[Originally posted 18th May 2017]
The Spare Heir.
Hafez Assad won an astonishing 99.9% of the votes in the December 1991 presidential referendum. The breakup of the Soviet Union meant Hafez was forced to make diplomatic ties with Western countries, and to lessen the excesses of his repressive regime. Unexpectedly in 1994 his eldest son Bassel died after driving into a barrier at high speed in fog. Hafez suffered from heart disease, and although his apologists denied it, the Assad dynasty needed a successor.
This fell on the less dynamic, less outwardly dominant, ophthalmologist Bashar Assad. He was much less popular inside the regime’s macho inner security clique. He was put in charge of an anti-corruption campaign, which targeted the business interests of those who had fallen out of favour for other reasons. In particular Rifaat Assad, the exiled butcher of Hama, who made a disastrous move towards power in mid 1980s, and was attempting to position himself to replace Hafez.
In 2000 after the death of 69 year old Hafez, and a convenient change in the constitution, the 34 year old Bashar became president. In a subsequent national presidential plebiscite Bashar received 99.7% of the votes on a 95% turnout. Some voters even amplified their show of loyal enthusiasm by marking their voting cards with their own blood.
Bashar who had also been put in charge of introducing the internet to Syria, was seen wishfully by the West as a moderniser. In July 2000 John Daniszewski of the LA Times was one of the few Western journalists to expose the reality, in an eerily accurate article:
“But just because people don’t express their thoughts freely doesn’t mean they’re content. In fact, a growing mood of frustration and hopelessness inside Syria could be one of the most important problems for the untested Assad when he formally assumes the post his father held for 30 years until his death last month. On one hand, some of the brightest minds needed to resuscitate the Syrian economy are leaving, and on the other, a sullen, dissatisfied population could be the seed of popular unrest against what has become the Assad dynasty……..
At the apartment outside the capital, a woman confronts a foreign journalist. Why, she asks, did Western television stations report on Assad’s death as though the Syrian people were truly sad? ‘Are they stupid, that they actually believe that?’ she asked. ‘The truest or most genuine thing that happened is that many, many people did not go for the funeral,’ she asserted……..
According to several members of Syria’s ‘lost generation’–those who lived their entire lives under Hafez Assad’s iron fisted rule – they have little faith that his son will bring any real improvement to their lives. ‘Most of my friends, 60% or so, are thinking of leaving the country, because to try to do a commercial project here is hopeless,’ says a computer engineer. ‘Only someone close to the government can make profits, not normal people.’ The intellectual says he has little hope for Bashar Assad. ‘No matter what he intends to implement, the only real change would be to change the whole [clique] that has been running the country, which is not possible,’ he says. ‘They will not permit it.’ As he puts it, those who are in power do not want reform. And those who want reform have no power……..
The intellectual says he felt insulted by how quickly foreigners welcomed and embraced his country’s new strongman. ‘There is a huge responsibility that must be borne by America for keeping these corrupt regimes in power all over the region,’ he complained. For years, Syrians had lived with the fear that the death of the elder Assad could mean civil war and bloodshed. But many had also become resigned to prolonged stagnation of their country as long as Assad was alive. Now their fear of instability is at odds with the desire for change.”
Hafez Assad had created a regime that narrowed power in Syria to a small clique. Bashar Assad’s rule was insecure, so he narrowed this clique further to members of the Assad family clan.
It was his cousin Atef Najib whose psychopathic arrogance sparked the Syrian Revolution. In March 2011 he was security chief in Deraa, when 15 teenage boys were arrested and badly tortured for spraying “the people want to topple the regime, it’s your turn next doctor” on a school wall. When relatives went to demand the release of the children, Atef Najib is alleged to have said “men go home and have new children, and if any of you lack the virility to do so, send your wives to my office and I will ensure they leave pregnant”. A statement that encapsulates the contempt, brutality and sheer gangsterism of the ruling Syrian clique. Atef was never punished naturally.
In the same city in April 2011, 13 year old Hamza al-Khateeb was tortured to death by Air Force Intelligence, his mutilated body was returned a month later:
“His jaw and both kneecaps had been smashed. His flesh was covered with cigarette burns. His penis had been cut off. Other injuries appeared to be consistent with the use of electroshock devices and being whipped with a cable.”
According to the Syrian state broadcaster SANA, Hamza was a jihadist killed by the regime whose body had been given the marks of torture after death. No one was punished.
