Middle East Resources

The Tragedy of Post-Colonial Middle East

Ravaged by Military Coup d’états

By Bassam Michael Madany

Part I: The Destruction of Syria Hasn’t Stopped

I began writing these words on Friday, the 17th of April 2020, during the Lockdown necessitated by the spread of Covit-19 virus. On that day in 1946, Syria celebrated Evacuation Day (‘Eid al-Jalaa’,) as the last French troops had left the country two days before. The country was exuberant with joy, as Syrians looked with great hope for the blessings of independence and freedom.

The French Mandate that had governed the country since the early 1920s had introduced Syrians to the modern ways of governance, giving the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial institutions their specific and independent roles. Beginning with 1922, several men served as presidents, with the prior approval of the French High Commissioner residing in Beirut.

The 1946 elections brought to power President Shoukry al-Quwatli, with Fares al-Khoury serving as Prime Minister. The governors of the ten Provinces were appointed by the central government in Damascus.

During the French Mandate, the Syrian Army had both French and Syrian officers in command. A Military Academy was formed at Homs, in the center of the country. Military service followed a volunteering system; recruits came generally from the poor classes, with a preponderance of soldiers from the Alawite population that lived in the mountainous region of the northwest, close to the Mediterranean Sea.

Political parties were few; they all sought to end the French presence and gain independence. There were three ideological parties: the Syrian National Party, The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, and the Syrian Communist Party. The Syrian National Party was organized by Anton Sa’adi; its agenda was the independence of Greater Syria, that would unite Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Palestine. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party’s goal was the ultimate federal union of all Arab lands. The Communist Party followed blindly the instructions of the Comintern’s headquarters in Moscow.

I’ll never forget the news coming over Radio Damascus on Wednesday morning, 30 March 1949. The announcer began reading several communiqués, No. 1 informed the Syrian public of a Coup d’état that toppled President Shoukry al-Quwatli.i  The coup was led by Colonel Husni al-Za’im. During his rule that lasted 136 days, Syria changed into a police state, with informers springing everywhere, and freedom of speech curtailed. On Sunday, 14 August, our neighbor’s radio was blaring, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, another coup had occurred: Husni al-Za’im was executed! A return to civilian life followed with President Hashem al-Atassi in office. His regime lasted from 15 August 1949 to 2 December 1951. A return to military rule became the new “normal” with a dizzying number of upheavals that culminated in union with Egypt to form the “United Arab Republic” under President Gamal abd-el Nasser, on 23 February 1958. The union didn’t last long and was dissolved on 29 September 1961, as Pan-Arabism couldn’t overcome the historic cultural differences between Egypt and Syria.

A series of chaotic changes followed, with a Baathist military officer assuming power in March 1963. Ultimately, it led the way for Hafez al-Assad, an Air Force officer’s coup of 22 February 1971.

A new era in Syria's history began that impacted the nation and the Middle East for the following fifty years.ii  Hafez al-Assad claimed allegiance to the ideology of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party which brought him into conflict with the Syrian Nationalist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.

On 22 April 1955, Adnan al-Maliki, the deputy-chief of staff of the army was assassinated. The Syrian Nationalist Party was blamed for the murder, which allowed the Arab Socialist Baath Party to lead a crackdown on the SNP in Syria, and to its gradual disappearance from the political life in the country.

The remaining opposition to Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party was The Muslim Brotherhood.iii While it began in Egypt, its view was Pan-Islamic, which led to the rise of “branches” of the Brotherhood in Syria and the rest of the Middle East.iv

Two major terrorist attacks took place in Syria that solidified Hafez al-Assad’s resolve to harden his grip on power. One was the attack on the Military School in Aleppo, and the second was the 1982 Uprising in Hama.

On 16 June 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood carried out an attack on cadets at the Aleppo Artillery School. An officer on duty, and members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood massacred between 50 and 83 Alawi cadets in the Aleppo Artillery School.

The Hama Massacre, or Hama Uprising, occurred in February 1982, when the Syrian Arab Army and the Defense Companies, under the orders of the country's president Hafez al-Assad, besieged the town of Hama for 27 days to quell an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood against al-Assad's government. The massacre, carried out by the Syrian Army under commanding General Rifa’at al-Assad, effectively ended the campaign against the government, begun in 1976 by Sunni Muslim groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the time, Bill Rugh, was serving at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. The following endnote has his description of the event.v The massacre of the Alawite cadets in Aleppo and the Hama Intifada widened the rift between Hafez al-Assad and the Sunni population in Syria. Not that the majority of Sunnis were pro-Brotherhood; still they resented that a member of the Alawite sect, could rule the country as if it were his own fiefdom.

