A dog in Lebanon, an old joke goes, was so hungry, mangy and tired of civil war that he escaped to Syria. To the surprise of the other dogs, he returned a few months later. Seeing him better groomed and fatter than before, they asked whether the Syrians had been good to him. “Very good.” “Did they feed and wash you?” “Yes.” “Then why did you come back?” “I want to bark.”
It is impossible not to sympathise with Syrians’ desire to be treated like adults. The Syrian regime is not alone, of course, among Middle East dictatorships in regarding their people as subjects rather than citizens. Under the portrait of the great dictator, little dictators grant some supplicants permits, demand bribes from others and abuse the rest. Syrians can identify with what Italians under Mussolini used to say: “The problem is not the big dictator. It is all the little dictators.” Little dictators, though, thrive under the big dictator.
But all dictators are at risk from changed international circumstances, a spark (like a self-immolation in Tunisia) or the sudden realisation that the regime is vulnerable. People in Syria have reasons to demand change, as they have in the past.
I hope, for their sake, that things turn out better this time.
During the First World War, Arab nationalists in Damascus wanted to rid themselves of Ottoman rule. Ottoman officials could be corrupt and arbitrary, but they kept the peace, allowed the Syrians representation in the Istanbul parliament and put no restrictions on travel within the empire. The nationalists collaborated with Britain and France. They ended up with British and French colonialism, contrived borders, the expulsion of three quarters of Palestine’s population, insurrections and wars.
At independence, Syria had a parliamentary system, even if landlords, urban merchants, beys and pashas dominated it. Into the mix came the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), which announced plans in 1945 to construct the Tapline oil conduit from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean.
Three countries on the route – Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon – granted immediate permission. Syria’s parliament, seeking better terms, delayed. The project stalled further when the Arab governments launched a war for which their colonially-created armies (with the exception of Transjordan’s) were unprepared. When they lost, demonstrations condemned the corruption that had deprived soldiers of adequate resources. In Damascus, the protesters forced the government to resign.
The United States embassy in Damascus seized the opportunity to win Syrian approval for Tapline. The Central Intelligence Agency’s man, Stephen Meade, approached the army chief of staff, Colonel Husni Zaim, to arrange a coup. The Kurd and former Ottoman soldier took embassy money to foment an insurrection that justified his seizure of power in 1949. The embassy reported to Washington that “over 400 Commies [in] all parts of Syria have been arrested.” Syria signed an agreement with Aramco in May and an armistice with Israel in July.
Col Zaim antagonised sectors of society by raising taxes and attempting to give women the vote. Although he did not kill anyone, another colonel overthrew and executed him a month later. That colonel was himself eliminated by a third colonel. Thus began Syria’s instability, with military coups as regular as changes of season.
In the meantime, Col Zaim’s suppression of the Communist Party produced, in the last free vote held in Syria, the election of the Arab world’s first Communist member of parliament.
The United States made two more major attempts in the 1950s to decide Syria’s future – with Operation Straggle and Operation Wappen. Both failed. The era of chronic coups ended with the last one, Hafez Al Assad’s, in November 1970. Syria has enjoyed continuity, if not freedom, since that time.
The United States variously tolerated, encouraged and vilified the senior Al Assad. Now, it is seeking to eliminate his son – in the name of the Syrian people. The extent to which Syrians are acting freely or being used by the United States will become clearer when another generation of CIA operatives publishes memoirs or someone passes documents on to WikiLeaks.
The Bush administration in 2006 began funding Syrian oppositionists and subsidised Barada TV with $6 million (Dh22 million) to cover the cost of broadcasting to Syria. Last January, Vanity Fair published an interview with Blackwater founder Eric Prince in which he said: “In Syria, we did the signals intelligence to geo-locate the bad guys in a very denied area.” In March, Reuters reported that the Syrians had intercepted a truckload of weapons sent over the border from Iraq. Who sent them? The Iraqi government, now almost as closely allied to Iran as Syria is, was not the likely culprit. The other armed force in Iraq with the means to send weapons across the border was the United States.
Miles Copeland, one of the CIA agents who organised the earlier coups in Syria, later regretted his actions. After the publication of his book, the Game of Nations, in 1969, he told Keith Kyle of the BBC: “My feeling is that on balance this is a bad thing to do, and it’s better to let a country stew in its own juices. If it has a corrupt leader, let them have it. It’s their tough luck. If the people in the country don’t have what it takes to get rid of a corrupt leader, to hell with them. Let them keep him.”
Kyle asked whether the overthrow policy changed because it failed to pay off. Mr Copeland answered, “Yes. I would say so.” The policy, though, is back.