Syria and Lebanon: The Historic Split

In this two-part piece on Syria and Lebanon, we look at the causes that led both these countries to adopt different systems of government and economic policies from a legal perspective. In The Historic Split, we delve into the events that are currently affecting the two countries before looking back at the historical challenges that forced them to chart separate courses, especially following the rise of Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the Arab world. In The Modern Era, our interest lies with how the Syrian and Lebanese states operate today and what distinguishes them from each other. For the purposes of analysis, not much weight is given to the effects of the Syrian conflict on the decision-making process in Damascus. Doing so would distort the objectives of this paper, which is to assess the functions of government from a legal point of view and not a political one.

Part One: The Historic Split

“They even pick up the garbage in war-torn Syria!” It was very rare not to hear such grievances in Lebanon throughout the summer of 2015. Beirut, a city that used to attract tourists from around the world drawn to its bustling night-life and leisure-filled activities, was playing host to a disastrous garbage crisis. Not long thereafter, civil society took its queue as it normally has in this country and launched the You Stink Movement. It did not direct its fury at the garbage collectors but rather at the ruling political class that has dominated Lebanese politics for generations.

What the garbage crisis did was illustrate to the world the frailty of the Lebanese state and draw contrasting views with the situation next door in Syria. Despite more than four years of agonizing conflict that continues to destroy a once spectacular country, the Syrian state is still capable of providing a certain degree of public services including garbage collection in areas under its control. However, the provision of utility services such as water, electricity and diesel remain tied to the conflict on the ground. While in no small part exacerbated by the influx of Syrian refugees, Lebanon continues to face a number of setbacks in the supply of basic utility services. All these headaches come on top of a presidential vacancy, a paralyzed government, an inability to explore offshore gas reserves and a food hygiene crisis last year that shocked the country.

Whatever similar problems Syria faces are derived more so from the consequences of war than anything else. Although its authority over the country’s territory has diminished to an extent throughout the conflict, Syria still has a functioning government that makes decisions on a regular basis even if its efficiency has dwindled. To cite one example, Syria signed a 25-year contract with the Russian energy company SoyuzNefteGaz in late 2013 to explore for gas off its Mediterranean coast whereas Lebanon has been unable to award any contracts so far. Nevertheless, both countries adopted different procurement methods in this case. All these contrasts in the decision-making processes between Syria and Lebanon did not start to take shape recently but rather have been around for decades.

Up until 1920, there was no distinction between Syria and Lebanon. Given their closeness in proximity, they were both part of the same geographic entity of Greater Syria. While they were ruled jointly by the Ottoman Empire until its defeat in the First World War in 1918, the French mandate authority that took control of Greater Syria two years later decided to separate Lebanon from Syria for political reasons. The French authorities established similar governing institutions in both countries that lasted well after Lebanon and Syria achieved independence in 1943 and 1946 respectively. However, there was a notable difference. Given its evident sectarian makeup, Lebanon opted for a confessional system of government where power was distributed mainly in favour of the Christian political elite at the time. When it came to governing both these countries, a political class comprised of the landed aristocracy rose to power in both Damascus and Beirut and this shared state of affairs continued to be the case until the arrival of one man who held neither Syrian nor Lebanese nationality.

If one was to pinpoint a key year when the paths of Syria and Lebanon began permanently diverging away from each other, it would have to be in 1958. That was the year the Syrian government of President Shukri Quwatli joined forces with the socialist-leaning Arab nationalist leader of Egypt Gamal Abdel-Nasser to create the United Arab Republic (UAR). The irony at the time was the notion that an aristocrat like Quwatli would hand over power to the socialist Nasser who would see to it that land reform programs would break the power of the Syrian aristocracy. Regardless, internal pressure and foreign policy concerns dictated this decision by Quwatli. While in Syria the political class did not have the clout to reject Nasser’s advances, the Lebanese government of President Camille Chamoun sought foreign support to ward off political interference from the newly-established UAR. President Chamoun’s objective was to protect the current power structure in Beirut, which was coming under threat from Nasser’s popularity in the Lebanese street.

With the exception of Husni Zaim and Adib Shishakli’s governments, Syria was governed under a parliamentary system until 1958. In Lebanon, this form of government also prevailed. The people would vote in deputies to the Parliament through direct elections. In turn, the deputies would be responsible for choosing the President. Ministries in the government were handed out to individuals depending on their influence and standing in the Parliament. In Lebanon however, the National Pact, an unwritten political agreement between the leading politicians Bechara Khoury and Riad Solh at the time of independence, determined that the President of the Republic would have to be a Maronite Christian while the Prime Minister had to be chosen from the Sunni Muslim faith. As for the Speaker of the Parliament, he had to be a Shia Muslim. The confessional system continues to be applied in Lebanon today. As for Syria, the only similar feature that stands out is that past constitutions and the current one adopted in 2012 have reserved the presidency to a member of the Muslim faith.

The 1958 birth of the UAR was ushering in socialist legislation in Syria while in Lebanon politicians were trying to keep the populist appeal of Nasser at bay. Before his rise, Syria and Lebanon were charting similar courses as free market economies moving past the French mandate. They had much in common from both a legal and economic perspective before 1958. After all, Syrian legislators had referred to the Lebanese legal system as a model to implement legal reforms in Syria.

Interestingly enough, this was the case under General Husni Zaim, the Army Chief-of-Staff who overthrew Shukri Quwatli during his first stint at the presidency in 1949. Fearing his days in power were numbered, Zaim hastily referred to the Lebanese legal system as a standard to develop Syrian legislation. As part of his short 138-day tenure, Zaim instituted legal reforms along with Assaad Kourani, his Minister of Justice, which would continue to take effect for decades after his rule. The pieces of legislation that were enacted during this time included the Civil, Commercial and Criminal Codes. In addition, Zaim also looked towards Egypt for legal precedents. By this time, Nasser and the Free Officers Movement were three years away from toppling the monarchy of King Farouk.

A whole range of laws were amended after Nasser came to power in Damascus. The priority at the time was land reform and agrarian relations. The landed aristocracy who posed a threat to Nasser had their lands expropriated in accordance with the Land Reform Law. Seeking support from the peasantry, Nasser redistributed the land to farmers. Where agricultural lease and sharecropping agreements were concerned, tenant farmers were given more rights following the passage of the Agricultural Relations Law. The Employment Law was enacted with a pro-employee touch to it and employee rights were further guaranteed when Nasser passed the Social Security Law. At this point, Syria and Lebanon were drifting farther apart and moving on different paths as the latter tried to retain its free market economic system and stave off internal conflict, which was threatening to rip the country apart.