In 1969 the Ba’athist Government passed a farcical law, still in force, saying that the security services could not be prosecuted for any crime, without their permission.
Bashar Assad had continued the brutal regime set up by his father. It is difficult to believe, that many progressives in the West still give credence to Assad apologists’ fantasises about this regime.
Democracy When The People Earn It.
Bashar Assad’s inauguration speech on July 17th 2000 contains a high degree of revealing arrogant and impractical double speak, which should have been a warning to any Western optimist. He says:
“To what extent are we democratic? And what are the indications that refer to the existence or non-existence of democracy? Is it in elections or in the free press or in the free speech or in other freedoms and rights? Democracy is not any of these because all these rights and others are not democracy, rather they are democratic practices and results of these practices which all depend on democratic thinking. This thinking is based on the principle of accepting the opinion of the other and this is certainly a two-way street. It means that what is a right for me is a right for others, but when the road becomes a one-way road it will become selfish. This means that we do not say I have the right to this or that; rather we should say that others have certain rights and if others enjoy this particular right I have the same right. This means that democracy is our duty towards others before it becomes a right for us. ”
This translates to, the Syrian people must respect the corrupt administration, and earn the right to representative government by proving a collective responsibility that far exceeds that of the regime. This is the self-justifying logic chopping of a gangster mentality. He then goes on to explain his often repeated mantra that Syria is not ready for democracy, in the best tradition of colonialists and neo-colonialists everywhere he says:
“Western democracy, for example, is the outcome of a long history that resulted in customs and traditions which distinguish the current culture of Western societies. In order to apply what they have we have to live their history with all its social signification. As this is, obviously, impossible we have to have our democratic experience which is special to us, which stems from our history, culture, civilization and which is a response to the needs of our society and the requirements of our reality.”
There is some truth to Bashar Assad’s statement, in that forms of representative government will differ according to circumstances in particular countries at certain times. But he repeats the right wing Western conception that democracy in the West is due mainly to culture. In reality it had a lot to do with the threat of revolution, manpower needed for colonial wars and the aggressive nationalism of two world wars. The grip of Western elites were loosened when they were forced to engage with the majority of the population to avoid revolution, desertion or invasion. This in turn was a product of less advanced weaponry, which meant that the sheer number of troops was more important than it is now, and so the elites had to engage with the people.
There are basic requirements of any representative system which Assad ignores in a long waffle bound speech:
“We have to start immediately to prepare the studies which ensure the change of this reality to the better through improving the administrative systems and their frameworks, through increasing the level of efficiency of the administrative and professional cadres and through putting an end to the state of carelessness, passiveness and evasion of carrying out one’s duty. There is no escape from bringing the careless, the corrupt and the evil doers to justice.
This also requires the improvement of the accountability apparatus in the country in order to make it more effective and to support it with the appropriate resources. Here comes the importance of the energized role of your Parliament in correcting the work of different institutions through pointing to the points of weakness and inefficiency and following up the process of correcting it in a positive way.
I would also like to stress here the important role of the judicial system and the necessity to support it with the clean and efficient cadres so that it may play its full role in order to achieve justice and guard the freedoms of citizens and the proper implementation of laws. From what has preceded we can notice that the work of institutions is closely linked, the fact that requires also a close link between the mind that governs and organizes the work of each institution such as the institutional mentality, the democratic mentality and transparency that starts in the home and grows or recedes through the circumstances of daily life.”
Bashar states the obvious that parliament and the courts must ensure corruption, oppression and inefficacy are dealt with effectively. He neglects to say this cannot be achieved because the members of parliament and judges are not freely elected or even protected under the Assad regime. There is no free press to tell the people if parliament or the courts are corrupt. These features are fundamental to the working of any representative system, and not just Western democracy.
“Society is the fertile soil in which we sow our seeds; as for the fruits we reap in institutions. Hence, the better the seeds we sow the better and fresher the fruits we reap. The task of the state is to prepare the suitable and appropriate ground for the seeds to grow. It also has to provide the best circumstances for this growth and to guarantee that the fruits remain fresh (which is the most important stage) so that our society may benefit from them; otherwise they will go off and become rotten and a source of illness and disease.”
Bashar shifts the responsibility away from the authoritarian clique who have ruled the country with absolute control, to ordinary people who must work on a “democratic mentality” in the “home”. This speech indicates the empty pious hypocrisy of Bashar Assad. It is worth looking at in detail, because it was a clear message that hope in the new president was wasted. It managed to reassure both the West and the Syrian elite in radically different ways, according to how deeply it was examined. Western observers welcomed the talk about democracy, while the elites liked the lack of any vision to actually make it happen.
