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Syria between past experience and current trends of modernization

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Syria between past experience and current trends of modernization

In the majority of sources the Syrian culture is referred to as the cradle of civilisations because of its enormous variety of cultural reminiscences of ancient different civilisations that have conquered the territory of Ancient Syria. The cultural legacy of Syria includes Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, predominantly Arab and Roman influences. Christianity played a very important role until the conquest of Arabs that brought along the Islamic religion and culture. This variety of cultural and religious inheritance is admirable but it created a dispersed society with too many ethnic groups that have so little in common.


This kind of disunity leads to little interest in the fate of the Syrian national state because the so many ethnic groups have something to say only when in power in the government and even than the national interest is reduced at promoting the interest of the ethnic group in power. What is far worse is that for many decades national interest is mistaken for irrational nationalism that promotes anti-western attitudes and anti-Jewish attitudes (the creation of the Arab League formed to prevent the formation of an Jewish state in Palestine in 1944). As in any predominant Islamic country religion is a very important criteria in distinguishing friend from foe. The main nationalistic characteristic of Syria is the ideal of the Great Syria that should include besides the todayís territory, the territories of Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. Also the Syrian nationalists envisage a great Arab Kingdom with Syria as the heart of it. Although the Muslim teachings say that the two realms of Islam (referred as Dar al Islam) and of the infidels (referred as Dar al Herb) are incompatibles for peace there are few people nowadays that take that literally. What is very interesting is that politicians in supporting their claims and policies towards west remind people of the medieval crusades that invaded the country so thy can arise nationalism and to acquire a sort of legitimization. It is also very true that the Ottoman and the French colonial exploitation have not been forgiven or forgotten and at least the French colonial period is regarded as a betrayal from the Western countries. The French mandate is still perceived as a humiliation because in that period the state of Syria practically disappears under the name of Greater Lebanon and it is partitioned in three autonomous area controlled by the French. The underdevelopment of the country is placed upon the long years of domination and it is also guilty for the military defeats in 1948 against Israel.

Also a grievance of the Syrian people is the fact that they perceive themselves as the former cradle of civilisation and they cannon understand their situation as a backward country defeated by the industrialized countries. The main element of disturbances in Syria is Israel perceived as the main enemy from religious and geopolitical point of view.

Even nowadays the conflict between Israel and Syria is fought mainly on the ground of the territory called the Golan Heights. And in the same account the relations of Syria and the Western countries mainly USA resides in the fact that beginning with Ronald Reagan USA supported Israel and its demands. The territory of the Golan Heights is the main cause for the Syrian-Israeli wars from 1967 and 1973. Another important reasons for territorial grievances is the Haty Turkish province that once belonged to Syria. The Syrian authorities refer to the Iskenderum borders with Turkey as temporary.A delicate issue is the one of Lebanon as it is of great importance for both Israel and Syria. Practically beginning with 1976 Syria annexed parts of Lebanon striving to keep it as a satellite country. Pan Arab nationalism is preached by the Baath Party, whose main ideology supports a greater Arab state reaching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea thus trespassing the artificial borders drawn by the Ottoman Empire and the European colonial rule. This pan Arab feeling disadvantages the other minorities like Christians who although are against a larger Arab state are for the union with Lebanon where the Christians are numerous minority. Arab language and eventually anti-Zionism are the main principles for the pan Arab nationalism. Pan Arabism has been used by Syria as propaganda in the case of Iraq refusing to say yes to the Arab total unification proposed by Syria.

Among the most important minorities in Syria there are the Alawis who represent the largest religious minority and form mainly the rural population. They were the most oppressed population in Syria and they are supposed to be the true inhabitants of Syria and to have developed a unique form of religion with Islamic influences after the Arab invasion. This particular minority group is very important because it gave a significant number of leaders who have emphasized the rights of the minorities to the detriment of the majority population formed of Sunni population. The Sunni population represents the majority in Syria and also it provides the country with the basic values. Being disfavoured by their own government the well of Sunni members of the society and mostly the oneswho could not properly manage their business tried to go elsewhere because of the Government measures. Because starting with 1970ís the country was ruled by a member of the minority Alewi namely by President Haviz al Assad the Islamic religion was no longer an important value for the new nationalist doctrine.

