Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Whither Syria? Glasnost? Comments and an article by Moubayed

As usual, Sami Moubayed has written one of the smartest analyses of the Baath Party Conference. It is a must read. He also answers readers’ questions about Nabil Fayyad returning to Damascus and tries to put the many changes in leadership positions in context.

Sami captures the Baath's contradictory message well. On the one hand, the Baath Conference was meant to be a show of strength and unity; on the other hand, Bashar does have a reform program that many within the Party and security forces must believe will endanger the regime's grip on power. How can he do both - reform and preserve power? Bashar's challenge was to reassure the regime faithful that he is not jeopardizing their future, while simultaneously reassuring Syrians that he will push ahead with reforms and will not be held captive by the Baath Party. The Party acts both as a shadow government in Syria and as a roadblock on the road to change. Proclaiming that Syria will not change and that it will change is not an easy message to convey. It is an even harder policy to enact.

Sami’s comparison to Glasnost in the Soviet Union is apt. Many people are wondering how the president can open up the system without destroying the foundations of the regime. It is clear that Syria is no China. Its economy cannot grow fast enough under present conditions to prolong the one party state into the distant future. Syria will not produce a miracle. The Soviet Union and Glasnost is the obvious alternative path for Syria. Bashar promises that he can find a third way to ensure stability and a freer economy - some sort of darb al-Akhdar. Most third ways in the Middle East have not been a success.

Everyone in Damascus is asking "wither Syria?" There is great insecurity about the future. A number of smart analysts, unable to see how the regime will break out of its present paralysis, are predicting total collapse in several years. This would manifest itself in the outbreak of scattered sectarian and tribal violence as economic pressure grows. They see the reassertion of sub-national loyalties and the renewed formation of politically active Islamist groups. Ammar Abdulhamid is but one of these analysts. See his recent editorial, "Flexibility allows for hope, rigidity precipitates mayhem."

The readers of "Syria Comment" have also been discussing the future of Syria in the comment section of the last 5 posts or so. It is quite clear that people are perplexed. Many are democrats, but one can also see in the insults, a high level of sectarian hatred and desire for vengeance. I don't know what other words to use.

Here is Sami's article.

A hint of glasnost for Syria
Sami Moubayed

A week after the Ba'ath Party conference in Syria, which many people believed could mark significant change in the country, it's clear that it was foolish to think the Ba'athists would willingly abandon their status in government. On the contrary, the conference came out with a very strong message to Syrians and the world: the Ba'ath is here, as it has always been since 1963, and plans to stay around for a whole lot longer.

The majority of Syrians were misinformed about what the conference would bring. Some talked about a general amnesty. Some said that law 49, which says that membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is a capital offense, punishable by death, would be abrogated. Others dreamt of a pardon for all political exiles. Many believed that article 8 of the constitution, which says that the Ba'ath Party is the leading party of state and society, would be amended.

None of the above happened, yet the conference came out with the advice to the Syrian leadership that the Ba'ath Party's role in daily decision-making had come to an end. The party will supervise, but not interfere in, the mechanisms of government. According to the London-based daily al-Hayat, the number of cabinet seats allocated to the Ba'ath will be reduced from 17 to 10.

The Ba'ath still had a lot to offer Syria, its assembled leaders said. If anything, the conference showed that President Bashar Assad is totally in control of domestic affairs, despite what many people have speculated in the Arab and Western press.

Number one on the reform list was the retirement of many members of the Ba'ath Party, some of whom had been in office since 1963. With a few exceptions, these were the same men whom the press had accused of hampering reforms since 2000, claiming that Assad had been unable to get rid of them.

Among those to lose their jobs were ex-chief of staff Ali Aslan, his deputy Abd al-Rahman Sayyad, ex-chief of Military Intelligence Hassan Khalil, ex-director of political security Adnan Bader Hasan, ex-vice presidents Abd al-Halim Khaddam and Zuhayr Masharka, ex-premier Mohammad Mustapha Miro, ex-defense minister Mustapha Tlas, ex-assistant secretary generals of the Ba'ath Abdullah al-Ahmar and Sulayman Qaddah, ex-speaker of parliament Abd al-Qadir Qaddura, and two generals, Shafiq al-Fayyad and Ibrahim al-Safi.

