Albert Memmi was a Tunisian Jew born in 1920, a philosopher and political thinker educated at the Sorbonne. He was also an activist and revolutionary who fought for Tunisian independence, which was achieved in 1952. The new state of Tunisia made Islam the official religion of state and published several anti-Jewish decrees, so Memmi found himself officially excluded from a state which he had supported before its founding and indeed continued to support. Memmi’s book The Colonizer and the Colonized is a brilliant analysis of the impact of the colonial situation on both the colonized, which he identified with as a Tunisian, and the colonizer, which he identified with as a Jewish Tunisian, which identity gave him a slight privilege relative to his fellow Tunisians in the colonial hierarchy. Since this is a podcast about the US left, before I enter into a discussion of the Middle East, I want to dwell a moment on Memmi’s cutting perceptions of colonizer allyship. Afterwards I’m going to briefly go over the long history of Syria before offering a criticism of the nationalist regime of Hafez al-Assad. By the end of this podcast we will understand why the Arab Spring announced the failure of the anti-colonial project in the Middle East, and why this failure didn’t register with certain western leftists.
Western leftists typically feel a contradiction between the need to show solidarity with anti-colonial movements and the need to champion human rights when those movements fall short. Terrorism, for instance, is a tactic that causes a lot of damage and harm to civilian populations, and the leftist who feel the need for solidarity with independence movements practicing terrorism has to compartmentalize their politics. In one box is the right to life and liberty. In the other box is the anti-colonial struggle. For the third campist radical there can never be a moment when the right to life in the one box is allowed to peak into the anti-colonialist box. Even paying attention to human rights abuses by third world governments is considered a betrayal. Crucially, Memmi sees in this inability to hold anti-colonialist rebels to the same standard as we hold our own governments as a further form of racism. To imagine that terrorism is a natural event, one completely beyond the ability of colonized people to understand or control or resist, is to frame the colonized subject as subhuman. Like any such relationship where someone, in this case a patronizing western leftist, imagines themselves to have agency while an other, in this case the colonized terrorist, while that other does not, the relationship disfigures the humanity of both. The colonizer ally who decides that what a colonized person does is beyond ethics then has to ascribe to a kind of racial hierarchy where certain peoples, the proletarian nations as some thinkers call them, are allowed to murder indiscriminately, can have legitimate governments who do so, and where certain other governments, western ones, must be held up to perhaps impossibly high standards. This is how Memmi thinks we reached a moment where leftists take a totally permissive attitude towards every nationalist movement worldwide no matter how awful, except Israel whom they imagine should self-immolate. Memmi, as a self described Arab Jew and left Zionist represents a challenge to us about our basic values. He never renounced the cause of Tunisian independence, never championed the rights of one group at the expense of the rights of another and while it is true he supported Israel’s right to self defense he never failed to extend the same to Palestinians and Arabs. He finds that denouncing all tyranny at the same time is less hypocritical than favoring a supposed underdog. What he represents then, is the challenge to morally hypocritical thinking about the conflict as such. To the manichean left, there are proletarian and bourgeois nations, whole nations of angels and devils. It’s not that much different from the absolute enemy/friend thinking of white supremacists. If Bashar al-Assad has to murder Sunnis to stay in power that is fine, but if Israel fails to stop west bank expansion then Israel should be abolished. The naturalization of this hierarchy of legitimate national struggles (Syria) and illegitimate ones (Israel) is a consequence of the original hypocrisy according to which the murder of innocent people is okay if its done by anti-colonialists. The idea that brutal dictatorships in the Middle East are legitimate governments held by a certain kind of US leftist, and the willingness of the US government to lend strategic support to those dictatorships, for instance the longstanding support of Saddam Hussein that ended in the 90s, were both challenged by the Arab Spring. It turns out that Middle Eastern people are not satisfied living under authoritarian governments, and that those governments deployed an anti-semitic rhetoric without really doing much to help the Palestinians. Memmi was particularly well positioned to understand this patronizing version of allyship according to which the anti-colonialist is not subject to any kind of ethical constraint, because Memmi had supported independence and then suffered oppression at the hands of the Tunisian government he helped to establish. I’ll say it again, why not? It never gets old, and I’m not sure it’s been understood: there are no angels or devils in power. In power there are only tradeoffs between values, and the people who have to make those tradeoffs based on limited information. Memmi was able to support an anti-colonial independence movement and at the same time criticize it, and that is a good example to the rest of us. But the US left still seems to see America as an absolute enemy, and sees those who declare themselves America’s enemies as beyond criticism. It’s a superstition, and like the monarchist ideology of the pre-modern period it rests on a conception of the world where political relationships are natural, are fore-ordained, where authority is not about probity or clarity, democracy or popular unity, but based on the authority of persons. And because this new divinely ordained political hierarchy is founded on generalizations, I want to attack it by investigating the specific situation in Syria.
“The people should not fear their government, read a placard in Cairo’s central Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square. Governments should fear their people. The message captured the moment as hundreds of thousands of democracy activists descended on central Cairo… One day in March, a group of rebellious youths painted slogans from the Arab revolutions of 2011 on a wall in Deraa (Syria). The people want the fall of the regime, they proclaimed.” (Rogan, The Arabs, pp. 508,509).
I wanted to put these voices first, voices from the Egyptian and Syrian revolutions. I’ll be using extensive quotations throughout these episodes on Syria, to lift up the voices of those most directly affected: at the same time, I should give an explanation now of where I’m speaking from. I was born in 1978 in Memphis TN. I graduated from the University of Memphis with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy in 2001, and that Spring I joined the Navy. In the Navy I learned Arabic, and when my enlistment was over in 2008 I lived in Egypt for four months. When the revolution happened there in 2011 it was happening down the street from where I used to live, happening to people who were my friends. It was from that moment I began engaging with politics in a different way. Among other things, this podcast is another attempt to come to terms with that engagement, to make an accounting for it. I was able to translate various articles and statements into and out of Arabic for various revolutionary groups. At the time I felt guilt for having contributed to US wars overseas, and I felt like I was giving something back. Still today, if anyone listening in the revolutionary movement in the Middle East needs translations done please @ me. I’m good at it, and I’ll work for free. This engagement with the Middle East is why I am a socialist. I hope that’s the most I ever have to talk about myself, but I felt my audience deserved an explanation of why I do this work.
