News / Middle East

    Syria's Missed Opportunities for Power-sharing, Reform

    Syrian protesters shout slogans as they burn a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and his father Hafez Assad during a demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy, in Nicosia, Cyprus, April 22, 2011.
    Syrian protesters shout slogans as they burn a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and his father Hafez Assad during a demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy, in Nicosia, Cyprus, April 22, 2011.
    Cecily Hilleary
    This is the second installment of a three-part series analyzing whether the Arab Spring is drawing to a close. Our first installment examined the issue of political pluralism in Bahrain and asked whether recent reforms by King Hamad are resolving the current political crisis to stave off another which might come down the road. In Part 2 of our series, we look at Syria and its history of what many refer to as missed opportunities for power-sharing and reform.

    This May, Syrians, amid ongoing violence in their country, elected a new parliament for the third time since President Bashar al-Assad came to power 12 years ago. People’s Assembly Speaker Mahmoud al-Abrash said the latest election signaled “political pluralism,” as called for by the new constitution. But most opposition groups boycotted the poll, calling it a sham. They say power in Syria still rests with a small ruling elite aligned with the Assad family, not with any elected body.

    Rewriting or adding reform clauses to constitutions, staging showy but largely meaningless votes and announcing reforms without real implementation - these are all actions that give the “veneer of political openness,” writes Marina Ottaway, Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program. But, she argues, they fail to redistribute power in any meaningful way. Many analysts agree and history has shown that until and unless the Syrian regime relinquishes some of that power to respected institutions, it may be doomed to repeat the same cycle of dissent and crackdown which has plagued the country in the past.

    Enter Hafez: Stability and financial reform

    After its independence from France in 1946, various nations and factions competed for Syrian control: Coups, countercoups, and even a brief, failed union with Egypt left Syria in a state of political and economic chaos. In 1963, a young air force officer and member of the minority Alawite Muslim community Hafez al-Assad sided with a revolution led by the Arab-nationalist Baath party, which seized control of the country. Assad rose to become prime minister of Syria and, in 1971, was elected president.

    Hafez launched what he called the “Corrective Movement.” Turning to the economy first, he opened it up to the private sector. This helped revive an entrepreneurial class, whose members reaped prosperity and financial security, giving the regime their loyalty in return. As these were deemed the best times since the country’s independence, Syrians seemed content to settle for stability over political inclusion.

    A participatory form of government was also not on the regime’s agenda. In 1973, Hafez passed a new constitution which declared the Baath Party "leader of the state and society," and gave it the majority of seats in the People’s Assembly, or parliament. It empowered the president to appoint ministers, declare war and states of emergency, draft laws and amend the constitution. The Assembly’s power was restricted to evaluating, modifying and passing laws. In a move to broaden his power base, Hafez set up the National Progressive Front, a coalition of political parties dominated by his own Baath Party.

    Hafez offered Syrians something they desperately needed, says David W. Lesch, Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and author of The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria. “There had been nine coups in Syria in the previous 15 years,” says he, “and there was a great amount of chaos and instability on Syria’s borders - in Lebanon and Iraq - so it didn’t take much to convince the Syrian population, ‘we will provide you stability and some economic growth, but you will give up political freedoms.’”

    Overkill: The Hama uprising and massacre

    In the mid-1940s, writes Brandeis University Middle East scholar Dr. Liad Porat, various Syrian Islamic groups had united to form the Muslim Brotherhood, patterned after the eponymous movement in Egypt which sought a political system inspired completely by the Quran and sharia law. By the 1960s, the group had radicalized, angry over the government’s growing secularization, staging a series of riots and demonstrations.

    Tensions worsened in 1973, when Hafez tried to remove an article in the constitution which designated Islam as the president’s religion and sharia the basis for the country’s legal system. After Syria intervened in support of Christians in Lebanon’s civil war, the Muslim Brotherhood rose up in violent rebellion, aiming to overthrow the regime and establish an Islamic state. Over the next few years, the Brotherhood, operating from the city of Hama, organized a series of armed attacks, suicide bombings and even an attempt on Hafez’s life. In 1982, Hafez struck back.

    “I think Hafez came to a decision where he basically had had enough…,” Lesch said, “and decided just to smash out the opposition once and for all and to extend and reinforce his leadership and position.”

    Syrian troops launched a massive air and ground attack on Hama that lasted three weeks, claiming as many as 30,000 lives. What came to be known as the “Hama massacre” was later described by author Robin Wright as “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.”

    Hafez achieved his goal of crushing the insurrection, but there was a price to pay. For decades to come many in Syria came to see him as a brutal and ruthless leader willing to go to any length to retain power.

    Most observers agree that there were two reasons why the Hama massacre worked and why Hafez got away with it. In the 1980s, killings of such proportions in a closed country like Syria were still relatively easy to conceal from the outside world. And, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood itself was fairly weak, with ill-defined political goals and little cohesion.

    Bashar’s turn

    Hafez died in June of 2000; within two days, his son, Bashar, was nominated to succeed him and in July, he was elected to a seven-year term. Because he was young and Western-educated, it was hoped that he would usher in badly needed reforms - and, for a while, he seemed willing to deliver. In his inaugural address, he called for “discarding outdated ideas,” talked about the need for administrative reform and improved accountability; he talked about democracy and transparency. For the first few months in office, says Lesch, Bashar gave Syrians unprecedented political freedoms - a period which was dubbed the “Damascus Spring.”

