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The Predicament of Independent Opposition (Part 2)

[Image from Jadaliyya] [Image from Jadaliyya]

In part I, here, the three waves of political liberalization in Syria were listed, but only the first was discussed. The second wave, L 1.2, is discussed below. The purpose of these narratives is ultimately to discuss the predicament of independent opposition in Syria, i.e., the opposition (to the Syrian regime) that is anti-US foreign policy, anti-Islamists who have their bases and some allegiances abroad, and the one that opposes the creeping dominance of business interests in the country. Many of these individuals and groups are called out by the Syrian state as traitors of sorts, at the same time that their critical stances, actions, and writing vis-a-vis external anti-Syria forces (e.g., US, Israel, conservative Arab states), are well-documented and often surpass those of the state itself. Yet, they are traitors. This predicament is shared throughout the Arab world by many independent politicians, activists, writers, etc., and has weakened both state and society in the region and allowed external intervention to play fast and loose with internal affairs--at all levels. Such independent players keep getting crushed in the name of national security and labels that hark back to the 1960s, as though the United States and Israel's foreign policies (the main external culprits in the eyes of many regimes and the overwhelming majority of peoples in the region) are devoid of blunt, brutal, and dehumanizing content so as to rely on the efforts of feeble Arab individuals whose only weapon is their pen and tongue. Yet, the ruthless crushing of such independent individuals continues as if America and Israel planted them to change the regime here and there. In reality, when the US has made use recently of people like the Iraqi Al-Chalabi (at first, before he woke up or lost favor with the Americans) or, with the unsavory Syrian "opposition" member, Al-Ghadry, who's a darling of neo-conservative think-tanks in Washington, they put them on horses and advertised them as their man, or invaded countries brutally as is the case with Iraq, sending tens of millions of human beings back to the 18th century with overwhelming and barbaric force. "The external enemies" are not waiting for the aging, limping, feeble, and isolated `Arif Dalila (an anti-regime outspoken economics professor) or a thousand like him to do their bidding. Yet, these men, and women, get locked up in the name of saving the nation from countries and forces that are far more genuinely opposed by those being locked up. And if the issue is one of strategy (where people are locked up because they don't understand the question of priorities) how does locking them up address the priority of challenging external forces? (assuming that the ONLY problem in these countries is these external forces--which it is not). This predicament of independent opposition--so long as it remains in effect--symbolizes a great many patterns of exploitation, disempowerment, and strategic narrowness in the region. It can be discussed against the background of "efforts" to "liberalize."

Liberalization 1.2

What is called the “Damascus Spring” in Syria (around 2000/2001), and its context, is worthy of much discussion and analysis. After the death of Asad senior in June 2010, it was clear to everyone that his son Bashar would be the successor, but the question was “at what cost” to the internal cohesion of the regime and “how long will it take to consolidate the new regime/leadership?” Many analysts, especially those with stale orientalist views, were quick to announce that the Syrian regime might likely fall apart because of patrimonialism and a host of terms and concepts re-invented in the 1960s to distinguish between the legal-rational rule that pervades western democracies, and traditional forms of legitimacy that plague (most of) the rest, Arab/Muslim societies toping the list. But Ba`thist institutions and the cohesion of the regime proved far more durable, and it wasn’t solely because of the threat of force. Many of us wrote of such durability and predicted a smooth, if not triumphant, transition, but that analysis was not sufficiently sensational for at least mainstream circles in the United States. Interestingly, analysis inside Israel was on average more on point regarding the quality of succession/transition than that inside the United States.

In any case, it took the new leadership several years to consolidate its rule completely, perhaps until the 10thRegional Ba`thist Conference in 2005. What might be called the “old guard,” or those who opposed Bashar’s succession quietly, or less quietly, were gradually sidelined, whether they be members of the security services branches (9 of them), the army, or the party. The state of Syria’s “union,” as G.W.B. would say about another union, was “strong.” The new President symbolized a new Syria were his posters did not don everything everywhere and where modernization was the rhetorical order of the day. Numerous accounts of the new President’s life and background were circulating in world press as a way to figure out where he will take the country. His London education became an axiom of sorts as especially some western journalists emphasized how this might somehow be a cause for a departure from the old policies, at least in some way. “Departure” there was—but it had little if anything to do with his education in the “west” (Jesus Christ). A decade on, one realizes that Bashar himself is an impressive leader who was able to surmount (mostly external challenges) that many thought would tear Syria apart, including 9-11 and its aftermath, the “war on terrorism,” the war on Iraq, the ensuing devastation, the Lebanon debacle and the “cedar revolution” (cedar revolution . . . remember that?) associated with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Syria’s humiliating exit from Lebanon, the international tribunal (still going), the porous Syrian-Iraqi border, a couple of years of devastating drought in Syria, the nuclear question, the harboring of terrorist groups question, and, finally, though not in chronological order, the idiotic threat of bombing Syria propagated by a cabal of neoconservative nitwits in the US who were emboldened by their ability to manipulate the overwhelming majority of the American public into, well, nearly anything, no matter how ridiculous. [this sentence was 12 lines long. Is that bad?]