I want to talk about the history of Syria and the Arab Spring in chronological order with attention paid to certain places and their particular history over time. Hopefully, the material is accessible to all, but interesting to those who know the history well. In the passages that follow I have focused somewhat on historical turning points. I think it’s tempting to imagine that the region has been at war for thousands of years when history is presented this way. This is deeply unfortunate. The history shows long periods of stability and peace punctuated by occasionally violent moments of change. The one constant in Syria’s history from ancient times is its contact with the whole world, as a crossroads between east and west. It seems clear now that without the crusades the western enlightenment would have been impossible since the west had long since forgotten and lost Greek philosophy, including our patron saint Epicurus. Averroes’ treatises on Aristotle occasionally broke through in the West, every couple of centuries, resulting in inquisitions and repression. The idea that what happens in the world is not fore-ordained seems coupled permanently with the ability of people to hope for change. Far from being foreign to a Syrian context, it is literally from the Syrians that it comes to Europe. It is deeply ironic that many perceive, inside and outside the Middle East, that cultural modernity, the enlightenment, political rights, are considered alien to the Middle East when that is precisely the land that preserved those ideas for nearly a thousand years. Syria is as much the birthplace of democracy as Greece, for without the former no European would have known the latter. Sitting where it does in the fertile crescent, Syria is the birthplace of civilization and the exact place where the plurality of human cultures has always be forced into encounter. People familiar with the Syrian revolution will find the roots of the oppositions cosmopolitanism in the international trade system which made the Ghoutta, a green suburb of Damascus, fertile territory for a merchants guild under the Ottomans. That guild system, and the relative political and economic independence it developed over centuries from whatever tyrant ruled locally, became the social basis for resistance to French colonialism and later to the Assad dynasty (Battatu, p. 98). Syria is the hinge of world history, and if at this moment Syrian reality seems as grim as the worst moments in that history, we should heed what possibilities it heralds. We’ll start far enough back that we get an idea of what made a place like Syria possible.
From Hourani: “To the north, the Arabian peninsula joins a second area, the Fertile Crescent: the crescent-shaped land running around the rim of the Hamad or Syrian desert, which is a norther extension of the steppe and desert of Najd. This is a land of ancient and distinctive civilization, overlaid in the western half by those of Greece and Rome, and in the eastern by that of Iran; it was here, rather than in the peninsula, that the specific society and culture of Islam had developed. The wester half of the Fertile Crescent forms an area known to an earlier generation of scholars and travellers as ‘Syria.”... Behind a coastal strip of plain there is a range of highlands, rising in the centre to the mountains of Lebanon and sinking in the south to the hills of Palestine. Beyond them, to the east, lies a hollow, part of the Great Rift which runs through the Dead Sea and the Red Sea into east Africa. Beyond this again is another region of highlands, the great plain or plateau of the interior which changes gradually into the steppe and desert of the Hamad. In some places, ancient systems of irrigation used the water of the Orontes and smaller rivers to maintain fertile oases, in particular that lying around the ancient city of Damascus.” (pp90-91).
Hourani: “Syria was linked closely with the rest of the eastern Mediterranean basin, by sea-routes from its ports and by the land-route running along the coast to Egypt… The combination of long-distance trade with the production of a surplus of foodstuffs and raw materials had made possible the growth of large cities, lying in the inner plains but linked with the coast -- Aleppo in the north and Damascus in the centre.” (p91).
Hourani: “When Muhammad died, there was a moment of confusion among his followers. One of their leaders, Abu Bakr, proclaimed to the community: ‘O men, if you worship Muhammad, Muhammad is dead; if you worship God, God is alive.’... Abu Bakr, a follower of the first hour, whose daughter ‘A’isha was wife to the Prophet… and his successors soon found themselves called upon to exercise leadership over a wider range than the Prophet… When he died, the alliances he had made with tribal chiefs threatened to dissolve; some of them now rejected his prophetic claims… Faced with this challenge, the community under Abu Bakr affirmed its authority by military action (the ‘wars of the ridda’); in the process an army was created, and the momentum of action carried it into the frontier regions of the great empires… In the space of a few years, then, the political frontiers of the Near East had been changed and the centre of political life had moved from the rich and populous lands of the Fertile Crescent to a small town lying on the edge of the world of high culture and wealth. The change was so sudden and unexpected that it needs explanation. Evidence uncovered by archaeologists indicates that the prosperity and strength of the Mediterranean world were in decline because of barbarian invasions, failure to maintain terraces and other agricultural works, and the shrinking of the urban market. Both Byzantine and Sasanian Empires had been weakened by epidemics of plague and long wars; the hold of the Byzantines over Syria had been restored only after the defeat of the Sasanians in 629, and was still tenuous. The Arabs who invaded the two empires were not a tribal horde but an organized force… When Mu’awiya died, he was succeeded by his son, who was followed briefly by his own son; after that there was a second period of civil war and the throne passed to another branch of the family. The change was more than one of rulers. The capital of the empire moved to Damascus, a city lying in a countryside able to provide the surplus needed to maintain a court, government and army, and a region from which the eastern Mediterranean coastlands and the land to the east of them could be controlled more easily than from Madina.” (pp 25-26)
Maalouf: “On 21 October 1097 shouts rang out from the peak of the citadel of Antioch, then Syria’s largest city: ‘They are here!’ A few layabouts hurried to the ramparts to gawk, but they could see nothing… The Franj [European crusaders] were still a day’s march away…”(pp 17,18)
“Ibn al-Qalanisi tells us that in Damascus Yaghi-Syan’s son spoke of holy war. But in Syria in the eleventh century, jihad was no more than a slogan brandished by princes in distress. No emir would rush to another’s aid unless he had some personal interest in doing so… Providence seemed unable to decide which of these two exhausted and demoralized armies to favour during that June of 1098. But then an extraordinary event brought about a decision….Sensing that he [Atabeg Karbuqa] was losing control of his troops…[he] asked the Franj for a truce. This merely demolished the last of his prestige in the eyes of his own army and emboldened the enemy. The Franj charged without even responding to his offer… Realizing his mounting isolation, the Atabeg ordered a general retreat, which immediately degenerated into a rout… Most serious of all was that after this day of shame, there was no longer any force in Syria capable of checking the invaders’ advance.” (21,22).
It was 11 December , a pitch-dark night, and the Franj did not yet dare to penetrate the town. The notables of Ma’arra made contact with Bohemond, the new master of Antioch, who was leading the attackers. The Frankish commander promised to spare the lives of the inhabitants if they would stop fighting and withdraw from certain buildings. Desperately placing their trust in his word, the families gathered in the houses and cellars of the city and waited all night in fear. The Franj arrived at dawn. It was carnage. For three days they put people to the sword, killing more than a hundred thousand people and taking many prisoners… In Ma’arra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled. The inhabitants of towns and villages near Ma’arra would never read this confession by the Frankish chronicler Dadulph of Caen, but they would never forget what they had seen and heard… (38,39).
