Would it be Better for Syria to have Regime-Change Now or in 5 Years?
The other evening I argued with a Syrian friend - a smart and established journalist - over whether Syria should have regime-change now, or sometime in the future, let's say in five years.
I argued that regime-change now would be a mistake and would hold many unforeseen and unpredictable dangers. My friend argued the opposite. He said the sooner there is regime-change the better. "You are out of touch with real Syria," he said. "Who do you see? The wealthy and well off. Look at the growing number of poor in the suburbs of Damascus" he suggested. "Look at the poverty in the countryside, the growing number of unemployed, etc."
I argued that Syria has no organized opposition that has any experience. The ethnic and sectarian divisions among Syrians are real and wide. There is very little "liberal" consciousness among the broad masses. "If there is revolution or regime-change now," I argued, the chance of Syria heading toward chaos or even civil war is high - too high to risk."
I came home and looked up the numbers. In Syria there is a growing absolute number of poor, but a declining number of poor as a percentage of the population. Anyway, the elites are more important than the poor in governing the country successfully. They must be prepared to take power.
In a report written six years ago, the poverty in all MENA (Middle East and Near East) countries was summed up like this:
We calculated the number of poor people in MENA in 1985 and 1994 according to different poverty lines ranging from spending per-capita of $21 to $60 per month. One conclusion that emerges is that, irrespective of the choice of the poverty line, the actual number of poor in MENA has increased between 1985 and 1994. If instead of measuring the number of poor, we measure the proportion of poor in the population, we observe that the percentage of poor people has decreased between 1985 and 1994, again irrespective of the choice of the poverty line.In conclusion, my friend is right: there are more poor people. But he is wrong to argue that the problem is getting worse. It isn't. The percentage is declining, although too slowly.
In terms of the rate of annual growth, Syria has been in the middle of the MENA pack since the Baath revolution of 1963, but much of that growth has been wiped out by the high population increase. (Syrian growth rate in the 1950s was much higher.) Here is what FAO has to say:
During the last four decades economic growth in Syria has advanced at a rate of 4.6 percent per year on average (between endpoints of the 1963-1999 period). This is a good rate of growth in the long term for many countries. Unfortunately, the growth in population in Syria is also quite high (3.3 percent average over the same period). Growth has accompanied the rapid growth in population, which is a real achievement, but per capita income has remained stagnant in the long-term, alternating ups and downs. The economy has progressed on a cyclical pattern of periods of rapid growth followed by periods of stagnation or decline. The 1990s have been a period of growth, but a decreasing rate,More up to date figures (1990-2001) also give a fairly high rate of growth. Here is what the UN says according to the Globalis World Indicator Information on Syria
Indicator: GDP per capita annual growth rate - 1990-2001Syria is squarely in the middle of GDP per capita annual growth rates for 1990-2001 at 1.9%
Description: GDP per capita annual growth rate: Annual GDP growth per person. Least squares annual growth rate, calculated from constant price GDP per capita in local currency units.
Source: Human Development Report (UNDP)
Syria is below the following countries (the figure is the rate of growth)
United Kingdom 2.5
United States 2.1
It should be added that Syria's population growth rate has been falling sharply in the last decade. Today it is 2.7% and not 3.3%, as it used to be.
Growth in the last few years has also been down. In 2002 it was around 4%. It fell dramatically to 2.5% in 2003 because of the US invasion of Iraq, but picked up again to 3.9 estimated in 2004 and is supposed to grow even faster in 2005 (projected 4.3).
The basic picture for Syria is improving because the country is getting population growth under control. Non-oil growth should be good in the coming years because of Asad's financial, tourist, diplomatic (think Turkey) and investment reforms. It should be added that the withdrawal from Lebanon may also end up having a positive effect on the Syrian economy in the long term. Remittances are sharply down because of the return of Syrian workers, but overall foreign investment is growing.
The UAE investment firm, Majid al-Futtaim, is beginning the single largest investment project in Syria - a series of hotels, Mall, restaurants, playgrounds for kids, movie theaters, etc. on the road to Beirut. Initial investment is 300 million dollars, but the plan is to eventually invest 1 billion in the coming years. The firm's outlook is good because tourism was up this spring by 30%. Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon should not hurt the project, which will rely heavily on Gulf and Lebanese consumer tourism. As one person, knowledgeable about the project, suggested to me, "these sorts of mega-projects will transform the face of the Syrian economy in five years. Syrians will develop a new consumer culture."
Of course, Syrian oil production is due to decline in the coming decade, so that is bad news, but it isn't perhaps as dire as some suggest it will be.
All the same, Syria's per capita income is not good. The country is poor compared to other MENA countries. This is due to bad management. Here are the UN figures provided by Gobalis. Indicator: GDP per capita - 2002
Syria is ranked country 96 out of 152 countries listed. Its adjusted GDP per capita is $3,620
Egypt is #94 and Morocco is #95 on the list. They are immediately above Syria at $3,800. Jordan is country #91, Lebanon is #89 at $4,360 GDP per capita.
