative youth and its lack of stable political institutions and customs, not to mention to absence of a national consensus over its identity. The nation’s consciousness was therefore as mutable and inconstant as its politics. More and more, Syria was starting to resemble an Arab country, not in terms of its historical identity, but its political present. The roots of this transformation reached back into the past, i.e. to the Arab nationalism that predated the French occupation and the independence movement that challenged Ottoman rule. There is evidence that the Kurdish leader of the revolution in Northern Syria, Ibrahim Hanunu, addressed Syrian crowds with the phrase, “O Arabs!” as did Sultan Pasha Atrash, leader of the great Syrian revolution of 1925-27. Shukri Qutli, the first president of an independent Syria, had said as he raised the national flag after independence that after this day the only flag he would raise would be the banner of Arab unity.


During the 1950s, pan-Arabism became a creed that called for a single Arab nation “from the Mediterranean to the Gulf” and the liberation of Palestine and made much of the unique qualities of Arab culture, its past glories, its mission civilatrice and its essential enmity with the West. Once pan-Arabism had been normalized in this fashion, accepted even by the non-Arab population, it then underwent a further process of ‘Arabization’: Arabs themselves were now required to prove their allegiance to what had become an ideological creed. Pan-Arabism was politicized. It was now a party and while this meant that it could no longer enjoy a consensus among the population it still boasted a hypothetical consensus as it had become the state. After politicization came ‘ideologicalization’, which meant two things: first, it was converted from a generalized and widely held belief into an ideology; and secondly it was rendered complex - to deserve it, or attain it, the citizen was required to make extraordinary efforts and possess distinctive qualifications.
These twin processes rendered Arabism the preserve of an elite priesthood, a mystery inaccessible to the masses that elevated initiates over their peers.
But this was not the work of ideologues seeking to enhance their own status. This exclusive and exclusionary pan-Arabism was in fact the ideology deployed by a military elite from petty-bourgeois backgrounds in their confrontation with the traditional urban elite, who had themselves appropriated a more liberal and inclusive version of pan-Arabism to take on the French. The Arabizing of pan-Arabism allowed this middle-class group to inflict defeat on the urban elites, particularly because it could deploy socialist tropes against them. It was a short cut, a way of bypassing ‘backwardness’ and attaining social justice and development.
Among the first to be excluded by this Arabized Arabism were the non-Arabs, who were regarded with nothing less than outright suspicion, but it also raised the bar for Arabs themselves who began to define themselves using terms such as ‘Islamist’, ‘Syrian nationalist’ or ‘Communist’: complex terms, in other words, founded on the principle of exclusivity and the need for special qualifications to gain access.
Since the 1950s, therefore, the Syrian republic has been diminished by comparisons with a Syrian nation or the idea of a self-aware republic, but sustained by association with pan-Arabism. After the break-up of the Egyptian-Syrian state in the autumn of 1961, this led to the country’s name being amended from the Syrian Republic to the Syrian Arab Republic. This break touched on the divided soul of the Syrian elite, which has two personalities: one that is pan-Arabist and palatable, although essentially unreal, and another that can be described as Syrian realist, though this, both unacceptable and unpalatable, is an orphan. This is a source of weakness for the republican principles that champion the people, citizens and political relations and oppose ties of identity and cultural kinship. In other words, a republic refers to the actual political presence of a mass of Syrian citizens, some of them non-Arabs, and not to cultural identities or what ‘should be’, though of course, as these identities and hypothetical realities gather strength they weaken the republic. The republic undoubtedly draws on historical symbols and memories of a primarily Arab nature but it is defined, first and foremost, by being open to the broad mass of Syrian citizens. Its material, political and cultural needs will be great and perhaps the only benefit it brings is that it represents a real, diverse population, not a hypothetical unity or ‘oneness’.
Syria’s divided personality was the source of an intellectual distortion and a politico-psychological disruption that afflicted the ruling elite in its entirety and prevented the accumulation of intellectual, political and institutional experience. This was further exacerbated by the disorienting effect of the 1967 defeat against Israel and facilitated the country’s slide into a vicious political dictatorship.
The distributional socialism favored by the country’s political and cultural elites between the 1950s and 1970s was the prevailing global economic model and did much to ease the demands placed on the regime, enhancing its image as both a socially leveling and progressive force. This was the same regime, incidentally, that operated by divesting its population of political and general rights while oppressing them physically. Yet it must be added that by linking pan-Arabism with socialism it had increased its support base while providing a balance to the exclusionary, complex effects of its ideology.

