Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A People's History of Syria--Part 20: 1974 to 1978 Period

After 1974 secular left anti-imperialist groups in Syria became increasingly critical of the policies of Hafez Assad’s Baath regime. As Alan George’s Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom recalled, in 1974 Syrian communists, for example, “strongly opposed a decision to allow foreign oil companies to enter the Syrian market and in 1976 they criticized President Assad’s military intervention in Lebanon” to prevent the victory in the Lebanese Civil War of an anti-imperialist alliance between Lebanon’s leftist Front of Progressive and Patriotic Parties (which included both Muslims and Christians) and leftist Palestinian liberation movement groups, an intervention that “was deeply unpopular in Syria.” In an essay, titled “The Crisis of 1986 and Syria’s Plan for Reform,” that appeared in the Contemporary Syria book that Eberhard Kienle edited, Nabil Sukkar also observed:

“…The Syrian Communist Party [SCP]…protested against the granting of a concession to an oil company from the USA in 1975…Disappointment with the [Baath] regime started to become apparent in the period 1976-78 as wages and agricultural procurement prices were affected by inflation; corruption, nepotism and the illegal enrichment of the regime elite became more obvious. Syria’s regional policies, particularly its intervention in Lebanon, became unpopular; and complaints over the unlimited power of the security force increased…”

According to the Palestinian Book Project’s 1977 book Our Roots Are Still Alive: The Story of the Palestinian People, “[Hafez] Assad did not want to see a strong and independent Palestinian movement or a radical Lebanon on his western border” and “in Lebanon, he wanted to see a `moderate’ government and a humbled Palestinian movement that he could control.” So in the spring of 1976, “Assad decided to send his army into Lebanon—once he had American permission;” and, according to the same book, the following events happened:

“…In March [1976] King Hussein of Jordan visited Washington D.C., and told [then-U.S. President Gerald] Ford and [then-Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger that Assad was ready to intervene on the side of the rightists in Lebanon…The United States agreed to restrain Israel from any counterattack. On May 31 [1976], tens of thousands of Syrian troops and hundreds of tanks crossed the border into Lebanon…

“…At Sidon, Aley and Sofar, united Lebanese and Palestinian troops stopped the Syrian tanks and drove back the infantry…With his troops stalled…Assad sanctioned increasingly brutal attacks on Palestinian camps by the [Lebanese] rightists. The Syrians themselves began shelling camps in June [1976].

“Finally Syria approved an all-out rightist assault on the refugee camp of Tal al Zaatar…in the rightist section of Beirut…The rightists laid siege to the camp on June 21, 1976. During the next 53 days, they poured thousands of artillery shells and rockets into Tal al Zaatar…

“On August 13 [1976]…the defenders of the camp let down their guard as the first Red Cross vehicles approached Tal al Zaatar with the permission of the rightists…As the inhabitants of the camp began to leave their shelters, they saw they had been betrayed: behind the Red Cross vehicles were the rightist troops! As soldiers overran the camp, they unleashed a bloody massacre, gunning down defenseless civilians, including medical personnel. The rightists deliberately killed every Palestinian male between the ages of 14 and 40…Over 2,000 people were killed…

“…Syria…expanded its occupation of Lebanon, under the cover of an `Arab peacekeeping force’…They oversaw the installation of a pro-Syrian Lebanese government led by Elias Sarkis. The government began censoring all pro-Palestinian and anti-government publications and closed down [Palestinian liberation movement] guerrilla offices…”

According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, in the early 1970s “approximately 4,000” Syrians of Jewish religious background still “remained in Syria, of whom 2,500 were in Damascus, 1,200 in Aleppo, and 300 in Qamishli.” But by the end of the 1980s the population of Syrians of Jewish religious background “had declined from about 4,000 in 1983 to about 1,400: 1,180 in Damascus, 150 in Aleppo, and 125 in Qamishli,” according to the same book.

The Encyclopedia Judaica also noted that under Hafez Assad’s Baath regime the “mail, telephone and telegrams” of Syrians of Jewish religious background “were monitored by the Jewish Division of the Secret Police” of the regime, “which kept them under constant surveillance, subjecting them to search and arrest without warrant;” yet “nevertheless, the Jewish community believed that if the Assad regime was deposed, their treatment by any successor would be even harsher.” But between 1990 and 1994, 3,565 Syrians of Jewish religious background were allowed to immigrate to the United States; and by 2005 “fewer than 250” Syrians of Jewish religious background still lived in Syria, according to the same book.

(end of part 20)

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