In the early fifties, before he was elected prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad visited Syria. He returned inspired by the progress and development he had seen in Syria compared to the British-occupied Malaysia. Later, as prime minister of Malaysia, Mohamad played a key role in his country’s renaissance almost sixty years later, which achieved a rate progress much faster t that in Syria.
The secret behind the progress in Malaysia and the decline in Syria lies in the two countries’ different circumstances. Malaysia was ruled by a democratic elite that possessed a political will geared toward progress. It employed all the existing and available resources, including its people, to that end. Syria, however, was ruled by an authoritarian elite that lacked the will to achieve progress. Its authoritarianism led to the waste of its potential, including its inherent resources (i.e., its people). This waste occurred in a set of circumstances which not only prevented Syria from progressing, but also cost it some of the progress that it had enjoyed in the fifties.
The present situation in Syria is a living expression of the country’s condition, one of regression. Syria is facing the challenges of a political, economic and social crisis, which led to the explosion of demonstrations and protests in Deraa in mid-March. The crisis escalated party due to the mentality of the authoritarian regime, which saw the mass popular movements as a mere security problem to be dealt with through repression and terror, and responded by killing, wounding and arresting the demonstrators and other citizens. The regime’s approach led the demonstrations and protests to spread to most Syrian cities and villages. As a result, the demonstrators’s specific demands (for limited reforms) turned to calls for toppling the regime. This is one of the reasons why the Syrian regime expanded the parameters of its security measures, which became a real war against the so-called militants and armed gangs — meaning the demonstrators and the social environments that nurtured them in the cities and villages of Syria, in Homs and Damascus.
What is presently happening in Syria is serious enough, with the killing, wounding and arrests of the military campaigns; the destruction of Syrian property, livelihood and the country’s potential; and the threat to the soul and unity of the national community, both human and geographic. But it is equally important to point out that these threats indicate the possibility that the situation in Syria could further deteriorate into something along the lines of Afghanistan and Somalia.
The situations in Afghanistan and Somalia can be explained primarily in relation to their authoritarian regimes. These regimes monopolized power and wealth, using only their weapons to deal with the crises and problems they faced. Simultaneously, the international community proved unable — or unwilling — to intervene and address the status quo. This led to the formation of vertical and horizontal divides within the state and citizenry. Tyranny and a monopoly of power made both the state and society weak. In Syria, the situation is being further exacerbated by regional — and perhaps international — interference. The crisis is being dragged out due to the interaction of these outside players’ partial and limited interests in the country. In addition, the dire economic situation is leading to poverty, hunger and the marginalization of certain social groups. All of these factors are prompting the emergence of armed gangs involved in the trafficking of weapons and drugs. As a consequence, the country will be divided into distinct blocs, each with a different name, and perhaps even into emirates, fiefdoms and protectorates. Each of these individual entities would have separate identities and authorities, and be run according to the interests and whims of those in charge of these entities.
Should all or part of these developments occur, new political, economic, social and cultural realities will emerge. Two political and economic factors would immediately become apparent. First, for these entities to divide power among themselves — through a potentially large number of clashes, no doubt — would make it difficult for them to unite once again. This is especially true when one considers the new foreign interests and interventions that seem to have come into play. Second, Syria’s economic structure is undergoing a transformation, namely a transition from the productive sector to the service sector. This transition may be accompanied by further changes, such as the rise of marginal economies and the emergence of new sectors, including drug cultivation. The way people contribute to these various sectors will change as well.
Social developments in Syria seem to have created a new set of realities, whereby the status of different social classes, as well as their role in society, have changed. Traditional leaders may have to cede power to new groups, primarily the leaders of armed militias and their cadres. It is also possible that in some cases, the traditional elite and the new militant leaders may integrate to a certain extent.
In all cases, cultural constructs will be endangered by these developments. Some cultural interests will witness an unprecedented decline, and certain cultural figures will be relegated to outside of the social sphere. What’s more, some traditional cultural productions will become scarce, superficial and meaningless. Even when cultural events and activities are maintained, they will deepen divisions and serve non-national structures — particularly those sectarian, regional or tribal in nature.
If excessive military force continues to trump political solutions as the government’s recourse in dealing with the crisis in Syria, Syria will face a fate similar to that of Afghanistan and Somalia. There is real threat of this taking place, and a people that have been stable for nearly ninety years may be subjected to an uncertain future.