Maalouf: “The Franj had taken the holy city on Friday, the twenty-second day of the month of Sha’ban, in the year of the Hegira 492, or 15 July 1099, after a forty-day siege. The exiles still trembled when they spoke of the fall of the city.. Two days later, when the killing stopped, not a single Muslim was left alive within the city walls. Some had taken advantage of the chaos to slip away, escaping through gates battered down by the attackers. Thousands of others lay in pools of blood on the doorsteps of their homes or alongside the mosques...The sack of Jerusalem, starting point of a millenial hostility between Islam and the West, aroused no immediate sensation. It would be nearly half a century before the Arab East would mobilize against the invader, before the call to jihad issued by the qadi of Damascus in the caliph’s diwan would be celebrated in commemoration of the first solemn act of resistance.” (xvi).
Maalouf: “If the West had sought, through its successive invasions, to contain the thrust of Islam, the result was exactly the opposite. Not only were the Frankish states of the Middle East uprooted after two centuries of colonization, but the Muslims had so completely gained the upper hand that before long, under the banner of the Ottoman Turks, they would seek to conquer Europe itself. In 1453 they took Constantinople. By 1529 their cavalry was encamped at the walls of Vienna… At the time of the Crusades, the Arab world, from Spain to Iraq, was still the intellectual and material repository of the planet’s most advanced civilization. Afterwards, the centre of world history shifted decisively to the West. Is there a cause-and-effect relationship here? Can we go so far as to claim that the Crusades marked the beginning of the rise of Western Europe -- which would gradually come to dominate the world -- and sounded the death knell of Arab civilization? Although not completely false, such an assessment requires some modification. During the years prior to the Crusades, the Arabs suffered from certain ‘weaknesses’ that the Frankish presence exposed, perhaps aggravated, but by no means created. The people of the Prophet had lost control of their own destiny as early as the ninth century. Their leaders were practically all foreigners...The second ‘weakness’ of the Arabs, not unrelated to the first, was their inability to build stable institutions. The Franj succeeded in creating genuine state structures as soon as they arrived in the Middle East. In Jerusalem rulers generally succeeded one another without serious clashes; a council of the kingdom exercised effective control over the policy of the monarch, and the clergy had a recognized role in the workings of power. Nothing of the sort existed in the Muslim states. Every monarchy was threatened by the death of its monarch, and every transmission of power provoked civil war… (261,262) In all domains the Franj learned much in the Arab school, in Syria as in Spain and Sicily. What they learned from the Arabs was indispensable in their subsequent expansion. The heritage of Greek civilization was transmitted to Western Eruope through Arab intermediaries, both translators and continuators. In medicine, astronomy, chemistry, geography, mathematics, and architecture, the Franj drew their knowledge from Arabic books, which they assimilated, imitated, and then surpassed. Many words bear testimony to this even today: zenith, nadir, azimuth, algebra, algorithm, [almanac] and more simply, cipher. In the realm of industry, the Europeans first learned and then later improved upon the processes used by the Arabs in paper-making, leather-working, textiles, and the distillation of alcohol and sugar -- two more words borrowed from the Arabic language...Although the epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these holy wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism. Assaulted from all quarters, the Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile -- attitudes that grew steadily worse as the world-wide evolution, a process from which the Muslim world felt excluded, continued. Modernism became alien. Should cultural and religious identity be affirmed by rejecting this modernism, which the West symbolized? Or, on the contrary, should the road of modernization be embarked upon with resolution, thus risking loss of identity? Neither Iran, nor Turkey, nor the Arab world has ever succeeded in resolving this dilemma. Even today we can observe a lurching alternation between phases of forced Westernization and phases of extremist, strongly xenophobic traditionalism...Today, on the eve of the third millenium, the political and religious leaders of the Arab world constantly refer to Saladin, to the fall of Jerusalem and its recapture. In the popular mind, and in some official discourse too, Israel is regarded as a new Crusader state… It seems clear that the Arab East still sees the West as a natural enemy. Against that enemy, any hostile action -- be it political, military, or based on oil -- is considered no more than legitimate vengeance.” (264-266).
Hourani: “By origin, the Ottoman state was one of the Turkish principalities generated by the expansion of the Saljuqs and of Turkish immigrants westwards into Anatolia. On the disputed and shifting frontier with the byzantine Empire there grew up a number of such principalities, nominally accepting the suzerainty of the Saljuqs but in fact autonomous… By the end of the fourteenth century its forces had crossed the straits into eastern Eruope and expanded rapidly there. Its eastern European empire added to its strength in more than one way. It came into contact and diplomatic relations with the state of Europe, and acquired new sources of manpower: former ruling groups were incorporated into its system of government, and conscripts from Balkan villages were taken into its army... In 1453 it absorbed what was left of the Byzantine Empire and took Constantinople as its new capital, Istanbul. In the east, however, its power was challenged by the Safavids, another rising dynasty of uncertain origin, around whom Turkish tribesmen had gathered. There was a long struggle for control of the frontier regions lying between their main centres of power, eastern Anatolia and Iraq: Baghdad was conquered by the Ottomans in 1534, lost to the Safavids in 1623, and not taken by the Ottomans again until 1638. It was partly as a consequence of the struggle with the Safavids that the Ottomans moved south into the lands of the Mamluk sultanate. Largely because of their superior firepower and military organization, they were able to occupy Syria, Egypt and wester Arabia in 1516-17. The Ottoman Empire was now the principal military and naval power in the eastern Mediterranean, and also in the Red Sea, and this brought it into potential conflict with the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean and the Spaniards in the western Mediterranean. In the Red Sea area its policy was one of defence, to prevent the Portuguese from advancing, but in the Mediterranean it used its naval power to check Spanish expansion and establish a chain of strong points at Algiers itin the 1520s), Tripoli (in the 1550s) and in Tunis (1574), but not further west in Morocco. Maritime warfare continued for some time between Ottomans and Spaniards, but by now Spanish energies were mainly directed towards the new world of America. A more or less stable division of naval power in the Mediterranean grew up, and from 1580 onwards Spain and the Ottomans had peaceful relations.” (pp. 214, 215).
