Syria's Withdrawal from Lebanon Means More Internal Change
Yesterday was a day of celebration in Lebanon: 29 years of military occupation by Syria came to an end. Although the Lebanese and world press covered the story in detail, Syrians largely ignored the fanfare. It was not a proud day in Syria. In fact the Baath newspaper included no story about Lebanon on its front page.
There was some relief here as most people want to see the sordid affair of Syria's withdrawal concluded; they pray that the world spotlight will move elsewhere and the barrage of incriminations coming from Lebanon will subside. Relations between the two countries, which are so complex and intimate, are always described by Syrians in terms of a family. For the last thirty years they have been dysfunctional. Syrians now hope real brotherhood can be reestablished between the two societies. Everyone knows that will take time. The painful TV coverage of the demonstration in Beirut by family members of Lebanese who disappeared into Syrian prisons drove this home. My wife had to get up and leave the room when al-Arabia showed the wailing mothers and distraught brothers of missing Lebanese, who were demonstrating in front of parliament in Beirut, being beaten back by Lebanese troops. It was not easy to watch. Many in Syria hope Bashar will release the remaining Lebanese held in Syria and account for the missing as rapidly as possible. Only then will old wounds heal properly.
If Syrians have lost interest in Lebanon, they are ever more concerned about internal developments. The main story in the Baath newspaper was about the first round of elections for the Regional Party Congress that was concluded earlier this week. None of the statements by the successful candidates mentioned Lebanon or Syria's foreign relations. All were concerned with internal reforms. Candidate after candidate demanded that economic reforms be speeded up and that the public sector be realigned with the new demands of the Syria people. Without being explicit, the candidates are demanding more capitalism and a broadening of the free market. Many spoke out in favor of better healthcare and schools. All asked for better qualified public servants and administrative reform. Most complained that party members don't come to meetings implying that they are useless and that the party has lost its way. Society sees it as a bastion of clientalism and patronage. The candidates are clearly concerned that they are wasting their time running for elections and hope for the status and duties of the party can be clarified. How that will happen is anyone's guess.
The withdrawal from Lebanon leaves Syria facing a deep identity crises. All the billboards around town demanding that Syria strengthen its role in the region and defend Arabism cannot hide the fact the Syria has very little clout in Arab affairs. Perhaps this is a good thing. Syrians can now focus on putting their own house in order. The humiliation Syrians have experienced outside their borders over the last several months may be expiated by forward movement at home.
Hassan Fattah of the New York Times, helped by our very own Katherine Zoepf in Damascus has the most thoughtful and detailed report on Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon, entitled, "Syria Force Leaves Lebanon, but Political Puzzles Remain." In its last lines, the always smart Sami Moubayed is quoted:
In Syria the soldiers were met by rice-throwing well-wishers apparently organized by the government. But the sense of humiliation was hard to hide. The Syrians generally dismissed the Lebanese as ungrateful, said Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst.
"But the intellectual elite understands very well how Syria's place in the world has changed," Mr. Moubayed said. "The nationalists among them feel that everything Hafez al-Assad built is being squandered."
Nicholas Blanford has a good report as well With Syria out, Lebanon clout grows: The last Syrian troops left Lebanon Tuesday, ending 29 years of military domination.
Evan Osnos of the Chicago Tribute has a fine series of articles on Syria, which suggest that although the president's authority is limited and he must pit his own agenda against those of the powerful men around him, he has consolidated his power over the last months. (Thanks to Tony Badran for sending them my way.) Here is a bit from "Reform hinges on Syria's leader."
Old guard and new
At a Damascus meeting in October 2002, Assad waited until his aides left the room before he made a startling admission to Burns. If U.S. officials really hoped to talk to him, Assad said, they must avoid usual government channels and rely only on the special intelligence route created to share data on Al Qaeda. Only that channel, he said, "comes to me unfiltered," according to a former senior U.S. official briefed on the exchange.
Analysts have long described Assad as prisoner to an entrenched "old guard." But there are distinct signs that Assad holds far greater power than he did several years ago--and his decisions have not marked the decisive turn toward reform that many had predicted.
Indeed, some of the "new guard" he has promoted have been shunted aside, while others, including relatives, are becoming as entrenched as the men they replaced.
Three-quarters of the top 60-odd officials in political and security ranks were replaced by the end of 2002, according to German foreign policy analyst Volker Perthes. Last June, Assad retired 500 more military officers over age 60--a delicate move he considers vital to removing checks on his power, advisers say.
"The old officers believe that Hafez al-Assad brought them to power, but that they brought Bashar al-Assad to power," a senior adviser to the government said.
To understand that older generation, visit Jibran Kourieh, who spent 22 years as Syria's lead government spokesman until he retired three years ago. As he puffs a water pipe at a Damascus cafe, his crown of white hair, V-neck sweater and pinstriped suit give the air of an aging apparatchik, reinforced by his contempt for Mikhail Gorbachev as a leader who "destroyed the Soviet Union." Above all, Kourieh blames the U.S. for pressuring Assad into the position he faces today.