Before discussing this “threat” and how it ties to the raison d’etre of this post, it is worth addressing Liberalization 1.2, which proceeded Bashar’s succession to power, but had its roots in the period between 1998 and 2000.

“Change within Continuity”

After Asad’s death, the gaze of citizens and observers of Syria turned to the helm of the Ba`thist regime to see what transpires: principally, whether power will transfer smoothly to his son Bashar. Equally important, though, Syria analysts focused on post-Asad events to answer a plethora of questions about the nature of the regime that they have been asking and “answering” without much certainty for the past three decades. Within a couple of weeks after Asad’s departure, it became obvious that transfer of power to Bashar proceeded smoothly—smoother than most analysts predicted, as discussed above. What remained to be seen is whether the post-transition period would be as peaceful, and whether the transition of power to Bashar was indeed complete. Some of the lingering questions about the “closed” regime and “enigmatic” leader were becoming easier to answer, questions such as the institutionalization of the regime, the legitimacy and mobilizationary effect of the Ba`th party, the success of Asad senior in weaving a coalition of supporters and beneficiaries that are bound to the existing regime, the extent to which Syrians believed in the regime’s rhetoric, and the all important question of the indispensability of Hafiz al-Asad to Syria. In the final analysis, as Patrick Seal attested, Asad did it indeed—irrespective of developmental costs, with which Syria is grappling today. It seemed that Hafiz al-Asad’s regime was successful in building a state, fragile as it may be, but a state with institutions that ensure a peaceful succession in a country that is historically wrought with coup d’etats, conflicting forces, and external interference. Notwithstanding a host of setbacks along the way, the country’s populist-authoritarian institutions survived their principal architect. The fact that these institutions lack autonomy and efficacy is not all that unusual in similar countries. Nonetheless, questions regarding the nature of the succession and the future of a state burdened with a deteriorating economy, a suppressed civil society, and a narrow leadership loom large.

True, Bashar and supporters succeeded in dodging some major initial hurdles during the first phase of the post-Asad transition. Here’s a quick survey of some of the most significant changes of the first four critical months after succession. These changes, and their correlates henceforth, constitute a summary of Liberalization 1.2, precluding some important economic policies regarding private banking and less restrictive rules regarding hard currency.

Post-Asad Policies and Change: June-September 2000

1) A presidential decision was issued to remove all pictures of the president from non-governmental buildings. (Series of announcements beginning in mid-July)

2) Other presidential decrees aimed at reactivating media institutions by replacing editors and managers, encouraging a change in media rhetoric, and urging media reporters to eliminate exaggerated embellishments when the political elite is discussed. (27 July)

3) There were several public presidential promises to activate the role of the National Front Parties (the 7-party coalition led by the Ba`th), a promise more significant for the implicit acknowledgement of the hitherto rubber-stamp function of these parties than for whatever may actually change.

4) The President announced on August 18 that he will declare amnesty regarding a significant number of political prisoners, mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Party of Communist Action.

5) There were announcements in mid-August of plans to make adjustments within the new government in September—we have seen none yet.

6) On August 19, an important presidential decree confirmed the vice-presidency of Khaddam and Zuheir Mashaarqa, but without "specifying their missions," i.e., stripping them of missions, functions, or "files" for which they were previously responsible. This is considered a soft but sure blow against the old guard.

7) On August 27, the government announced a 25% raise in the minimum wages and salaries of 1.4 million public sector workers (with their families, they constitute 45-50% of the Syrian population of 17 million). The last such raise occurred in 1994 (30%), but was literally gobbled up by dramatic inflation in 1994-96. (The salary of a Lebanese Parliament Member is thirty times her/his counterpart in Syria).

8) In early September, a high level official “asked” an already active group of intellectuals, economists, and industrialists to form “The Association of the Friends of Civil Society” in anticipation of new party-system laws. The association was indeed formed and had its first meeting in the house of a prominent industrialist who has been and outspoken critic of government policies. Another grouped formed “The Association for Protecting the Environment.”

9) On September 2nd, a bold a prominent Damascene business-man turned politician made a bold announcement regarding his intent to establish what he calls a “Liberal Conservative” party, since, as he declared, “the Front parties are of one color, either socialist or communist, rendering the celebrated political pluralism incomplete.” This was a first in Syria for a long time.

10) Beginning in September 16 and ongoing, the Ba`thist leadership announced the replacement of all members of several Ba`thist branches across Syria, from Damascus to Homs to Aleppo, Latakia, Swaida, etc.

11) Finally, for the first time in nearly four decades, a statement was released on September 26 by 99 Syrian intellectuals, journalists, and professionals, calling on the authorities to “cancel the state of emergency,” which had been in place since 1963, and to declare amnesty for all political prisoners. The statement emphasized the need for modernization, democracy, the rule of law, and the freedom of organization and expression. Most significantly, the statement emphasized the importance of a comprehensive approach to all challenges ahead.