Aleppo, Damascus, Tripoli, Sayda, 1635
Hourani: “The Syrian provinces of Aleppo, Damascus and Tripoli had to be controlled directly, because of their tax-revenues, the place of Aleppo in the international trading system, that of Damascus as one of the centres from which the pilgrimage was organized, and that of Jerusalem and Hebron as holy cities… The government in Istanbul was able to retain direct control both by the roads through Anatolia and by sea, but this was limited to the great cities and the grain-producing plains around them, and the ports of the coast. In the mountains and desert, control was more difficult because of the terrain, and less important because the land produced less revenue. It was enough for the Ottoman government to give recognition to local families of lords, provided they collected and transmitted revenue and did not threaten the routes by which trade and armies passed… In the same way, chiefs of pastoral tribes in the Syrian desert, and those lying on the pilgrims’ route to Mecca, were given formal recognition. A policy of manipulation, of setting one family or ane member of a family against another, awas usually sufficient to preserve the balance between imperial and local interests, but sometimes it could be threatened. In the early seventeenth century, a rebellious governor of Aleppo and an over-powerful lord in the Shuf mountains of Lebanon, Fahr al-Din al-Ma’ni (d. 1635) with some encouragement from Italian rulers were able to challenge Ottoman power for a time. Fakhr al-Din was finally captured and executed, and after that the Ottomans established a fourth province with its capital at Sayda, to keep a watch over the lords of Lebanon.” (226).
Today when we talk about imperialism it usually involves a discussion of bad faith. For instance, the reasons the USA went to war in Iraq were explicitly containment of WMDs and spreading democracy. We call it imperialism assuming that the reasons given are lies or bad faith beliefs (maybe W. Bush really believed what he was saying). Things were otherwise in 19th century Europe. There were large pro-Imperialist parties, usually liberal in the sense they affirmed limited or even broken democratic systems. Colonies were how they hoped to ease poverty and unemployment, and where the middling classes could get rich. That’s the sort of milieu that supported Napoleon III [correction: in the recording I identify Napoleon III as a colonist in 1830. This is anachronistic. It was Louis Phillipe who began the French colonial adventure in Algeria in 1830 in a failed attempt to hold power in France. The colonial policy was continued by subsequent French governments including Napoleon III.] his colony in Algeria, and similar dynamics were at work in British ruled India, the US in the Phillipines. These are just a couple of examples. Socialists such as Beatrice Webb and George Bernard Shaw were imperialists, for instance. Usually these imperialisms had a justification in some version of the white man’s burden. These were blatantly racist ideologies whose adherents put forth a straightforward good faith case for imperialism. We’ve discussed elsewhere the kind of racist eugenics ideology that prevailed just before the turn of the 20th century.
Throughout that century the British were busy invading, occupying and getting kicked out of Mesopotamia and the Levant (greater Syria). In the runup to WW1 Turkey had its strength sapped fighting the Italians in Libya and in the Balkans (Rogan, p 148). Syria remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until the British out of desperation during WW1 enlisted the aid of Arabic speaking princes who had ambitions to finally set up their own independent states, something they had lost under nearly four centuries of Turkish rule. The postwar settlement of Sikes-Picot gave France status in Lebanon and Syria, to manage them and nominally to help them transition into independence. The French didn’t really seem to be offering independence, and at many key points they jailed or killed locals who showed initiative towards building independent local institutions. In 1925 as Abd al-Krim was devastating the Spanish army in Morocco and opening a second front against the French there, nationalists in Syria reckoned the time was right. The French had been administering Syria as a loose confederation. This meant that the Alawites and the Druze in particular had autonomy relative to the peoples all around them. This is typical divide and conquer: as we shall see this will be exactly how the Assad dynasty would later rule. One veteran of an early desperate attempt to fight back French rule in 1920 at Maysalun was Fawzi al-Qawuqji. He was from Hama. Because the French had tried to replace the Druze leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, the Druze were already by Spring of 1923 waging guerilla war against the French. Al-Qawuqji in Hama and Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar from Damascus convinced the Druze to escalate their offensive. In return they promised to lead an expansion of the insurrection in Damascus and Hama. With French troops tied down in Morocco fighting Abd al-Krim, so they reasoned, they had a good chance of pushing the French out of Syria. The nation rallied to their cause, with mass demonstrations and with popular support for the guerillas. The French put down the revolt with a disgusting display of extreme violence against civilian populations, shelling civilian areas and massacring noncombatants in insurgent territory. Notably, one of the communities that took heavy casualties was the Ghouta, a fertile valley just to the east of Damascus. The Ghouta was the neighborhood that hosted a 400 year old merchants guild. Projecting ahead some, it was in the Ghouta that Bashar al-Assad killed 1400 people with Sarin nerve agent in 2013. There is something about the Ghouta’s centuries long access to trade, its connections with the rest of the world, its status as a source of wealth independent from the local state, that make it a perennial site of rebellion against tyranny. It is estimated that in three days in October 1925 1500 people were massacred by the French. You have to suspect that locals then told stories about the Franj crusaders who cannibalized the people of Antioch so long ago. Again and again we’ve pointed out that the source of legitimate rule is protecting the masses, and on this score if on nothing else the French had failed. Nevertheless they managed to quell the rebellion in 1926 and stuck around until after WW2. The socialist government under Leon Blum tried to give Syria real independence, but was blocked from debating the matter by the colonial lobby in Paris. Syria felt some of the aftershocks of the French revolution during the war when a restoration government under Vichy’s man Dentz was replaced by the republican De Gaulle with the help of the British army. Even in the colonies, France must have periodic revolutions. The conservatives and colonialists there come directly out of the tradition of rural resistance to the Jacobins, and the decision to nationalize the Catholic Church there just keeps coming back to cause chaos. After WW2 protests erupt anew across Syria, and just as in 1925 the French responded with extreme brutality. And then something remarkable happened. The indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas did not sit well with the new English Prime Minister. After nearly half a century of patient organizing and being a minor party in coalitions with other political parties, British labor had come into its own.
Dorrien: “Labour played a significant role in Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition government, which set up [Clement] Attlee to become prime minister after the war ended. The Attlee governments of 1945-1951 transformed Britain into a British version of Social Democracy. Labour made health care a fundamental right for all citizens, nationalized one-fifth of the economy, significantly increased the incomes of wage earners, sustained the full employment economy that the war created, instituted progressive income tax and a pension system, abolished antiunion laws, abolished restrictions on the rights of women to own property, established a minimum wage for agricultural workers, and got colonial Britain out of India, Pakistan, Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Palestine.” (Dorrien, p25). We can add to this list of victories convincing France to grant Syrian independence. Labour could do all of these things because it had helped the reactionary Churchill beat Hitler. Attlee was his defence minister. Earning the trust and goodwill of the people by honest debate and wise cooperation has served us better than constantly declaring war on all parties who are not ours. In 1945 the Labour party proved as much by transforming a large part of the world for the better. When I think about Lenin’s theories of imperialism, and then find an instance like this of an imperial country doing something that isn’t favored in the so called iron laws of capitalism, I’m reminded that people have agency, and that affirming that by organizing for a larger democracy opens up the possibility of intentional human action to change the world. To be clear, I don’t think Lenin saw the rules of imperialism as overpowering human agency, but I do think that many of his successors think that. We’ll come back to this.