Many in Syria were unimpressed, claiming that retiring officials who had been in the Ba'ath for 40 years, and replacing them with those who have been around for 20 years, cannot be called real reform. On June 16, Assad launched a security shake-up to further make his point that matters were changing in the country. The president replaced Bahjat Sulayman, the strong director of internal security at General Intelligence, with Fouad Nasif, an officer from Military Intelligence.

Mohammad Sa'id Bukhaytan, an "enlightened" Ba'athist, has replaced the aged and ailing Abdullah al-Ahmar as deputy secretary general of the party, while Hisham Ikhtiyar, a retired officer from Damascus, has replaced Bukhaytan as national security adviser. Ali Maamlouk, another Damascene officer in his mid-50s, has become the new director of General Intelligence. He has promised, according to a popular online news bulletin, to minimize interaction between the intelligence offices and Syrian citizens, emphasizing that intelligence officers had a duty to monitor the security of Syria, not the affairs of its citizens.

He also said he would tolerate political dissent and not persecute citizens for views that were opposed to the Ba'ath Party. This might explain why, coinciding with his appointment, was the arrival to Syria, from the US, of US-based opposition member Nabil Fayyad, who joined the Party of Syrian Reform earlier in the year. Fayyad, a one-time ally of the Syrian regime, fled to join US-based opposition leader Farid al-Ghadry. Surprisingly, although he called for "regime change" while based in America, and promoted himself as "president of the Reform Party-Syrian branch", Fayyad has not been touched by the Syrians.

Abdullah al-Dardari, a non-Ba'athist and highly respected man in Syria who studied in Great Britain, worked at the United Nations Development Program, and had been director of the State Planning Bureau since 2003, became deputy prime minister for economic affairs. Walid al-Moualim is tipped to become minister of foreign affairs. Moualim's appointment is due to his good relations with Washington, where he served as ambassador from 1990 to 2000. He is expected to mend relations with the White House and end Syria's isolation after the Lebanon debacle, which he recently handled until Syria withdrew its troops after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February.

This is the biggest shake-up in Ba'athist history since late president Hafez Assad came to power in November 1970. The changes put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the Syrian president. For five years, Syrians have believed their president was a reformer, but that those around him were not. Overnight, Assad got rid of them all. True, this pleases Syrians for today, but it also leaves no excuse for delayed reforms from now on. The people also believed that Ba'athist interference in day-to-day affairs of the state was a damper on reforms, since whenever the Ba'athists wished they could arrest or fire people, or delay legislation, claiming that it "contradicted the principals of the revolution". At the conference, this revolutionary term has been dropped and the Ba'athists recommended that the party be separated from government affairs, echoing a law issued by the Ba'ath in 2003.

Another noted reform was the Ba'ath conference recommendation that Syria authorize the creation of political parties, not necessarily affiliated with the Ba'ath. Effectively, this breaks the Ba'ath Party's monopolization of power since 1963. A law is yet to be issued, yet a group of activists has already taken matters into its own hands and issued a declaration to create the Movement of Free Patriots, in Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city.

Its main founder and spokesman is Samir Nashar, a 60-year-old businessman and political activist who belongs to the mercantile class of Aleppo and who has been active in civil society movements since 2000, being a co-founder of the Abd al-Rahman Kawakbi Salon for Political Debate in Aleppo. Two of the founders, Dr Talal Kayyali and Mustapha al-Jabiri, are part of the political establishment that ruled Syria, academically known as the "urban notables", before the Ba'ath Party came to power in 1963.

The Soviet model
With all these events taking place in Syria, many are starting to draw a parallel between the Ba'ath Party conference of 2005 and the Communist Party conference in the USSR in 1986. Syria must read the details of Mikhail Gorbachev's 1986 conference because they were the cornerstone that created the new Russia that exists today.

Gorbachev attacked the recent past, pointing out that mistakes had been made, but individuals were responsible for them, and not the Communist Party. The Soviet conference called for a more flexible system of economic management, the loosening of outdated bureaucratic laws, encouraging greater openness, less interaction between Soviet citizens and the secret police, and more publicity about the shortcomings of the regime. This was called glasnost. It unwillingly exposed the weakness of the Soviet system and the much-needed reforms in all sectors of life. Censorship eroded, taboos were lifted, banned works were published, and writers were permitted to explore forbidden themes. Through glasnost, Gorbachev attempted to mobilize the intelligentsia to his side, in addition to the Soviet youth, something that Assad has been trying to do since 2000.

