President Bashar al-Asad’s First Six Months:

Reform in a Dangerous Environment

Lecture at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London.
25 January 2001.

First Published in Arabic in Al Hayat, January 26

By Patrick Seale

Syria, under President Bashar al-Asad, has embarked on a profound transformation. It is too early to say how far it can go along this path, but Dr Bashar’s will to reform, to open up -- to clean up — almost every aspect of Syrian life is now abundantly clear. His ambition is to create a modern state and society. It will take time. He cannot work miracles. The backlog of the past is very heavy and it is not easy to change the mentality and ingrained habits of a whole nation. But he has made a promising start.

No comparison can be exact, but if we were to look for a European model for what is now taking place in Syria, we might consider Spain after the death of Franco.

A Difficult Legacy

The late President Hafiz al-Asad died last June after ruling -- aloof, authoritarian, and increasingly reclusive -- for 30 years. Asad was a master of regional politics and his name will always be associated with the rise of Syria as a major regional power. He believed the Arabs should be masters in their own house and, as a result, he was the most stubborn and steadfast opponent of attempts by Israel and the United States to impose their ‘order’ on the region.

But Asad’s lifelong preoccupation with geo-politics meant a relative neglect of domestic affairs — even a stagnation, a fossilization.

This was especially true in Asad’s last decade. The 1990s were very difficult years for him. We need only recall --

*** the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been his principal international ally;

*** the destruction of Iraq -- and of Arab solidarity — in the Gulf War;

*** the 1993 Oslo Accords, a separate Palestinian-Israeli agreement, secretly arrived at, which undercut Asad’s peace diplomacy;

*** the death of his son, Basil, in Jan 1994, whom he had been grooming for power. This was a particularly painful psychological blow;

*** the guerrilla struggle to expel Israel from Lebanon, punctuated by numerous Israeli aggressions — such as Operation Accountability of 1993 and Operation Grapes of Wrath of 1996 — which threatened to embroil Syria in war;

*** the grim Netanyahu years, 1996-99, which brought the peace process to a complete standstill;

*** the Israel-Turkish strategic entente directed against Syria and its Iranian ally;

*** the grave crisis with Turkey in 1998 over the Kurdish leader Abdallah Ocalan;

*** and above everything else, the mounting frustration with America’s biased and bumbling peace diplomacy, culminating in the abortive summit with President Clinton in Geneva last March, which allowed the whole Madrid process to run into the sand.

With these external challenges to wrestle with, it was little wonder that President Hafiz al-Asad opted for cautious continuity at home.

The Rise of Dr Bashar

Dr Bashar’s own grooming for power started immediately after his brother’s death in 1994. He was then 28. As a medical doctor, who had specialised in opthalmology in England for a couple of years, he did not seem the ideal choice to rule a country like Syria. But, over the next six and half years, from 1994 to 2000, he was put through a crash course in government -- two years in the armed services and then four and half years at his father’s knee, learning the politics of Syria, the region and the wider world.

He learned quickly. He was well-educated, thoughtful, discrete, personable, with gentlemanly manners, liberal instincts, scientific interests, and a more than amateurish knowledge of information technology. As was to become evident, he also had considerable steel in his character.

In the last two years of his life, President Hafiz al-Asad suffered from severe ill-health. Increasingly, Dr Bashar was drawn into the decision-making process, preparing papers for his father’s signature, taking in hand the complicated but vital relationship with Lebanon, launching a campaign against corruption, promoting the use of computers and the internet, edging into retirement long-serving members of his father’s Old Guard and replacing them with men closer to his own generation, and gradually becoming a sort of national Ombudsman, a point of reference for complaints and grievances, and thereby arousing in the country great expectations of change.

Last March, three months before his father’s death, Dr Bashar played a prominent role in the choice of a new cabinet under Prime Minister Muhammad Mustafa Miru. Then, immediately after his father’s death, when he himself was appointed Secretary-General of the ruling Ba’th Party, he reshuffled the Party’s Regional Command and Central Committee bringing in new men and women.

In all this time, he was well placed to observe the failings and inadequacies of Syria’s economy, of its political institutions, its government bureaucracy, its judiciary and prisons, its human rights record, its official media, its educational system, and to grasp the urgent need for reform in all these fields.

A Torrent of Decrees

As President of Syria since last July, he has unleashed a veritable ‘wind of change’ in almost every aspect of Syrian life. Dozens of decrees have been issued in the past six months — many had been gathering dust on his father’s desk for years -- and numerous laws drafted for approval by the People’s Assembly.

In this short talk, it will not be possible to spell out the reforms in detail. Headlines will have to suffice.