As Salhiya (Deir ez-Zor Governorate), 1945
Rogan: “From his safe house in Salihiyya, President Quwwatli appealed to British officials to intervene. Invoking the 1941 guarantee of Syrian independence, he formally requested the British to intercede with the French to stop the bombardment of Damascus. The Syrian president’s appeal gave Britain legitimate grounds to interfere in French imperial affairs, and they prevailed upon their wartime ally to lift their attack. By the time French guns fell silent, more than four hundred Syrians had been killed, hundreds of private homes had been destroyed, and the building that housed the Syrian parliament had been reduced to rubble by the ferocity of the attack. France’s desperate bid to preserve its empire in the Levant had failed, and nothing could persuade the embittered Syrians to compromise on their long-standing demand for total independence. The French finally admitted defeat in July 1945 and agreed to transfer control of the military and security forces to the independent governments of Syria and Lebanon.” (p. 246).
Post WW2 Independence
In his expansive history of the CIA, Time Weiner discusses the US backed military coup in Syria of 1949. President Eisenhower had some racist ideas about Arabs not being able to understand democracy. So, he insisted that the CIA try and find and fund partners in the region who would engage, in Eisenhower’s words, in an Islamic jihad against communism. It’s worth pondering the nature of military coups for a moment. Naunihal Singh has done us a very great service in this regard.
In Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups, Singh studied in depth seven of the ten military coups that occured in Ghana after it was granted independence from Great Britain, from 1966 to 1983. “I skip the first attempt because it has already been fairly well documented and omit the last two because they add little original to our theoretical understanding… Ghana was originally chosen as a site for this research because it had a high number of coup attempts that were almost evenly split between successes and failures, which is similar to the distribution of coup outcomes worldwide. It also had a variety of potentially relevant background conditions, with, for example, coup attempts from the top, middle, and bottom of the military hierarchy. In addition, Ghana’s coup attempts were recent enough to make conducting oral history feasible, yet far enough in the past that participants were willing to speak freely about events once I had obtained their trust” (p. 11). We can’t really have absolutely rigorous scientific knowledge of history. There’s no way to rerun events with one or two variables changed to see what difference it would make. There’s no way to know for sure, for instance, whether if JFK were not assassinated we would have stayed in Vietnam as long as we did. We just can’t run experiments that way. However, Singh has gotten remarkably close to finding such a data set, where the same thing is attempted with some perhaps minor changes. Here’s what the data told him.
A military coup, Singh tells us, is not like an election and not like a military battle. In an election people campaign in the open and then on a given day everyone votes, hopefully anonymously, and everyone agrees to respect the outcome, chosen by some kind of a majority. In a battle there are two camps who have decided ahead of time to fight it out. In a military coup, the outcome is decided by who can convince the majority of the armed forces, not that their platform is preferable, but that the outcome is decided in their favor. Most military forces will take a sit and wait attitude when they are aware of a coup, because the overwhelming impulse is to avoid shedding the blood of one’s compatriots. Coups succeed when they can make a compelling case that they cannot be helpfully resisted. Coups are more likely to succeed from the top because the upper chain of command can hold meetings where they announce the coup to key players. By forcing key players to pick a side in a public forum before any of them have had a chance to discuss matters in private generates a social pressure to support the coup. If the coup conspirators can seize the media early and control the message, then they can easily convince the nation that the coup has succeeded and that resistance is futile. It’s not exactly an election, where people can freely say what they want, nor is it a battle where two sides are clearly differentiated and bloodshed is unavoidable. The general public can influence the outcome of a military coup, if members of the military are given the chance to discuss things with them. We cite the example of the Russian revolution, where long discussion and many votes by popularly organized bodies such as the soviets came before and then blessed after the fact of the Bolsheviks leading parts of the Russian army to seize the Winter Palace. Another example is the failed coup against Charles De Gaulle in 1961. Several retired French generals tried to take over the government to stop the French from withdrawing from their colony in Algeria. The coup attempt had broad support throughout the officer corp. Decisively, De Gaulle was able to go on television to publicly repudiate the generals citing a referendum a few months earlier where the French people had voted to give up the French colony.
The resulting mobilizations of the Unions and the major political parties convinced the army’s rank and file to side with De Gaulle. It was a military coup that was dominated and defeated by a democratic coalition(Singh, p. 21). Usually, coups succeed or fail based on whether they can create the fact of their success before too much public discussion has occurred. A military coup, Singh tells us, is a coordination game, a contest of who can shape common knowledge the quickest and most convincingly.
The first thing to notice, but not the last, about the 1949 coup in Syria is that the US supported the victor Adib Shishakly both financially, militarily and diplomatically (Weiner, p. 159). What’s missing from this account is that Shishakly was also supported by the Arab Socialist Party (Nasserist), the Ba’ath party and the Muslim Brotherhood (Anderson, p.10). In the case of Syria, the military was always deeply involved in governance, both from its time under French and Ottoman rule, and as far back as the first Jihad of Abu Baker immediately after the death of the prophet. The French gave Syria its independence in 1945 by handing over control of the army and the intelligence corps. The Shishakli coup was the final of three coups that occured in Syria in 1949. Shishakli was a Syrian Kurd and a Syrian nationalist who had volunteered to fight Israel in 1948. To him and his supporters the coup was necessary to get rid of the government of Husni al-Zaim who had failed in 1948 to get rid of the colonialist state of Israel. Al-Zaim’s government, by the way, apparently had the blessing of the US, but was self initiated.