Hafez had initially chosen his brother Rifa’at, as successor. But when Rifa’at attempted to seize power in 1983-1984 failed, when the President’s health had deteriorated, he was exiled. Bassel, the eldest son was chosen.vi  After his death in a car accident in 1994, the succession went to his brother Bashar who became President on 17 July 2000.vii

To summarize the tortuous history of Syria during Bashar’s rule, these are excerpts from the website of  https://www.history.com/  on the events that have transpired since 2000.              

“What started as a nonviolent protest in 2011 quickly escalated into full-blown warfare. Since the fighting began, more than 470,000 people have been killed, with over 1 million injured and millions more forced to flee their homes and live as refugees.

“Although many complicated motives led to the Syrian civil war, one event, known as the Arab Spring, stands out as perhaps the most significant trigger for the conflict. In early 2011, a series of political and economic protests in Egypt and Tunisia broke out. These successful revolts, dubbed the Arab Spring, served as an inspiration for pro-democracy activists in Syria. However, in March of that year, 15 Syrian schoolchildren were arrested and tortured for writing graffiti that was inspired by the Arab Spring. One of the boys was killed. The arrests sparked outrage and demonstrations throughout Syria. Citizens demanded the release of the remaining children, along with greater freedoms for all people in the country.

“But the government, responded by killing and arresting hundreds of protestors. Shock and anger began to spread throughout Syria, and many demanded that Assad resign. When he refused, war broke out between his supporters and his opponents.

“Even before the Arab Spring-inspired incident, many Syrian citizens were dissatisfied over the government’s incompetency, the people’s lack of freedoms and the general living conditions in their country. Assad became president in 2000 after the death of his father. Several human rights groups have accused the leader of habitually torturing and killing political opponents throughout his presidency.

“Another problem was a tense religious atmosphere in the country: Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, yet Syria’s government is dominated by members of the Alawite sect. Tensions between the two groups is an ongoing problem throughout Syria and other nations in the Middle East. Since the start of the war, the situation became much more complicated, as other countries and organized fighters have entered the picture. The Syrian government’s main backers are Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah of Lebanon.

“Experts estimate that 13.1 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, such as medicine or food. Nearly 3 million of these people live in hard-to-reach areas. More than 5.6 million refugees have fled the country, and another 6.1 million are displaced within Syria. Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are credited with hosting the most Syrian refugees.

“Since 2014, the United Nations has hosted several rounds of mediated peace talks, known as the Geneva II process. Despite this intervention, little progress has been made. Both the Syrian government and rebels appear unwilling to agree on terms of peace. If nothing changes, this war-torn area of the world is likely to be the site of more violence and instability.”

https://www.history.com/news/syria-civil-war-assad-rebels

I’m finishing this article on the 5th of May 2020. It seems like ages ago, when I stood in the crowds of joyful Syrians on 17 April 1946, to celebrate Independence. At the time, I was 18, and had graduated from a Syrian Government institution, having majored in the “History of the Arab-Islamic Civilization,” and began teaching in the coastal city Latakia, at “Terra Sancta” a private school, run by the Franciscan Order. 

The 1949 Coup was a prelude to many similar upheavals, culminating in the rise of Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar who have ruled Syria now, for the last half century.

I’ve been exhausted from viewing and hearing multiple reports and interviews in Arabic, about the unending Syrian tragedy. Sometimes, I feel as if it’s all a horrible nightmare; unfortunately, it’s real.

One report estimated the cost of rebuilding Syria after its liberation, would be in billions of dollars. That’s not an exaggeration; the destruction in cities like Hama, Homs, and especially in Aleppo, is beyond belief. But I hope it would take place.

However, there is one damage that cannot be undone; it’s the cultural and societal destruction inflicted on the Syrian boys and girls, both in Syria and the Diaspora, who have missed their proper education. Most of my readers are perhaps unaware that Modern Written Arabic, known also as Classical Arabic, isn’t learned at home. It takes years to acquire a proper knowledge and use of its grammar and syntax. It’s the language of books, newspapers, and the Internet. It’s the language of Sacred texts, like the Qur’an and the Bible (for Arabic-speaking Christians.)viii    

Five years ago, I posted on this website, “As the World Watches, Syrians keep on dying!” It ended with these words:

“I am waiting on the Lord to use His mighty power to end the many-sided Civil War in Syria. In the meantime, these words of the Prophet Habakkuk express my feelings:

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear? Or cry to you Violence!” and you will not save?  Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So, the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.” Habakkuk 1: 2-4 (ESV)

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer's; he makes me tread on my high places.”  Habakkuk 3: 17–19 (ESV)

