From the Editors
My emphasis in the original post on the predicament of independent opposition stands, but I felt compelled to say more about the context of the second wave of liberalization in Syria (L 1.2), which started in 2000/2001. This is a third in a 4-part series post (I promise I’ll stop at 4). In part 2 I discussed the official narrative regarding the accession to power of Bashar Asad in 2000. Below, I discuss the "other" narrative peddled by various independent observers (as an aside, see my fellow editor's post on Jadaliyya, regarding "succession in Egypt," happening now! . . . perhaps along similar paths in terms of father and son, though at one point in the early 2000's President Mubarak quipped "Egypt is not Syria," as he answered a question about his son's potential presidential candidacy. معلش)
The Other Narrative
The drive against corruption in Syria which started in 1998 and bloomed in early 2000 had been motivated in large measure by the goal of paving the way for the successorship of Bashar Asad, who was believed by Asad senior to be the sole candidate capable and willing to pursue a similar course of policies in key areas, particularly with regards to regional issues and internal opposition. More immediately, Asad senior could entrust Bashar more than any other individual in maintaining his balancing act and safeguarding the knowledge/information that undergirds it.
There was always more to Asad’s wish than passing power over to his son. Though Asad senior ruled with a very heavy hand at times, he maintained throughout his rule a magnificent set of dynamic power balances that kept all other centers of power at bay. Each power pole within the regime had a function of sorts (For example, Asad would restrict most members of the security services from dealing directly and officially with foreign officials—precluding Lebanon—nor with local officials as such, and would designate different governmental and military heads for different functions and purposes not always in accordance with their official title, but according to the type of missions, including diplomatic, confrontational, disciplinary, and outright combative ones.
Each function was balanced against another power pole that carries a similar function in a manner that bred controlled competitiveness and imparted thereby a modicum of integrity to the respective institution from which these power centers hail. The balancing game took into account the sheer mobilizationary and motivational power of such power centers, but it also took into account social background (region, religion, sect, class), loyalty, and personality type. Often, the comparatively weakest personalities would fill high ranks and, to an extent, vice versa, especially when loyalty to the president is in question. The key to this web of balances is that the legitimacy of the power centers as individual positions was tied to the president in one way or another, or alternatively, owed more to the president than it did to any other single individual as such. Asad senior held the ropes and connected the dots to link or delink various power centers. Over a period of six years, and more than any other kind of knowledge in statesmanship that Asad may have passed on to Bashar, he passed on the logic and dynamics of his balancing act on which the stability, and at times survival, of the regime rested for three decades.
Handing Over the Ropes
As Asad’s health deteriorated towards the end of the 1990s, preparations for Bashar’s succession escalated only to encounter resistance from some of the most potent power centers who share an alternative scenario that includes a much greater role for themselves as longstanding defenders of the regime. Principal among these power centers were Abdul-Halim Khaddam and Hikmat Al-Shihabi. The latter “retired” on time (in summer of 1998), as opposed to loyal generals who were given extensions beyond the retirement age—e.g. Tlas (Minister of Defense), Aslan (army general who took Shihabi’s post). Khaddam was being stripped of his responsibilities in a piecemeal manner, handing over one “file” or malaf after another to Bashar, particularly what came to be known as the “Lebanon File.” Khaddam was viewed as less threatening and more corrupt than some military men, and was thus easier to remove from office when the time came. In the meantime, he represented the muted opposition, the Sunnis, the old guard, the bate, and the loyal vice president, all at once. More importantly, he represented the lingering power center that served a non-threatening civilian balancing force. Although the former president’s death beat the removal of Khaddam in chronological terms, it did not leave Bashar to contend with a powerful Chief of Staff or a head of Military Intelligence as bidders for power. Hence the mastery of the Asad’s calculations which, all along since the drive to remove potential opponents, made it appear to those who retained their positions that the “removals” or “forced retirements” were over. Asad retained the balance after every “removal” such that it could very well be the last such step in case of his imminent death. The process was facilitated by the fact that some potential opponents to the successorship of Bashar were not always vocal about it—precluding Shihabi—and thus continuing to occupy their positions was not viewed as a glaring contradiction.
The Formula at Work
After the failure of the Shepherdstown meetings in bringing complete peace between Syria and Israel, the Syrian regime turned its gaze inward to take care of business. Business meant clearing the way for succession, which included a change in government, the removal of obstacles (opposition power-centers), and finally a Regional Command Conference that elects Bashar to the Regional Command and perhaps to the vice-presidency. In short, after clearing the way in the military and security services, the time had come to tackle the government and the party. The job was not as easy as Asad senior had wanted. There seemed to be a substantial opposition both in the government and the party because of the potential threat that change may bring to these institutions and to the coalition of beneficiaries that are closely tied to them. Furthermore, the party was the bastion of the old guard whose interests are generally tied with the system as its stands, with the primacy of the party, the public sector, and their sinecures and special powers that extended to the cabinet as it stood. Hence, the “discovery” that the cabinet, especially the prime minister, is corrupt and inefficient—all true—and needs to be dissolved and replaced.