Assad’s Syria

1970 was the final nail in the coffin of the First Republic, a fate that had been foretold two decades earlier by Winston Churchill when he said, “This Syria doesn’t know how to rule itself and won’t let anyone else rule it.”
As it happened ‘This Syria’ did manage to rule itself, but only by completely abolishing all political life inside the country, which of course failed to provide a solution to the problem implicit in Churchill’s statement, that neither state nor society possesses any unifying intellectual or institutional frameworks, indeed, it has frozen them. This is a problem we may encounter again when the thaw begins, an issue we will have to face very soon, in fact.
It soon became obvious that the officer who had brought the First Republic to an end, Hafez Assad, was seeking limitless political power, unfettered by principle, political compromise or terms of office. This was in complete contradiction to the idea of a republic, which is distinguished from monarchies by the legal checks it brings to the exercise of power.
No sooner had the man taken office that there were ‘patriotic anthems’ praising him and ‘spontaneous popular marches’ waving the picture of this ‘devoted son of the people’. At the same time the intelligence services began to make their presence felt in public life, and with them the military and paramilitary forces responsible for the regime’s security. Propaganda and security have remained cornerstones of the regime to this day. The agency responsible for propaganda is closer to being a slightly chaotic priesthood: its only religion, indeed its only skill, being the sanctification of the president and maintaining his absolute exclusivity. The security branch is made up of a number of agencies whose task is to keep control over terrorism: to build high walls of fear around, or perhaps inside, the regime’s subjects.
In the three decades that followed Syria was a state centered around a single individual who ruled without any limits on his authority. It was a tyranny. Political and public life was entirely built around the person of the president who led his subjects with ‘soul and blood’ and whose followers evinced their willingness to kill for his sake. They made good on their word. Political competition was abolished, subsumed by the cult of worship around the president, not to mention swallowed up by the prisons and the ruling Progressive Patriotic Front let by the Baath-Party, but it did not disappear until tens of thousands had first sacrificed their lives.
From the 1980s onwards the regime achieved complete control over society, as violently and effectively as it had taken power. The ‘people’ no longer existed except as a passive buttress of their control: chanting, singing and weeping on demand and displaying their mass submission during national and patriotic celebrations, displays that were endlessly repeated on state television.
This Second Republic had hardly any republic in it at all, still less of a ‘public’, and a good deal of the president who from the latter half of the 1980s was described as ‘Master of the Nation’. Pan-Arabism was by now totally inverted: a tool to achieve regional hegemony and insinuate internal betrayal. Syria was a separate entity no more: it was Assad’s Syria, and the president was its master.
A new system of privileges and privileged appointments began to take shape almost from the beginning of this period. Exclusive and exclusionary this network of nepotistic appointments was the preserve of the regime’s men, who had begun living in the style of the former urban elites, inhabiting their own neighborhoods (Abu Rumana, Rowda and Malki in Damascus) and appropriating what remained of the country’s commercial companies. Gradually, these appointments gave rise to an ideology of privilege and exceptionalism, justifying and entrenching the practice and turning it into a ‘natural law’ and a patriotic duty. The cornerstone of this ideology was the exceptional status of the president himself.
It was during the 1980s, too, that it first became clear that the president of the Syrian Arab Republic was intending to bequeath the country to his family. When he fell ill in 1983, his brother Rafaat saw himself as the natural candidate to succeed him. Then, during the 1990s, the president distanced himself from his unpredictable brother and seemed to be favoring his first-born son Basil. When Basil was killed in a car accident in 1994 he was immediately elevated to sainthood. The reason was plain: to sanctify the creed of the president and his family’s unique status and to get Syrians used to the idea of his children succeeding to his throne. It is known that immediately after Basil’s death the ‘Father Leader’ summoned his son, Bashar, then studying medicine in London, and proceeded to groom him into the perfect image of a worthy successor. When the father did die he was referred to as ‘The Immortal Leader’ and his son as ‘The Guide of the Party and the People’. In 2005, Bashar became ‘Master of the Nation’ like his father before him.
It hardly needs to be said, but this succession strikes at the heart of republicanism. The essence of a republic is the equality of all its citizens, a principle utterly at odds with the ‘blue blood’ of kings and nobles. Everyone bleeds the same in a republic, as science tells us. The implanting of this principle of essential equality is what led to the disappearance of rule by royal succession in Europe, or at least to stripping kings of any effective executive powers. Power exercised by the people should not be inherited. When power and inheritance are combines the result is despotism and this is why there is no significant difference between the Arab republics and monarchies.
A republic’s only master is the people and it is the people’s sovereignty that institutionalizes equal rights and political opportunity for all members of this population. It makes them citizens, required to participate in the life of the state. The existence of a ‘Master of the Nation’ in the form of the president abolishes the republic in one fell swoop, and with it, all equality between its inhabitants. It institutionalizes ties of personal allegiance and a culture of political appointments and privilege and divides society along sectarian lines.
Legally speaking, Syria was ruled under emergency law, which put the country and its resources at the disposal of the regime and permitted it to apportion them according to a superficial logic based on identity and ethnic origin. The regime started to regard Syrian society as a patchwork of isolated social groups—tribes, religions, denominations and neighborhoods—and not a single people. This policy was most evident in appointments for government jobs, which were made without reference to any standing laws along entirely ethnic and sectarian lines. Baathists received preferential treatment in education, employment and deployment abroad, while those related or affiliated to party members also obtained privileges, most notably appointments on diplomatic missions. In its internal policy, just as with its regional policy, the regime and its planners focused their attention on religion, ethnicity and sectarian affiliations, with scant regard for republican categories such as nationality, citizenship and community.