But asked how the father might have handled similar pressure, Kourieh said: "If President Hafez al-Assad was here, it wouldn't have reached this point. He passed through very serious situations in his time."
To counter the influence of that old guard, Bashar is turning to younger, largely Western-trained technocrats. His wife, Asma Akhras, a Syrian financial analyst raised in London, has taken a more public role, encouraging a civil society and small businesses. The president's younger brother Maher heads a key military unit, and Bashar promoted his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat to head of military intelligence.
But diplomats and critics say Assad's failure to rein in the economic advantages senior officials and relatives enjoy limits his power to reform the economy. Without Assad combating that corruption, critics say, powerful interests quash change.
"There is urgent need for economic reform," said economist Hussein Amach. "Unemployment is high, poverty is widespread, economic enterprises are losing in every kind of operation. Bureaucratic corruption is widespread."
But Amach knows that voicing such criticism can be dangerous. After openly urging reform of Syria's deeply corrupt public sector, he was fired Jan. 1 as head of Syria's Agency for Combating Unemployment. Like many before him, he had touched the government's rawest nerve. And for Assad, the criticism couldn't have come at a more sensitive time.
"OBSTACLE TO CHANGE: Corruption, nepotism stand in way of democracy"By Evan Osnos
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published April 22, 2005
DAMASCUS, Syria -- Like many Syrian entrepreneurs, Adnan Tarabishy knows what it takes to survive in business today.
"We have to bribe the officials from the Ministry of Finance to all other bodies in the government," he said. "It's a necessary fact."
Among obstacles to democratization in Syria, few loom larger than corruption, say analysts, diplomats and Syrian officials. Tax evasion is common. Political and family connections yield prized government contracts. Bribery is routine.
That integration of politics and economics is an important element in understanding why Syrian President Bashar Assad's pledges to reform his government have foundered. To supporters and critics, Assad appears caught in a political spiral: Corruption and inefficiency put mounting pressure on his government, but the reforms required could undermine his power.
Syria's economy is languishing. Economists say it has been in continuous recession, except for a few years in the early 1990s, since 1981. Moribund public companies cost the state millions in subsidies, and restrictive finance laws curtail private-sector development.
That is a bleak picture for businessmen like Tarabishy, an energetic, earnest 28-year-old who parlayed $1,500 and a roomful of rented furniture into a bustling business-training center and later an advertising firm. He sees a growing brain drain.
"We're supplying the market with highly educated people," he says of the Professional Development Institute he founded. "I don't like to be pessimistic, but 90 percent of our graduates are now out of Syria."
Assad bemoans the lack of economic and administrative reform.
"There are literally thousands of mediocre and fossilized bureaucrats who have been entrenched in their ministries for decades, don't want to change and don't know how to think . . . in a different way," he told former National Security Council analyst Flynt Leverett last year.
But Assad's family also profits from that system. His younger brother Maher "is increasingly notorious for his personal greed and complicity in corruption, as are the Makhlufs, Bashar's uncles, aunts and cousins on his mother's side," Leverett writes in a new book on Syria.
Those connections circumscribe Assad and his advisers' ability to make bold changes. "They do not want social upheaval," said Damascus economist Riad Abrash, a former deputy minister of planning. "They want stability."
I am also copying the useful information about the recently fired Presidential advisor, Nibras al-Fadil, given by one recent comment.
Here's a link to a bit more information on the Nibras al-Fadel affair. The site is that of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the last time I was in Syria it was blocked, so I don't know if you'll be able to open it:
Check it out today because the site is updated daily so you might miss it if you wait. Apparently his firing is the talk of a very large number of people, and seen as a major loss to reformers. Let me also note that the website is among the most reliable and accurate, so despite my disgust of the brotherhood and their ilk, u can probably count on what they're saying.
Also I did a search in the Daily Star newspaper, trying to find what exactly Nibras said that got him fired (of course that is if the all4syria account that the interview was the reason he was kicked out is true)...I found about 4-5 articles that mentioned him, and given that the all4syria said the interview he did with Daily Star was about a month and a few days old, I think that they are referring to this article:
If I am correct that it is this article, the words that might have done him in are his saying that in order to maintain stability and prosperity in Syria, one of the things that should be done, in his words, is "not pitting different religious, ethnic and other population groups against each other".
Perhaps the leadership circles saw it as his hinting that that's what the Alawi regime is doing.... However other things he said that might have done him in are his saying that its important to have "good governance and democratic values, promoting human rights, dignity and freedom".... or his saying that: "the leadership should take advantage of the upcoming Baath Party congress to transform it from a party to a national congress, setting the stage for the sorts of deep, structural changes that are needed to provide the foundation for economic and political reforms".....or perhaps his complaining of: "high levels of corruption, informality and patronage"... (focus on the word patronage).
Anyway, I'll leave you to read the article, but his words are truly impressive, and unheard of in Syrian official circles...which is unfortunately why he was probably fired.
Peace, Syrian in Canada
If anyone wants to know what it is like reporting on the Iraq-Syrian border this story by FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye is interesting and well done.