The Damascus Spring.
A “Damascus Spring” followed Bashar Assad’s inauguration. Informal groups began meeting privately, and even sometimes publically in cafes, to discuss political reform. Hundreds of political prisoners were released. The notorious Mazzeh prison in Damascus was closed in November 2000.
This “Damascus Spring” stopped abruptly in August 2001 with a clamp down on activists and journalists. Bashar never had any intention of reforming the Syrian dictatorship, and those within the inner clique had no intention of allowing him to lessen their access to the benefits of gross economic corruption that now stretched from Syria to Lebanon.
In 2003 the cynical and destructive invasion of Iraq by the USA had removed the equally repressive Ba’athist dictator Sadam Hussein. A bloody civil war then erupted between the previously favoured Sunni minority backed by the Saudis, and the Iranian backed Shia majority. This chaos was due to intentional negligence by the Americans. They shunned the Iraqi democratic opposition, and did nothing to empower an effective security force to replace the old regime. The goal was the theft of oil reserves, by the establishment of a new more pliable US friendly dictatorship.
Bashar Assad responded to the US invasion of neighbouring Iraq by cynically enabling the flow of Sunni jihadists into the country. Ring wing apologists for Assad forget that there are thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of US soldiers who died due to Bashar Assad’s policy. A similar tactic has been used by the regime to enable so called “Islamic States (IS)” during the current Syrian Crisis. A policy that has resulted in thousands of deaths in Syria and terrorist attacks in the West.
In February 2005 a successful and popular movement to remove Syrian troops and security forces from Lebanon erupted. The Lebanese Independence Intifada or Cedar Revolution, erupted after the Assad regime assassinated Rafik Hariri. He was a popular Saudi backed Sunni politician who had been forced out of power the previous year by the Assad regime.
After consolidating his rule, Bashar Assad cautiously embarked an increased liberalisation of the economy. His father had already largely created a crony capitalist state by privatizing Syria’s economy in the 1990s. According to the gradualist US academic economist Bassam Haddad in “Syria Regime’s business Backbone” in the spring 2012 MERP journal:
“By the late 1990s, the business community that the Asads had created in their own image had transformed Syria from a semi-socialist state into a crony capitalist state par excellence. The economic liberalization that started in 1991 had redounded heavily to the benefit of tycoons who had ties to the state or those who partnered with state officials. The private sector outgrew the public sector, but the most affluent members of the private sector were state officials, politicians and their relatives. The economic growth registered in the mid-1990s was mostly a short-lived bump in consumption, as evidenced by the slump at the end of the century. Growth rates that had been 5-7 percent fell to 1-2 percent from 1997 to 2000 and beyond.
After Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father in 2000, the architects of Syria’s economic policy sought to reverse the downturn by liberalizing the economy further, for instance by reducing state subsidies. Private Banks were permitted for the first time in nearly 40 years and a stock market was on the drawing board.
After 2005, the state-business bonds were strengthened by the announcement of the Social Market Economy, a mixture of state and market approaches that ultimately privileged the market, but a market without robust institutions or accountability. Again, the regime had consolidated its alliance with big business at the expense of smaller businesses as well as the Syrian majority who depended on the state for services, subsidies and welfare. It had perpetuated cronyism, but dressed it in new garb. Families associated with the regime in one way or another came to dominate the private sector, in addition to exercising considerable control over public economic assets. These clans include the Asads and Makhloufs, but also the Shalish, al-Hassan, Najib, Hamsho, Hambouba, Shawkat and al-As‘ad families, to name a few. The reconstituted business community, which now included regime officials, close supporters and a thick sliver of the traditional bourgeoisie, effected a deeper (and, for the regime, more dangerous) polarization of Syrian society along lines of income and region.”
The US academic Joshua Landis paints a similar picture of the history of the Syrian economy in “The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Asad Regime Is Likely to Survive to 2013” in the MEPC journal:
“Syria met the challenge to liberalize later and more hesitantly than most Middle Eastern states. Bashar al-Asad’s efforts to open up the Syrian economy and copy the ‘China mode’ were bolder than his father’s during the 1990s but remained hobbled by half measures and caution. All the same, he introduced private banking, insurance companies and liberalized real-estate laws. He dropped tariff barriers with neighboring states, licensed private schools, and permitted use of the Internet in an effort to encourage private and foreign investment.