Privatization and its Ideology

President Bashar Assad’s reign has witnessed several new developments such as the restructuring of the economy and the privatization of national resources, which has led to an increased value being put on private ownership and wealth. In its wake come the new feudalists, all allied with the regime, who enjoy huge privileges and absolute legal and political immunity. It is the marriage of political and economic exclusivity.
A concomitant development and equally important is the emergence of what is termed a ‘modernist’ ideology, heavily slanted towards the highest classes in society and absolutely inimical to the general public, democracy, socio-cultural manifestations of Islam (termed ‘antique’) and political Islam (‘fundamentalist’).
Those who partake of this ideology, a complex political-security creed, are those at the heart of the regime and the intellectuals who float in their orbit or share their tendencies. In Syria, such ideological tendencies take overtly social and political forms, overwhelmingly classist rather than sectarian, although both sectarianism and modernism play a role in the ideological buttressing of these new economic privileges, or rather lend them a ‘modernist’ legitimacy. The ideologues of modernism have an essentializing view of Arab societies in which Islam is the main, if not the only, determinant of people’s behavior. It is the wellspring of all backwardness, stagnation and despotism. Homo islamicus is a different breed to other men; whatever he might claim about himself, he is fanatical, violent, backward and irrational, all qualities that stem in turn from his religious beliefs. The reality is that neither ‘Islam’ nor ‘Islamic man’ exist; instead we have attempts to define Islamism carried out by both Islamist ideologues and their secularist foes, whose relationship with secularism mirrors that of Islamists to Islam: one of blind faith and fetishization.
‘Modernism’ is merely an ideology that legitimizes the new feudal regime. The class-based and political privileges bequeathed by the regime to a narrow segment of the population are now concealed behind a religious and sectarian heterodoxy that makes them defensible.
One important effect of this ideological evolution is that it undermines the epistemological credibility of concepts like ‘the people’, ‘the citizen’ and ‘equality’ and institutionalizes narrow, mutually antagonistic identities. In doing so, it further entrenches networks of privilege and effectively shelters them from criticism.