*** The economy. Syria has great economic potential — in tourism, in agriculture and agro-business, in oil and gas, in services — but this potential remains largely undeveloped. A resolute attempt is now being made to move away from the command economy of the past towards a market economy, with encouragement for the private sector.

Investors, both domestic and foreign are being courted, with permission to buy land above the ceiling prescribed by the land reform laws; with a flat corporation tax rate of 25%; with greater freedom to deal in foreign exchange and repatriate profits and capital; with a decision to create a unified exchange rate for the Syrian pound; with the right to form holding companies; and above all with moves to create a modern banking system, free of government control, by allowing private banks to operate, not just in the free zones, but onshore in Syria itself.

Syria is on good terms with Arab financial institutions and also with the EU, with which it has (very slowly) been negotiating an association agreement. Some ministers in the government expect help from these bodies in accelerating its economic reform programme. Syria is also back on good terms with the World Bank, as it will this year have paid off its arrears to that organisation.

*** Economic planning (under an energetic Minister of State, Dr Isam al-Za’im) is being given a greater role in the hope of providing a conceptual framework for development, which has been lacking in the past. A debate is underway to clarify the respective roles of the private sector and of the semi-moribund public sector. It is hoped that the latter will eventually be subject to ordinary norms of profitability.

*** A new minister of higher education, Dr Hassan Risheh, has been given the daunting task of improving skills and raising educational standards, especially in science and technology.

*** The President is particularly concerned to reform the government administration, which he sees as a necessary prerequisite for development, and to root out corruption. Government salaries have been increased by 25% -- not enough, but a start — and an example has been made of several public servants accused of corruption.

*** With regard to the country’s political institutions, attempts are being made to inject new blood into the ruling Ba’th party — as well as introducing the principle of accountability -- by holding free elections at all levels of the party (beginning this week).

Syria’s National Progressive Front, a grouping of half a dozen small parties or splinter groups around the Ba’th, was largely a rubber stamp, of little real substance or influence. Attempts are now being made to revitalise it, so as to create more genuine pluralism, by allowing the constituent parties of the NPF to issue their own newspapers, open branches and canvass for members.

Syrian Communist Party has been quick to seize this opportunity. Its organ, Sawt al-Sha’b (The Voice of the People) was the first on public sale.

The President has made clear his distaste for the cult of the personality, which was such a feature of his father’s regime. He has also let it be known that, when his current mandate ends in 2008, he does not wish to be the sole candidate at the next presidential elections.

The Awakening of Civil Society

-                            On the human rights front, the President has released 600 political prisoners, closed one or two notorious prisons, and submitted a draft law to the People’s Assembly for a general amnesty covering a wide range of common law crimes, including avoidance of military service and smuggling. The Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in Syria, which had been active underground for a decade, has come above ground in a different form. Its president, Aktham Na’iseh, has been released from jail and is allowed to travel abroad, but his colleague, the journalist Nizar Nayyuf, is still behind bars.

-                            A new publications law has been drafted ending government monopoly of the press. A well-known cartoonist, Ali Farzat, has applied for a license to issue a satirical paper, the first such an independent publication since the Ba’th revolution of 1963.

-                            But perhaps the most striking innovation of the past six months has been the far greater freedom of expression and association. There has been a veritable explosion of talk.

Earlier this month, several hundred intellectuals, variously estimated at between 200 and 1,000, signed a Basic Document, drafted by the so-called Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, urging the President to introduce wide-ranging political reforms. The Document calls for an end to the state of emergency, the release of all political prisoners, the repatriation of political exiles, the granting of political freedoms, the independence of the judiciary, full economic rights for all citizens, and — perhaps the most controversial demand of all -- the end of the Ba’th Party’s monopoly of political power.

The proliferation all over the country of Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, made up of writers, artists and academics but also of men in business and the professions, is the most obvious sign of the political awakening of Syrian society.

When the phenomenon first appeared last year, the all-powerful security services were understandably alarmed. This was not what they were used to. Their first instinct was to clamp down. The security chiefs checked with the President. What were his instructions? Did they have his authority to silence these mutinous voices?

The President’s answer was very clear: ‘You have every right — indeed it is your duty — to know what is going on, but you have no right to prevent it.’ The President has thus become the protector, indeed the patron, of the new liberal movement, but it remains to be seen how far he can go in meeting its demands.

Impact of the Palestinian Intifada

These on-going reforms are taking place at a time of unusual turbulence in Syria’s regional environment, requiring the greatest vigilance by the young President, as well as a suitable response. He has been busy at home, but also very busy abroad.