But, even as Asad sought to boost private initiative, he feared its results. To avoid the emergence of a capitalist class that would be largely Sunni and not beholden to the regime, Asad turned to his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who became ‘Mr. Ten Percent’ of the Syrian economy. He assumed a majority stake in many major enterprises and holding companies and ensured that the Asad family maintained control over the economy. Office holders at every rank of the state bureaucracy replicated this model of crony capitalism, exemplified by the presidential family. A new class of businessmen drawn from the progeny of major regime figures — called the ‘sons of power’ (abna al-sulta) — has become notorious for its wealth and economic assertiveness. The result has been an explosion of corruption and public resentment at the growing inequality and injustice of Syrian life.
A new form of crony capitalism, which has failed to provide jobs or economic security to the broad masses, has replaced socialism. Growth has been skewed in favor of the wealthy. The poor, particularly the rural poor, have been abandoned. This was the social sector that provided the original base of support for the Baath party, but it is now up in arms. The wealthy have remained quiet.”
The regime under Hafez Assad had managed to create further divisions within Syrian society, by increasing inequality and poverty, and neglecting rural areas in favour of urban development.
There were four principal factors that lead to an economic crisis in Syria before 2011
- Increasingly unaffordable food and fuel prices. Bashar Assad’s regime slashed extensive food and fuel subsidies. At the same time the prices of these commodities were soaring globally, and national production was declining, leading to soaring inflation. As an example fuel oil prices increased by 42% between December 2008 and September 2010 as subsidises were slashed. Similarly wheat prices increased by 30% in 2010 alone.
- Rising unemployment and population pressure. There have been very large increases in population throughout the MENA region since the Second World War. The population of Syria was 6.3 million in 1970, which rose to 20.7 million by 2010. The birth rate (total births per mother) was on a continuous downward path from 7.6 in 1970 to 3.1 by 2010. Both according to UN statistics. Hence Syria was experiencing a surge in young people needing employment. At the same time the Assad regime was opening the Syrian economy to cheaper foreign imports, while increases in investment were not making up for the job losses. The rate of unemployment and underemployment is much higher that the official Syrian CBS figures. According to the UNDP (using Syrian CBS figures) in 2007, 34% of Syrians were living in poverty, with 12% in extreme poverty. According to the ILO (using Syrian CBS figures) in 2008 11% of Syrians were unemployed, with youth unemployment at 22%. At the same time “underemployment” was estimated at 3 times the official unemployment rate, so this could have effected a third of the population.
- Drought and dwindling oil. Agriculture in the drier semi-arid regions of Eastern Syria had always been subject to large yearly fluctuations. This feature of the climate meant that in some years growing any cereal crops was not possible. Drought conditions were particularly bad from 2006 to 2010, with the peak in 2007-2008. The water table had already been depleted by overuse due to government resource mismanagement. The government also slashed subsidises for fertilisers. Perhaps a million Syrians were forced to migrate to the cities, to live in breeze block slums while looking for scarce work. Global warming is a huge threat to the climate of the MENA, but it has been exaggerated to explain the current “Syrian Crisis” by both the Assad regime and its apologists (who are also green minded):“Semi-arid areas around the Euphrates and the Khabur River, where agriculture was banned in favour of grazing, were turned into arable land used for intensive agriculture, at the cost of pumping the water table dry. The drought only brought to light a man-made disaster. And yet, the regime continues to bring diplomats to the north east and tells them it all has to do with global warming!”
[http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/55376]Syria’s oil production peaked at 590,000 barrels per day in 1996, but had fallen by 25% by 2005, and is on a steady decline as oil reserves are exhausted. By comparison Saudi Arabia was exporting over 9 million barrels per days in 2005.
- Corruption. A semi socialist dictatorship under Hafez Assad was starting to become a neo-liberal dictatorship under Bashar Assad. The economy was privatised, but politics remained brutally dictatorial. This combination gave rise to massive corruption. Bashar Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf is said to personally control 60% of the Syrian economy on behalf of the Assad clan. According to Transparency International “2008 Corruption Perceptions Index” Syria was the most corrupt country in MENA after Iraq. Under the name of economic liberalization, the Assad regime could use the security system to extort controlling stakes in new and privatised enterprises, block any domestic competition and shrug off the responsibility and cost of the people’s welfare.
Human Rights Derailed.