And this is only one example of conflict between ethnicities that prevent Syria from modernizing and becoming a democratic state. This added to the historical territory grievances with Israel and with Turkey[1] and Lebanon and to the economic underdevelopment created important centripetal forces tearing apart the Syrian society.

The Syrian government functions based on the Permanent Constitution of March 13, 1973 that respects at least on paper the democratic division of power: the executive, the legislative and judiciary. The reality is a different one since the mandate of the ex president Haviz al Assad was prolonged until his death in 2000 and since it was his son, Bashar al Assad that succeeded him to power. And another important problem for modernizing a country like Syria is that the political life is led by a dominating party that prevents opposition and uses the other political formations merely as satellites. Political life is led by the National Progressive Front (NPF) created in 1972, formed of 6 political formations out of which only the dominant Baath Arab Socialist party (created in 1947) is politically relevant. The main result of such a configuration of problems is that opposition is more violent and uses more violent means in order to gain power, not to mention that the oppression against the opposition has to at least measure up to its violence. [2]



Another symptom of the lack of modernization is the way in which a new leader takes power (or at least it was a setting back symptom) by military coups díetat and military rule[3]. The idea of a great Arab State is transformed into action in 1958 when Syria and Egypt joined into the United Arab Republic (UAR) but it doesnít last long because of internal disagreements in Syria because of the Egyptian domination of the UAR. Another attempt has been made in 1971 when Syria, Egypt and Libya formed the short term Federation of Arab Republics.

The most prominent figure of the political life in Syria is Hafez al Asad who managed to bring period of relative growth in economy and a certain stability in internal affairs. Hafez al Asad had been a member of the Syrian Baath party since he was 16 managed to ascend to power after becoming a pilot and a military figure. The 1948 defeat in the war against Israel impressed the entire Syrian society and Baathist party starts to seize power. In 1961 civil rule installed by the colonialist countries is overthrown following closely the same event that took place in Iraq in 1958. In 1966 Hafez al Asad is appointed minister of defence and in 1971 he is elected president after a bloodless military coup. His politics through out the almost three decades of ruler ship have transformed him into a god for his people, a feared one for some, into a puzzling political figure for all the other heads of state. The opinions on his regime are divided because no one really knows what the system was like how far repression went and what were his real aims in the relations with the neighbours and the Western countries. The heads of state appreciated him as a strong leader in a good way for he had succeeded to bring stability to Syria and to make out of his country the key element for the middle east stability. And even the leaders whoís countries suffered in a form or another from his politics considered his way of making politics as firm and stable.

Hafiz Asadís main obsessions were the Golan Heights he wanted to recover from Israel, Lebanon as a part of the ideal Great Syria and as a satellite, and the idea of a great Arab state .But his political decisions were not by far based on ideologies but on realistic measures. He was the new political man to use in the full meaning the Realpolitik concept. His constant demands on the Golan Heights were a strong weapon used to prevent Jordan, Lebanon or the Palestine Liberalization Organization (PLO) from making agreements with Israel, and when Egypt-Israeli concluded the Camp David Agreements, he perceived Syria as the only remaining Arab isle in the ocean of foes, The Israeli Syrian conflict was more a matter of who dominated the region for him rather than a strong everlasting nationalistic obsession. This statement can be proved through his willingness to reach agreements after the war in 1974 but peace talks have been cancelled over and over again either because an agreement of terms couldnít be reached or as it was the case in 1994 because of the changing character of Asad. Asadís foreign policy relied on USSR loosing the western incoming aid. Because of the rejection of the Camp David Agreement United States Congress prohibited any aid to Syria beginning with 1979. Asadís politics also managed to isolate Syria from its neighbours mainly on the account of the Israel enmity. Egypt and Israel signed together the Camp David Agreement, the south of Lebanon was under Israeli occupation, the relations with Iran were based on business only, and Iraq was the ancient foe. The economic cooperation with Iran was sealed with a treaty in 1982 and it represented a business treaty and not an ideological affiliation to the same religious or goals. Syria supported Iran in the war against Iraq (1980), Iran was exporting oil to Syria, and Syria was cutting down the Oil pipes coming from Iraq. The situation with Iraq changed in 1986 when Iranian forces and Asad declares that he does not agree with such a thing but when the Syrian charge díaffaires was kidnapped in Teheran he change the statement favouring the Iranian programme of ďliberation of IraqĒ. By supporting Iran in the Iran Iraq war Syria threw a major blow to the western countries who were supporting Iraq in the area. But instead Syria received significant economic help from Saudi Arabia.

