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

    How Aleppo Rebels Plan to Withstand Assad's Siege

    Rebels in Aleppo are laying plans to withstand a siege by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in likelihood the regime cuts a final main supply line running west of city

    Probe Targeting China's Statistic Head Sparks Concern

    Economists now asking what prompted government to launch an investigation only months after Wang Baoan had been vetted for crucial job

    HRW: Both Sides in Ukraine Conflict Targeted, Used Schools

    Rights group documents how both sides in Ukraine conflict carried out attacks on schools and used them for military purposes

    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.
    Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growthi
    X
    February 10, 2016 5:54 AM
    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.
    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.
    Video

    Video Civil Rights Pioneer Remembers Struggle for Voting Rights

    February is Black History Month in the United States. The annual, month-long national observance pays tribute to important people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. VOA's Chris Simkins reports how one man fought against discrimination to help millions of blacks obtain the right to vote
    Video

    Video Jordanian Theater Group Stages Anti-Terrorism Message

    The lure of the self-styled “Islamic State” has many parents worried about their children who may be susceptible to the organization’s online propaganda. Dozens of Muslim communities in the Middle East are fighting back -- giving young adults alternatives to violence. One group in Jordan is using dramatic expression a send a family message. Mideast Broadcasting Network correspondent Haider Al Abdali shared this report with VOA. It’s narrated by Bronwyn Benito
    Video

    Video Migrant Crisis Fuels Debate Over Britain’s Future in EU

    The migrant crisis in Europe is fueling the debate in Britain ahead of a referendum on staying in the European Union that may be held this year. Prime Minister David Cameron warns that leaving the EU could lead to thousands more migrants arriving in the country. Meanwhile, tension is rising in Calais, France, where thousands of migrants are living in squalid camps. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Families Flee Aleppo for Kurdish Regions in Syria

    Not all who flee the fighting in Aleppo are trying to cross the border into Turkey. A VOA reporter caught up with several families heading for Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.