In June 1998 a human rights group called “Article 19” published a report “WALLS OF SILENCE, Media and Censorship in Syria”. It describes the beginnings of a hopeful development in Syria:
“In November 1995, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership between the 15 countries of the European Union and 12 southern Mediterranean countries, including Syria, was established by the adoption of the Barcelona Declaration. The primary purpose of this partnership is to enhance trade, political, cultural and other relations between members but it also calls for a commitment from participants to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms. In this they are expected to:
- act in accordance with the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other obligations under international law, in particular those arising out of regional and international instruments to which they are party;
- develop the rule of law and democracy in their political systems, while recognising in this framework the right of each of them to choose and freely develop their own political, socio-cultural, economic and judicial system;
- respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and guarantee the effective legitimate exercise of such rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, freedom of association for peaceful purposes and freedom of thought, conscience and religion, both individual and together with other members of the same group, without any discrimination on ground of race, nationality, language, religion or sex. “
This is the gradualist approach to reform in Syria, with the European Union trading economic development for human rights. This approach came to an end in 2005 when the Assad regime assassinated Rafik Hariri in Lebanon. Later attempts were derailed by further human right violations.
In 2005 leading Syrian opposition figures came together to join an initiative by Michael Kilo called the Damascus Declaration:
“But Kilo launched his boldest initiative in 2005 when he set out to unify Syria’s often querulous opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood. He proposed a detailed statement of unity on all the major issues facing Syria and a common platform to tackle them. Kilo wrote the first draft.
The result was the Damascus Declaration.
Syria, the Declaration warned, was at a crossroads requiring an urgent ‘rescue mission.’ In blunt language, it said the monopoly on power by an ‘authoritarian, totalitarian, and cliquish regime’ had torn apart the country’s social fabric, put it on the brink of economic collapse, and led to stifling isolation. Syria’s foreign policy was ’destructive, adventurous, and short-sighted’, especially in Lebanon.
That’s imprisonable language in Syria.
‘The present moment calls for a courageous and responsible national stand,’ the Declaration added. The proclamation represented a huge leap for Syria’s opposition. The Damascus Spring in 2001 had been about ideas of reform. The Damascus Declaration in 2005 was calling for regime change.
The five-page document, boldly unveiled at an unauthorized press conference in October 2005, laid out an alternative vision based on reform that would be ‘peaceful, gradual, founded on accord, and based on dialogue and recognition of the other.’ It acknowledged Islam as the ‘more prominent cultural component,’ but it stipulated that no party or trend could claim an exceptional position. The role of national minorities must be guaranteed, along with their cultural and linguistic rights.”
[“Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East” By Robin Wright, 2008]
The regime responded by arresting and harassing signatories. Twelve of these activists were sentenced in 2008 on charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “broadcasting false or exaggerated news”. Eight of the detainees reported being beaten in detention.
Kurds in northern Syria riots were brutally suppressed by the regime that feared growing Kurdish autonomy in Iraq. The regime had created Kurdish resentment by using Arab tribes to suppress Kurds, and that 100,000s of Kurds were denied Syrian citizenship and treated like Palestinians as refugees. Thousands of Kurds were arrested and tortured by the security forces.
In 2010 Human Rights Watch released a report “A Wasted Decade, Human Rights in Syria during Bashar al-Asad’s First Ten Years in Power”, the situation between 2000 and 2010 was summarised:
“Syria’s opaque decision-making process and the lack of public information on policy debates within the regime make it very difficult to know the real reasons that drove Bashar al-Asad to loosen some of the existing restrictions early on, only to clamp down a few months later and to maintain a tight grip ever since. Was al-Asad a true reformer who did not have the capacity early in his reign to take on an entrenched ‘old guard’ that refused any political opening? If so, why has he not implemented these reforms in the ensuing years after he had consolidated his power base and named his own people to key positions? Or was al-Asad’s talk of reform a mere opportunistic act to gain popularity and legitimacy that he never intended to translate into real changes?
There is not enough publicly available information to answer these questions definitively. However, it is clear that after a decade in power, Bashar al-Asad has not taken the steps necessary to truly improve his country’s human rights record. He has focused his efforts on opening up the economy without broadening public freedoms or establishing public institutions that are accountable for their actions. So while visitors to Damascus are likely to stay in smart boutique hotels and dine in shiny new restaurants, ordinary Syrians continue to risk jail merely for criticizing their president, starting a blog, or protesting government policies.”