Assad, Nasser and the Problem of Tradition

Stratfor.Com: Hafez al-Assad was a paradox. He came to power in a military coup in the tradition of Gamel Abdul Nasser. He governed as a military dictator striving to build a modern secular state. He opposed Muslim fundamentalists at the point of a gun. Yet, at the same time, he was a traditionalist in the deepest sense of the word. At the same time that he was building the Syrian nation and talking about the Arab world, he was inextricably bound up with the ancient feuds of the Levantine clans. In the final irony, the enemy of the dynastic tradition leaves his son to rule. Assad serves, in fact, as a prism through which to view the complexity of the Arab world.
While the Western media obsesses over the impact of Assad’s death on the Arab-Israeli relationship, his death – and life – represents a far more interesting prism through which to view the changing landscape of the Arab world itself. Assad’s life passed through the phases of one of the most important movements to have swept the Arab world – secular, pan-Arab socialism.
His life traversed its rise, maturity and now, perhaps, its senility. Indeed, Assad’s life represents the tensions and paradoxes that helped undermine that movement. On one side, he was an advocate of Arab modernization. On the other, he remained an integral part of the systems of family and clan alliances and warfare that have defined much of the Arab world. Assad was a man caught between pan-Arabism, Syrian nationalism and Alawite (his religious sect and clan) parochialism.
To understand Assad, you have to begin with the most important figure of modern Arab history, Gamel Abdul Nasser, the man who overthrew King Farouk of Egypt and set the stage for the birth of a Pan-Arab secular nationalism. And in order to understand Nasser, you must first understand a non-Arab, the founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Ataturk, whose revolution served as a model for a large part of the developing world.
Kamal Ataturk overthrew the collapsing Ottoman dynasty after its defeat in World War I. He replaced the multi-nationalism of the Ottomans with a fierce Turkish nationalism. His deepest desire was to modernize Turkey. He defined modernization ultimately as Westernization.
This was two-pronged. It meant creating national political institutions and an expanding, national economy based on industrialization. It also meant an anti-Islamic policy, designed to limit the power of the Islamic clergy and to suppress both the anti-Western and anti-industrial tendencies of Islam.
Turkey had only one genuinely national institution that could be seen as Western in terms of organization and technology: the army. Ataturk, an officer, shaped the Turkish Army into the engine driving Turkish modernization and the guarantor of the state. He also crafted a non-Islamic understanding of the nation, based less on Islam than on Turkic history and identity, and he made the army its guarantor. The outcome was a kind of military dictatorship that laid claim to a national democratic mandate.
Nasser drew his bearings from Kamal Ataturk. Like Ataturk, he was an army officer. And like Ataturk, he confronted a decaying monarchy closely linked to the Islamic clerical hierarchy even though it was itself fairly indifferent to Islamic morality.
Nasser was committed to modernizing Egypt, by which he meant creating a Western-style state and an industrialized and growing economy. And like Ataturk, he used the only national and modern institution in Egypt to preside over his enterprise: the Egyptian military. He created a military dictatorship designed to kick-start a democratic revolution. But Nasser went further than Ataturk, including the idea of socialism within his doctrine of modernization. That notion of socialism, however, had much less to do with Marx than with strengthening the power of the state to create the industrial infrastructure of a modern nation.
In terms of identity, Nasser faced a more complex problem than Ataturk. For Ataturk, the key problem was the relationship between Islam and modern Turkey. For Nasser, the relationship of Islam to Egypt was not as important as the question of the relationship of Egypt to the Arab world. For Ataturk, being Turkish had a clearly defined meaning. It separated him from the dynastic past. For Nasser, being Egyptian plunged him into the dynastic past of Farouk. If he was to define modernism as the struggle against Faroukism, he had to have a different container for it than just Egyptian nationalism.
Nasser seized onto the idea that there was a single Arab nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. Nasser argued that his military coup against Farouk was not merely the end of dynastic rule in Egypt and the introduction of secular republicanism there. Rather, he argued, it was the first phase of a pan-Arab movement that was to create a united Arab republic – secular, democratic and socialist. In fact, he proclaimed the United Arab Republic in a "merger" with Assad’s predecessors in Syria.
After Nasser, the Arab world was swept by Nasserite coups in which military officers swept aside monarchies and replaced them with military regimes that, like Egypt, were intended to be secular, democratic and socialist. The Arab world became divided between the conservative monarchies and the Nasserite secular regimes. Tremendous tensions arose as Nasserites tried to undermine and overthrow monarchies throughout the region – not incidentally supported by the Soviets, who shared a common geopolitical interest with the Nasserite ideology.
There was, of course, a huge gulf between the Nasserite ideology and Arab reality. First, Nasser’s intention was to be democratic, revolutionary and socialist. A military coup, however, is rarely an instrument of democratization. The military may be an instrument of modernization, but it does not map very well to the creation of democratic institutions. Moreover, the Arab merchant tradition was too strong to really impose socialism, save in massive state projects like the Aswan High Dam.