The only Arab countries that are poorer per person are Sudan and Yemen, which are well below Syria. This is why Congressman Tom Lantos (D-California) told Yale University students recently
that Syria is now the third poorest country in the region, behind only the Sudan and Yemen, and that its economy is "desperately" in need of foreign investment. "What Syria has is disinvestment," Lantos said. "Any Syrian with money gets it out of the country."Another reason to expect Syrian growth rates to be below potential is its on-going battle with the US.
About US-Syrian relations, Lantos was not as optimistic as he was about US-Libyan relations. He recounted a visit he made to the country in the spring of 2003, in which he met with President Bashar Assad and proposed a "road map" for stabilizing relations with the United States. Lantos urged Assad to close down terrorist offices in the country, withdraw its 17,000 troops from Lebanon, quell "vicious" anti-American propaganda in Syria andThe point I am arguing here is that the state of the Syrian economy is not a reason to wish immediate regime-change. It is growing, contrary to the belief of many.
close down its border with Iraq.
"He was shown evidence of Syrians supplying everything anti-American forces need," Lantos said.
Unfortunately, said Lantos, "Assad has chosen not to follow the path of Libya." Hence, he told his audience, he is recommending that U.S. policy toward the country be "the exact opposite course" of what he proposed for Libya.
The reason for sticking with President Asad is because of Syria's institutional and ideological weaknesses. If change comes before Syria has real institutions, capable of guiding the country, the government may collapse as did Iraq's. There would be chaos and possibly civil war as we saw in Lebanon.
The counter-example is Egypt. Egypt's state institutions are growing in strength and independence. They are exploiting the political opening being offered the country by President Mubarak to assert their corporate identity and independence. A week ago, 2000 Egyptian judges said they would not oversee the elections unless they were given independence and legal autonomy. Read this article in today's NYTimes by Hassan Fattah:
Egyptian Judges Are Entering Growing Reform Movement
CAIRO, May 19 - When thousands of Egyptian judges gathered in Cairo last week to demand greater independence from the government, they highlighted the entry of a powerful new force in the country's growing reform movement: official institutions.Syria is at least 5 years behind Egypt in developing independent institutions, maybe ten years. Some will argue that as long as the Baath is in power in Syria, the country will never be allowed to develop independent institutions or free thinkers.
Long taken for granted as appendages of the government, some institutions are less willing to tolerate business as usual this election year. The judges' extraordinarily public step is perhaps the most obvious display of resistance, and builds on a similar call by judges in Alexandria weeks earlier.
In small ways, institutions like Parliament and the state-controlled news media have begun to show a degree of independence too. While small groups of protesters demanding greater democracy and an end to President Hosni Mubarak's government are now taking to the streets, the greatest potential for change may lie in those official institutions.
"The return of real politics has put many institutions back in the limelight, and these institutions are beginning to work for change," said Abdel Monem Said, director of the Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, a government-backed research and policy organization.
The institutions are presenting Mr. Mubarak with an unexpected challenge from within, one that will be difficult to dismiss. "The fact is, major changes in this country are going to come out of those institutions, not from the streets," Mr. Said said.
I disagree. This last month we witnessed a minor uprising in the ranks of the Baath Party itself over the irregularities of the Party elections. A petition was circulated by Party members such as Ayman Abdul Nour and signed by many highly placed Baathists complaining about the corruption of the elections and demanding that 100 qualified reformers be added to the Party Congress, which has roughly 1,200 members, and from which the Command Council of 21 members will be selected.
Many argue, and I think convincingly, that Bashar is trying to build more professional ministries - that he is, in effect, an institution builder, who is trying to replace patronage and clientele networks with well qualified personnel in legally based institutions.
Bashar's distaste for the security institutions of the country and his veering away from reliance on the military is evident. I will recount one story which underlines his alienation from the Military and traditional pillars of the regime.
A good friend recently retuned to Syria for a three week visit to see if he wants to bring his family here and start a business. He has lived abroad for nine years and is a successful engineer working for a multinational corporation. He is Alawite and a son of a retired minister.
He said he visited 14 school friends when he traveled up the coast to Tartus and Banyas, and added:
You know how most everyone on the coast (Alawites) depends on the Army, either directly or indirectly? Well, they all said that the present regime no longer respects the army, and people follow suit. In the old days everyone knew that Hafiz was "ta’ifi," sectarian. They supported him because they knew he was pulling for them and was helping them. They no longer feel that way. They said the moral in the army was zero. They said that this president might as well be a Kurd or Sunni because he no longer favors the military and doesn't reach out to his people (Alawites).I have heard similar stories from many others. When I asked my mother-in-law (wife of a retired general) if this was true, she raised her eyebrows, as if to suggest I was an idiot son-in-law for asking such a stupid question. "Yes, of course. They used to respect the army but now people look at us with dislike and sometimes even loathing."
