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 to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Researcher: Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor at Symposium on Obesity, Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome says problem involves more than calorie intake, warns of worldwide health impact More

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.
Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thoughti
X
George Putic
May 26, 2015 9:26 PM
Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.

VOA Blogs