Eyal Zisser is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan center, and lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History, Tel Aviv University.
For many years, the Ba'th regime in Syria has served as the guiding light of secularism for the whole Middle East. Its non-religious world view and its bitter struggle with the Islamist movement in the 1970s and 1980s made the government headed by Hafiz al-Asad one of the most effective barriers against the spread of radical Islam.
In the place of Islam, the Syrian regime offered a romantic-secular form of Arabism as espoused in the Ba'th Party ideology ruling Syria since 1963. Arabism served as its basic framework of identity for Arabic-speaking individuals and their political community. Basically, Arabism served as the state religion; Islam was marginalized.
And so, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that Damascus has of late become a source of inspiration and even a place of pilgrimage for many Islamists. The very same individuals who in the early 1980s assisted Syrian Islamists in their fight against the Asad regime today have become some of his most trusted allies and loyal advocates. How did this come about and what does it mean?
The struggle between the Ba'th regime in Damascus and the Islamists has a long history. The Ba'th Party, established in April 1947 by two young high school teachers—Michel 'Aflaq and Salah ad-Din al-Baytar—from the start had an Arab nationalist and secular ideology. Influenced mainly by German and French nationalist thinkers, 'Aflaq presented Islam as a civilization rather then a religion, which permitted him to minimize its role in the society and state. This feature of the Ba'th Party, along with its socialist orientation, alienated the Sunni urban middle class, the main stronghold of Islamic movements. Following the Ba'th seizure of power in March 1963, Islamic activists initiated a limited struggle against the regime that consisted of strikes and demonstrations in the streets of major Syrian cities.
Tension intensified following the Neo-Ba'th revolution in February 1966, which brought a leftist-radical faction in the party to power, many of them from religious minorities and especially from the 'Alawi religious community, a small post-Islamic sect that many Muslims in Syria view as non-Islamic. Finally, this tension erupted in April 1967, when a junior Ba'thist army officer of 'Alawi origins, Ibrahim al-Khallas, published an article in the Syrian army weekly magazine, "The Means of Creating a New Arab Socialist Personality," in which he stated that
the way to fashion Arab culture and Arab society is by creating an Arab socialist who believes that God, the religions, feudalism, capitalism, imperialism and all the other values that had controlled society in the past are no more than mummies in the Museum of History.1
The article aroused a storm of angry protest among the urban Sunni population.2 Strikes and anti-Ba'th demonstrations broke out in Syria's large cities, forcing the regime to denounce the article and imprison its author and editor. These two, the Syrian public was told, were agents of the Central Intelligence Agency. Damascus Radio even declared that "The article had been planted in the army organ as part of a reactionary Israeli-American plot, in collusion with anti-revolutionary elements and 'merchants of religion' to drive a wedge between the masses and their leadership."3
Though the Ba'th regime had to distance itself from the article, there is no doubt that the young 'Alawi officer expressed the views of many Ba'th Party activists, and especially those of its radical Neo-Ba'th faction. As Moshe Ma'oz has observed:
The Neo-Ba'th regime tried to free itself of the Islamic complex that had faced the old-line Ba'th with a dilemma and establish the principle of secularism as part of the ideological foundations of Syrian society. As members of the 'Alawi minority, the regime's leaders aspired to remove from the underpinnings of Syrian society the Islamic base which might have pushed them onto the sidelines of inferior status in the state and society.4
Hafiz al-Asad's rise to power in November 1970 brought about a new era, as he softened his predecessors' anti-Islamic tone. Although himself an 'Alawi, Asad prayed in Sunni mosques, went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, and had the 'Alawi religion declared a legitimate branch of Shi'i Islam. However, these efforts failed; the Muslim Brethren, a leading Islamist organization, rejected his outstretched hand and looked at his regime as an infidel one headed by a non-Muslim. In 1976, Muslim Brethren activists mounted a violent struggle in an effort to overthrow the regime and replace it with an Islamic state. Islamist movements around the Arab world gave it active support, especially those in Egypt and Jordan, apparently with the encouragement of their governments.