The Intervention in Lebanon in 1987was, for the record an intervention to enforce a cease fire but in reality it was to support the Christian rightwing against the Shia left forces which he fought against.

Beginning with 1982 Asadís regime was challenged by serious internal and external threats. There is the Muslim Radicals riot in Hama that is suppressed in the blood of cca. 10 000 people and there is the invasion of Lebanon by Israeli troops. The Israeli troops destroyed the missiles in Biqa Valley and also a significant quantity of aircraft[4]. In 1983 the Israeli-Lebanese troops withdraw from several areas and Syrian forces remain in Lebanon. Although the retreat of the Syrian troops from Lebanon was supposed to happen back in 1982, this retreat was not made until 2001. This situation brought great advantages for Syria but it caused damages Lebanon as it was until 1975 the most promising country from the modernizing process point of view. Beginning with 1976 when Lebanon begins to have Syrian troops on its territory the situation changes and stagnation or even set back installs in Lebanon as the Syrian troops and the Israeli troops start to create divergent camps in the internal politics.




The relations with the USA have always been tensioned mostly because of the USA support for the Israeli state with some exceptions like after the 1973 war against Israel when USA admitted there was some legitimacy in the Syrian requests, or after the 1982 Israel attack on Syrian forces in Lebanon.

The relationships between Syria and USSR basically on the armament supply [5]made USA reluctantly suspicious over the theme of terrorist attacks. The USA was accusing Syria of being involved in the attacks on the American Embassy in Beirut in 1880 but they couldnít prove it with evidence. In 1983 the relations between the two states became really tense but a real conflict was avoided. An improvement was made in 1985 when a Syria managed to intercept a hijacking of a plane of the Trans World Airlines that was going to Beirut. Although the conditions of the interception were not clear some officials feared that it was the confirmation for the terrorist accusations. And back then as today the accusations of supporting terrorist acts against western targets cannot be proved.

Hafez al Asad although supposed to have brought stability and promoted Arab nationalism, did none of that as his stability was strictly related to his regime and as he managed to damage the relations with almost all Arab countries not mentioning the western countries. Asadís declared policy was that he didnít wanted supremacy for his country but that be tried to reach parity with Israel in order to have a balance of power in the area. If he would paid more attention to the internal problems instead of spending a lot of his resources on weapons maybe he would have managed to avoid the economic backwardness. It is indeed true that the comparative figures from ante and during his regime are better during the regime but the situation was and it still is unstable.

Regimes based on military forces and the charisma of a leader are unstable in general because they promote corrupt administration systems and because once the leader is dead the country usually collapses with the leader or at lest faces real problems when faced with a real change.

Syria is far away from becoming democratic as it never rely knew the rule of law, a system of real competitive political parties or real elections (all the referendums organized to check the support for the Asadís regime had outrageous outcomes like 99.9 approval for the regime. It is obvious that the regime couldnít be contested as they didnít even try to make it look normal). The legitimacy of the country increased in Hafez al Asadís latest years of ruling Syria as in 1990 after the Iraqi invasion in Kuwait Syria joins the coalition against Iraq thus improving its relations with USA and Egypt .