The Official Succession Narrative

The official narrative of the events of Spring 2000 in Syria tells a depoliticized procedural story. Suddenly, after thirteen years under Prime Minister Al-Zo`bi, the Ba`thist leadership discovers that the government was both corrupt and inefficient, notwithstanding a period of numeric economic growth in the early 1990s. It was time to replace the government and set the country on a course of change and reform, a decision that echoes both the former president’s call for modernization in 1999 and Bashar Asad’s “campaign” against corruption. The two long weeks it took to form the government were a result of painstaking effort to appoint the right individuals. Finally a compromise, but two-thirds new, government emerged under the leadership of former Aleppan mayor Mustafa Miro, a Ph.D. in Arabic literature and a man not known in that city to be “untarnished.”

Shortly after the government was in place, the campaign against corruption escalated dramatically to reach former Prime Minister Al-Zu`bi. He was immediately ejected as a member of both the Ba`th party and its regional command upon official reports that accuse him of being “heavily involved” in corruption and of committing acts “that conflict with the values, morals, and principles of the party and constitute a transgression of the law, creating severe damages to the reputation of the party and state and to the national economy.” A long list of associates and other “corrupt” officials was drafted and people were arrested or “called in” in the dozens. Most significant among those were the former Deputy Prime Minister for economic affairs Salim Yassin and Minister of Transportation, Mufid Abd-ul-Karim. Unable to deal with the scandalous situation, Zu`bi committed suicide in his home in Damascus, the story goes (close observers reject the “suicide” scenario in favor of murder committed by those who were sure to be exposed if Zo`bi spoke freely. Zo`bi headed one of the most extensive crony networks in Syria because of his critically powerful position and laissez faire stance vis-à-vis corrupt practices. In short, it was the old guard who benefited most from his death.

As the Regional Command Conference drew closer in late May, reports began to surface to the effect that the roots of corruption are even deeper within the regime, reaching the military apparatus. Additional lists, including higher-level officials and military commanders, were drawn for further legal action, starting with preventing them from leaving the country. Particularly, a peculiar news item appeared in a regional newspaper announcing that former Syrian Chief of Staff Hikmat Al-Shihabi is going to be put on trial for his involvement in corruption. Within forty-eight hours, Al-Shihabi departed from Beirut’s airport headed towards California where his son resides. The press emphasized the fact that Syrian Vice President Halim Khaddam and former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri saw Al-Shihabi off at the airport, revealing the longstanding alliance between Hariri and the icons of the Ba`thist old guard.

A few days later, on 10 June 2000, the world—Syria, definitely—was shocked with news of Asad’s death, despite knowledge of his increasingly failing health. The Syrian Parliament happened to be in session that evening. Its president, Abdul-Qader Qaddura, announced the president’s death at approximately 6:15 p.m., fifteen minutes after the Syrian television station did the same for the first time, and proceeded to modify the Syrian constitution to allow for lowering the age of prospective presidents from forty to thirty-four. The local media announced Mustafa Tlas, Minister of defense, as the official who would take over the affairs of the president until the Parliament meets on 25 June to elect a president who would then be put to a public referendum. The following day, the local media announced that Mustafa Miro would take over the affairs of the President until such time. Finally, the media settled on Khaddam as the individual serving this duty but from his position as vice president. Article 85 of the Syrian constitution is clear about the immediate elevation of the vice president to the presidency in case of the president’s death. This explains why Khaddam was not given full constitutional authority to exercise the duties of the president in the interim period. On that day, the vice president issued 3 decrees, including decree number 10, which promoted Bashar’s army rank to allow him to become the Commander in Chief of the Syrian Armed Forces.

A week later, the planned Regional Command Conference (RCC) was held. The conference served three principle purposes: electing Bashar as successor to president Asad; electing the 21 member body that constitutes the Regional Command (i.e., the effective government in Syria) and a 90 member body that constitutes the central command, a supervisory body over the former; and charting the political and economic path for the future of the country.

Far less than the expected and announced two-thirds change in the ranks of the twenty-one Regional Command members, only eight members were displaced, presumably as a result of compromise between old and new forces. Twelve new members entered the Regional Command, since four seats were already empty. Bashar was elected to the Regional Command. From the military complex, only three (as opposed to four previously) were elected to the regional command and sixteen to the central command. Sectarian representation in the Regional Command was somewhat proportional to that of the larger population. Most peculiar at the time was the exclusion of Bahgat Sulaiman (Bashar’s mentor and head of Counter-Intelligence) and Asef Shawkat (Bashar’s brother-in-law and then head of the Security of the Armed Forces) from both bodies. Whatever the explanation may be, it is not that they lacked power.

The Other Narrative

What the official narrative of change and succession left out is the complete list of motivations and calculations behind the changes that took place and the delicate balances of power and circumstances that kept Bashar at the top.

[to be continued]  




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