In the final analysis, military coups, whatever their intents, yield military dictatorships. Nasser’s charisma generated popular enthusiasm and that could be confused with democratic affirmation. Nasser was popular with the poor and that could be confused with socialism. In the end, Nasser gave it his best shot but it was his Pan-Arab ideology that, along with his military, drove the machine.
There was one sense in which all of this could be managed: waging war on Israel. War with Israel served several purposes. First, it utilized the centerpiece of the regime in a very public and popular way: the military bore the burden of confrontation and war. Second, it created a truly pan-Arab cause where none had really existed before. Reclaiming Palestinian land was the one thing that could be regarded as a Pan-Arab cause, unifying rather than dividing. Crushing Israel became a centerpiece of the Nasserite mission.
The anti-Israeli movement foundered on one problem: it failed. In 1967, the Israelis crushed the Arabs. The crushing defeat of the Arabs raised questions about the possibilities of pan-Arabism and about the competence of the revolution’s driving force. This created the defining crisis of secular Arabism.
The military had usurped the political space. The defeat of 1967, therefore, challenged the competency and legitimacy not only of the military, but also of the political authorities. Defeat in 1967 generated the emergence of revolutionary factions who took the Nasserite message seriously, but who stood against both Israel and against the forces in the Arab world that, they argued, caused that defeat.
Many were sponsored by Arab states and used as instruments against other Arab states. The Palestinian movement spent as much time fighting each other at the behest of their national sponsors as they did fighting Israel. In struggling for an Arab nation, these factions tore apart its fabric.
This was the world that created Hafez al-Assad. An air force officer, he staged a coup against a military regime delegitimized by its loss to Israel in the 1967 war. Assad bought into the Arab nationalist dream. He funded many anti-Israeli groups. He tried to bring down King Hussein of Jordan, threatening invasion during Black September, when Hussein crushed the Palestinian uprising in 1970. He fully participated in the 1973 attack on Israel that was to redress the balance of power between the Arabs and Israelis. He was a vigorous secularist. He brutally suppressed fundamentalist Arabs killing tens of thousands.
Yet there were basic differences between Assad and Nasser. Assad’s foreign policy turned less on pan-Arab issues than on Syrian national interests. For example, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan had all been carved out of the Ottoman province of Syria. Assad wanted them back. There was terrific tension between Assad and Yasser Arafat, for example, on this question.
Arafat wanted an independent Palestinian state; Assad wanted Palestine returned to Syria. Assad supported and created a number of Palestinian groups opposed to Arafat over this. He defined his war against Israel in a very Syrian way. Assad, of course, knew that Israel was going nowhere and that the future of Palestine was, therefore, an academic issue. But Lebanon was not an academic issue. For Assad, Lebanon was and continues to be – up to his death – an integral part of Syria. It was Assad’s intentions to recover Lebanon for Syria, which he has in fact done, if not formally.
It could all be put in a very different way. Hafez al-Assad of the Alawites was allied with many other clans in Lebanon, from all different religions. Indeed, when Assad first intervened in Lebanon in the 1970s, it was on behalf of a Christian clan with long-standing ties to the Alawites, and against the Palestinians, who Assad saw as alien interlopers in his country. Assad, on this level, came from a world where religion counted for less than blood and friendship. It was a world that Westerners always misinterpreted as being torn by religious war when it was really clans, frequently of the same religion, fighting each other, allied with clans of different religions.
Assad was a paradox. He came to power in a military coup – in the tradition of Ataturk and Nasser. He governed as a military dictator striving to build a modern secular state. He opposed Muslim fundamentalists at the point of a gun. Yet, at the same time, he was a traditionalist in the deepest sense of the word. At the same time that he was building the Syrian nation and talking about the Arab world, he was inextricably bound up with the ancient feuds of the Levantine clans. That may have been why he survived as long as he did. He ruled for 30 years. Nasserite and Arab socialist dreams had long faded. Assad came to power as a Nasserite, but a late Nasserite, a jaded Nasserite. He ended his days somewhere between a Syrian nationalist and an Alawite clan leader, doing business in the traditional way.
The central question confronting Assad’s son is whether he can resist the tide of Islamic fundamentalism that has seized the notion of both revolution and republicanism, looking to Ayatollah Khomeni rather than Ataturk for guidance. The situation is cloudy and the outcome is uncertain.
But the final irony of it all is this. Assad was heir to a tradition whose greatest claim to moral legitimacy was that it rid the Arab world of the corrupt dynasts. He dies leaving his son in power, as one would expect an Alawite clan leader to do – but not the leader of a modern nation state. In short, Assad presided over the liquidation of his own revolution. In the end, that tells us much about his life and about the condition of the Arab world – and this is more important than the fixation on peace with Israel.