This week's question | 2006-05-04

How did Syria perform over the past 40 years compared to its neighbors?

If the Assad regime has prided itself on anything, it has been security. Many Syrian social goals have been sacrificed on the alter of security ? economic growth, freedom of speech and assembly, and openness to the rest of the world ? to name just a few. Most recently, Bashar al-Asad announced during an interview on Sky TV that considering the conditions Syria finds itself in, his number one goal was security and that reform would have to come second. In retrospect, this was clearly a warning to Syria?s reformers that Syria?s policy toward the opposition had changed. It presaged the crackdown we are now witnessing. It is worth evaluating, then, how well the Asad regime has done in comparison to its neighbors in protecting Syria and Syrians.

The first measure we might use is the dead body count. Although crude, it is instructive. Here Syria gets a ?B?. The question is: since 1970, has the government killed or allowed to be killed more of its own citizens than its neighbors have?

Syria is part of the Levant, which is distinguished in the larger Middle East by its ethnic and religious diversity. This diversity, although potentially an asset, has presented the Levant states with serious challenges during the course of nation building, which is far from complete. At one end of the spectrum, we have Lebanon, the central government of which was too weak and underdeveloped to withstand the intense pressures that overcame it. The government could not hold its competing sectarian communities together. In 1975, the government failed, leading to the long civil war and the death of at least 150,000 of Lebanon?s 4 million inhabitants. Many more were displaced and millions left the country. In total, roughly 1 out of ever 27 Lebanese was killed during the war. Lebanon gets an ?F?.

The Baathist regime of Iraq stands at the other end of the Levant spectrum. It became so muscle bound in its attempt to destroy sectarianism that it became totalitarian and produced an extreme form of fascism or nationalist intolerance. Both Kurds and many Shiites were ultimately labeled foreign and subversive elements. They were slated for elimination. Saddam killed hundreds of thousands in his drive to hold the country together under his intolerant rule. It is hard to quantify the number he killed, but let?s say 300,000 were killed in the war with Iraq, 200,000 Kurds were killed in the Anfal campaign and other massacres. Perhaps and equal number of Shiites were killed in the elimination of al-Dawa and the suppression of the southern uprising in 1991. One can add to these numbers: the Iraqis killed during the period of foreign sanctions, the suppression of the Marsh Arabs, the routine killings in his prisons, etc. Should one also blame him for the US invasion and subsequent deaths in the ongoing civil war? Let us put the conservative number of 700,000 on the Iraqi deaths caused by Saddam. The real number must be higher, but if we stick with 700,000 out of 24 million Iraqis, Saddam?s government killed 1 out of ever 34 Iraqis. Iraq gets an ?F?.

Israel also does not do as well as Syria. The main ethnic division is between Arabs and Jews. Since 1967, the Jews have ruled over Palestine?s Arab population, acquiring juridical responsibility for them. Although some will say it is not fair to include the Arab population of the occupied territories in Israel?s body count, I think we must. The Israeli government is the master of Palestine, and Arab Palestinians are the subjects of the Israeli government not unlike the Iraqi Kurds who have been the subjects of Saddam?s government. I don?t know the number of Palestinians killed by Israel and will not hazard a guess because it will only provoke an unproductive argument, all the same, as a proportion of total dead it is significantly lower than the proportion killed in Lebanon or Iraq. But if one adds to it the number of displaced Palestinians and those who have been wounded or fled their homes, the trauma of nation building in Palestine is high, certainly much higher than in Syria. Israeli nationalism is exclusionary and cannot provide equality for its religious minorities. By expanding over the largely Arab inhabited regions of Palestine, the Jewish state has created a problem of nation building that it will not easily solve and is bound to lead to many more deaths.