The Third Republic

This is how the Second Republic reached its end, turning upon itself in the same way a marriage turns when the love is gone.
The First Republic was unstable and schizophrenic. The Second Republic was not even a republic, but a monarchy.
Today, we are on the threshold of the Third Republic.
What Syrians oppose today is what Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans objected to before them: dynastic succession. They oppose the absolute arbitrariness that characterizes not only their regime, but all such dynasties, embodied in its terrorist security tentacles that treat them with such barbarity. They oppose the illegitimate, unjust and irrational privileges bestowed on select individuals and families. They oppose the privatization of their country by its rulers.
All these objections are easily accommodated by a republican worldview. It only requires a little more effort on the part of democratic and republican intellectuals to establish a clear link between the uprising and the concept of a republic: to characterize it as a republican uprising or an uprising for the sake of the republic.
From a historical perspective the Third Republic will have to respond to the need for political stability and self-rule. The First Republic lacked both. It will also have to supply what was missing from the Second Republic, Assad’s Kingdom, namely public freedoms, the rule of law, equality for all citizens and the sovereignty of the people.
At the same time it will be required to restructure national identity to ensure that the country’s Syrian identity eclipses its pan-Arabist and Islamic components. The term Syria is the true foundation of citizenship, freedoms and rights. Pan-Arabism can function as a cultural and strategic support while Islam provides an over-arching cultural and value system. Syria must not stand in tension with pan-Arabism and Islam; in our view the proper relationship will be one of inclusive dominance: Syria outranks them, and assimilates them.
While Islam as a political force is currently in open rebellion against the despotic regime, there can be no doubt that after the tyrant has fallen differences will emerge between republican thought and Islam, in both its social and political manifestations, especially in those circles where religion enjoys certain irrational privileges, such as the personal status laws, gender relations, issues of loyalty and the social contract and the relationship between the various religious groups. The republic must have no official religion and no support in law for the idea that its president must belong to a certain religious group.
Given the pluralistic socio-cultural make-up of Syrian society, serious consideration must be given to the idea of a parliamentary system where the people’s representatives have genuine legislative power. However, the sensitivity of Syria’s geo-strategic location makes a presidential system the more likely option. How to combine the benefits of both systems?
Other than opposing dynastic succession and the inevitable differences between Islamic and republic thought, the whole basis of the republican project will be meaningless unless it can remain accessible to the public: those who have the greatest interest in changing the status quo. By this we mean the great majority who occupy positions at the bottom of the social pyramid, those who are most vulnerable to marginalization and poverty, not to mention religious and sectarian manipulation. The survival of the republic, indeed any democracy, depends on it creating a broad social front. It will not be able to face down any potential sectarian problems unless it manages to politicize class conflict and the conflicts between various religious and sectarian groupings.
The future of the republic in Syria depends on such a transformation and we must begin working towards it immediately.
A quick overview of Syria’s political history is enough to convince one of the importance of geo-political and geo-strategic considerations. Syria lies at the heart of the world’s most ‘nationalized’ region: the Middle East. The official account of Syria’s history is full of grave errors, mainly because it completely overlooks the dynamics of the Syrian interior. This ‘interior’ - which is, after all the engine behind the uprising and its source of strength - will never reclaim its place in history unless the country can extricate itself from the Middle-Eastern system, which translates as a series of prisons for its populations.
As we hope to address this point in a separate article, we will limit ourselves to pointing out a fourth aspect of the Syrian republic to sit alongside dynastic rule, Islamic rule in all its varieties and the rule of the oligarchs for the ‘new feudalists’, and that is: the Middle-Eastern regime, ruled by the interests of the US-Israel axis.
While today, the great Syrian uprising is fighting the regime and its oligarch hangs on, it must not be too late to face the other issues that await it in the years to come.

Published in Kalamon, 4th issue, autumn 2011.
Re-published with kind permission of the author and Kalamon.

Translation from Arabic by Robin Moger.

Image removed.

About Yassin al-Haj Salih

Yassin al-Haj Salih is a Syrian writer and dissenter based in Damascus. He was a political prisoner between 1980 and 1996. He writes for several Arab newspapers and journals outside of Syria and regularly contributes to Al-Hayat newspaper. Among his book publications are “Syria in the Shadow: Looks inside the Black Box” (Arabic, 2009) and “The Myth of the Others: A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of the Critique” (Arabic, 2012).