In February 1982, this Islamist revolt came to an abrupt end when Asad crushed the Muslim Brethren in Hama, the country's fourth-largest town. With this he obliterated the movement as an established, organized, and active force. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of its activists were killed, and many more were thrown into prison to serve long sentences. The leaders were scattered in exile.5
The Ba'th regime's victory was not only political but also ideological, a win for secular Arabism over Islam. For example, Rif'at al-Asad, the president's bother and the no. 2 man in his regime at that time, took the occasion to send "Daughters of the Revolution" (members of the Ba'th Party's youth movement) into the streets of Damascus to strip veils off the faces of women. For a long time, it was reported, men refrained from growing beards for fear of being accused of sympathy for the Muslim Brethren.6
Difficult regional realities had, by the early 1990s, turned Asad and the Islamists into allies; both faced new realities that prompted them to reconsider their old positions. These rivals of old came together to fight what they perceive to be an even greater threat than each other—the "new Middle East" offered by Israel and the United States that emerged after the Kuwait war and flourished mainly in the years 1992-96. This concept refers to a regional order dominated by the West (i.e., the United States) in which Israel and Turkey play a major role; the Arabs, and Syria especially, are marginalized. (For a rendering of this idea in cartoon form, see Figure 1.) Both Asad and the Islamists worry about Western hegemony over the entire Middle East, seeing this as an existential threat confronting not just themselves but the entire Arab world and even the whole Muslim population. The Kuwait war increased this sense of threat, as did the progress achieved in the Israeli-Arab peace process in 1991-96.
The mainstream of Islamist movements concluded that their direct and violent struggle against the Arab regimes had failed and instead decided to reduce (though not abandon) the domestic struggle in order to concentrate instead on Israel and the West. Anti-Israeli or anti-Western stands were more popular on the Arab "street," making this a more promising approach to find support. Even with this change, though, the Islamist movements remembered that the struggle against the United States and Israel had clear implications for their future struggles in the domestic arena; the peace process is the soft underbelly of many Arab regimes, especially those in Egypt and Jordan. In contrast, they saw Syria as one of the main obstacles against American efforts to establish a new regional order.
For its part, Damascus started to see the Islamists as perhaps the only possible means by which to enhance its regional standing, gain influence in neighboring countries and bring domestic tranquillity to Syria itself. Islamic movements had become the leading populist force in Arab societies during the 1980s, as well as the great beacons of anti-Westernism and anti-Zionism. This made them potential allies for Asad.
Arab Islamists helped the Syrian regime and its Islamic movement start a dialogue and pressured the Syrian Islamists to cease their struggle against Damascus.7 The two sides took steps to signal a readiness to end their confrontation soon after the massacre in Hama. The regime responded with greater tolerance toward the demonstration of religious sentiment in Syria. It released most, although not all, of the Islamists imprisoned since the Muslim Brethren revolt of the early 1980s.8 It encouraged the activities of moderate clerics such as Muhammad Sa'id al-Buti, who now broadcasts a popular weekly religious program on Syrian television. It allowed clerics to run in the elections to the People's Assembly of 1990, 1994, and 1998.9
Close relations since 1980 between Damascus and Tehran, it bears noting, helped strengthen these ties. The Ba'thists and the Iranian revolutionaries have worked together for nearly two decades despite their many and basic disagreements. They even managed to maintain an alliance of interests through such difficult episodes as the Iraq-Iran war and the peace process. During the Iraq-Iran war, Syria's support for Iran, a non-Arab state, isolated Damascus in the Arab world. During its negotiations with Israel in 1992-96, Syria resisted American and Israeli pressure to end its strategic alliance with Iran. This connection serves as a model for relations between Syria and the Islamist groups; also, given that the Iranian government makes financial grants to the Arab Islamists and provides them with political support, this means Tehran has considerable influence over them.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting that took place in December 1997 in Tehran gives a flavor of this bond. The Iranian leadership warmly welcomed Asad, one of the few Arab leaders to attend the summit.10 (The other Arab heads of state refrained from attending either to protest the Iranian regime's support for the Islamist movements making their lives difficult or in response to American pressure.) Secular Syria championed the Islamists in Tehran and, ironically, tried to get the other Arab leaders to turn up in Tehran.11
Although Damascus became the champion of foreign Islamists, its relations with Syrian Islamists are not smooth. Indeed, the regime feels secure and strong enough to be tough with its own Islamists in part thanks to the support it has from their Arab colleagues. The regime's demand that Muslim Brethren leaders repent for their sins of nearly twenty years past are too difficult for the Islamists to accept; nor will they promise not to undertake new political activities in Syria. Also, media reports indicate that the Syrian security apparatuses are distinctly unenthusiastic about the return of the Muslim Brethren.12 Still, the relationship is based on mutual interests—the Ba'thists and the foreign Islamists each use the other to promote their political agenda at home and throughout the region—and so are likely to entrench themselves or to establish or to defend and even promote their regional stands.