Nonetheless, Asad senior was keen not to disrupt the balance even within the new cabinet, at the time, a largely administrative and often defunct body of weak ministries. The selection of an alternative Prime Minister that fit the customary profile for the job since 1987—a “yes man” with a tarnished reputation, but also a loyal friend—was not an easy task, but was finally accomplished. The resulting cabinet was a compromise of sorts between two main forces: what Bashar wanted (new youthful, modernizing blood) and what Asad senior wanted (a semblance of continuity to safeguard the balancing game). The new cabinet clearly reflected the direction in which Syria’s politics was headed, at least in terms of loyalty to Bashar if not explicit reform projects. The campaign against corruption continued (genuinely at times) but utltimately served the function of purging potential anti-Bashar forces in the lower- and middle-levels of the bureaucracy and the party in preparation for the Regional Command Conference.
The stage was set for a dramatic change in personnel at the RCC. But nature thought otherwise. As discussed before, Asad’s death altered the balance of power, but without affecting Bashar’s position. Asad’s death couldn’t have come at a worst time. Whereas the Conference was assumed to be akin to putting the “party on trial” and removing the last obstacle, Khaddam, it turned out instead to be an affair in which khaddam and the party were able to find a quite respectable niche within the emerging power formula, but firmly under the leadership of Bashar. Though beginning in 1998 the party was revived by Asad to provide a smooth and legal-rational transitional base for Bashar, it became everyone’s lifejacket in June 2000. Bashar is afloat at the top—but the fate of the ship was not yet known—though it was also not all-too-unknown. The time had come to embark on the much touted project of modernization which included immediate changes discussed above (in Part 2).
As the formula stood, Bashar was everyone’s “favorite” candidate, even his potential enemies’, e.g. the old guard and the Islamists. The reason is simple: first, he enjoys the kind of public support that no other single force, much less individual, is likely to garner; secondly, this period is so wrought with uncertainty that no other contender is willing to pose a direct challenge because of the potential of “burning” themselves, as they say in Syria, i.e. prematurely exposing their intentions. The Rif`at (Bashar’s uncle) “interference,” usually stimulated by outsiders (Saudi or American connections), was a lost and miserable card that had the reverse effect of bolstering Bashar’s legitimacy. People in Syria were reminded of the all-powerful logic of “sticking to the one you know.” In short, no one near the strings of power had an interest in, or the means for, challenging Bashar at the time—and since. The word that one heard repeatedly from insiders is that even the staunchest opposition within the old guard welcomed Bashar at that point, but “Bashar . . . along with us and not instead of us,” (ma`na mou badalna) as the narrative above indicates.
Bashar was handed over a tough job run by a tough crowd whose interests are often tied to then-existing arrangements. Any change in any area is likely to damage the interests of some power center. Hence the importance of strategy and the organization of stages according to, first, the priorities of rule, and, second, the series of steps that must be taken to establish the infrastructure of reform (e.g. law, administration). Bashar was able to accomplish both: the “new” regime had been consolidated within 3-4 years and the “Social Market Economy” was adopted in 2005 at the 10th Regional Ba`th Party conference. As matters stood then and now, Bashar has the loyalty of all heads of the security branches and army chief. The same goes for the party and bureaucracy, with very minimal and, ultimately, insignificant reservations here and there. Bureaucratically, Bashar had surrounded himself with a team of younger technocrats who are eager for change . . . at that point. The new cabinet reflected this new spirit in most instances.
“Damascus Spring” En Arrière
Expectations were high, and a “Damascus Spring” seemed on the horizon in the first year after 2000. Damascus especially, but also other cities, witnessed a hitherto unseen mobilization of voices and spaces, calling for a new era of openness and freedom (in all regards) without the threat of emergency laws, arbitrary arrests/rulings, or stifling laws regarding organization and mobilization. Alas, it did not last very long as the “opposition” was in somewhat of a disarray and as the “new-ish” civil society movements, forums, and initiatives seemed to overplay their hands from the perspective of the regime hardliners, if not Bashar. There is still speculation regarding the extent to which President Bashar concurred with the hardliners from the start or was pressured to move in their direction by the force of unfolding events and proclamations that targeted the Ba`thist legacy of the former President, and sometimes the former President himself.
I will cheat a little and include an excerpt from an article I wrote in the middle of the crackdowns on “Damascus Spring” in 2001. I will put this 4-part post to rest in a following post that discusses the current wave of liberalization (L 1.3) in light of some important domestic and regional changes, where independent opposition members continue to share a similar fate.
“The reversals of political and economic liberalization in February and March of 2001 are not the only indicators. Just yesterday, Riad Saif, a two-time independent parliament member and industrialist, was arrested after being "invited" to the ministry of the interior. Long considered one of the most outspoken critics of the Syrian regime, Saif had resumed hosting prohibited civil society forums at his residence the day before. Speaking to the Beirut-based Arabic daily al-Hayat the day before he was arrested, Saif said, "I am practicing my natural right, and providing a service by restoring the democratic spirit and eliminating fear." On September 1, communist leader Riad al-Turk was also arrested, presumably for writing an article critical of the Ba'thist legacy, including the late President Hafiz al-Asad. Despite the apparent promise of a new, younger leadership, the Syrian political and economic spheres seem little changed. More Syrians are becoming more aware of their rights, less fearful and more visibly frustrated and outspoken, but overall it seems to be business as usual in Syria. With the exception of a freer, though still circumscribed, press, talk of change has not borne much fruit. For example, moves to establish private banking and private universities were announced, but have not yet moved forward. Most such measures, it seems, have been temporarily frozen. Or they await what are called "directives for implementation (ta'limat tanfidhiyya),"
[to be continued/concluded in Part 4]
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