Political Irony

19 April 2011


 سورية‎ Sūriyya or سوريا Sūryā; Syriac: ܣܘܪܝܐ; Kurdish: Sûrî), officially the Syrian Arab Republic (Arabic: الجمهورية العربية السورية‎)

The Syrian Arab Republic has a constitution, but it hasn’t mattered much for the past few decades. The constitution of Syria has been on the back burner since 1962 or 1963 (since before I was born), and an emergency has been in effect — until today. Now the state of emergency law has been lifted, and the Syrians have their constitution back again. What is supremely ironic in this is that the emergency law has been lifted at the very moment when there is an actual emergency in Syrian, at least for its autocratic government.

The Baath Party, the al-Assad family, and the Alawite Shias have controlled the country for forty years, and have tolerated no dissent. Syria has long been a human rights nightmare, but it has had stability, and as much as Syria has been condemned by the Western democracies, we know that in actual fact that these same Western democracies have repeatedly favored stability over freedom in the Middle East. Thus the regime in Syria has been snubbed, but it has been allowed to stand.

Perhaps I am putting it a bit strongly when I say that al-Assad has been “allowed” to remain in power by the Western powers. Could he be removed? Yes, of course, but at what cost? Too high a price for any interested party. And the leaders of Syria have been masters at what I have called the weaponization of eliminationism, taking their depredations on their own people up to the threshold of atrocity, but mostly pulling back so as not to provoke the international community into action against the Syrian leadership. One might call this behavior atrocity brinkmanship. Hafez al-Assad was the master; his son, Bashar al-Assad, was an apt pupil and learned the lessons of autocracy with far more sophistication than, for example, King Jong-il and his heir apparent.

The obvious exception to al-Assad atrocity brinkmanship is the Hama massacre, which probably counts as atrocity simpliciter, without qualifications, but in so far as it was carried out as a calculated action that did not result in reprisals against the regime, it falls into the same pattern. Hama was populated primarily by Sunnis, while the al-Assad family is Alawite Shia.

How will the Syrian leadership pursue its policies of the weaponization of eliminationism and atrocity brinkmanship in the brave new world of Syrian constitutional politics? Will the inertia of the forty years of state of emergency rule simply allow the same depredations to continue, or will there be brave souls within Syria who will challenge the same old same old of Syrian human rights violations?

Like many irrelevant constitutions around the world, the Syrian constitution has admirable passages guaranteeing individual liberties to the people. For example:

Part 4 Freedom, Rights, Duties

Article 25 [Personal Freedom, Dignity, Equality]

(1) Freedom is a sacred right. The state protects the personal freedom of the citizens and safeguards their dignity and security.
(2) The supremacy of law is a fundamental principle in the society and the state.
(3) The citizens are equal before the law in their rights and duties.
(4) The state insures the principle of equal opportunities for citizens.

We should be familiar with these glittering generalities by now. We have seen them, and we have seen them ignored, far too many times. Nevertheless, this is at least hopeful, whereas some of the Syrian constitutional rhetoric is not such as to inspire hope. It begins with an anti-colonial rant:

“The Arab nation managed to perform a great role in building human civilization when it was a unified nation. When the ties of its national cohesion weakened, its civilizing role receded and the waves of colonial conquest shattered the Arab nation’s unity, occupied its territory, and plundered its resources. Our Arab nation has withstood these challenges and rejected the reality of division, exploitation, and backwardness out of its faith in its ability to surmount this reality and return to the arena of history in order to play, together with the other liberated nations, its distinctive role in the construction of civilization and progress. With the close of the first half of this century, the Arab people’s struggle has been expanding and assuming greater importance in various countries to achieve liberation from direct colonialism.”

We can see from this that that Syrian constitution is a period piece, and it only gets more surreal after this with its Nassarite appeals to Pan-Arabism, “the construction of the United Socialist Arab society,” and similar ideological antiquities.

It is worthwhile to quote in full the self-described major principles of the Syrian constitution:

The Constitution is based on the following major principles:

1) The comprehensive Arab revolution is an existing and continuing necessity to achieve the Arab nation’s aspirations for unity, freedom, and socialism. The revolution in the Syrian Arab region is part of the comprehensive Arab revolution. Its policy in all areas stems from the general strategy of the Arab revolution.

2) Under the reality of division, all the achievements by any Arab country will fail to fully achieve their scope and will remain subject to distortion and setback unless these achievements are buttressed and preserved by Arab unity. Likewise, any danger to which any Arab country may be exposed on the part of imperialism and Zionism is at the same time a danger threatening the whole Arab nation.

3) The march toward the establishment of a socialist order besides being a necessity stemming from the Arab society’s needs is also a fundamental necessity for mobilizing the potentialities of the Arab masses in their battle with Zionism and imperialism.

4) Freedom is a sacred right and popular democracy is the ideal formulation which insures for the citizen the exercise of his freedom which makes him a dignified human being capable of giving and building, defending the homeland in which he lives, and making sacrifices for the sake of the nation to which he belongs. The homeland’s freedom can only be preserved by its free citizens. The citizen’s freedom can be completed only by his economic and social liberation.

5) The Arab revolution movement is a fundamental part of the world liberation movement. Our Arab people’s struggle forms a part of the struggle of the peoples for their freedom, independence, and progress.

This constitution serves as a guide for action to our people’s masses so that they will continue the battle for liberation and construction guided by its principles and provisions in order to strengthen the positions of our people’s struggle and to drive their march toward the aspired future.

So there you have it: the definitive word of the Syrian Constitution. Pan-Arabism, anti-Zionism, anti-imperialism, Ba’athism, revolution, unity, freedom, socialism — and, as it is delicately put, “the reality of division,” i.e., the division of the Arab world into squabbling nation-states, vulnerable from within and vulnerable from without.

Thus at the moment of modern Syria’s greatest crisis of regime legitimacy, in the midst of a true emergency, with masses protesting in the streets, hopeful that Syria, too, might go the way of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the Syrian leadership canceled its emergency legislation. Whereas the emergency law was once a tool to justify repression and the extirpation of dissent, now as it is rescinded it is again a tool, a symbol of the possibility of what Syria might be. Hafez al-Assad would be proud.

Even without its emergency law in place, the Syrian leadership has a nearly surreal constitution that it can use to any end it likes. Who is going to interfere? Don’t look for any Western intervention. Syria is landlocked, and surrounded by a highly diverse group of nation-states with highly diverse political systems, leaders, peoples, and national interests. While Turkey and Jordan are often allied with the West, they aren’t going to allow their territory to be used as a base of operations against the Syrian regime, as this would open them to retaliation from Syria’s often highly effective militant proxies. Bashar al-Assad still has levers within reach.

There are other ways in which Syria is different, but I find them difficult to formulate explicitly. While the popular media outlets make little or no distinction among those nation-states of the “Arab Spring” experiencing mass protests, in the more thoughtful writing on the regional situation, almost no one expects the situation in Syria to parallel that of Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. This is not to say that Syria will remain untouched by the movement. Obviously, there are persistent protests that have not died down even in the face of demonstrators being killed in the street. There will be change in Syria, but, despite the constitutional rhetoric of revolution, that change will not be revolutionary. And that, too, is political irony.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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