I asked why.
"Because we lost 4 wars," she quickly answered. "We haven't received any new arms in ten years. The training is nothing. No one cares about the army anymore. People don't believe in Baathism or in the government. The officers are not like they used to be. There are no longer any great men among them whom people respect; they are corrupt. It is not like the old days when everyone looked up to the military and the officers sacrificed to build their country and believed in Syria."
I have no clue whether this "Golden Age" of military heroism ever existed, but I suspect there is something to Umm Firas' comments. She is smart and a keen judge of men. A picture of Abu Firas shaking President Nasser's hand on the day of his graduation from the UAE Naval Academy in 1960 hangs proudly in their living room. They look at the 1960s as a time when military men were giants. Of course, they were young then and idealistic. But I doubt many young men going into the army today are as idealistic.
Anyway, the moral of this story is that Bashar has abandoned the military. My friend and mother-in-law believe this is dangerous. It probably is, although, I don't believe the dispirited military is likely to cause Bashar real problems. It does suggest, however, that the president is not doing business as usual. He was not brought up in the military like his father and brother, Basil. He is counting on the work of his reformist ministers - Planning, Economy, Tourism, Finance, etc. - and not on the security forces to build a new Syria and create support for his presidency and regime.
Many believe Bashar's strategy is foolish and will lead to eventual collapse. It may be, but it should be supported. The longer he gives reformers a chance and keeps the intellectual environment open for people to criticize, question and debate, the better off Syria will be.
If the West squeezes Syria too hard and too quickly, causing premature collapse, Syria may end up in chaos. The new institutions are not ready to take on the responsibility of running the country or guiding it through real turbulence. They are not as mature as Egypt’s institutions. All the same, they are headed in that direction. Very few people in government believe in Baathism. Given time, they will chose independence and honesty over corruption and slavish obeisance to the regime. There are many good people in the government. Syria needs them working on its side. They will in time.
The bankruptcy of present ideological thinking in Syria is the second reason why regime-change today is a bad idea. Syria has no developed national consciousness or clearly articulated national idea. Having a developed and well defined sense of the nation is crucial to the success of democracy. There can be no setting the "rules of the game" of democracy or establishing a national social contract if citizens cannot agree what game they are playing. They must know where their borders are and embrace fellow citizens as legal equals. Syrians must want to be Syrians.
Since its inception in 1918 following WWI, Syrians have denied the legitimacy of their national borders and a Syrian national identity. Instead they chose Arab nationalism - the unity of the Arab countries. This has failed. In the meantime, all reference to a Syrian national identity has been practically outlawed. Schoolbooks from grades 1 to 12 do not include the word Syria. I wrote an article about Islamic education in Syria for which I read the required books students must read in every grade. There is not one mention of Syria. The word does not appear in the curriculum.
The Syrian National Party was outlawed until last week. It has been since 1955. President Quwatli in 1946, when the French left the country, stated that he "would never raise the Syrian flag above the flag of Arab nationalism." Every Syrian president has made good on that promise since. The Syrian constitution says that Syria is a "region" of the "Arab nation." Syria exists as a geographical entity, but not as a national identity. Syrians love their country, but they deny that there is such a thing as a Syrian nation or particularity that is Syria.
As Karfan (an Alawite) recently wrote on his blog:
No one believes in the Arab identity joke anymore and our Kings have made all efforts to erase and destroy any attempt of creating a Syrian Identity that gathers all of us. Eventually people find that those stupid sectarian and religious identities are the only way to belong... What is left for them to believe or belong to? Nothing.Karfan is right. Without Arabism, Syrians have only their sectarian communities to fall back on, because Syrianism has been denied to them. The strength of sectarian identities in Syria is potentially very dangerous should there be sudden regime-change. Syrians would do well to work out a national identity that is at peace with their borders before facing into political uncertainty.
Syrians are beginning to back into a Syrian national identity. The withdrawal from Lebanon has forced the issue. So has Bush's campaign against Arabism; so has the "me first" campaigns of Jordan and all the other countries of the Arab world. The Jordan first, Egypt first, etc. campaigns are killing political Arabism. Syria is not far behind, but it is behind.
If the present Damascus Spring is accomplishing anything, it is changing the way Syrians see themselves, the way they relate to other Arab countries, and the way they see their own destiny.
The political opposition in Syria has failed to articulate a Syrian national identity and is still caught in the web of Arabism, although there are some nascent parties that have adopted a purely Syrian-democratic platform. (Riad al-Turk's old Communist wing just renamed itself the "Syrian Democratic Popular Party" three days ago to great fanfare. It is happening.
But there is still no real opposition. There are only talking heads and mini groups. They are not organized, nor are they ready to lead a country.
Syria needs time. The West should squeeze but not break.