The Soviet press became more transparent, and people were allowed to learn of the mistakes of the past. When the reality of failure became so clear to everyone, Gorbachev abolished high school exams in 1988. History books in the USSR had been used to glorify the Communist Party and its role in Russian history. It was pointless to maintain these exams in 1988, since so many of these myths had been challenged or destroyed completely by the openness and transparency of glasnost. Will this take place in Syria? Syria's curriculum, after all, has concentrated on glorifying the post-1963 era and describing everything that preceded it as "regressive" and "wrong".

As the world watched in admiration, Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan, just like Assad has withdrawn his troops from Lebanon. Assad does not want to dismantle the regime of the Ba'ath Party. He wants to reform Syria from within, yet maintain the status quo. There is a general consensus in Syria of him being a true president if he succeeds in implementing glasnost.

Assad wants to restore the confidence of the Syrian people in Syria. In June 1988, at the Communist Party's 19th conference, Gorbachev dictated that party committees could no longer issue instructions to the state, or enforce (and hamper) economic legislation. The Communist Party was not above the law, he added, and should cease its role as administrator of the whole country. The USSR should democratize, he added, on the basis of multiple candidates, and this was echoed by Assad in an interview with Spanish journalists in March when he said that "the future will be for political parties in Syria".

Thousands of prisoners were released by Gorbachev, again, as Assad is doing in Syria. In March alone, Assad released 312 Kurdish dissidents arrested for creating disturbances in 2004, and since coming to power in 2000, has released over 1,000 political prisoners. Still, many remain behind bars, including parliamentarians Riyad Sayf and Maamoun al-Homsi, economist Arif Dalilah, and Ali al-Abdullah, an activist arrested last month for reading a declaration on the behalf of the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet this past week, a European Union parliamentary delegation visiting Syria received assurances from the authorities that all political dissidents, including Sayf and Homsi, would be released within a week. With regard to the Kurds, Assad has also promised to grant 225,000 of them Syrian citizenship, which they were deprived in 1962, before the Ba'athist regime came to power.

As the press became more open in the USSR, the Soviets, just like the Syrians today, began to understand why the truth had been kept away from them for so long. The truth is that the USSR was in a mess, and for the first time since 1917, the people were demanding answers to the question: what went wrong, and why? The same mood prevails in Damascus today: Syria is in a mess, and the people want answers.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.
Asia Times (July 21, 2005).


At 6/22/2005 08:37:00 AM, Anonymous Syrian Republican Party said...

......"number of smart analysts, unable to see how the regime will break out of its present paralysis, are predicting total collapse in several years. This would manifest itself in the outbreak of scattered sectarian and tribal violence as economic pressure grows. They see the reassertion of sub-national loyalties and the renewed formation of politically active Islamist groups......." Nothing has changed in Syria. After 43 years of secular rule, the most successful strategy a party can follow is seperation of Party and People in Syria, Baathism style.

At 6/22/2005 08:39:00 AM, Anonymous Syrian Republican Party said...

3 Days test run on this platform, convinced SRP leadership that the original assumptions were right.

At 6/22/2005 08:56:00 AM, Anonymous kingcrane said...

As usual, Sami Moubayyed is the best to give an unbiased, fair and accurate view of what is going on in Syria.

At 6/22/2005 09:15:00 AM, Anonymous dsp said...

Nabil Fayyad wrote an article in late May challenging the claim that 85% of Syrians are Sunnis. Fayyad estimates that Syria is 18% Allawi, 12% Christian, 7% Druze or Ismaeli, 2% Murashidioon (? - I honestly don't know this group...), and 1% Twelver Shiites. This leaves 60% for Sunnis. He wrote arguing that support for the Muslim Brothers could not be more than 10%, taking these figures into account plus the fact that the majority of religious Sunnis have Sufi tendencies (including most of the 10% of Syrians who are Kurds). I realize that every Syrian has his or her own opinion about population numbers, but does anyone have data to contest his estimates?