Turkey is not technically a Levantine state. It has been spared some of the trauma of nation-building because of the ethnic cleansing that took place during WWI and its aftermath, when the entire Armenian community of 1.5 to 2 million was wiped out or expelled and 1.5 million Anatolian Christians were transferred to Greece. We also cannot hold the present state responsible for the devastation caused by the Young Turks? mishandling of WWI. The population of Anatolia declined 25% during the war years, dropping from 13 million in 1914 to 10 million in 1922, when the war with Greece ended. The problems of nation-building faced by the modern Turkish state have been diminished by the unprecedented scale of killing and ethnic cleansing that took place during the final years of Ottoman rule. We also cannot include the large numbers of Kurds killed during the first decades of Atatürk?s regime, when the Shaykh Said rebellion and other largely Kurdish rebellions were suppressed, but it is worth remembering that seventeen of the eighteen military engagements in which Turkish military fought from 1924 to 1938 occurred in Kurdistan. We will also not count the 60,000 or so mainly Christian and Alawi refugees from the Hatay, or Alexandretta, who fled their homes for refuge in Syria, when that province was annexed to Turkey in 1938. It can also be added that in 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, Turkish forces entered Iraq in order to suppress and contain Kurdish nationalist and guerilla groups. In the last 20 years alone, some 30,000 Turks, mainly Kurds, have been killed in ethnic fighting in the East of the country. The many Armenians, Orthodox and Syriac Christians, and Kurds expelled to Syria by Turkey during the first decades of the 20th century have found a home in Syria that has been, by and large, tolerant and welcoming. On the whole, the Arabism of the Syrian state, even that of the Baathist regime under the Assad family has been more tolerant of its ethnic minorities than has the Turkish nationalism of Ankara. The death toll in Turkey over the last 35 years as a proportion of Turkey?s large population is small when compared to its Levantine neighbors, all the same, Turkish nationalism has been ethnically blinkered and integralist. According to the last count of Turkish political prisoners by Amnesty international in 2001, Turkish prisons held over 10,000 prisoners of conscience, a number more than 5 times as high that held in Syrian prisons. If one considers the sweep of 20th century history, Syria comes off better than Turkey on the dead body count, whether in absolute numbers or as a proportion of its population.

Finally, we arrive at Jordan, the one state that has clearly done as well as Syria in the neighborhood at protecting its own subjects from death. One might argue that Jordan has had less to contend with in nation-building because its is a large Muslim country with few ethnic or religious minorities. But this would be to ignore the difficulties of integrating the majority Palestinian population. During the Black September incident in 1970, when Palestinians tried to assassinate King Hussein and overthrow the Hashemite state, some 3,500 were killed out of a total population of 1,7 million, a mere 1 out of 486 Jordanians, much less than its other Levantine neighbors, save for Syria. Jordan is the only state in the region to get an undisputed ?A?.

Syria has managed its nation-building process with few deaths in comparison to its neighbors and with very little ethnic cleansing. The Jewish population of Syria has cleared out and underwent serious discrimination. Anti-Jewish sentiment in Syria is high. Other minorities have faired quite well. Kurds, most particularly those who were denied nationality under the Qudsi government of 1962, have been most subject to unfair treatment, but even then, it must be said that Syria, in comparison to the other countries that have large Kurdish populations ? Turkey, Iraq, and Iran ? has treated its Kurds with the least amount of discrimination or persecution.

Hama and the mini-civil war of the early 1980s between Sunni extremists and the Alawi dominated state stands out as the great blemish of Asad rule. Some where between 10,000 and 20,000 Syrians are believed to have been killed during this period. If we take the higher estimate and divide it into the total population in 1982 of 10 million, we get 1 out of 500 Syrians killed. This is on a par with Jordan?s 1 out of 486. We can bring Syria?s numbers down if we add in Syrian deaths in Lebanon, but the number will remain on a par with Jordan?s. It is also worth mentioning that Syria has one of the smaller ratios of political prisoners to total population in the entire Middle East. I have already given estimates of these on Syria Comment.

Syria?s brand of Arabism, although chauvinistic in its privileging of Arabs over other ethnic groups, has been much less bigoted or discriminatory than the nationalism of most of its neighbors. Armenians, who made up 4% of the Syrian population in 1948 were treated well and allowed to have their own schools and teach in Armenian. Minorities of almost every stripe have been protected ? sometimes privileged ? under Syria?s Baathist state, in large measure because the dominant Alawis are themselves a religious minority in the region; enforcing tolerance in a region that is not known for its religious and ethnic tolerance during the modern nation-building era, is in their own best interest. Syria is now home to many different refugee groups, chased from neighboring countries. We have already mentioned the Armenians, Orthodox Christians, Alawis, and Kurds who fled Anatolia, but we can add to them the Iraq Assyrians, the half-million recent Iraqi refugees, the 400,000 Palestinians, Iraqi Shiites of the 1980s, all of whom have found a home in Syria.

In conclusion, it is fair to state that Syria over the last 35 years has done as well as or better than all its neighbors at protecting its own subjects. The state has not collapsed into civil war. By preserving a stable central government without allowing it to become overly muscle bound and fascist, it has also minimized the number who have been killed or been displace due to state-sanctioned discrimination and violence. This is something that Syrians can be very proud of. It is something worth protecting.