In 2020, I’m adding these hopeful words:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."  Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 8:18 – 25 (ESV)

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i Husni al-Za'im was a Syrian military officer and politician. Husni al-Za'im, had been an officer in the Ottoman Army. After France instituted its colonial mandate over Syria after the First World War, he became an officer in the French Army. After Syria's independence in 1946 he was made Chief of Staff and was ordered to lead the Syrian Army into war with the Israeli Army in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The defeat of the Arab league forces in that war shook Syria and undermined confidence in the country's chaotic parliamentary democracy, allowing him to seize power in 1949. However, his reign as head of state would be brief: he was executed on 14 August 1949.

ii Fifteen men, both military and civilian, exchanged power in Syria, between Husni al-Za'im and Hafez al-Assad. What marked a radical change with the arrival of the Assads, was that for the first time, a president belonged to a minority sect, the Alawites; all the previous presidents, before and after independence, came from the Sunni majority population. Such a fundamental change in governance, could only be maintained in a dictatorial regime!

iii The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt, by Hassan al-Banna in 1928 as an Islamic political, and social movement, with branches throughout the Middle East. It was a reaction to the abolition of the Islamic Caliphate by Ataturk in 1924, which left the Islamic world with a titular head for the first time in history. From its earliest days, the Brotherhood sought to implement its agenda through violence. During the 1930s, the movement was involved in the assassination of the Prime Minister of Egypt; in retaliation, King Farouk’s secret police assassinated al-Banna.

The July 1952 Revolution that toppled the King, brought a group of Egyptian officers to power, under the leadership of Colonel Gamal abdel-Nasser. The Brotherhood supported the revolution with the hope of further spreading its influence. Soon however, they opposed Nasser, and attempted to assassinate him while addressing a crowd at Alexandria in November 1954.

Following Syria’s independence in 1946, The Muslim Brotherhood increased its activities in the country, as Syrians went to Egypt for their higher education. Upon their return home, some students had been converted to the Brotherhood’s ideology, and began making converts throughout the country. 

iv The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was founded in the mid-1940s by Mustafa al-Siba'i and Muhammad al-Mubarak al-Tayyib, who were friends and colleagues of the founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna. In the first years of Syrian independence the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was part of the legal opposition, and in the 1961 parliamentary elections it won ten seats. After the 1963 coup brought the secularist, Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, it was banned.

v Bill Rugh Former Ambassador, UAE; Vice-Chair of the Board, Middle East Policy Council

On November 29, 1981, I was sitting in my office at the U.S. embassy in Damascus when I heard a loud explosion not too far away. I had arrived and taken up my duties as deputy chief of the U.S. mission only a few weeks earlier. A car bomb had been detonated in front of the Syrian Air Force headquarters close to the residential neighborhood of Mazza, where our embassy was located. The explosion had destroyed much of the façade and all of the windows of the building. It had torn down the first and third words of the Baath party slogan, “unity, freedom, socialism,” that had been on the top of the building (I thought that was an ironic accident). It had also thrown debris and some body parts into the playground of the American Community School across the street, forcing it to close while the place was cleaned up. We estimated later that more than 60 people had been killed in the attack. The parents and teachers connected with the school were shocked that it had come so close to us.

This attack was not directed at Americans but was part of a series of skirmishes that had been taking place over the past five years between Islamic extremists, especially Muslim Brotherhood partisans, and the Syrian government. President Hafez al-Assad had tried to suppress the opposition, but he had been unable to stop random terrorist attacks on government targets.

Then, nine weeks later, a major battle between government forces and Islamists broke out 100 miles north of Damascus in Syria’s fourth-largest city, Hama, which harbored Islamic extremists. On February 2, 1982, Syrian police and army entered the old part of the city to arrest Muslim Brotherhood leaders, but in the narrow streets and alleyways they came under sniper fire from insurgents. Our military attaché, who had information from his sources about the fighting as soon as it started, kept us informed as it continued. It was his responsibility to keep track of the Syrian military, and he was constantly on the road, following convoys and identifying units. There were no reports in the Syrian media about fighting in Hama, but soon after it started, our attaché was able to monitor it by careful observation at a discreet distance and from his local contacts.

From his reports, we knew that the insurgents were dug in, but the Syrian army, the defense companies under the president’s brother Rifa’at, and the air force were escalating the assault from all sides. The fighting went on for 27 days, finally stopping on February 28. Not a word about it appeared in Syrian media, but everyone in Damascus seemed to know that something big was happening in Hama. Our military attaché was able to get into the city by a circuitous route to assess the situation. He found at the end of the fighting that three relatively small areas in the oldest part of the city had been badly damaged; buildings, including mosques, had been flattened. He estimated that a few thousand lives had been lost, perhaps as many as 10,000, as these were very crowded areas.