At 6/22/2005 09:50:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of the most well-balanced articles I have read on the Syrian Ba'ath party congress. It is either all praise by the pro-regime people, or all criticim by the opposition. There should be a middle ground like the one in this article.

At 6/22/2005 10:08:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article puts words to what everyone felt after this congress. The important question today is whther to start acting politically at this time? Is the official policy of Bashar today after ridding himself from the old guard (??!!) stands at not interfering with these movements while they are not legalizing it either? Sort of like the official stand of the government to satellite dishes. Do you think it is time to start a peaceful revolution?

At 6/22/2005 10:10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could you please do an article on the SRP since this guy is really annoying and we don't even know anything about his issues. We only know he is against everyone on the forum while claiming he is with everyone out of the forum

At 6/22/2005 10:19:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can anyone tell me how is it possible to take a census on the sects here in Syria? I mean if we have the druze in Sueida in the south and 2-3 villages around aleppo. We have the Murshidis in 5-6 villages around the coast. the Allawis in the coastal mountains, the Ismailis in a few villages and towns around Hama and the Shia in 2-3 neighborhoods in the city of Damascus. We know the christians were 15% when the french too the census in the 40's and they had interest in inflating their numbers when the population of syria was 3M. Since they have far less children than muslims, we can easily say they are no more than 5% with the new 20 M polulation (don't forget the migration of christians from the east of syria to northern europe). If this is the case it leaves the rest of syria with only 60% of the population??
I mean if the Kurds are part of the Sunnis and they claim to be 20% of syria. We also have the cicassians and the Turkmen who are sunni but not arabs. Literally we have the arab sunnis at no more than 40%.
Hey, someone is being really generous here

At 6/22/2005 10:20:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very true. How come the Alawi government are not making a real count? Are they afraid of facing the truth?

At 6/22/2005 11:12:00 AM, Anonymous Syrian Republican Party said...

That is they all talk about....SECTERIANISM. What is this opsession? This is such a crappy platform, worse, a bunch of stuck head fools. No wonder the Syrian Government allow it to exist.

At 6/22/2005 11:53:00 AM, Anonymous Metaz said...

Poor Alawites. If I was Assad, I will drop the Baath party and start an Alwaite Party. Why let 2 million Sunni and others make me look so evil and bad.

At 6/22/2005 01:43:00 PM, Anonymous sh said...

this series of posts about the future of Syria have been great to read. The blog is essential for keeping up with news/analysis on Syria.

I clicked over to Amar's post on the rigidity of Arab regimes, and want to offer a different take. I tend to see the Syrian and other regimes as showing more flexibility than we often give them credit for -- within certain boundaries. There are lines they are not willing to cross. Certainly, they insist on managing the pace of change. Within limits, however, they are deeply pragmatic, adaptive, and come up with ways to keep themselves going. Crises tend to expose the limits of this flexibility, as the recent Party congress demostrated in graphic ways. But we would be mistaken to underestimate the regime's capacity to adjust to new conditions and to navigate crises successfully. I don't see the current situation in terms of regime paralysis, but as the typical strategy of trial and error, of slicing problems into small pieces and addressing them incrementally, guaging the impact of each action before taking another. , moving in many different directions at the same time to give themselves as much room for manuver as possible. Not all of this is the product of planning, or is part of some larger scheme. Much is ad hoc. But it isn't paralysis.

At 6/22/2005 02:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the most ridiculous "analysis" that I've read in a long time. It's not even an analysis, it just states events and an alleged changing of the people keeping Bashar from his true wish for reform -- don't make me laugh. Got rid of them overnight? What a hero.

Changing Bahjat Sulayman with Nassif Kheirbeik is not reform, man, it's power. Snap out of it people!

Does Syria really think it is the USSR? I think not. Glasnot? Ha. Leaving Lebanon compared to leaving Afghanistan? Please be serious, this is too ridiculous to comment on.

As for his writing that "yet the conference came out with the advice to the Syrian leadership that the Ba'ath Party's role in daily decision-making had come to an end. The party will supervise, but not interfere in, the mechanisms of government." .... HELLO, this was done in 2003 with decree 408, and still nothing changed.

If there's anything that pisses me off more than that damn regime, it's the "analysts" who explain how it's "reforming". Wake up guys, go get real analysis, not propaganda.

