Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Joshua Landis & Montesquieu on despotism, democracy, & revolution in Syria

Below is a handout I'm about to give to the students in my social & political theory seminar, Making Sense of Modernity, who have been reading Montesquieu. I first wrote this back in 2005, and some of you may have seen the original version, but I've updated it slightly to take account of current developments in Syria. (If the Assad regime were to collapse in the near future—which is unlikely in the extreme, but nowadays anything seems possible—then a few more small revisions might be necessary.)

I thought in 2005 that this handout might be of more general interest, and it may be of more general interest now.

Yours for political sociology,
Jeff Weintraub

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To: Members of PPE 475-302 (Making Sense of Modernity)
From: Jeff Weintraub
Re: Optional Extra - Montesquieu in Damascus

In case you're interested, the 2005 New York Times op-ed piece about Syrian politics reproduced below (on pp. 3-4) happens to have a bearing on Montesquieu's comparative analysis of regimes and on some of the practical implications of his approach. So you might find it useful to consider this in connection with reading and thinking about Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws. (If not, fine. This is optional.)

The author, Joshua Landis, is an intelligent and well informed analyst of Syrian society & politics. I don't always agree with his arguments—which, until recently, have generally been too sympathetic to the Assad regime for my taste—but what he has to say is always worth taking seriously.

The main practical recommendations in this particular piece focused on US-Syrian relations. Let's leave all that to one side, and for the moment I will also suspend the question of whether Landis's arguments about Syrian society and politics are correct. (Whether or not one fully agrees with them in the end, one has to recognize that they're at least quite plausible ... but for our immediate purposes, that's not the main point.)

Instead, I want to draw attention to the theoretical logic underlying Landis's analysis of Syrian politics—which should be familiar to you from your reading of Montesquieu. (In this respect, the main points are not at all peculiar to Landis. They're quite common in discussions of Syria, including discussions by Syrians themselves.)

=> Some background: Since the mid-1960s, Syria has been ruled by a one-party dictatorial regime of the Ba'ath Party. (Until 2003, the other Ba'athist regime was the one in Iraq.) From 1970-2000, it was controlled by Hafez al-Assad. When he died in 2000, he was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad. (Officially, the younger Assad was unanimously selected as President by the Syrian parliament, and this was confirmed by a referendum.)

I think Landis would readily agree that the fundamental nature of the Syrian regime is, in Montesquieu's terms, despotic. Informed observers would also agree that the regime has always relied, to a considerable extent, on the principle of fear that Montesquieu sees as central to the logic of despotic rule.

Landis refers in passing to "a bloody battle against Sunni extremists in the 1980s." For those of you not familiar with Syrian political history, let me flesh that out a bit.

Most Syrians, including the social and political elites from the pre-Ba'athist period, are Sunni Muslims. The political and military leadership and higher officials in the Ba'ath regime, on the other hand, come overwhelmingly from a small quasi-Shiite Muslim minority sect, the Alawites. (Incidentally, the tendency for despotic regimes in the Middle East to rely disproportionately on minority ethnic and/or religious groups is one that goes back very far historically.) The regime’s policies have also tended to be relatively secularist.

In the early 1980s the Ba'ath regime faced a serious challenge spearheaded by the (Sunni) Islamic fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood. This included assassinations and terrorism from one side, torture and state terror from the other, and so on. In 1982, there was a major uprising in the city of Hama. Assad crushed this rebellion with great brutality, killing more than 10,000 civilians (possibly 20,000 or even more), reducing much of the city to rubble, and paving over significant parts of it. All this was openly publicized within Syria—even shown on the state-controlled TV networks—in order to set a clear example that would act as a deterrent. The message got through, and from 1982 through 2011 there was no significant effort to overthrow the regime. (Meanwhile, just to be sure, the regime has always made routine and extensive use of police-state techniques, political repression, torture, etc.)

According to Montesquieu, when the grip of fear becomes weaker, despotic regimes become vulnerable. For the past year Syria has been in upheaval, with massive ongoing protests in almost all major Syrian cities, over 5,000 civilians killed (according to rough estimates), thousands more fleeing as refugees, and increasing international alarm. So far, though, the Alawite minority has continued to support the regime, and that also seems to be true of the smaller Christian minorities. Whether or not the Assad regime will ultimately succeed in crushing this revolt remains an open question. And if it is overthrown, it is not clear what kind of political regime would replace it.

=> Landis argued in 2005 that despite some unpleasant features of the Syrian regime, undermining it or pressuring it very hard to change would be a bad idea. The Ba'ath dictatorship might not be ideal, he conceded. But if it breaks down, the result will not be a more "democratic" regime, but instead chaos and civil war. And, in the end, if this regime is overthrown it will almost certainly be replaced by another despotic regime that will be even worse in many ways. (As Landis correctly notes, many Syrians shared these feelings, and I suspect many continue to share them.)

Why? Fundamentally, Landis argues in this piece that the character of Syrian society and culture, including specifically political culture, renders these outcomes inevitable and rules out more attractive alternatives. Here's the heart of his analysis.
Mr. Assad's regime is certainly no paragon of democracy, but even its most hard-bitten enemies here do not want to see it collapse. Why? Because authoritarian culture extends into the deepest corners of Syrian life, into families, classrooms and mosques. Damascus's small liberal opposition groups readily confess that they are not prepared to govern. Though they welcome American pressure, like most Syrians, they fear the deep religious animosities and ethnic hatreds that could so easily tear the country apart if the government falls. [....]