Any group aspiring to take power, whether that group is democratic or not, would probably be helping itself if it got the backing of some external power. I’m laying all this out like this not to say that al-Zaim or Shishakli were good people who deserved to rule Syria, or because I agree with the pan-Arabism of the one or the far right Syria first ideology of the second. I want all this to be known because it destroys the two dimensional version of these events people usually put forward, that the US paid money to impose a government on local Arabs (who in this story have no will or agency of their own) in order to support Israel, or the Zionists, or the Wahhabi-Zionists, or whatever other “deep state” surrogate they think controls the US government. The CIA put their hand on the scale in Syria to oppose Stalinist totalitarian communism, and in so doing they put a Syrian nationalist authoritarian in power, someone opposed to Israel but also opposed to Syria combining with Iraq. Like most of these CIA interventions, the US didn’t get everything they wanted, and success hinged largely on how much local support they could count on. After four years in power Shishakli was deposed in another coup, this time backed by Ba’athists, communists and military officers. The fact that civil society was involved in all of these coups shows that regular people were demanding action to change their government, and that they were in part getting what they wanted, and then realizing it wasn’t what they wanted, and then demanding something else. The fact that democratic institutions didn’t materialize is a real failure, but one that cannot be explained because of US intervention. Long term success of a coup installed government still seems to depend largely on whether society will tolerate that government. In 1957 the US tried to promote a coup again, but local Syrian military officers knew the tune already, set up a sting and expelled the plotters. The US then expelled the Syrian ambassador, probably a mistake in hindsight. The resulting decline in American prestige in the region, among other factors, led to local governments welcoming Soviet Russian aid and influence. Gamal Abdul Nasser, the winner of his own military coup that turned out to be very popular for a few decades, coined the term “third world” to designate the aspiration for a coalition of states not beholden to the US nor to the USSR. When Washington found out that Nasser was getting aid from the USSR for his Aswan Dam project, the US withdrew its aid for the project, so Nasser also ends up in the Soviet Union’s orbit. Back in Syria, the new economy was lifting up a class of traditionally lower to middle positioned peasant farmers. This peasant class would struggle through the chaos of these years to take power in Syria, first by a fairly generous redistribution of wealth and later by an intensification of poverty, exploitation, and violent collective punishment.
In 1999 Hanna Batatu published his now classic ethnographic study of Syria’s ruling class. The regime that coalesced around Hafez al-Assad achieved enduring stability by 1974. Batatu comments: “Out of the nineteen ‘Alawis who filled or fill positions at this level [leadership] of the power structure, no fewer than eleven or 57.9 percent descend from the lesser rural or village notability, which owned land but on a small or middling scale and, while not wealthy, enjoyed influence and prestige among the local peasants. Only three or 15.8 percent are descendants of sharecroppers. In other words, the majority does not come from families at the lower end of the rural income or status ladder.” (p. 225). When the French set up local semi-autonomous zones, such as those for the ‘Alawis and the Druze, they were setting up across the country multiple administrations, with rural notables being elevated to the same level as the urban elites who had occupied privileged places within the Ottoman system. Batatu exhaustively documents how throughout this period the landholdings of these middling class peasant strata increased tenfold (p. 156). The ‘Alawis were historically a very poor economic class, and the French enlisted them heavily in their Troupes Speciales. Moreover, because they didn’t have the same extended networks of social wealth that other Syrians had, ‘Alawis tended to rely on and support the Ba’ath party, whose political fortunes soared in the middle 20th century. The Ba’ath party’s rise to power came about in three successive stages.
Like most liberation movements in the late 19th and early 20th century the Syrian movement was dominated by socialism and nationalism. Nationalism took the form of the Ba’ath party, and the socialist idea was championed by Akram Hawrani, whose Arab Socialist Party [ASP]had this great slogan “Bring shovel and brush to bury lord and boss.” (Burning Country, p7). In the first stage, from 1945 to 1952, the Ba’ath party had its base of support in the urban centers. These Ba’ath were soft on inherited privilege and hard against foreign intervention. They had a vision of a nationally united Syria, forged in the furnace of European colonialism. The population all around, the peasants and day-laborers of Syria, were embracing socialism in the context of an Ottoman style system that had been balkanized by the French administration. In 1952 these two parties joined forces. Over the next 20 years the Ba’athists would maneuvre to bring more peasant notables into privileged positions and to marginalize the leadership of the increasingly defunct socialist party. By the way, the Syrian Communist Party was dead on arrival throughout this period because they followed Stalin’s dictate that they should support (1) landowners, since Syria was supposedly still fighting for its national independence and should therefore unite under the feudal remnants and (2) the partition of Palestine. This is yet another way the priorities of Moscow undermined the interests of various Communist Party locals around the world. There were always two kinds of nationalism in Syria. One part of the Ba’ath party wanted a state based in the historic levant that was specifically Syrian, and one part always wanted Syria to contribute to a greater Arab state. In 1958 the latter won out and Syria joined Egypt in the United Arab Republic. Abdul Nasser came on too strong for the Syrian Ba’athists, and the experiment fell apart in 1961.
After the unification of the ASP and the Ba’ath Party in 1952, the latter gradually dominated politics. In the army, the various Sunni ethnic groups competed with each other for influence. Because they outnumbered other groups in the French organized local militia, several ‘Alawis held positions in the high military ranks. Throughout the sixties in the context of the lack of coordination among Sunni groups, the ‘Alawis at the top of the military chain of command used their position to regulate entry into the military academies, and to shift the command structure to benefit themselves in a social context saturated with nepotism. These were not official policies or perhaps even particularly intentional, but in context people clearly had identifications that were important enough for them to embrace corruption of the national institutions to the benefit of their extended family from Latakia for instance. By the end of its second phase, the Ba’ath party was transformed into a party that had its center of mass in the countryside, and the ASP had become a deleverage junior partner. What the socialist party politics achieved in this union was aggressive and far reaching land redistribution. This land redistribution was slow at first, and then through 1968-69 sped up precipitously as Salah Jadid took leadership in coordination with Cairo. Jadid was an ‘Alawite who rose up through the military ranks. Close beneath him in the hierarchy was a young up and comer Hafez al-Assad.