Many signs point to positive relations between the Syrian authorities and the Arab Islamists. For one, the change in Syrian attitudes has been expressed in its political messages. Damascus has recruited Muslim solidarity in its conflict with Turkey as this heated up in recent years due to Syrian support of the Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan (PKK, an anti-Turkish Kurdish organization), a dispute over Euphrates River waters, and growing Turkish-Israeli ties. To warn Ankara against further strengthening relations with Israel, while at the same time appealing to it to get closer to Syria, the veteran Ba'th Party activist 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam, Syria's vice president, declared that
Turkey is a Muslim country. Islam there is several times stronger than secularism, therefore Turkey should stand on the side of the Arabs. We were victorious over the Crusaders because the Arabs were not alone, but together with the Turkmens. Since the 1970s we have been making efforts to improve relations, but the problem is that some of the [ruling] apparatuses in Turkey think that their interests lie in ties with the West and are trying to distance it from the Arabs.13
Damascus has become a place of pilgrimage for Arab Islamist leaders. These include Rashid al-Ghanushi of the Islamic Reawakening Movement in Tunisia, Mahfouz Nahnah of the Islamic Society Movement in Algeria, and Hasan at-Turabi of the Islamic National Front in Sudan (and his country's then-speaker of the parliament). Hizbullah leaders often turn up in Damascus, including both Hasan Nasrallah, its secretary general, and Hasan Fadlallah, its spiritual leader. The latter even participated in a series of theological seminars at the University of Damascus.14 When Ishaq Farahan, head of Jordan's Islamic Action Movement, visited Damascus in January 1997, he signed a joint working paper with 'Abdallah al-Ahmar, regional assistant secretary general of the Ba'th Party, laying the groundwork for closer cooperation between the two sides in many areas, but mainly in their joint struggle against Israel.15 The headquarters of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, under the leadership of Ramadan 'Abdallah Shalah, are located in Damascus, as is the information office of Hamas. Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, visited Damascus where he won a warm welcome from Asad himself,16 shortly after he was released from an Israeli jail.
For Damascus. The rulers in Syria practice a policy of pan-Islam to maintain domestic stability and strengthen their external influence. They appear to attach great importance to the nascent alliance with the Islamist movements, and for four main reasons. First, it has caused the Syrian Muslim Brethren to moderate its old anti-Ba'th broadsides. In February 1997, its Shura Council published a manifesto that opened by calling the 1982 massacre in Hama the "tragedy of the century," but then refrained from any direct attacks on the Syrian regime. The manifesto went on to declare that the Muslim Brethren was prepared to take steps to "Restore Syrian national unity on behalf of the interests of the [Syrian] homeland and the [Islamic] nation, in view of threats facing it and in order to withstand the Zionist attack."17 A Jordanian Islamist in July 1998 called on his Syrian counterparts to stop their attacks on the Syrian regime, arguing that "Syria is the only Arab country that opposes Israel and supports resistance to the Zionist occupation. Therefore it is forbidden for a Muslim or an Arab to attack it or its leadership."18
Second, Damascus uses the Islamists to influence the policies of Arab governments. To prevent the normalization of relations with Israel, it made considerable use of the Islamist organizations in Jordan and among the Palestinians. For example, the Syrians encouraged the Palestinian Islamic movements to oppose the Wye Plantation agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority19 and approved Jordanian Islamic Front demonstrations against Israel and the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement.20 Remembering that Damascus looks at Jordan and the Palestinian Authority as part of its own sphere of influence, and that it seeks to dominate them as it does Lebanon, it is quite clear that ties with these movements also allow the Asad regime to gain a foothold in the Jordanian and Palestinian political arenas.