    According to Lesch, “[Bashar al-Assad] released people from prison, he licensed private newspapers, allowed unprecedented criticism of the regime and questioning of the regime’s policies.”

    Bashar also shut down the notorious al-Mazze military prison, where many political prisoners had suffered under his father’s regime. He encouraged political dialogue, and in salons and cafes across the country, intellectuals and activists debated Syria’s future.

    But Bashar’s Syria still had a long way to go. In October of 2000, a group of 99 Syrian citizens issued a statement demanding an end to martial law, the release of all political prisoners, the return of exiled dissidents, the right to assemble, a free press, free expression and “a public life free from the laws, constraints and various forms of surveillance imposed on it.”

    The government made no move to address these demands. In a February 2001 interview with Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Bashar backpedalled on promised reforms, saying “… the timetable for development is not linked to months or years; rather it is linked to the development of society…in my inaugural speech I did not promise anything except to work.”

    By mid-decade, the Damascus Spring was officially over, and many believed that the window of opportunity had closed.

    Bashar: Puppeteer or puppet?

    Why did Syria’s president change course? One possibility is that Bashar never intended to seriously overhaul the system of government that had served his father so well.

    “In the interviews I had with him,” Lesch says, “he always spoke about reforms in the economy, administrative reforms, reshuffling and reform in the ministries to make them more efficient, more merit-based rather than family-based. All of these things are good, but he never spoke much about political reform, and when I brought it up with him… he would always say that Syria just wasn’t ready for it yet.”

    The other possibility, says Lesch, is that Bashar’s hands were tied. “I’m not sure he knew how to do that while maintaining the base of the regime in power.” “Essentially, in doing my research,” adds Lesch, “I came to the conclusion that some of the ‘old guard,’ came to him at a certain point in late 2000, early 2001, and said, ‘Listen, young man, this just isn’t how we do things. You’re unleashing the genie out of the bottle here, and it’s going to undermine our position.’”

    Bashar would have had to comply, says Lesch, because he needed the old guard to help “fend off international challenges.”

    VOA's Middle East Voices posed the same question to Ribal al-Assad, son of Hafez’s brother Rifaat, who commanded Syria’s security forces at the time of Hama massacre. Rifaat is said to have attempted to seize power after Hafez fell ill in 1984. Hafez recovered and Rifaat was exiled to Europe. Today, his son, Ribal, Bashar’s first cousin, heads the London-based Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria and is a strong critic of the present regime.

    The real power, Ribal says, lies inside the Syrian security apparatus. “They are the ones who really control everything in Syria,” Ribal said. “The only reason they brought him into power is that he would keep their interests in place…He’s a weak person, someone they could scare quite easily.” He names two individuals in particular: Colonel Hafez Makhlouf, Bashar’s cousin on his mother’s side of the family, head of general intelligence, and his brother Rami Makhlouf, a wealthy businessman said to control more than half of Syria’s economy.

    Bashar’s Arab Spring challenge

    Then came the Arab Spring. Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, opponents of Bashar’s regime took to the streets only to be crushed fiercely, but not subdued. According to Ribal, there was a time in the rebellion when Bashar contemplated compromise.

    Ribal says Bashar had planned to announce reforms in his June 20, 2011, speech. “But an hour before his speech, he got a visit by his uncle Muhammad Makhlouf and his two sons, Rami and Hafez. They stayed with him one hour, and his speech changed completely. [Bashar’s media adviser Shaaban] Bouthaina and the vice president were completely shocked. This is not what was supposed to have gone on.”

    In his speech, Bashar blamed "outlaws” and "foreign conspiracies,” for the unrest in Syria though he admitted that a few protesters had legitimate demands. He promised to draft a new constitution. What he did not do was call for a halt to the relentless military crackdown which to date has claimed at least ten thousand lives in the fifteen months since the uprising began.

    Most outside observers agree that Syria’s Arab Spring started as a peaceful protest movement seeking tangible reforms that were addressed but left unresolved during previous periods of change. Although some issues were publicly addressed by Bashar, he was either unwilling or unable to implement them.

    As the conflict continues, despite international efforts to calm it, its outcome remains an open question. Will Bashar survive it, just as his father survived Hama and continue in his ways? Or will he be toppled, either by regime insiders or by his own people? Whatever the scenario, Syria, many analysts agree, once again in its history seems to have missed an opportunity for power-sharing and reform.

    You May Like

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    How Diversity Has Changed America

    Over the past four decades, the level of diversity in the United States has increased most in these four states

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: ADEL ALSHEAR from: OSLO NORWAY
    May 23, 2012 6:06 PM
    THIS I S HAVE BY THE HAVE COMWITHOUT ALBAATH POLITIC PARTY .

    by: Michael from: usa
    May 23, 2012 8:28 AM
    Argument begins with the range of the role had by the populace. Hence all the discussion about rights. But the independent variable outlines the populace, and the value, or the government in power. Here discussion stops. The legal conclusion is that a government narrows in a moving relation to the size of the populous around it. Don't even mention the "international community of nations"

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.