A Close-Up of Syrian Culture: an Integral Perspective

I just came back from a trip to Syria where I had a closer view of the vMemetic (Value-systems) structure of Syrian society. Consulting on a project with the EU, in Bosra-Syria, I was privileged to have access to a cross-section of the Syrian society, and have a closer look at what is really emerging in a culture that remains perplexing to most Westerners…

Integral Perspective on Syria

As the Arab world becomes less and less relevant to the political decision making process on the international scene, Syria is constantly positioning itself as the Arab country that holds a “semblance of power” and a well crafted role in balancing influence in the region.

The major powers in the Middle East region are not Arabs at this point; Iran, Israel and Turkey are the countries that matter most to the Middle East Quartet. I am bewildered every time I read about the Quartet meeting to discuss the future of Arab related issues (Iraq, Palestine…) without Arab partners present as an integral part of the Quartet or the Quintet if need be…

In the midst of such Arab political irrelevance, what kind of power does Syria hold? That is questionable…Syria’s notorious influence in Lebanon and Iraq and its alliance with Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Sunni Baathist in Iraq, enables it to guarantee a seat at any negotiation table about the future of the region.

Of course Syria has its own share of internal and external political and economic problems: facing political alienations from its former Arab allies, the loss of a major source of income from highly lucrative deals done through Lebanese individuals and institutions, a growing influence to the opposition inside Syria and a well organized opposition in the West threatening to overthrow the current regime. All this is further exacerbated by the influx of refugees from Iraq. Their impact on the country’s social and economic fabric have stressed Syria’s resources with very little help coming from outside.

Integral Perspective.To look at Syria from a flatland/linear perspective, we can only repeat what the world media is voicing about this country, and most of it is true. However, the integral framework helps us use multi-coloured lenses to assess the deeper issues and successes of a country that co-led the Arab Nationalist movement, fought wars with Israel, and occupied Lebanon for more than 30 years. All that while improving its educational system, introducing technology and innovation, and opening its tourism doors to the rest of the world.

Strategic Alliances: it is said that Syria’s alliance with Iran is a marriage of convenience. I am not so sure about that. Iran subsidizes almost $1 Billion worth of oil to Syria. Iranian engineers helped Syrians start their first car manufacturing plant. Soon Syrians will be driving a Syrian made car, leading the Arab world in a new revolution, the kind of technological revolution needed in every Arab country. Iranian tourists flock to Syria to visit sacred Shiite sites as well as to enjoy its beaches and mountains. European Union NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) are financing various development projects in municipalities all over Syria, and contributing money and expertise to the success of cultural and educational projects. Bi-lateral relations between Syria and China expanded to having Syria as a tourist destination to Chinese. Kuwait and Dubai pledged to boost tourism and financial ties with Syria.

Internally, Bashar Al-Assad is hailed by young people as the modernizer of Syria. The Syrians see that their leader is taking half-steps –undeniably solid ones- towards a better future. He introduced information technology to all the ministries and schools in Syria, imposed mandatory education to eliminate illiteracy, and attracted foreign investments to the country. The Syrians in general are very patriotic, be it they admire Assad or despise him, they have a love and pride of their country that is to be admired.

I am not trying to draw a rosy picture of a dictatorial regime that oppresses political freedom, and controls the media. However, the Syrian cultural value-systems are threads of the cultural fabric in the region. Tribal and neighbourhood loyalties surpass national loyalties and duties. In many Arab cultures, when voting for a mayor or a member of parliament, family and tribal bonds take priority -in many cases- over the aptitude and eligibility of the candidate.

Spiral Dynamics integral framework advocates a stratified approach to ruling countries and the concept of democracy. Instead of a one size fits all style of governing, Dr. Don Beck writes:

Democracy or “rule by the people” can take many different forms and expressions. These are influenced by the natural habitat, the patterns of genetic and memetic migration, the unique set of life conditions, the impact of wild cards, the mesh of people and cultures, and the quality of leadership in all aspects of society itself.
These Systems and Structures emerge in response to the unique set of problems of existence in each society. Movement may occur in the direction of greater
complexity or less; there is no ideal or universal form; attempts to impose the model from one set of circumstances onto others are futile.”

In Syria’s case, applying a Western style democracy would have a disastrous effect. We see what happened in Iraq when the ‘coalition’ forces tried to bring such style of democracy. The next step for Syria can be stronger governmental institutions devoid of corruption, and the rule of law where every citizen is equal under the law. Tribal centred societies (Purple), tend to have “Power Gods” (Red) leaders whose leadership style is based on intimidation, force and coercion. To move the rule to the hands of institutions (Blue) will be an appropriate next step.

When an unchallenged super-power like the United States, represented by the current Bush-Cheney administration, decides what are the next steps in dealing with Syria, it behoves them to re-assess the Iraqi experience through a Stratified model for democracy and prevent another collapse of a major power in the region.

A closer look at the different models that could emerge in the Middle East region, will be discussed in greater detail in future articles.

If you would like to send in your comments or questions on Syria, we will be publishing a Q&A in an upcoming Blog.

You can read about the Integral work we did in Syria with the EU-project SHAMS in Bosra-Syria here http://www.humanemergencemiddleeast.org/meshworks-syria.php

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