Local Reporters Getting Warned
Syrian reporters are getting their hands smacked here for the first time in years. Two reporters told me yesterday that they had gotten warning calls from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs telling them that they were not being loyal to Syria because they had filed "irresponsible" articles.
This tells us:
1. The heat is back on in Damascus. Until recently one could write pretty much as he pleased. Now the foreign ministry is trying to shut people up.
2. Both Syrian reporters were steaming. They don’t like to have their citizenship invoked in criticism. It is the old way of doing things here and it gets people furious because there is no argument, just threats. Five years of relative freedom has changed Syrians a great deal. Six years ago, I would not be able to circulate so freely among reporters and professors. They would not have expressed their anger. They are also thinking in completely new ways. Watching satellite TV, traveling, and having the Middle East change around them, has changed their perspective and educated them to a completely new language.
3. The Ministry -- and government, by extension – are way over their heads on this. They don’t know how to deal with public relations and can’t even get their story straight. Every one here is tearing their hair out over the incompetence of the government spokes-people and officials. As one local political science professor said: “I was watching a government deputy speak on a satellite station last night and they said Syria would win against Israel and its enemies because it was strong and held up the banner of LOVE.” He looked at me dumbstruck and said: “How can they say such things? Where do they find such lines.”
4. Syria’s old cards are blowing up in its hands, as I reported several weeks ago. The Hariri killing followed by the fake confession on al-Iraqiyya TV by someone claiming he had been sent into Iraq in 2001 to join the opposition, and now the Islamic Jihad report have clobbered Syria. It is completely isolated. The Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian fronts have all boomeranged against Syria. They are not cards but self inflicted wounds. The government will have to give them all up to save itself. This is what my father-in-law, the general, said to me the day we heard about the Hariri assassination.
Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the Tel Aviv bombing without informing the government, according to sources here. The Syrian government probably had no foreknowledge of the Tel Aviv bombing and is severely embarrassed by the Islamic Jihad announcement. The reporter I spoke to said, “Islamic Jihad is much more irresponsible and rash than Hamas. There is going to be elections in Gaza soon and IJ is not popular and will lose. Thus, they organized the bombing to stake out their position on the extreme.” Obviously there is confusion in IJ ranks. The Gaza office denied responsibility when Damascus was taking credit.
Regional Ba’th Party Conference: I’ve been trying to follow the story of the planned meeting for the conference of the regional leadership of the Baath Party. (There is no “National Leaderhip.” That was the old Baath Party led by Michel Aflaq and Salah Bitar, which fled the country in 1966 and ended up in Iraq.) The meeting is important because many of the various ministries’ reform plans depend on the Party first changing its constitution to allow for a greater market economy (getting rid of socialism - Ishtirakiyya) and allowing for greater political freedom and pluralism (hurriyya).
A top Baathist explained to me that the Party could not meet in June or July as announced because Party elections have yet to take place. He explained that there are actual democratic elections by the Baath Party members for leadership. There are several layers of party organization extending from the very local level up to the top regional command. (I believe there are four layers altogether, but there may only be three) Each election, he said would take up to a month. Thus, if one does the math, it will be impossible to have the regional command meeting by July. The election process has not begun or even been announced.
Freedom: When I asked if the process was really democratic going right up to the top, he explained that it wasn’t. “The way it works,” he said, “is that at the lower levels the process is very democratic and correct. But at the last level it is not. The government leadership appoints who it wants to the regional command from the lower ranks.” He explained that many of the elected officials give wonderful and heated speeches after they are elected about how they want to change things. “Then they are punished.” He said. “They are not hurt,” he assured me, “just punished in various ways. They don’t get what they want. At the last level, it is “wila’” or loyalty to the leadership which counts.”
1. The Baath Party Conference cannot be help before this fall, if then.
2. Democratic elections take place in Syria among the lower ranks of the Baath Party.
3. Reformers are elected and rise up through the ranks. They are not rewarded for there reformism, however, unless they show loyalty to the leadership, which may contradict their reform plans.
4. The present pressure on Syria will surely halt most reform plans because there is a very high premium on loyalty to the regime right now.