The religious tolerance enforced by the government has made Syria one of the safest countries in the region. Washington is asking Mr. Assad to jeopardize this domestic peace. Worse, if Mr. Assad's government collapsed, chances are the ethnic turmoil that would result would bring to power militant Sunnis who would actively aid the jihadists in Iraq.
What is Landis arguing here? In Montesquieu's terms, his argument is that the structure and, above all, the mores of Syrian society make a stable despotic regime, like that of the Ba'ath Party, the best alternative that is realistically available. In particular, according to Landis, what are missing from Syrian society are precisely the kinds of mores that would be required to make a regime of democratic republicanism work—that is, the mores of genuine citizenship. The dominant mores diffused through Syrian society, Landis argues, are not republican but "authoritarian." Furthermore, Syrian society as a whole does not have the fundamental sense of solidarity (across lines of group division and conflict) that is required for republican self-government to be workable. And so on. In short, what is missing is republican virtue.

=> Of course, if one draws on Montesquieu's theoretical framework to analyze political options and prospects in Syria, this is not the only possible conclusion one might draw. Also, there are some ways in which the theoretical perspective underlying Landis's analysis may not be precisely the same as Montesquieu's. It's worth noting, for example, that Landis believes that at least some despotic regimes (like Syria's) are potentially willing and able to reform themselves. What would Montesquieu think about that?

We should also remember that, according to Montesquieu, the social consequences of despotic regimes include promoting, reproducing, and reinforcing precisely the kinds of mores and social relations that render despotism inescapable and even, as Landis suggests in this case, possibly indispensable.

=> But as I said at the beginning, the most important point for the moment is not whether Landis's analysis and conclusions are correct (or half-correct, or plain wrong). Considering his argument may help you grasp the logic and implications of Montesquieu's theory. And if it helps you understand the current political upheaval in Syria and its significance, which it might, that's a bonus.

Cheers,
Jeff Weintraub

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New York Times
September 17, 2005
Don't Push Syria Away
by Joshua Landis

Damascus, Syria
BASHAR AL-ASSAD would have been the first Syrian president in 40 years to visit the United States had he attended the United Nations summit meeting in New York this week as planned. And it could have been an opportunity for two countries that have notably tense relations to talk. Instead, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed his visa, excluded him from a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss Lebanon and Syria, and had a United Nations investigator arrive in Damascus at the time of his departure. Boxed in, Mr. Assad canceled his plans.

Ms. Rice's actions were in keeping with what Bush administration officials say their goal is toward Syria, to "continue trying to isolate it." Many in Washington argue that Syria is the "low-hanging fruit" in the Middle East, and that the United States should send it down the path to "creative instability," resulting in more democracy in the region and greater stability in Iraq. But this is a dangerous fantasy that will end up hurting American goals.

Mr. Assad's regime is certainly no paragon of democracy, but even its most hard-bitten enemies here do not want to see it collapse. Why? Because authoritarian culture extends into the deepest corners of Syrian life, into families, classrooms and mosques. Damascus's small liberal opposition groups readily confess that they are not prepared to govern. Though they welcome American pressure, like most Syrians, they fear the deep religious animosities and ethnic hatreds that could so easily tear the country apart if the government falls.

Nonetheless, Washington seems to be pursuing a policy of regime change on the cheap in Syria. The United States has halved Syria's economic growth by stopping Iraqi oil exports through Syria's pipeline, imposing strict economic sanctions and blocking European trade agreements. Regular reports that the United States is considering bombing Syria, and freezing transactions by the central bank have driven investors away. Next week, United Nations investigators will begin interviewing top officials in Damascus about the bombing death of the anti-Syrian politician Rafik Hariri in Lebanon, a matter that many expect the United States will bring before the Security Council. Politicians and businessmen alike here are convinced that Washington wants to bring down the regime, not merely change its behavior.

Nonetheless, the two countries have much to talk about: both are trying to solve their Iraq problems. They share a common interest in subduing jihadism and helping Iraq build stability. But instead of helping Syria help the United States, Washington prefers to make demands. The Bush administration believes it will be an easy matter for Mr. Assad to crack down on the Syrian Sunnis, who are giving comfort and assistance to mostly Arab fighters traveling though Syria.
On the contrary, it would be extremely costly for Mr. Assad. Sunni Arabs make up 65 percent of the population and keeping them content is crucial for any Syrian leader.

Syria has already taken the easy steps. It has built a large sand wall and placed thousands of extra troops along its 350-mile border with Iraq. Foreign diplomats here dismiss the American claims that the Syrian government is helping jihadists infiltrate Iraq. All the same, Syria has not undertaken the more painful internal measures required to stop jihadists before they get to the border, nor has it openly backed America's occupation of Iraq.

Nor is Mr. Assad - who inherited his job from his father, Hafez, in 2000 - willing to make a wholesale change in his authoritarian policies. But he has worked hard to repair sectarian relations in Syria. He has freed most political prisoners. He has tolerated a much greater level of criticism than his father did. The religious tolerance enforced by the government has made Syria one of the safest countries in the region. Washington is asking Mr. Assad to jeopardize this domestic peace.

Worse, if Mr. Assad's government collapsed, chances are the ethnic turmoil that would result would bring to power militant Sunnis who would actively aid the jihadists in Iraq. Mr. Assad is a member of the Alawite minority, a Shiite offshoot that fought a bloody battle against Sunni extremists in the 1980's. For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the Sunni majority. It would be suicide for him to provoke Sunnis and extremists while Washington seeks his downfall.

Those in Washington who insist on fighting Mr. Assad because he is not democratic are hurting Iraq's chances for a peaceful future. The United States needs Syrian cooperation in Iraq. This will require real dialogue and support, not snubs and threats. Washington must choose between destabilizing Syria and stabilizing Iraq.

Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma, is a Fulbright scholar in Damascus who writes the blog Syria Comment.

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