Hafez al-Assad was the first peasant to become the ruler of Syria. The ‘Alawite religion is surrounded by mystery, with the core tenants being known only to the initiated. Hafez al-Assad was likewise described by many who know him personally as secretive and inscrutable. His family were agricultural laborers, part of an important clan local to Qirdahah, a village in Latakia. Hafez al-Assad’s father ‘Ali Sulayman was a harsh and abusive head of the family. There are rumors that ‘Ali Sulaymann beat Hafez’s older brother Bayat so badly one day for having misspent some money, that Bayat, having been forced to sleep in the barn that night, hung himself in shame. “Hafez al-Assad, who was then only eight years old, is said to have told a friend sometime after his graduation from the military academy: ‘since the day I saw my brother suspended by the neck in the barn, no tear has fallen from my eye.’” (Batatu, p. 195). Having excelled in memorization of the Quran, Hafez was sent away to primary school in Latakia. From there he took the path that many young ‘Alawite men did to better their social standing: he joined the military academy. Sam Dagher writes: “It was fall 1952 when Hafez al-Assad and Mustafa Tlass first met at the military academy in the city of Homs. It was a natural choice for poor, scrappy young men from the provinces like Hafez and Mustafa who were ambitious and politically minded. A ninth-grade education and an entrance exam were all it took to be admitted. Recruits were housed, fed and paid a stipend… Before the academy, Hafez and Mustafa were youth leaders in the Baath Party, which was formed a year after Syria’s independence. The Baath was first and foremost an ideology -- a curious fusion of European philosophies, socialism, Arab nationalism, and Islamic thought, whose theorists were Syrian graduates of the Sorbonne. Its core doctrine was that Arabs must undergo transformation and unification beyond just geographic and political lines; they must shed imperial-era influences and return to their pure essence and virtues. This demanded a rebirth and resurgence, or baath in Arabic. These concepts, along with social equality and redistribution of wealth, appealed to those sidelined by their economic circumstances, like Mustafa, or by belonging to religious minorities, like Hafez. Arab identity was supposed to transcend all cleavages.” (Dagher, p. 22)
In 1963 Hafez al-Assad and several of his fellow cadets from the military academy, with backing from some of the top brass, posed as an opposition to secession from Egypt and staged a coup. Tanks rolled into Damascus. Hafez secured the nearby airport. The purge that followed lifted more Baathists into power. When the pro-Nasser group realized they had been lied to and betrayed, they led their own coup, which failed. In 1964 the new regime put down revolts in Homs and Hama led by Marwan Hadid, who afterwards was given a death sentence. The sentence was reversed, despite the protestations of Hafez and Mustafa. What followed was deadly court intrigue, with the result that Salah Jadid took power, who as we discussed previously implemented aggressive land redistribution. In June of 1967 Israel invaded the Golan Heights. Hafez al-Assad, despite his experience in military coups, was still inexperienced in combat. On June 10th he issued Communique 66 declaring that Israeli forces had taken the village of Qunaytrah. But Israeli forces were not anywhere near Qunaytrah. When they saw the Syrian tanks retreating, they easily entered and took over the Golan. Hafez al-Assad had led the retreat without having put up a fight. It is possible to explain this action as cowardice or as incompetence. There were unverified reports of Israeli tanks in and around Qunaytrah. It seems likely that Hafez al-Assad didn’t want to risk his tanks in battle when the position of his ruling click was so tenuous at home (Batatu, p. 198-200). In 1973 Hafez al-Assad distinguished himself by taking back part of the Golan from Israel in a war that saw Egypt retake the Sinai peninsula.
The Arab Socialist Party had begun in 1939, and had its largest base of support in and around Hama. It was incredibly popular, attracting 40,000 people to its congress in 1950. The bonds of solidarity it forged, as well as the culture of resistance, lived on in the Syrian countryside. With the world recession of the 70s added in, this older political movement was bound to butt heads with the authoritarian and corrupt Assad regime.
In 1979 Egypt concluded a peace treaty with Israel, one which has held to this day, and thereby was removed the potential for a repeat of 1973 when Egypt and Syria joined forces to attack Israel. We have seen how the Baath party was transformed by its merger with the ASP from a party of army officers and urban intellectuals into a mass peasant party. Populations within which individuals and groups may have aspired to socialism, to the democratic control of the means of production, found the path open to them for advancement in the nationalist wing of the Baath. In the early 70s Hafez al-Assad began holding mass rallies where people were coerced into attending and engaging there in worship of Hafez himself. Lisa Wedeen notes: Outlandish declarations of loyalty to Assad increased by the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the poor performance of the Syrian economy and Syrians’ perceptions of mismanagement and corruption contributed to growing opposition to the Assad regime.” (p.35). Simultaneously, a campaign of terror was waged by the regime. Thousands were sent to prisons to be tortured. Sam Dagher recounts the events of the late 70s and early 80s through the memories of Hama native and artist Khaled al-Khani:
“There had been soldiers in khaki green in Hama as far back as Khaled al-Khani could remember. He was barely four years old in 1979 when Hafez al-Assad stepped up the pressure on his hometown. It was common that year to see troops in jeeps and pickup trucks with machine guns racing down Corniche al-Asi -- the riverside promenade with lush parks and giant wooden waterwheels, or norias, used for millennia to scoop water from the deeply carved Orontes river up into aqueducts for irrigation. There was no telling when the heavy footsteps of soldiers would echo through the narrow cobblestone alleyways on their way to arrest people from their homes, shops, and schools. Thousands were sent to the mukhabarat’s torture dungeons and then eastwward to the infamous Tadmor desert prison, described as the “kingdome of death and madness” by a poet held there for five years. The dragnets in Hama often provoked angry protests and general strikes, which then led to more repression by regime forces. While fear and violent confrontation gripped Hama that year, Khaled and his siblings were somewhat shielded from it despite the political activism of their father Hikmat al-Khani, an eye doctor and community leader. Soldiers at checkpoints demanding IDs and searching vehicles were often smiley and playful with little Khaled, a cute and chubby boy with blond hair and blue eyes...Hafez was already enmeshed in the civil war in neighboring Lebanon, and he faced challenges on two fronts at home -- attacks by Islamist unsrugents backed by his rival Baathist regime in Iraq and rising discontent by a large cross section of the population over economic mismanagement, corruption, and an increangly authoritarian rule. The insurgents were part of the Tali’a al-Muqatila, or Fighting Vanguard, a militant splinter group of the Muslim Brotherhood party which first emerged in Hama when Baathists took power in 1963… The Muslim Brotherhood was divided over the Vanguards’s campaign, and a wing of the party advocated dialogue with Hafez to convince him to implement real reforms and ease his grip on public life, and to that end it cooperated with the likes of Hikmat al-Khani and Shishakli [Omar al-Shishakli, a famous doctor and the nephew of Adib Shishakli the former ruler of Syria]. But it was precisely such nonviolent collaboration that Hafez felt jeopardized his authority. So Hafez’s overriding strategy was to wage military campaigns against entire cities and towns like Aleppo and Hama from which brotherhood leaders hailed, under the guise of combatting terrorism. There were mass arrests, summary executions, and unspeakable torture in prisons of anyone suspected of having even the remotest link to the Brotherhood; this guilt by association extended to family members, friends and acquantiances. All too often, many people met a tragic demise due to their name, birthplace, or look, or simply because of mistaken identity.” (225-229). In the early months of 1980 the stream of events came to a head, and a wave of strikes and protests begun in Hama soon spread to Aleppo, Baniyas, Homs and Latakia. Omar al-Shishakli was called to a meeting with Mustafa Tlass, Hafez al-Assad’s old friend from military academy days. Al-Shishakli was tortured and murdered. Several other leaders of the peaceful protest movement of 1980 were likewise murdered. Having decapitated the peaceful protest movement, Assad could carry on with the collective punishment of rebellious communities in the name of fighting terrorism. That year he subdued Aleppo, killing 2,000 and arresting another 8,000. In the cold days of early February 1982, Hafez al-Assad encircled Hama. The captains on the ground were mainly Alawite. They rampaged the city in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Estimates of the number of dead range from 10,000 to 25,000. Dozens of neighborhoods were completely razed to the ground. The government’s reckoning of the number of Muslim Brotherhood in the city was no more than 500 (Batatu, p.203). Those who survived often lived under the shadow of the knowledge that their loved ones had been taken to some jail to be tortured indefinitely. Sometimes people came back. Sometimes news of someone’s death came back instead.
