Someone recently asked me, given my clear and unwavering support for the Syrian government in the Syrian war, if there was any single criticism I could make about the Syrian government. (I think they somehow believe I’m so blinded by, gee, I don’t know what, infatuation, that I think the Syrian government is perfect – as if any government is or could be).
I would also like to state that while I do believe these are valid points, I don’t think any of them justifies violently overthrowing the government. The president of Syria, Bashar Al-Assad, sincerely wanted to bring political and economic reform to Syria. He was hampered by what we call “the old guard” in the government. This is my opinion, but is also an opinion widely expressed by Syrians, even those that oppose the government. However, President Al Assad was able to enact some modest political and economic reforms. I believe that there was a possibility for larger and lasting economic and political reforms in Syria had the war not started, but I also believe that the war was created by outside forces that cared nothing for Syrian citizens and reforms within the country, but sought only to control the Syrian government to advance oil pipeline plans and geopolitical interests.
Nonetheless, it is worth considering these points, and I hope that the current truce leads to an end to the war, and the true political opposition within Syria and the Syrian government work together to begin to address the economic and political problems that were facing Syria before the regime change war tore our country apart. Anyway, here’s my list.
- The Syrian government should have had a path to citizenship for the Kurds and other ethnic minorities. I’m actually not sure if Palestinians and Armenians were granted citizenship, but I know the Kurds weren’t. Many Kurds would perhaps reject it, because of their desire for a Kurdish state, but I think many would have accepted it and their nationalistic feelings would have been more Syrian. This would have created more cohesion between the Kurds and the rest of the country. I have to mention too, that this came out of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s push for Pan-Arabism, which sought to create an Arab State, and thus excluded non-Arabs from citizenship. I think that one of Syria’s greatest strengths was the sense of nationalism that created a cohesive society where people didn’t separate themselves along ethnic or religions lines. Citizenship for all would strengthen that feeling. This doesn’t really have anything to do with the war. The Kurds are not fighting the Syrian government, but I do think in general, it was a mistake.
- The Syrian government should have ended the kind of corruption that was seen as creating winners and losers. In general, people were fed up with having to bribe people all the time, but that was a somewhat fair form of corruption. Everyone “tipped” the police, government officials, etc. more or less the same. And I now have many friends in the United States who say the system there was much better (initially they came here saying they hated all the bribery in Syria. But here they have found that since you can’t bribe anyone on a small level, government officials are always telling them “no.” They say, at least in Syria, I would have to pay, but I would get what I want.) But the nepotism was problematic in some parts of Syria. The people I know in Homs say it wasn’t an issue with employment, but friends in Latakia (Christians) say it was a problem in the north, where Alawites could get a job easily but Sunnis couldn’t because Alawites were more likely to know someone in a higher position at a large company, especially state companies like oil refineries or factories. This was seen as economically disadvantaging the Sunnis. Now, I have to say, in general, nepotism is a common practice in Syria (and hey, who are we kidding, the US too), but in the North, this became a big problem, as the drought pushed people off the land and into looking for factory work, highlighting this situation for many. Beyond this situation, I would say there was a general sense of frustration with the notion that friends and of the government were obscenely wealthy and the common man had no means of entry into that stratosphere (again to be fair, I think the same situation applies here in the U.S.)
- The drought was a major economic problem, which the government had no control over, BUT what I have heard and read is that friends of the Al Assad family were given the rights to large commercial farms and they over irrigated. Family farmers who had been in the region for generations complained, but the government did nothing to curb the practice. The locals felt that this damaged their farms, and exacerbated the drought by hastening the depletion of the water table. Additionally at this time, Turkey broke a water contract with Syria and Iraq, decreased the amount of water they were willing to sell to those countries, and entered into new, more lucrative contracts with Israel. Those three things created the perfect storm, and many Syrians lost their livelihood. It’s worth noting here that that may have been a strategy to destabilize Syria, as Turkey has been one of the leaders in the war to overthrow the Syrian government (in other words, their actions with the water contracts increased the economic woes of the farmers in the north). This lead to…
- Many from the north flocked to Aleppo, where they had a hard time finding jobs. The economy was depressed (that’s the US and Europe’s fault – it was the world economic collapse due to the housing and banking crisis), so jobs were hard to come by anyway, then the market was flooded with job seekers. Other complaints were that the government didn’t help the displaced by increasing the capacity at schools, housing, etc. Why did this turn the Sunnis in the north against the government?
- In part, because of the government actions or lack of action above. But also because radical clerics from Saudi Arabia were infiltrating the mosques in the north, Homs, and other regions, and preaching against the Syrian government. The Syrian government made a mistake here in allowing the rhetoric. They didn’t want to be seen as acting against the Sunnis, and also, acting against “religion” in general, since the country prides itself on separation of church and state and religious tolerance.
- This was a mistake, this tolerance for preaching jihad. But equally harmful to the government’s reputation was that they DID oppress secular activists who spoke out blatantly against the government. This was a mistake, in my opinion, because the secular activists mostly wanted political change and were unlikely to draw violent people to their cause (although there were many Muslim Brotherhood activists that tried to present themselves as secularists – they were often behind the violence at the protests). Still, many of the vocal secular critics would have pushed for change within the political system, not violent overthrow. As we know now, the violence came primarily from followers at the radical Sunni mosques, where they were not only incited, but armed as well.
- The Syrian government should have lifted emergency law when Bashar Al Assad was initially elected in 2001. At that time, there was no need for emergency law, and the tenor of the country changed. People were not afraid of being dragged out of their beds at night. Openly active, vocal critics of the regime still faced arrest, imprisonment, etc. for being vocal and active, but the average person didn’t have the same fear as they did under Hafez al Assad that the mukhabarrat (secret police) would come get you because a neighbor overheard you complaining. But while some older people did say, “you still have to be careful what you say”, the majority of people I talked to said they had no fear of that anymore, “the government doesn’t do that anymore. You can complain all you want as long as you don’t slander a specific person by name.” In other words, “the water system stinks. The government isn’t taking care of it like they should,” was fine, but “so-and-so in the water department is a corrupt thief,” was likely to get you in trouble. Mind you, I don’t agree with that (arrest for free speech that is. I’m fine with civil action for slander). Additionally, the government DID allow all other political parties to operate on a local level (EXCEPT the Muslim Brotherhood), and people didn’t fear being known as part of a political party that wasn’t Ba’ath. People in my family were in a different party and they met with their members all the time, discussed politics openly, made petitions to the local government representatives, etc. and everyone in the neighborhood knew who they were. They had absolutely zero level of fear that they would be dragged away and arrested. So I do believe the government made a mistake in not explicitly ending emergency law (and I think they should have enshrined freedom of speech and media in the constitution as well), but the oppression story is far more nuanced than some want it to be.
Now, many Syrians feel that the government should have been MUCH harsher in the beginning and put down the elements that were violent. This is oddly, the most common complaint I hear from Syrians, not that the government was too forceful, but that they weren’t forceful enough. I tend to disagree with the notion that that would have stopped the war. Since the war was clearly launched by the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, nothing the Syrian government did inside of Syria was going to stop it. Except of course, President Al Assad agreeing to the oil pipeline plans of Saudi Arabia and Co.
Well, there’s my list. Let me know if you have any questions, comments, etc. (please be respectful).