Note: The following article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post opinion section.

Arab supremacists in Damascus are determined to keep Syria an ethno-state after decades of bloody despotism and 10 years of cataclysmic civil war.

President Bashar al Assad remains ruler of a shattered nation. Assad’s party – the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party (ASBP) – continues to assert dominance over 60% of the country. Paramilitaries sponsored by Russia and Iran enforce the party’s governance in territories occupied by the regime. With foreign-backed military support behind him, Assad’s power persists in a state fragmented by war.

People pose in front of a giant portrait of Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo, 2016.
Source: Hindustan times/Reuters, 2016.

The death toll from Syria’s conflict is staggering. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documents the total number of people killed at nearly 600,000 over the near decade-long conflict. The bulk of deaths are civilians killed by the Assad government’s campaign of bombing apartments, hospitals, markets and other areas packed with non-combatants. These numbers are likely undercounts, but provide a glimpse into how much blood the regime is willing to spend in order to reassert control over every inch of territory it used to hold prior to the war.

For the government there is only one rule, and that is the rule established by the ASBP with Assad at its political center. This includes ensuring that the identity of Syria – an ethnically diverse country – remains Arab.

The Syrian Arab Republic is built upon a foundational belief in the superiority of the Arab identity. This belief originates from pan-Arab thinkers in the 1940s, notably Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi. These thinkers emphasized the central importance of Arab civilization, history, culture and language in the Middle East, and the need for a united Arab nation – a trans-state entity that can solve the region’s issues of “sectarianism, regionalism and reactionism.” This is only achievable through a revolutionary movement e.g. the Arab Ba’ath Party, which translates to resurrection or renaissance in English.

Pan-Arab nationalist movements emerged as a political force across the region when Gen. Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Free Officers Movement overthrew King Farouk I of Egypt in 1952. Nasser called it a revolution, but it was in actuality a military coup. Egypt’s pan-Arab socialist politics gained enough traction in Syria for the two countries to attempt unification with the United Arab Republic in 1958, until another coup brought that union to an end in 1961. Still, Ba’athist Syria continued efforts to institutionalize an Arab state where nationality and ethnic identity were synonymous.

Gen. Abdel Nasser surrounded by supporters after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, 1956.

The institutionalization of Arab nationalism had a discriminatory impact on non-Arabs within the Syrian state. Millions of Kurds in the northeast of the country were denied their identity under the Arabization policies implemented by the government. In 1962, for example, a government census in the Hasakah region stripped around 120,000 Kurds of citizenship. Classing these people as foreigners and reappropriating property to Arabs is an effort to eliminate the Kurdish identity. The emphasis placed on the superiority of the Arab identity and Islam meant that minorities were targeted for discrimination such as Syriacs, Assyrians, Circassians and more.

The belief in the superiority of the Arab identity takes inspiration from National Socialist ideology. Syria’s Ba’ath Party architects such as Michel Aflaq took inspiration from Hitler’s regime in Germany, adopting a kind of “Arab supremacism” from the model of Aryanism, centralizing rule in the party and incorporating antisemitism into the functioning of the state. The Syrian state also harbored Nazi war criminals such Alois Brunner, who assisted in training the military intelligence of Syria (Mukhabarat) to resemble the Gestapo. These people were sought after for their skills during the height of tensions between Syria and Israel from the 1940s through the 1970s.

A Ba’ath politician by the name of Sami Al-Jundi summarized the relationship of the Ba’ath party to Nazism during this time:

We were racialists, admiring Nazism, reading its books and the sources of its thought…. We were the first to think about translating [Hitler’s] Mein Kampf. Anyone who had lived through this period in Damascus can assess the inclination of the Arab people toward Nazism…. Those who do not get deep into the principles of the Arab National Party – and these principles are the very principles of the Arab Ba’ath – might be misled [about the influence of Nazism].” 

– Sami al-Jundi,
al-Ba’ath (Beirut: Dar al-Nahara li-l-Nashr, 1969) p.27

Only with Hafez Assad’s so-called “Corrective Movement” in 1970 (another coup) did Arab nationalism really solidify within the Syrian state apparatus. Assad eliminated opposition, rebuilt the ASBP and entrenched his leadership along with the Assad family’s political network in the 1970s. During this consolidation of power, a new constitution was established in 1973. Within this constitution, Arab nationalism is enshrined in Article One, which attributes territory, citizenship and sovereignty to the Arab ethnic identity. (His son and successor, Bashar Assad, revised the constitution in 2012 to include references to Syria’s cultural and social diversity, however, Article One still links citizenship to the Arab identity.)

Posters of Bashar al-Assad and his father in 2000.
Source: BBC.

Decades of state-driven racism have ingrained itself into the fabric of Syrian society. The state’s education system continues to teach Ba’athist and Arab nationalist ideology from an early age to young Syrians. Adults who are the product of this system are more susceptible to discriminatory attitudes and beliefs towards non-Arabs such as Kurds, who remain a target of the state and sometimes also the armed opposition.

Belief in the superiority of the Arab identity persists among both the regime and opposition, due in part to decades of state propaganda in Syrian education and media.

The northeast of the country provides a glimpse into a road map of a future Syria without Arab nationalism or other forms of institutionalized discrimination. Rejecting pan-Arab ideology, the Self-Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) otherwise known as Rojava, is adopting a multi-ethnic model despite the government’s anger. Centered on decentralization of power and the empowerment of local communities such as Syriacs, Kurds, Circassians and others in Syria, the AANES is fighting back against Ba’athism.

This model is not without its challenges. ISIS sleeper cells remain a security risk internally, and the existential threat of Turkish-backed forces invading is prevalent. Negotiations over governance, civil protection and education with Arab tribal representatives are also an ongoing issue in Arab-majority areas. This is not easy when Damascus intimidates the population in an attempt to reassert influence. The fanaticism of Damascus’s desire to reassert control only demonstrates the looming shadow that Arab nationalism casts in Syria.

Protestors in northeast Syria (Rojava) gather to protest isolation of Abdullah Ocalan in 2016.
Source: Al Araby, December, 2016.

As long as this fight against Arab nationalism persists, there may be a chance for a Syrian democratic republic to succeed the Syrian Arab Republic.

Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (27/02/2021)
Edited by Sean Hastings

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