Here’s a piece i wrote in 2008, which seems apt given the unrest current underway in Syria:
“While resisting Bush long provided an excuse not to get on with reform, it’s now time for Bashar al-Assad to deliver. Rather than congratulate himself on returning from international isolation, Syria‘s leader should beware the domestic problems he now faces.
As Syria’s diplomatic isolation draws to a close, with this week’s visit of David Milliband and the suggestion that Barack Obama is keen to engage, President Bashar al-Assad would do well not to bask in the glory of international rehabilitation for too long before turning to domestic issues. Whilst resistance to the existing US administration’s pressure has provided a good excuse to entrench authoritarianism and stall promised reform in his inherited republic, with Bush out of the way time is running out for Bashar to deliver.
On coming to power in 2000, Bashar and his British-raised wife, Asma, were seen as modern and reform-minded figures who could usher in much needed economic, social and political change to a state stifled by 30 years of his father’s dictatorship. Whilst he was not an open democrat, Syrian hopes were still raised of an easing on restrictions, return to the rule of law and economic development. Eight years on and, despite an increased presence of internet cafes, Costa-style coffee shops and satellite dishes, 2 million are still below the poverty line, press censorship remains, and power is retained by an unelected few protected by a large and sinister security force.
There are two main explanations given for the disappointing pace of reform. The first is that offered by Assad himself that external factors have necessitated a more guarded approach to change. The aftermath of 9/11, Sharon’s policies in the West Bank, the Iraq war, Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and the more recent US-led sanctions and diplomatic isolation have been used to justify the retention of unpopular measures such as emergency rule – in place since 1963. The second – widely whispered and possibly endorsed by Assad himself – is that he inherited a government full of har-line autocrats, known as the “old guard”, whom he must slowly and carefully replace with reform-minded supporters, the “new guard”, before bringing substantial progress.
However, in reality, though Assad has now expunged most of his father’s old guard, their replacements are not reformist technocrats as many had hoped but a new generation of autocrats. Whilst a few economists and intellectuals have been awarded largely symbolic positions, true power has been carved up by the president’s family and members of his Alawi clan. Most notable are his brother-in-law Asef Shawcat, brother Maher Assad and cousin Rami Makhlouf, the latter controlling large sections of the economy. With this new guard controlling powerful, overlapping fiefdoms within the secretive Syrian state, the amount of control exercised by Bashar himself has been questioned. The result is that, in eight years, Hafez al-Assad’s top-down dictatorship has been transformed into a mafia-style cabal of competing figures who, it isrumoured, would have few qualms about deposing the president if he threatened their interests.
Moreover, external factors and the policies of the Bush administration, whilst not toppling the authoritarian regime, have still damaged the myths upon which it is legitimised. One such myth is that dictatorship is needed to guard against Islamic extremism, questioned by recentbombings in Damascus. Another is that a strong military and police can defend Syria from aggressive neighbors such as Israel, yet it was unable to prevent two Israeli raids or cross-border attacks from the US in Iraq. Even the claim that the regime promotes ethnic and communitarian harmony was doubted following the violent Kurdish riots in Qamishli in 2004, and their equally violent suppression.
Furthermore, opposition to the regime, once tepid, is increasing. Though the Paris-based former vice-president, Abdel Halim Khaddam, who continues to make noises about returning, is largely discredited, other foreign-based opposition groups such as the Movement for Justice and Development and the exiled Muslim Brotherhood leadership are raising their profile. Domestically, although opposition from democratic reformers is being supressed – with activists like Michael Kilo and Riad Seif imprisoned, a more militant Islamic opposition seems to be spreading, fuelled by Saudi funds and training in Iraq and Lebanon.
Incredibly, despite overseeing a clear decline in Damascus’ strength and ability to defend itself, greater domestic unrest, terrorist attacks, increased opposition and genuine questions as to how much control he actually has over his regime, Bashar remains generally popular within Syria. Despite the clear lack of reform, most still give their president the benefit of the doubt and see him as a frustrated moderniser, whilst quietly criticising other regime figures. However, he has retained the acquiescence of the Arab street largely due to his anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric, making those countries’ policies scapegoats for Syria’s woes.
Though returning to the international fold will ease the external pressure, especially if it leads to a final deal with Israel, Bashar will therefore also be robbed of an excuse for failure to reform. On the one hand, external success and the return of Golan could provide him with a domestic mandate to push reform past his new guard mafia. On the other hand, it could expose how vacuous his reformist rhetoric truly is. He might come to wish he’d stayed out in the cold.