Khaled al-Khani survived, and like many Hama natives he tried to join the Baath party in the hopes of getting into college. A Baath committee came to his high school to interview the potential new recruits. My American audience should imagine junior ROTC. They asked him what his father’s name and profession were. He said that his father had been killed by the army.
From Sam Dagher: “All six got up, removed their jackets and took turns slapping and punching Khaled. He was knocked to the floor and screamed as he was kicked. The principal rescued him. ‘I am so sorry, gentlemen. Leave it to me, I am going to teach this scoundrel a lesson,’ said the principal as he escorted Khaled out of the room and hid him in his office. Khaled was supposed to say that Islamist terrorists had killed his father. He was supposed to forget those who witnessed his father being captured by regime forces and taken with thousands of other men to the porcelain factory where he was tortured and gruesomely executed. Hamwis [residents of Hama, the birthplace of Arab Socialism] had to live with the regime’s lies even in the privacy of their homes. To cope, many massacre survivors became convinced that Hafez was the nation’s strict yet benevolent father who punished Hama only because he was left with no other choice… The uncontestable truth was that the regime had meticulously planned the assault on Hama in 1982, completely subdued a few hundred Islamist fighters in about ten days, then vengefully massacred thousands of civilians, raped women, looted homes, and razed neighborhoods, and then at the end wanted victims to believe that ‘terrorists’ had done it to them.” (p242).
Hama, the birthplace of Syria’s socialist movement rose up in the late 70s against the rising authoritarianism. The spirit of solidarity shown in the spreading protest movement is all the best of what democratic socialism should be: people fighting to have a say in what happens in their lives. Syria is a place where the whole world comes together, where Ancient Greek philosophy and algebra were rediscovered by Europe through the crusades. That enlightenment and culture, Assad’s Syria had to kill all of that. And for 30 years it would seem he had. Syria’s isolation in the region after the peace deal between Egypt and Israel is probably part of why Hafez al-Assad refused to intervene militarily when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, displacing half a million people, indiscriminately bombing civilian neighborhoods and intentionally allowing Phalangists to massacre Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila. But as Hanna Battatu rightly points out, this must have deeply offended Syrians who witnessed this refusal to face the Israelis at the same moment that the regime was “cleansing” Hama, Aleppo and a dozen other places and disciplining civil society to never ask for anything better (p. 203).
After Hama, the Assad regime didn’t face any real threats to its power until 2011. The dual compulsion to rally to worship the cult of Assad and to remain silent about any and all abuses and shortcomings of the regime was the norm for 30 years. It was a time when society was completely dominated by the state. It was a fulfillment of Robespierre’s dream. As we will see, no such arrangement is total, and through the harshest such winter one can still sow the seeds for a new spring.
We will talk about the US left’s failure to understand Syria, but viewed from a broader lens the western left has failed to fully digest the fact that the Arab Spring that erupted in 2011 was a repudiation of the states that came from the anti-colonial movement in the Middle East and North Africa. In 2006 Albert Memmi’s masterful Decolonization and the Decolonized appeared in English translation, and this book goes a long way towards correcting this failure in leftist thought. “The end of colonization should have brought with it freedom and prosperity. The colonized would give birth to the citizen, master of his political, economic, and cultural destiny. After decades of imposed ignorance, his country, now free, would affirm its sovereignty. Opulent or indigent, it would reap the rewards of its labor, of its soil and subsoil. Once its native genius was given free reign, the use of its recovered language would allow native culture to flourish. Unfortunately, in most cases, the long anticipated period of freedom, won at the cost of terrible suffering, brought with it poverty and corruption, violence, and sometimes chaos.” (p. 120). As we saw in the discussions regarding Capital, the Civil War, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War and all the rest of it: when we discuss a historical epoch, event or conflict in terms of ideological character types, as chess pieces moving around a board with well defined rules, we rob real people of their humanity and agency. When instead of that we consider people’s basic humanity, their ability to make choices given a particular circumstance, and then intensively investigate who they were and why they did what they did, then we always seem to upset the predetermined narratives. Memmi does all of that for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Decolonization, not blaming either side for their own victimization but also not letting anyone off the hook for their disastrous mistakes. Consequently he is able to do something few who write about the Middle East, especially leftists, have attempted: to consider the actions of the various governments in the Middle East and North Africa as equally worthy of criticism, on an equal moral standing with any western government. He is therefore able to discuss the failures of these governments in terms of what the peoples of the Middle East are responsible for, and in terms therefore of what they can do to improve matters. His book Decolonization foretold the Arab Spring, identifying its causes: systemic inequality and corruption. I highly recommend reading Memmi. In this podcast we have discussed the failures of one particular regime, that of Hafez al-Assad, and we’ll return to discuss the revolution against him. But first we want to discuss a form of left nationalism that in some parts of the left leads the way in understanding anti-colonial struggle. We’ll come back to Syria, but first we should enrich our understanding of the state type that is based on the worship of a beknighted leader by coming to terms with high Maoism.
Anderson, Eric A. The role of the military in Syria: the Shishakli years (1949-1954). Diss. 1971.
Batatu, Hanna. Syria's peasantry, the descendants of its lesser rural notables, and their politics. Princeton University Press, 1999.
Hourani, Albert. A history of the Arab peoples: Updated edition. Faber & Faber, 2013.
Memmi, Albert. Decolonization and the Decolonized. U of Minnesota Press, 2006.
Memmi, Albert. The colonizer and the colonized. Routledge, 2013.
Rogan, Eugene. The Arabs: a history. Basic Books, 2012.
Singh, Naunihal. Seizing power: The strategic logic of military coups. JHU Press, 2014.
Weiner, Tim. Legacy of ashes: The history of the CIA. Anchor, 2008.
Yassin-Kassab, Robin, and Leila Al-Shami. Burning country: Syrians in revolution and war. Pluto Press, 2018.PA