Two crucial developments have radically altered the strategic environment: first, the Palestinian intifada, which has been raging since the end of September and which has developed into guerrilla warfare against Israeli forces and settlers in the Occupied Territories; and secondly, the virtual collapse of America’s Middle East policy, not only in the Levant but also in the Gulf.

Both these developments have imponderable consequences. We don’t yet know whether Israelis and Palestinians, now cloistered at Taba in Egypt for marathon talks, will manage to reach an eleventh-hour agreement.

The Palestinians are no doubt concerned at the prospect of an Israeli government headed by Ariel Sharon, while Israel cannot be too happy at the advent of the Bush Administration, and the loss of its many friends in the American government and ‘peace team’. These fears in both camps may provide the stimulus for a deal.

Be that as it may, the intifada marks the end of a historic period of Israeli expansion, indeed it marks the beginning of a period of retraction. The Palestinian uprising has shattered the complacent view -- held very widely until a short while ago, and no doubt still held by some hard-liners -- that Israel could continue its creeping annexation of the West Bank unchecked, expand its settlements, return less than 50% of the territory to the Palestinians in isolated morsels, retain sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem, and ignore the refugee problem. That period is over. The current debate is largely over the division of Jerusalem, the fate of the Palestinian refugees and the drawing of Israel’s final borders. They are likely to be closer to the 1967 borders than anyone had thought possible.

This sea-change has been brought about by force and not by negotiations, just as the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was brought about by force and not by negotiation. The Lebanon model of guerrilla harassment has been imported to the Palestinian territories. The Palestinians are paying a heavy price for their ‘war of independence’, but they also stand to reap substantial benefits.

Needless to say, Israel has not welcomed these developments. Ever anxious to maintain its deterrent capability, it is most reluctant to admit that it has been forced to yield to Arab violence, but such is the case.

We are not yet, however, at the end of the story. If he comes to power, Sharon may well try to reverse this trend. More blood will flow. The flames could spread to Israel’s northern border, engulfing Lebanon and even Syria.

True to his reputation, Sharon may seek to crush the intifada by brute force and, in Lebanon, ‘finish the job’ he was not allowed to do in 1982 — and on which he has no doubt been brooding for the past 20 years.

These grave possibilities catch the United States unprepared and in the throes of a transition from one Administration to another. America’s reputation in the region is at an all-time low. It faces a wave of hostility, even of terrorist attack — such as crippled the USS Cole in Aden harbour last October -- because of what is seen as its one-sided support of Israel and its continuing punishment of Iraq, indeed its war against Islam.

Collapse of American Policy

The Clinton Administration’s record in the Middle East has not been a happy one. It has aroused the ‘Arab street’ and alienated the Muslim world.

Its biased sponsorship of the peace process has led to an unprecedented explosion of violence in the Palestinian territories. It failed to bring about an Israeli-Syrian settlement. And in the Gulf, the policy of ‘dual containment’, designed to isolate and cripple both Iran and Iraq, is in tatters. Sanctions against Iraq are crumbling and are increasingly seen as unsustainable, while Iran has long since escaped from ‘containment’. Attempts to check the flow of arms to Iran and Syria from such sources as Russia and North Korea — and so protect Israel’s military superiority — have proved vain. Iran and Russia have recently renewed their military cooperation.

In brief, the objective of reshaping the regional order to suit American and Israeli strategic interests has failed — but not for want of trying. Will the Bush Administration learn from these past failures and adopt a more balanced and impartial approach to the problems of the region? This is one of the great imponderables.

Continuity and Change in Syria’s Foreign Policy

Such is the dangerous regional context in which President Bashar, and Syria’s veteran foreign minister Farouk al-Shar’a, have had to shape and direct Syria’s external policy.

What has been the Syrian response? Again, I must restrict myself to headlines.

While change has been radical in domestic affairs, Syria’s foreign policy remains firmly within the guidelines laid down by the late Hafiz al-Asad.

Syria remains committed to seeking a just and comprehensive peace -- a peace that must result in the recovery of every inch of Syrian territory. This remains Syria’s top national priority. But Syria is also anxious that it should be a ‘peace of the strong’, as Hafiz al-Asad always sought. That is to say, it must be a peace based on mutual deterrence, ideally on a balance of power between the Arabs and Israel, and not rest on Israeli power alone.

This is seen to be all the more vital in view of Israel’s tendency, when under pressure, to resort to force and the threat of force. Indeed Syria has faced recent threats from Israel because of its support for Hizballah, whose guerrilla fighters have launched raids against Israeli forces in the Sheb’a farms, a small area of Lebanon still occupied by Israel. In the face of these threats, Syria has drawn some reassurance from Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have both warned Israel they would not tolerate an attack on Syria. (Western diplomats in Damascus point out that under International Law the Sheb’a farms are Syrian, and will only be considered Lebanese when the two countries sign a bilateral agreement to this effect and deposit it with the United Nations.)

