Bashar al-Assad and the ‘Damascus Spring’

On the 17th of July 2000 president Bashar al-Assad inherited his father’s regime, after the latter, Hafez al-Assad, had past away a month earlier. The smooth transfer of power to Bashar made Syria the ‘first Arab republican hereditary regime’ (Middle East Report, 2004). According to many political scientists who wrote about Syria under the rule of Hafez al-Assad – among others David Roberts (1987) – the political structure was characterized by stability and centralized rule based on Hafez’s personal authority. His son however choose, faced with the difficulties of his time like the increasing corruption amongst its political and economic elites and diminishing popular support base for the new regime on the account of widening economic inequalities, to lead ‘his’ Syria in a different direction. These ‘plans’ for a regime change, which got widely attention under the metaphor ‘Damascus Spring’, consisted of a package of promises by Bashar al-Assad of economic and political reforms. It was a period of high optimism among the Syrians: the period saw the emergence of some seventy ‘dialogue clubs’ for discussions between Syria’s civil society and its political elites - opposition parties played an active role in this period - and two private magazines, Ad-Dumari and Al-Iqtisadiyya, were licensed to function (Rais, 2004). These are just some of the many examples which showed the promising plans of Bashar al-Assad, underlined by his inaugural speech to the nation on July 17, 2000, in which he outlined his reforms to bring ‘change’ to Syria:

‘…we need economic, social and scientific strategies that may serve both development and steadfastness… it has become necessary to move in steady though gradual steps toward performing economic changes through the modernization of laws, the erosion of bureaucratic obstacles standing in the way of internal and external investment flow ...democracy is our duty toward others before it becomes a right for us...administrative reform is a pressing need for all of us today…let us work together as a team’.1

Ten years later however, these promising economic and political reforms have not been introduced at all, further delaying any possibility of a fundamental change being effected in Syria in the near term. So the main question which I like to raise in this relatively short article, is the question to what extent these failing promises can be attributed to Bashar al-Assad himself? Or does the economic and political situation in Syria anno 2010, say more about the fundamental, inherent major structural problems of the regime in power?

The ‘Damascus Spring’ came to an astonishing end on August 9, 2001, when Mamun al Homsi, an independent legislator representing Damascus, was arrested after he launched a hunger strike in opposition to the widespread corruption in state institutions and the nature of security measures in use by the regime.2 When looking to the causes of this regime change ‘back into the old direction’, different authors have drawn different conclusions. According to Gary C. Gambill (2001), the slow pace of economic liberalization in Syria is a product of political obstacles. He says, ‘Economic liberalization creates a new set of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. It will empower the less dominant groups in the Syrian society which would then weaken the control over the regime of the dominant elite, mostly consisting of senior Alawite military officers.’ Other observers, however, point to the lack of influence Bashar al-Assad has on a few essential institutions forming the system. The ICG’s Middle East Report of February 11, 2004, quotes an opposition activist as saying: ‘Bashar al-Assad does appear to have consolidated power to some extent but at the same time he needs the support of ruling Syria in concert with other power centers, like the political/economic elite, the army and security services. Some even believe that Bashar al-Assad does not actually rule Syria but rather that the decision-making is carried out by the authoritarian and inflexible political system steered by the Baath party, security services and the elite.’ So, these quotes show to some extent the limited power of Bashar within the Syrian political system. A third and final example of the failed ‘Damascus Spring’ has been described by Stephen Glain in his book Dreaming of Damascus, explaining the system as: ‘the Baath Party and the economy are highly fused. To reform one is to disrupt and distort the other’. In this quote Glain refers to the widespread corruption in the economic and administrative domains of the government. According to Glain any sudden reversal of the system could disrupt it entirely without an alternate in place. With this argument in mind we might be better able to understand the following, often repeated, quote of Bashar al-Assad: ‘…freedom must not collide with national unity, or with state security and stability.’1

To come back on the main question raised in this article - about whether the disappointing outcome of the promising ‘Damascus Spring’ should be contributed to Bashar al-Assad himself or to the economic and political structure he inherited from his father Hafez al-Assad? – one might be able to conclude that the slow pace of economic and political reforms points more to the inherent major structural problems of the regime in power than the individual heading it. Although I would like to recognize that this article is far the limited, to draw a definitive conclusion on this matter, many of the observers discussed above show a tendency which rather points to the limitations of the political and economic system in Syria – like the fusion of the Baath Party into the economy, the strict division between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ within the economic liberalization and the enormous power of institutions like the security service and the army – than to the individual capacities of Bashar al-Assad himself.

References

Gambill, C. Gary (2001). ‘The Political Obstacles to Economic Reform in Syria’. Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 3, No. 7.

Glain, S. (2003). Dreaming of Damascus: Merchants, Mullahs and Militants in the New Middle East. London: John Murray Publishers, p.77.

Rais, R. Faiza (2004). Syria under Bashad al-Assad: a profile of power.

Roberts, D. (1987). The Ba’th and the creation of Modern Syria. London and Sydney: Croom Helm.

Syria under Bashar (I): Foreign Policy Challenges en Syria under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy Challenges, 2004, International Crisis Group, Middle East Report
23 + 24, 11 February.

1. Bashar al Assad’s Inaugural Address, http://www.al-bab.com/arab/
countries/syria/bashar00a.htm.

2. Keesing’s Record of World Events, August 2001, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 44371-44370.