Our CIA station chief reported that according to his contacts, the government had discovered during the fighting that the insurgents had been using weapons clearly identifiable as having come from neighboring Iraq. Sources later told him that President Assad was so incensed at Iraqi complicity in the insurgency that this helped persuade him to become more openly hostile to the regime of Saddam Hussain, later shutting down the border as well as a pipeline that crossed Syrian territory. We reported in detail to Washington on the fighting and the implications related to Iraq.

The Syrian media never did fully cover the event and was silent on Iraq’s apparent involvement. The international media did not report at all on the fighting during February, while it was going on. There were no foreign correspondents in Syria, and word did not leak out. A month after the fighting ended, the New York Times ran a story about it on March 26, datelined Beirut. The Times bureau chief in Beirut, Tom Friedman, finally decided at the end of May to come to Damascus to look into the story. I briefed him at the embassy, and then he went to Hama to look for himself.

Friedman was surprised by what he saw. Eight years later, when he published his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, which received a National Book Award, he devoted an entire chapter to the Hama massacre. He called it “Hama Rules,” to describe what he thought had happened. He said the regime had “destroyed one of its largest cities,” and “large parts of the city were demolished.” He said, “The whole town looked as if a tornado had swept back and forth over it for a week.” For years after the incident, in Times columns and interviews, he repeatedly used the term “Hama rules” to refer to the 1982 event, saying Assad had “destroyed the city” as a lesson to the Syrian people.

On September 21, 2001, just a few days after 9/11, the New York Times published an op-ed by Friedman in which he recalled the 1982 incident. The story had grown: “President Assad identified the rebellion as emanating from Syria’s fourth-largest city, Hama, and he literally leveled it, pounding the fundamentalist neighborhoods with artillery for days. Once the guns fell silent, he plowed up the rubble and bulldozed it flat, into vast parking lots.” Friedman concluded, “I tell this story not to suggest this should be America’s approach. We can’t go around leveling cities. We need to be much more focused, selective and smart in uprooting the terrorists.”

Actually, the whole town had not been destroyed. I drove through it in March 1982, a few weeks after the fighting, and most of the city seemed perfectly normal, just as it had been before the fighting. Multi-storey buildings in commercial and residential districts were untouched. I visited the main square, a favorite tourist spot, and saw that the famous giant wooden water wheels (“na’ourias”), 90 feet high and dating from the thirteenth century, were still sitting intact at the edge of the Orontes River that runs through Hama; some of them were turning. I did see a part of the old city where two-storey buildings facing narrow lanes had been demolished and the area, no larger than a football field, leveled flat. But standing there I could see areas all around us where the residential buildings were still intact. I visited Hama again in 2005, and it showed almost no sign at all of the March 1982 events. The damaged area I had seen then had been completely rebuilt; the rest of the city looked perfectly intact, much of it old and obviously predating 1982.

When reports appeared in the Western newspapers, magazines and books by Friedman and others saying the city had been destroyed, I was amazed. The hyperbole by journalists was striking. We thought their estimate of casualties was higher than it should be (Robert Fisk in his book “Pity the Nation” said 20,000), but even accepting his numbers, for a city of 180,000, that was only ten percent of the population. Hama had not been “literally leveled,” as Friedman claimed.

https://mepc.org/commentary/syria-hama-massacre

vi Bassel al-Assad (23 March 1962 – 21 January 1994) was the eldest son of President of Syria Hafez al-Assad and the older brother of (later) President Bashar al-Assad. It was widely expected that he would succeed his father as President of Syria until he died in a car accident in 1994.

vii Born and raised in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad graduated from the medical school of Damascus University in 1988 and began to work as a doctor in the Syrian Army. Four years later, he attended postgraduate studies at the Western Eye Hospital in London, specializing in Ophthalmology.  In 1994, after his elder brother Bassel’s death, Bashar was recalled to Syria to take over his brother’s role. He entered the military academy, taking charge of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon 1988.

viii “Classical [or Modern Standard] Arabic: the language used for all written and official communication; a language that was codified, standardized, and normalized well over a thousand years ago and that has almost a millennium and a half of uninterrupted literary legacy behind it. There is only one problem with [this] Arabic: No one speaks it. What Arabs speak is called Arabi Darij ("vernacular Arabic"), lugha ammiyye ("the vulgar language"), or lahje ("dialect"); only what they write do they refer to as "true [Arabic] language." Does Anyone Speak Arabic?  https://www.meforum.org/3066/does-anyone-speak-arabic