The period between 1990 Ė2000 lies under the waiting for peace talks between Israel and Syria when in 2000 they are indefinitely postponed.

Hafez al Asadís death in June 2000 left a void of power in Syria. As the other son of Asad, Basil was killed in a car accident in 1994 ( he was the political hope of his father), Bashar al Asad becomes president raising questions on the legitimacy and the correctness of the nomination. Bashar al Asadís political involvement was of little importance as he had a professional medical career and he didnít have the required age for becoming a president as he was only 35 years old when he was appointed. But with all this, his appointment as a president is regarded with good eyes because his modernizing prospects and open views, and because of the fact that he is not a professional politician[6].

For the moment there are questions on the capacity of Bashar in managing the Middle Eastern issue. And recently the USA administration accuses Syria of holding mass destruction weapons and of helping the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his terrorist group by hiding them in Syria. The starting accusation on Syria cooperating with the regime of Saddam Hussein was based on the fact that Iraqi oil illicitly reached Syria against all warnings and prohibitions[7]. Is Syria going to be the next target for the American government? If so it would be a disaster for the region. Syria is not yet a democratic country and has never been and although it might possesses arms of mass destruction and chemical weapons, and although it supports Palestinian terrorist groups.Syria would not challenge the stability of the democratic countries. Both Hafez al Asad and his son Bashar lack the deliberate cruelty of Saddam Hussein and they both are focused on the same old grievances like the Golan Heights. Basharís promises of modernizing the countryís economy and of destroying the corruption in Syria are very beautiful. But Bashar as his father has the strong support of the Baath party and of the army so haw will he end corruption and nepotism when these are the basic values of the political system and economic system inherited from his father? It is the same problem that every country that came out from under a authoritative system, is confronted with. The lack of minority rights, the lack of freedom, the centralized economy the highly corrupted administrative system, the past and present cooperation with extremist military groups difficult to control in non-authoritative government would impose great difficulties on the new leader. Not to mention that Syria doesnít look good in the eyes of USA who is determined to find the mass destruction weapons and Iraqi leaders they couldnít find in Iraq.



War on Terrorism in Syria would do so much harm to a country in transition that it wouldnít be possible for it to recover from the losses. The enormous debts that Syria has accumulated during the Hafez Asad regime mainly with Russia on military armament and with the other countries within the region would make it impossible for Syria to cope with a destructive war.

Maybe the new accusations against Syria made by the Bush administration mainly (letís face it) have the sole purpose of trying to control the new presidency or to intimidate the new leader so that the old anti-American feeling propagated by Hafez to be controlled.

What are the chances of Syria to become a modernized country is a matter of wait and see. Pan Arab nationalism in Syria is a very cohesive system and, unlike his father, Bashar al Asad opened real opportunities for cooperation in the Middle East by visiting old enemy countries like Israel and Turkey promoting a positive view on Arab nationalism one of cooperation and not of enmity.

The country has long to go and chances for modernization are big at least in project but they have to surpass enormous and heavy past burdens and past ghoast.††

†††



[1] Alexandretta region is conceded to Turkey by the French mandate in 1939. The old capital of Syria, Antioch was located in that area.

[2] !973 Riots brake out because Asad annuls the constitutional requirement that the president has to be a Muslim. The Army intervenes and suppresses the riots.

[3] 1961 Military officers size the power and brake the union with Egypt.

[4] www.classbrain.com, article The Middle East Conflict, the Library of Congress

[5] 1980 The Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation concluded between Syria and USSR, provided Syria with sophisticated weapons.

[6] 2000 November Bashar Asad orders the release of 600 political prisoners.

[7] www.cnn.com , Iraqi oil still flowing to Syria despite tough talk, June 11, 2001 Posted:1:49 PM EDT (1749 GTM)









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