At 6/22/2005 02:51:00 PM, Anonymous Metaz K.M.Aldendeshe,Syrian Republican Party said...

Anyone that think the Baath regime in Syria will collapse in a year or so. Is ignorant, and have no real experience of the workings of such structured environment. Bush and his administration bought the scummy and deceptive French President analysis about the regime inability to survive for another year. That was a scam the Euro-Peon French contrived to hold off Bush from action and block a complete entry and control to the Levant (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel) by America.

They understood the importance of Syria to block this total control and sold Bush and his guppy administration that line about collapse.

The guppy’s in Washington, was so worried by this scam, they panicked into pushing Rifaat and Reform Party on the scene by Politically, under the table, nudging Riffat to go public and financially providing RPS with the funding needed to push into Syria, while it held support to other nationalist and Moslem groups for fear that they will not act as puppets for Washington and Tel Aviv.

The fact is, and French President know it well, a withdrawal from Lebanon will only strengthen Syrian government and help consolidate it’s grip on power as it was demonstrated by the latest arrests made and the Baath Congress announcement. The French in a bid to stall the American, contrived this contradictory analysis all a while secretly, directly and through the European Parliament, were working on securing France good will in Damascus.

The U.S. main interest in Syria, is not removing Assad or his regime. They lived and supported it in worse periods. The main goal of U.S. policy is to secure the oil rich region of Syria along the Iraqi boarder where Kurds inhabits the region, hence the support for SRP and Riffat to block Nationalist and Islamist who will pose a threat to the success of this goal.

The ultimate perfect plan that the U.S. is pushing hard for, is merging the Vice President’s American Petro plan with the Pentagon’s Zionist/Jewish plan. This unified plan will requires the division of Syria’s territory into manageable chunks whereby, an Eastern oil rich strip of Syria alongside the Iraqi boarder will be ruled by the Kurds. A Sunni in the region of Aleppo-Homs access, a strong Alwites region on the coast and a very weak Pseudo- government of Assad or a puppet government will rule under orders from Washington and Tel Aviv in the same way Baghdad is now ruled. Hence this push to the front of sectarianism, Alawism, Kurds uprisings, No fly zone…etc.

Would it work? SSPRS strategists has concluded, it AINT GOT A CHANCE. An eventual union of Islamist, Nationalist and Baathist will bring it to a screeching halt in Syria and probably spill over to Iraq.

The U.S. can secure it’s interest in Syria, and Israel can secure a lasting peace but someone, a dummy, has taken the dumbest strategy.

At 6/23/2005 02:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Samir Moubayed has it right sometimes but what an overblown ego . He listed himself in Wikipedia under Syrian Writers, along with Michel Aflaq and Nizar Kabani....Get real !!!

At 6/23/2005 04:32:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sami Moubayyed is a Syrian writer. He is not Kabbany or Aflak, but he is a writer from Syria.

At 6/23/2005 08:31:00 AM, Anonymous dsp said...

Can you please post the text of Michael Jansen's editorial about Syrian reform in today's Jordan Times? I'd like to see what your readers think about what might be the most common view of Syrian reform from neighboring Arab states. Thanks. See it at:

At 6/23/2005 08:48:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A word to our Dear Sami; remove your pictures with these politicians on your website. Some of them are clowns, it just hurts your credibilty and makes me feel you are part of their show off games, which I hope is not the case. Keep it up !

At 6/23/2005 01:28:00 PM, Anonymous Reform Party of Syria member said...

Grobechave's attempts to reform a corrupt and dying system are a telling portent for the consequences of any attempt to reform systems that are in by themselves illogical and unworkable. You cannot reform that which history has set to condemn. Unnatural systems of governance do not respond well to attempt of openess. Rather open reform merely serves as a catalyst for such a systems inevitable downfall

At 6/23/2005 02:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's certainly plausible that any model used by the Syrians toward a more open society would resemble Russian initiatives as Damascus and Moscow have been close allies for a long time. However, I wonder if glasnost would work in Syria? The Western (and free) world pressured Moscow for change. "Tear down this wall," Reagan said. Hariri's death was a catalyst, for sure, but will the Ba'ath Party relinquish power? On the face of it all, it appears Bashar's reforms were sanctioned by the Ba'ath party.


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