Syria’s foreign policy remains centred around a number of axes.   

-                           The Damascus-Riyadh-Cairo axis remains the bedrock of Syria’s Arab policy, and Dr Bashar has done a great deal to foster it, with visits to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and close consultation with the leadership of both countries.

-                           The Damascus-Tehran axis, forged by Hafiz al-Asad over 20 years ago, remains Syria’s principal strategic alliance, and the object of much careful attention. Dr Bashar is at this moment on a visit to Iran, his fist official visit to a non-Arab country since his accession.

-                           The Syria-Lebanon axis is a vital element in Syria’s security strategy, as it has been since Syria’s armed intervention of 1976. Aware, however, that many Lebanese have come to resent the presence of Syrian troops,

Dr Bashar is anxious to put Syria’s relationship with Lebanon on a basis of equality, mutual interest and economic cooperation, without of course endangering Syrian vital interests. Day-to-day involvement in Lebanese affairs has already been greatly reduced, and is likely to be reduced further.

Dr Bashar’s New Initiatives

The new departures in Syrian foreign policy have been in the wider opening to Iraq, in the greatly improved relations with Turkey and in strong support for the Palestinian intifada, which seems likely to result in renewed ties between Syria and Yasser Arafat’s movement after long years of mutual suspicion. Arafat is expected in Damascus in the coming weeks. The Syrians have made clear that the firmer he is in negotiations with Israel, the more welcome he will be in Damascus. In the meantime, there could be no question of Syria resuming peace talks with Israel while Palestinians were being killed in the Occupied Territories.

Syria’s relations with Iraq are now firmly on the mend after decades of hostility. Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy premier, has come to Damascus no fewer than four times since Dr Bashar’s accession. Trade is brisk, and is likely to get brisker once Iraq’s reconstruction gets under way. The oil pipeline between Kirkuk and Banias on the Syrian coast has been repaired and is ready to be reopened. Some reports suggest it may already be in operation, although Syria does not want to be seen to be violating UN sanctions.

In any event, Syria and Iraq are now close to restoring full diplomatic relations, and there is much talk in Baghdad, Amman and Damascus of ‘Fertile Crescent’ integration. Bashar has spoken enthusiastically of Iraq as Syria’s strategic, economic and scientific depth. Cautiously, however, he does not want to move too fast, so as not to cause undue offence to some Western and Gulf powers.

Everyone is aware, moreover, that a really close alliance or strategic partnership between Damascus and Baghdad, if it were ever to come about, would not be to the liking of either Riyadh or Cairo, while it would be certain to fuel Israel’s paranoia about a ‘threat from the east.’

Syria’s relations with Turkey are now cordial and the crisis of 1998 a distant memory which both countries seem anxious to forget. Security agreements have been concluded to ensure that neither country is now a security threat to the other. Dr Bashar is himself planning an early visit to Turkey.

A result of the new warmth between Damascus and Ankara is that the Israeli-Turkish relationship now seems less threatening to Damascus.

Outstanding problems remain, however, and will need careful and no doubt prolonged negotiation. Syria wants its fair share of Euphrates waters, while Turkey would like Syria to renounce once and for all its claim to Alexandretta, which Syria lost in 1939 when it became the Turkish province of Hatay.

Looking at the pattern of Dr Bashar’s travels and his numerous foreign contacts since he became president one can conclude that he is opening up to Syria’s neighbours, much as his father did when he came to power in 1970. He sees trade and economic ties, as well as common security interests, as the essential basis for sound relations with Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. From Saudi Arabia and the Gulf he wants funds for development, and is doing his utmost to create a regulatory environment attractive to investors.

In politics, the need to find a counterweight to Israeli power, especially at a moment of crisis like the present, is always on his mind. Like his late father, Arab solidarity is his watchword, which he sees as an essential element in Syria’s long quest for a ‘peace of the strong’.

Dr Bashar hopes and expects the Bush Administration to be more sensitive than its predecessors to Arab interests. But the Syrian view is that the Arabs must count first and foremost on themselves.

As Foreign Minister Shar’a put it recently in a lecture in Damascus: ‘If we rely on foreigners in our quest for a just and comprehensive peace, we will have to wait a long time, and we will pay an exorbitant price. Everybody should realize that the onus is on us, Arabs and Muslims, to demonstrate cohesion, cooperation and solidarity. We should not permit others to disregard us or our rights.’

After six months in power, Dr Bashar is proving a hard-working, intelligent and effective ruler in his bid to modernise his country, as well as to protect it in an ever-dangerous environment.