Third, these ties enhance Syria's regional importance as well as its bargaining position vis-à-vis the United States and Israel by giving Syria tools of pressure to be applied against Israel and cards to be used in future negotiations. Syrian backing for Hizbullah in southern Lebanon is an example of this Syrian practice.
Fourth, warm relation with the Islamists have clear implications for Syria's domestic front, where they have encouraged the process of rapprochement between the regime and its Syrian Muslim opposition. Some of the leaders of this opposition who remain outside Syria are engaged in dialogue with the Asad regime. These include 'Isam al-'Attar (who has lived in Aachen, Germany, since the 1960s), Sadr ad-Din al-Bayanuni (the inspector general of the movement who is now in Amman), and other leaders in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Under the aegis of dialogue, other Muslim Brethren leaders are gradually returning to Syria and renewing their activities, mainly in the sphere of education, with the regime's tacit approval. 'Abd al-Fatah Abu Ghudda returned in December 1995; he had long been, from his place of exile in Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brethren's inspector general. In return for a commitment to refrain from engaging in politics, Abu Ghudda was permitted to resume his religious activities in Aleppo. He went back to Saudi Arabia in early 1996 because of his failing health, and in February 1997 he died there. When his death became public, President Asad sent condolences to the deceased's family in Aleppo, and even offered to put his private airplane at its disposal to bring his body back for burial in Syria. Though Abu Ghudda was buried in Medina, near the grave of the Prophet Muhammad, Asad received his family's thanks and
For the Islamists. Syrian backing brings real benefits to the Islamist movements throughout the region. After the Syrian rulers established ties with the (Islamist) Refah Party of Turkey, unconfirmed reports indicated that the mayor of Istanbul, a leading Refah Party activist, visited Damascus at the head of a Party delegation.22 Following the early 1998 dissolution of the Refah Party, Syria's Defense Minister Mustafa Talas attacked the Turkish authorities for this "anti-democratic" move and called on them "to treat the Islamic movement with greater sensitivity [because] it faithfully represents the Turkish public."23 Talas even warned the Turkish military authorities that the Turkish people would take revenge on them and that Turkey would become another Algeria unless they changed their attitude towards Islam.24
Speaking of Algeria, Ahmad Kaftaru, the mufti of Syria and the country's top religious official (and a regime loyalist), called on the (secular) Algerian authorities to enter into a dialogue with Islamist opposition instead of fighting them. (In contrast, it bears noting, Kaftaru—already then in his present position—supported the oppressive measures the Asad regime took against the Islamists of Syria in 1976-82.)25
Damascus also appears to support Islamist operations, including terrorism. Syrian-Saudi relations went through a tense patch in mid-1996 when it came out that the perpetrators who attacked American soldiers in Khobar in June 1996, killing 19 soldiers, had gone from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia via Syria. That one suspect had died under doubtful circumstances in a Syrian prison after the attack only increased Saudi suspicion of Syrian involvement in this attack. (It was thought that the Syrians did not want this suspect to tell the Saudis what he knew about possible Syrian involvement; the Syrians were quick to extradite another suspect26 but doubts remained. At the same time, no one accused the Syrians of direct involvement in the attack, but rather of ignoring the activity that led to it.)
Relations with Jordan also plummeted in mid-1996, when Amman accused Damascus of sending groups of Islamist terrorists to carry out attacks to undermine the kingdom's internal stability and harm its relations with the United States and Israel.27 A group of Hizbullah activists were arrested in the Jordanian capitol in February 1998; this group was responsible for several bombs that had exploded in Amman. Jordanian sources pointed to Syrian complicity.28 Despite Syrian denials, the issue remains on the Syrian-Jordanian agenda.29 The Syrians had problems with Egypt and Algeria after it transpired that "Arab Afghans" (that is, Arabs who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet forces) had found refuge in Syria and used that country as a base from which they carried out terrorist activities. Again, the Syrians reacted vigorously and arrested the suspects fingered by the Egyptian and Algerian authorities.30 Syria has become, in effect, a breeding ground for violent Islamists.
That the regime engages in a dialogue with Islamists means that it has recognized the need to calm down the home front and ensure their support. That Syrian Islamists engage in this dialogue points to their recognition of the regime's power and its own inability to challenge Asad.
