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.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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