In Sunday`s New York Times article on Syria (August 30, 2010) , “Doors Start to Open for Activists in Syria,” we hear of a mix of change and age-old obstacles. The story is short and sweet, with a mixture of sound observations, levelheaded optimism, and critique. There is nothing particularly striking about the report, except the anticipation of responses from various sides. I’ll take up two of these. But first, a quick look at the record of “change” or “political liberalization” in Syria since 1991.
I was interviewed by the reporter, who quoted a few of my statements on the topic—part of a much longer interview. Usually I turn down such interviews on Syria, but the reporter’s perspective did not seem pregnant with problematic assumptions and agendas that are associated with Syria in the mainstream press. For them, Syria is a foreign policy matter, an unsavory actor, etc. Little distinction is made between state and society there and, worse, there’s much ignorance on the issues on which Syrian state and society agree, including the US’s duplicitous foreign policy in the region and it’s deeply unprincipled stance regarding professed values.These nuances are lost, and Syrian officials are right in noting them. The same Syrian officials are not, however, as forthcoming in adopting the same fortitude when it comes to domestic politics in Syria, especially regarding the independent opposition--many of whom would linger in prison for life before becoming pawns in the hands of a US (or any other non-Syrian) master-plan for Syria or even the region. Yet, many such opposition figures are considered traitors of sorts. This is the subject of this multi-part post.
In short, in the interview, I affirmed the reality of positive changes in terms of the cautious expansion of public space in Syria. With a heavy interjection from the very top (the “First Lady”), or perhaps partly spurred by it, the new and improved public space is not a whole software update.
Rather, it’s a newer version of “political liberalization”—defined as the gradual extension of civil and political rights, and the correlate expansion of public space—with one of those decimal points. In this case, from 1.2 to 1.3, where “Liberalization 1.0 (L 1.0)” represents the post-1991 jolt when Syria had its first official all-around “opening” since former President Hafiz al-Asad assumption of power in 1970. Set against a background of a lost decade of development in the 1980s where severe shortages and “newspaper toilet-paper” was the order of the day for unfortunate Syrians, every molecule of opening seemed like a breath of fresh air. The consumption boom that followed in the 1990s reflected untapped savings and consumerist hunger, but camouflaged a decrepit economic and administrative infrastructure firmly lodged in the late 1960s. Still, the air seemed fresher, until, that is, economic crisis hit in the mid-1990s, putting a damper on the excitement— notwithstanding the excitement of a steady supply of toilet paper sold in stores, as opposed to in posh black-market grocery stores frequented by the middle class and “subsidized” (مدعومة) by the powers that be والحمد لالله. During this period, new upper middle social formations began to develop around the public-private partnership arrangements, or networks; formations that soon developed a stake in the social, if not the political, order in Syria. These new strata served the state, and frustrated most of Syrians because they added to the perception of transgressions by the powers that be. Soon, and for more than a decade to come, these entrepreneurs and their partners in officialdom came to dominate the commanding heights of the Syrian economy and set the stage for the transformation of Syria’s official economic identity in 2005.
As former President Asad’s health began to deteriorate, the grooming of his son Bashar-as-successor was catalyzed tremendously, causing a blow back among some of what is called the “old-guard” who considered him ill fit for the job. In part as a consequence, by 1998, a new administrative and business team began to be assembled around the leader-to-be, made up of young and comparatively progressive professionals, administrators, and entrepreneurs. This new team also included a security component that was not necessarily all new and, with respect to “progressive” . . . not so much. The same goes for the party component. Concomitantly, we began to see a freer and more tolerant atmosphere in which, for the first time in decades, the public space was expanded to include and tolerate criticism of officials within the government and, to a lesser extent, party—the security component has always been off limits, and certainly infallible. “Modernization,” in the context of “change within continuity” was the mantra of the last few years of the millennium, and of President Asad senior. Syrians experienced an era of openness hitherto unseen, where even some of the red lines—the legacy of the Ba`th party—was open to some discussion, within reason (“انتقدوا، بس لا ت-تخنوها” or “criticize but don’t overdo it). This is when we began to see semi-free parliamentary elections, civil society resurgence, and courageous events like the “Tuesday Forum,” held yearly by the Economic Sciences Association during spring. In brief, this was Liberalization (1.1).
It was not easy to figure out what was “ok” and what was not “ok” to discuss in public in the late 1990s in Syria. The most sound guide was to consider the criticism that empowers the new potential leadership at the expense of its detractors within the regime to be fair game—for the most part (yes, it was murky). For instance, critiquing the rigidity of the Ba`th and affirming the need for change (always within continuity) was permissible, because it allowed the emerging ruling formula/authority to sideline existing and potential opponents, even those with established roots within the regime. But such criticism is not for attribution: the legacy of the Ba`th simply “is,” and is in need of some change. This period of relative openness served to strengthen Bashar’s hand and make extant those critics who seemed to not want to stop at critiquing a “legacy in a vacuum” (like Maradona’s “hand of god” goal against England in 1986). The likes of `Arif Dalila, a respected Marxist economist, and Riad Saif, a largely independent industrialist and parliamentarian, seemed intent on taking the opportunity of a more tolerant environment to critique not just the legacy, but the whole infrastructure of power and corruption, from the bottom to the very top. It is these guys, and other like them, who spear-headed the opposition during the Liberalization 1.2 period in the aftermath of Bashar’s accession to power in July 2000. I was there, in `Arif Dalila’s living room, interviewing him on agricultural policies in the late 1980s when the TV went silent, and the announcer came on to announce the death of Hafiz al-Assad. Syria stopped. And to my surprise, the most ardent and courageous critic of the Syrian regime—who used to publically reject explanations of corruption as moral flaws and pointed instead to the material base of corruption, spelling out the regime itself and is overseers as the culprits in front of an audience satiated with informants, cameras, and recorders at the Tuesday Forum—this same man received the news by firmly slapping his palm with another (expressing sudden loss) and saying “له! اسد مات ” (no! Asad died). Syria really did stop. For a moment, it even stopped `Arif. What happened to `Arif and his cohorts in/after Liberalization (1.2), dubbed “Damascus [short] Spring,” is telling.
[To be continued. See Part 2 here or continue reading below]
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.
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.
[To be continued. See Part 3 here or continue reading below]
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. 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.
As the formula stood, Bashar was everyone’s “favorite” candidate, even his potential enemies’, e.g. some members within 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. See Part 4 here or continue reading below]
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 realize 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.