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What Happened in Between?
Terence Tan, NYU 15
Florence, Italy
February 26, 2014

What Happened in Between?
Tracing the history of Syria, from one humanitarian crisis to another.

By Terence Tan, NYU ‘15

Armed conflict in Syria between government and rebel forces has been going on for close to three years now. The result so far? Widespread famine in densely populated areas, dispossessed refugees fleeing into neighboring Lebanon and Turkey, and once-rare infectious diseases resurfacing due to gaping deficits insanitation. Countries around the world have come forward to assist with humanitarian aid: more than $661 million has been channeled into the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) in 2013 alone.[1] On the 10th of February, Simon Jackson spoke about the politics of such humanitarian aid, juxtaposing the current aid situation against another humanitarian crisis in post-World War I Syria. But what happened in between, to link the postwar political situation in the 1920s to the current civil war? Is there a continuous historical narrative charting Syrian history from the postwar era to the current one?

The (mis)development of a state?

After World War 1, the Sykes-Picot agreement divided the Ottoman Empire into British and French spheres of influence. Syria was placed under French mandate, and the short-lived monarchy in Syria led by King Faisal soon capitulated to French political and military pressure. Like in other nations under colonial jurisdiction, independence was a long and painful struggle. In 1936, Syrian nationalists apparently successfully negotiated with the newly elected French government for independence, but changes in French domestic politics meant the French did not finally concede sovereignty. It would take another world war before the French finally left, leaving Syria to proclaim its independence on April 17, 1946.

But this didn’t put an end to the problems faced by the fledgling state. The departure of the ruling French left a political vacuum that multiple political and military leaders attempted to fill, often through undemocratic means. Coups and bloody revolts, not free and fair elections, became the main method through which leaders – often military and security elites – took power in the 1950s and 1960s.[2] At the same time, the country became increasingly enmeshed in regional, anti-Zionist politics. Syria launched – and lost – military campaigns against Israel in 1948 and again in 1967. Elizabeth F. Thompson argues that because of their undemocratic style of governance that relied heavily on patronage and paternalism, colonial governments in the Middle East failed to develop the institutions and laws necessary for liberal democracy in the post-independence era.[3] This failure of liberal democracy in Syria influenced the style of rule of post-independence leaders. For example, it meant that leaders sought to legitimize their rule by foreign adventurism, as demonstrated in the wars with Israel. However, the wars served to militarize Syrian politics even further.

Strong – and strong-armed – rule at last

On November 13, 1970, then-Minister of Defense Hafaz al-Assad seized control of the ruling Ba’ath Party, and consequently the Syrian government. This marked the end of the frequent changes in Syrian leadership that marked the preceding two decades. Al-Assad consolidated his power within the state by expanding the powers of the presidency, creating a cult of personality around him and his family, and ruthlessly crushing dissent. Political change was the one thing he sought to prevent.

Although his rule lasted for thirty years, it was a period dogged by dissatisfaction and strife. By appointing members of his minority Alawite sect in key government positions, al-Assad gained their political loyalty but at the expense of enraging other segments of the population – large numbers of the majority Sunnis, for instance.  Market reforms in the 1980s and 90s designed to promote private enterprise ended up fueling patronage and corruption, enriching the pockets of the political elite while deepening economic inequalities. When anti-government Islamists in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood sought to capitalize on these anti-Assad sentiments by launching a rebellion in the early 1980s, government repression was swift and brutal. Their stronghold in the city of Hama was ruthlessly shelled, bombed and bulldozed. His victory over the Islamists strengthened al-Assad’s hold on power even further.[4]

Al-Assad’s second son, Bashar al-Assad, wasn’t his first choice as successor – or even his second. But when his brother (his first choice) tried to seize power and his eldest son (his second choice) perished in a car crash,[5] the authoritarian ruler was forced to nominate Bashar as his successor. In 2000, Bashar al-Assad became the ruler of Syria after his father’s death.

Like father, like son

The immediate response to the younger al-Assad’s takeover was one of cautious optimism. Looking towards political reform, like-minded Syrians gathered in salons to freely discuss political and social issues. Dubbed the ‘Damascus Spring’, this burgeoning political discourse sparked demonstrations and demands for a more democratic form of government. Bashar al-Assad initially acquiesced to some of these demands, releasing hundreds of political prisoners in November 2000, but swiftly reversed this policy the following year. Dissent against the government – while not met with the heavy-handed ruthlessness of the elder al-Assad’s regime – met with reprisals that included lengthy jail terms, as well as exile. This authoritarianism would persist for the entire period of al-Assad’s rule, quashing any hope of a democratic Syria.

Seen in this historical context, the anti-government sentiment that precipitated the current civil war has a lengthy and simmering history, yet another response to what Elizabeth Thompson characterizes as “justice interrupted”: the failure to entrench constitutional liberalism in Syria after WW1, due to imperial intervention.[6] Like in the 1980s and again in 2000, pro-reform movements have met with a swift authoritarian response in 2011 that rapidly spiraled into violent conflict. But it is more than just the past repeating itself. We could, for instance, trace the historical lineage of authoritarianism and violent repression back to Hafaz al-Assad’s rule, or we could go further back and argue that the lack of democratic institutions left by the French in the period immediately following Syrian independence has led to political instability since then. Whichever we may choose, the lesson is the same: armed conflict might have only begun in 2011, but the seeds of the war were laid long before then.




[3] Taylor, Elizabeth. Justice Interrupted:  The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013.



[6] Elizabeth Thompson, Justice Interrupted.

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