Since Ba’athists seized power in Damascus in 1963, Syrians have been ordered to forgo elementary liberties and accept material hardship so that, one day, their army would achieve victory over the “Zionist enemy”.
What has happened is different. Syria has suffered major defeats, and loss of territory to Israel. Rather than fighting Israel, it has tried to annex Lebanon for the benefit of the ruling clan.
The cost of the promised but ever elusive victory has been high.
Since the 1960s, on average, around 25 per cent of Syria’s annual national budget has been devoted to the military. That amounts to 12 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), proportionally three times higher than what the United States spends on defence. Compared to average defence expenditure in European Union countries, the Syrian military budget is six times higher. In real terms, Syria’s military expenditure is four times that of health or education.
Syrians might have wondered what all that expenditure was for.
One answer came in 1982 when the army was sent to Hama for days of carnage that claimed numerous lives. (Estimates vary from 10,000 to 40,000.)
The Syrian system is based on the model of military-security regimes in Europe in the last century. Italy under Mussolini, Germany under Hitler and, somewhat later, Spain under Franco are some examples. In the 1930s, Hungary and Roumania also lived under that type of regime.
In the 1940s, the model spread to Latin America, with Argentina under Juan Peron as the best known example.
The 1950s saw the adoption of the military-security model, with slight modifications, by many countries in the “developing world”. As the Cold War intensified, US strategists labelled the model “The Third Force”, something between Capitalism and Communism, and marketed it in Asia and Africa as part of plans to curtail Soviet and Chinese influence. President John F Kennedy organised a military coup in South Vietnam as the first condition for US intervention.
The military-security model was imposed on Egypt by “Free Officers” in 1952, triggering an Arab domino effect. Over the years, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Tunisia followed the example. The United States saw Gamal Abdul Nasser as a leader capable of crushing the left and containing religious groups.
In every case, however, the military-security model proved a failure.
Nasser’s regime squandered the nation’s meagre resources on ultimately useless weaponry and led the country into disastrous wars with Israel.
In Sudan, successive military-security regimes provoked civil wars that, in the case of Darfour, continue to this day. Today, the Sudan is being split in two.
Iraq’s experience was no different. Four decades of civil and external wars and brutal repression ended with US-led occupation and the chaos that followed.
In Yemen, the model produced a civil war accompanied by oppression, and followed by the current chaos.
Libya is effectively cut in two while the “Supreme Guide” uses what is left of his expensive army for killing his people.
Years of military-security rule under Siad Barre ended with Somalia as a failed state.
Tunisia’s experience showed that even relative economic success could not insure military-security regimes forever.
A look at the so-called “developing countries” today shows that the era of military-security regimes is all but over. Apart from the four remaining Communist countries- China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba- of the 198 members of the United Nations only six still live under classical military-security regimes. Four are Arab nations: Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The other two are Eritrea, theoretically an Arab country, and Burma.
The question is not whether military-security regimes will end but how they end.
In a number of cases, that type of regime allowed itself to gradually morph into a pluralist system with the military-security apparatus submitting to civilian authority. This is what happened in South Korea, Taiwan, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, among others. Among Muslim nations, the most important examples are Bangladesh and Indonesia.
It seems that Tunisia is opting for that strategy with the military-security elite allowing the system to morph into a Western-style pluralist one.
In other cases, the military-security apparatus has retained a major role without insisting on exclusive control. Cambodia, Pakistan and Turkey are some examples.
Egypt’s military-security elite is rooting for that option while Egyptian society at large appears to be more interested in a radical break with the system.
In only a few cases, the military-security regime has chosen the Samson option by seeking the destruction of the country in the forlorn hope of avoiding its own demise. Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq remains the most tragic example while Idi Amin’s is the most comical. Other examples are the Khmer-Rouge in Cambodia and General Galtieri in Argentina.
Gaddafi’s truncated regime has chosen the suicidal Samson option, evidenced by his chilling remark that “Without me there would be no Libya”.
In Yemen, too, Ali Abdallah Saleh initially toyed with the idea. However, more intelligent than and, perhaps, less cynical than Gaddafi, he still has a chance for an orderly, if not dignified, exit.
In Sudan, part of the regime is trying to find a way out, possibly by ditching President Omar al-Bashir who has an international arrest warrant dangling above his head.
The Samson option has always been attractive to despots. “After me, the deluge,” was the motto of more than one of them.
What about Syria, the main subject of this piece?
Well, Golan has not been liberated, but Deraa is occupied, which is not something the regime could be proud of.
It seems that despite the current carnage, the ruling clan is not quite united in support of an ultimately suicidal policy. Part of the regime, perhaps backed by segments of the army, may be interested in the experience of countries that managed orderly transition to a system based on the rule of law.
Not all Syrians are enthusiastic about imitating Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.