Syria: Cutting out the Middle Man

What hope for democracy after Assad?

As the Assad regime nears its end, Syrians are facing an uncertain political landscape. Transcending Sectarianism and establishing democratic institutions are probably their biggest challenge. Syrians are expected to graft democracy on to a bodypolitik used to authoritarian rule. Hardly fair, considering it took Britain a civil war and centuries of trial and error.  

It is especially difficult, when some like the late Prof. Elie Kedourie, believe that the Middle East do not have a genuinely Democratic tradition as understood by the West. Arguably, that is not the problem; with education, social media and advertising campaigns it can be learnt quickly. The problem that Syria faces and indeed the region, is the culture of Wasta.

Often Wasta is loosely translated as "cronyism" but it is more than that. One thing Wasta is not; is the corruption you might see in Damascus’ passport office, where a mustachioed officer blatantly accepts bribes for his services.  Rather, it is a way of behaving. For instance, if a man wants to marry, the last thing he should do is to approach the family directly and ask for the girl’s hand. Respect requires that he employs a Wasta or a Wasit, usually a family friend of standing, to go and have an informal ahwe, coffee, to sound the family out.  It protects both sides; it shows the suitor to be earnest, honourable and chivalric whilst deflecting any doubt about the girl’s virtue.

In the Middle East, Sharaf or honour still plays a role. Whilst these lines are certainly blurred in the city, in the provinces where kinship ties are strong this mode of behavior is still prevalent.  In some parts particularly where tribal affiliations play a role it is used to avert blood feuds and conflict which otherwise can last years as Rafik Schami in The Dark Side of Love, shows. Wasta then, has its uses. However, it is by no means unique to Arab culture, read Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, to see its effect in southern Italy. Dove Izraeli points out in Business Ethics in the Middle East, that it is known as Protektzia in Israel. As Cunningham and Sarayah, in Wasta: the Hidden Force in Middle Eastern Society, point out it occurs in cultures with strong kinship ties.  

When Wasta enters the political domain however, it is problematic. Although there are few studies on how Wasta works in Syria. Anyone who has worked in Syria knows that Wasta is the best method of cutting red tape. However, there is enough on Jordan and Lebanon to give us an idea of its effect on political culture. An idea of its prevalence can be had from a study commissioned by the Jordanian Royal family in 2006. 86 percent of civil servants stated that Wasta was useful. 56 percent admitted to using them and 77 percent said it was useful for recruitment.  

In the Syrian context the culture of Wasta has been employed masterfully. The regime has favoured its own and not just Alawites.  The Tlass, a Sunni family from Rastan with strong links to the Assad family, grew rich owning Syria’s largest publishing house, agri-business and swathes of real estate. The Assad regime deliberately promotes families loyal to them to keep power. It has created an inefficient bureaucracy designed to keep large number of Syrians in employment and beholden to the state as well as promoting party loyalists. In such a system, one has no choice but to resort to kinship ties and informal channels to achieve one’s ends. Moreover, the absence of a free press that cannot scrutinize appointments and the fact that the economy is closed means that Wasta in Syria flourishes. The consequences of Wasta then, reinforce patron-client relationships inimical to the democratic process.

In Lebanon which is ostensibly a democracy, Wasta has evolved into such sophisticated heights that it has become part of the political landscape. The Zu’ama system as it is known circumvents democracy. Leading patron families treat their local powerbase like little Medici landlords, they mobilize the support of their communities to further their political and thereby, their communal interests. Walid Jumblatt, inheritor of his father’s "socialist" PSP party, serves the interests of the Druze community. Saad Hariri, from a prominent Sunni family inherited his role following his father’s assassination. Fouad Siniora, the former Prime Minister owes his position partly to being chairman of Hariri’s holding company Group Mediterrané.   

Wasta relationships not only distort political process but can subvert the law. The money laundering scandal of the Madina bank in 2003 is a good example; everyone from Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athists, Islamic banks to leading Lebanese families escaped the judiciary partly due to family networks consigning the whole affair to oblivion. It also results in unfair business advantage. In Syria, Rami Makhlouf a cousin of Assad, according to Reuters, dominate the Syrian economy with vast interests in oil, gas, real estate and telecoms. He exercises immense power and influence and anyone wanting to do businesses goes through Mr. Makhlouf. It begs the question in a country where such cronyism has become the modus operandi how could Democracy flourish even if it was established?

Any post-Assad government can, if the political will is there, change attitudes. Education, public broadcasting campaigns must continue. The provinces must be given a real stake in the country. There has to be a genuinely free press where transparency is demanded. At government level, the bureaucracy must be more streamlined. Employees must be qualified with hefty penalties for corruption. This combined with economic liberalization where companies inculcate corporate values, transparency and professionalism rather than the old boy network will certainly go a long way.

Whilst solutions are there, policy makers must also realize that the democratic project takes time. Democratic institutions don’t just end with parliament but requires investment, nurturing and a holistic approach. There also have to be an acceptance that Syrians are not going to break their cherished kinship ties, Wasta at some level may be around for a long time. And whatever democracy that does emerge may not be the sort that the West expects. The end result may not be a Western style democracy but one with its own peculiarities and traditions. Overall though, not combating Wasta in the political sphere could result in Syria becoming another Lebanon or worse; where another leading family comes to power and governs for decades promoting their supporters followed by another cycle of violence and instability.

Young Syrians demonstrate in Aleppo on 24 August. (Getty Images.)

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at