From the Editors
In the first three posts (1, 2, 3), I discussed two significant liberalization phases and the succession struggle/period. As promised, this is the last post where I discuss the most recent phase of liberalization as a detour into the structural limitations of change and the predicament of independent opposition.
Since the adoption of the “Social Market Economy” at the 10th Ba`thist Regional Command Conference in 2005, the economic “face” of Syria has begun to change decisively, no matter what observers, including myself, might say about the nature of the transformation. What we have been witnessing since 2005 is irreversible (less so in the “civil society” sphere, though the two are not totally separate). The question is whether “change” is moving in a direction that benefits most Syrians—or not. So far the answer is not mysterious: though many Syrians have seen and benefited from a more vibrant economic environment, most have yet to taste its fruits, and a growing number are approaching the poverty line as a result of reduced government spending and subsidies. (for details and updates on economic affairs, visit the economic section of Syria Comment and All4Syria—though many articles in the latter website are not properly documented).
To be sure, the economic landscape in Syria is indeed different today, compared to anything Syria has seen since the mid-1960s. Contrary to the pre-2004/2005 period, the past few years saw a number of private banks mushroom, hard currency everywhere (after being a taboo for decades), the emergence of holding companies, a flurry of market-supporting organizations and institutions, a Damascus Stock exchange (2009), new business councils (2007) and joint business associations (2010), and a steadily more open door for foreign direct investment, with emphasis on regional investors. As discussed in earlier parts of this post, change was always couched in the language of continuity in the late 1980s, throughout the 1990s, and even during the early years of Bashar’s presidency. This “couching” has eroded recently as we’ve seen a steady advancement of market forces (however imperfect) and the albeit slow unraveling of the distributive infrastructure of Syria’s state-centered economy. The reasons are primarily structural, and the new team of technocrats that Bashar empowered realizes this. In an interview with the star of this process of economic change in 2007, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Abdallah al-Dardari, told me that Syria is “running out of alternative sources” of revenue after the late 1990s, and that “[we] can no longer depend on oil revenues as we once did.”[i] Something had to be done. Regarding the sensitive and thorny issue of the prior legacy, he further stated that “our slogan is ‘change within continuity,’ but the dangers of persistence [continuity] have become greater than our ability to manage them.”[ii] In the Syrian political context, this attitude is revolutionary despite it falling short of the aspirations of most Syrians.
What I’ve been calling Liberalization 1.3—the most recent phase of change that has been a subject of a flurry of articles, including the one that spurred this horrendously long 4-part post (sorry)—is actually not as cosmetic as some may claim it is. I affirmed so much in that article, but also asserted that there are built-in limitations to how far recent changes can go, especially in the realm of independent civil society and politics.
The built-in limitation is simply that, at some level, continuity will not be sacrificed, particularly in terms of the emergence of alternative centers of power. Economic change can proceed so long as the biggest players support the status quo and roam within its orbit—even if this is not infinitely sustainable. For now, and for the coming decade, it is. So long as economic wealth is not converted to political power, economic change will proceed, “neoliberally” or otherwise. But here’s where economic change and fundamental political change part ways. The prime beneficiaries of economic change—given the path it has taken—have been small in numbers and beholden to the existing social and political order. However, the beneficiaries of fundamental political change will be a majority, and have other plans for the political order, though there is very little cohesion among them as we have seen during the short and dizzy period of the “Damascus Spring” in 2000/2001 (noting that even that string of efforts represented more the secular left than other sectors of society). This limitation does not stop all political liberalization. The extension of some civil and political rights has proceeded at various levels, and public space has been selectively widened, but no power-sharing measures or pre-cursors are in sight (e.g., the introduction of laws that allow for the emergence of independent political parties). The first lady has been a major force behind such change and it seems that there is quite some room for the safe and depoliticized expansion of civil society associations and initiatives. In fact, one can argue that this expansion in civil society associations is in part a function of the emergence of new social strata, notably those who benefit from ongoing economic “liberalization” and who are invariably interested in protecting the infrastructure of personal property, freedoms, and economic action. On the margins, too, there is some genuine change that is affecting certain groups with no ties to economic and political power. One can see that in various circles to the extent that they are less/not politically oriented. Activists have been pushing to include beneficiaries more broadly in this ongoing march, but they collide with the said structural limitations.
Finally, many of those independent opposition members who reject such limitations as serious obstacles to real and positive change for most Syrians are branded as traitors of sort, or as a threat to national security. Perhaps some are, as they might be tied to external actors and brokers who wish Syria ill or who have policy priorities that require the submission of resisters. But many, if not most, oppositions members are not externally linked at all as I suggested in the second post, and are actually acutely opposed to anyone who seeks change from a non-Syrian perspective. Their vitriol against anti-Syrian political actors is usually more acute than their criticism of the Syrian regime. Yet they are silenced or thrown in jail for opposing the policies of their own government, an indication of those red lines that cannot be crossed, even by the most patriotic of sentiments.
Syria does have enemies that could care less about Syrians, much less the region as whole, and who push change as a tool for overturning the entire political order—considering that Syria is the last significantly powerful Arab state that has not towed the American line in the region and that continues, at least, to support active resistance to Israel’s military domination. But the independent opposition that this post is addressing is not part of these external actors/states. Clearly, these include the aggressive and unprincipled foreign policy of the United States, and the belligerence/brutality of that of Israel. So, if the Syrian political order is really interested in the well-being of all Syrians, why does it cut down independent opposition members that want nothing less than that? The answer, unfortunately, is increasingly less mysterious. Put crudely, there is a way to combat imperialism, neo-liberalism, and Israel’s belligerence without imprisoning and muzzling anti-imperialists (and so on). Independent opposition members, in Syria and in some other Arab countries, find themselves in this predicament where they can’t fight for the majority of their compatriots without being clobbered either domestically or internationally.
[i] Interview with Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Abdallah al-Dardari, Damascus, July 25, 2007.
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