This unexpected bond has far-reaching implications. In the short run, it has the potential to enhance the standing of the Syrian regime and strengthen the Islamist movements both at home and in the region, and especially in their joint opposition to peace agreements with Israel. In the long run, however, alliance with the Islamists can cost the regime in Damascus dearly by permitting the Islamists a foothold in Syrian society. Even though the rapprochement with the Arab Islamists has been rapid, the regime is more careful with the Syrian Islamists. The regime's many problems, for example in the economic and the social spheres, will enable Islamists to entrench themselves further . Eventually they might undertake another violent struggle with Damascus. In this sense, Asad might be sowing the demise of his regime.
Syria has practically abandoned pan-Arabism as the mainstay of its foreign policy and as the primary means to recruit Arab support, replacing it with a pan-Islamic policy. This volte-face signifies the demise of political pan-Arabism and the rise of the Islamic factor in inter-Arab relations. It confirms the Syrian regime's keen political sensitivities. It also points to Asad's key objective throughout the past decade—to resist and prevent the emergence of a "new Middle East."
Syrian cooperation with Islamists may more accurately indicate the thinking in Damascus—to prevent the formation of a new regional order dominated by the United States—than the image Syria has built in recent years by virtue of its participation in the peace process, its slight opening to the market, and its expulsion of the PKK leader—steps which indicate a willingness to come to terms with a regional order dominated by the United States.
1 Jaysh al-Sha'b, Apr. 25, 1967.
2 On which, Middle East Record (MER) 1967 (Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1971), pp. 499-501.
3 MER 1967, p. 500; Jaysh al-Sha'b, May 9, 1967.
4 Moshe Ma'oz, Surya Hahadash, Tmorot Politiyot ve-Hevratiyot be-Tahalich Haqamat Qehiliya Leomit (Tel Aviv: Reshafim, 1974), p. 86.
5 Umar F. Abd-Allah, The Islamic Struggle in Syria (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1983).
6 Interview by the author with Syrian academicians, Washington, D.C., June 23, 1996, and June 12, 1998. See also Patrick Seale, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 1988), p. 334.
7 It is important to distinguish here between non-Syrian and Syrian Islamists. Islamists in other Arab countries became allies of the Asad regime at the beginning of the 1990s; their Syrian colleagues only began a dialogue with it in the mid-1980s and that ended without results. The regime resumed the dialogue with the Syrian Islamists in the early 1990s, as a means to maintain stability inside Syria and to strengthen its position. But this has not had much success; although some Syrian Islamists came to terms with the regime and returned home, most of them remain at odds with the regime.
8 Al-Ba'th, Nov. 29 , 1991; Mar. 31 , 1992.
9 Al-Hayat (London), Aug. 26, 1994; al-'Alam (London), Oct. 1994.
10 Tishrin, Dec. 11, 1997.
11 Ha'aretz, Dec. 11, 1997.
12 Ibid., Jan. 20, 1997; ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Feb. 3, 1997. See also Middle East Mirror, Apr. 6, May 13, 1997.
13 Future Television (FTV), Beirut, Nov. 5, 1997.
14 Ad-Diyyar, June 7, 1997.
15 Tishrin, Jan. 6, 1997.
16 Syrian News Agency (Sana), May 29, 1997.
17 Al-Hayat, Feb. 4, 1997.
18 Ash-Shira' (Beirut), July 20, 1998.
19 Reuters, Oct. 22, 1998; al-Hayat al-Jadida, Nov. 7, 1998.
20 Tishrin, Jan. 7, 1998.
21 Al-Hayat, Dec. 15, 1995.
22 Ibid., Feb. 4, 1997.
23 Turkish Daily News, Jan. 27, 1997.
24 Al-Ahram, Oct. 10, 1998.
25 Al-Wasat, June 3, 1997. For more about Kaftaru, see Judith Miller, God has Ninety-nine Names (New York: Touchstone, 1997) pp. 327-29.
26 Al-Hayat, Apr. 7, 1997.
27 Middle East Mirror, June 3, 1996.
28 Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Feb. 17, 1998.
29 Tishrin, June 21, 1996.
30 Al-Bilad (Amman), July 1, 1998; Agence France Presse, July 8, 1998.