Assad’s illusion of political reform

The Syrian president’s reputation as a reformer is undeserved and no changes will come without a fight. Published in MEED, 15 April 2011

For a man who likes to talk about reform, Bashar al-Assad has done remarkably little to change Syria since becoming president. When he took over in July 2000, Al-Assad promised reform and modernisation, but there have been no real political changes and only minor efforts at economic liberalisation since then.

The pressure on his regime to offer meaningful change is now stronger than ever, with large demonstrations in support of economic and political reforms a regular occurrence around the country. Up to 200 people are reported to have been killed by security forces in Deraa, Banyas, Latakia and elsewhere.

“The regime is shaken because it has never faced such protests,” says Rime Allaf, associate fellow at Chatham House, a UK think-tank. “This is the first time in 30 years that a significant number of Syrians are daring to stand up and demand their rights.”

Syrian regime defiant

Even so, Al-Assad  is giving no indication of changing course. In a speech to the Syrian parliament on 30 March, he dismissed the wave of revolutions in the region as “a new fashion” and in response to the protests, offered nothing more than a vague outline of possible reforms.

“There are draft laws, which will be debated publically and they will be discussed by the relevant institutions before they are passed,” Al-Assad said. “There are other measures. These will be announced after they are fully studied … our duty is to provide the Syrian people with the best, not with the fastest.”

In the early days of his presidency, many people saw Al-Assad as an avid reformer, who was thwarted by the advisers inherited from his father, Hafez al-Assad. That image stemmed partly from Al-Assad’s own statements about wanting change, but also the fact that he was young, English-speaking and had spent time working in Europe before becoming president. While it appeared a plausible argument at the time, it no longer holds water.

“In the first four years or so of his rule, he still had to rely a lot on what was called the old guard,” says Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International & Security Affairs and author of Syria under Bashar al-Asad: Modernisation and the Limits of Change. “From 2005 on, he was clearly the person who decided the country’s course. He is relying on a few people, most of them of his own picking and some connected to his brother or the Baath party. It’s a different generation, a different set of people to those his father relied upon.

“He has the chance to lead his country in political liberalisation, but I don’t think he wants to change the basic equations on which his power rests, on which the regime rests. That’s been the history of the 11 years so far.”

Where he has been prepared to move is in the economic sphere, although the results have been limited. Among the few concrete changes are the issuing of licences for some foreign banks and the opening of the Damascus Securities Exchange. Some international companies such as Cargill of the US and the UAE’s Majid al-Futtaim Group have been attracted to the country, but it remains off the radar for most overseas businesses.

Economic reform in Syria

“He has had to move very slowly on the economic front so as not to jeopardise the benefits that accrue to a cast of characters around him as a result of being part of the regime,” says Brian Davis, who served as Canadian ambassador to Syria in 2003-06. “Any time you make sudden changes it could threaten monopolies or other benefits, you could upset a lot of pretty powerful people.”

Whether Al-Assad’s approach of gradual economic reform alongside heavy restrictions in other areas of life will prove a robust strategy for the country during a period of unprecedented regional turmoil remains to be seen.

In security terms, the protests still appear manageable for the regime. The southern town of Deera was the initial focus of clashes, but protests have since spread across the country. Importantly, however, they have yet to be replicated to any great extent in Damascus or Aleppo, although that is partly because the security services are far more numerous in those cities and able to quash demonstrations more quickly.

Economic reforms have not brought the growth in jobs and earnings the country needs and the people that have taken to the streets are largely those that feel economically and politically marginalised, but other groups have yet to follow in significant numbers.

Al-Assad is thought to retain some popularity among the Syrian public, not least for his willingness to stand up to the US over Iraq and Afghanistan and for his opposition to Israel. However, it is impossible to gauge how widespread or deep such support is in a country with so little freedom of expression. There have been some limited concessions to try and ensure the protests do not gain the momentum that they did in Tunisia or Egypt.

A day before his speech to parliament, Al-Assad’s cabinet resigned, although given that power remains firmly in the hands of the president, it was little more than a gesture. More notably, in a nod to conservatives, the country’s only casino has been closed and teachers are again allowed to wear the full veil in classrooms. Kurds in the east will also be able to apply for Syrian citizenship and a wage increase has been promised for public sector workers.

But Al-Assad’s ability to throw money at his problems is limited. The local economy is in a difficult position. Crude production continues to dwindle and the government already runs a substantial budget deficit, which is estimated by the IMF to be £Syr122bn ($2.6bn) for 2010.

It would be rash to assume that the changes announced over the past few weeks will mark the start of a sustained reforming effort. There have been periods in the past, notably in 2005, when Al-Assad felt obliged to offer reforms, which ultimately came to nothing.

In the short-term, the minor social and economic compromises that have been made are also likely to be accompanied by continued use of force.

“The Al-Assad regime has decided they will offer some concessions to some segments of society,” says Perthes. “That’s one part of the equation. The other is to shoot and make people afraid of change.”

The lesson from other countries is that such brutality can be an effective weapon. Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak tried it, but ultimately could not rely on their security forces to back them and so had to give up the fight. But others who have been more determined, including Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and King Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain, have managed to cling on to power to a greater or lesser extent.

Although Syria has a conscript army and there have been some reports of soldiers refusing to fire on protesters, on the whole the army is expected to defend the regime with determination. This is because Al-Assad and his father both placed loyal members from their own minority Alawite sect in key positions.

“A lot of the leadership of the military are Alawite, not exclusively, but to a fairly significant extent,” says Davis. “The power structures are interwoven between the clique that runs the country, the leadership of the military and key people in the intelligence services.

“You have a group in the military and the intelligence services that recognises its own survival relies on the survival of the regime, so I see the army’s support for the regime being considerably firmer in Syria than it was in Egypt or Tunisia.”

Protracted stand-off

Al-Assad can also be reasonably sure that repression is unlikely to lead to the sort of action that Nato and some Arab states have taken against Libya. There is no appetite in the Arab League or in the West to be drawn into yet another conflict in the region.

Should the regime’s tactics ultimately fail, the tight grip that Al-Assad has on power means there is a lack of obvious successors. But for now it does not look like the president is going anywhere fast. Unfortunately for most Syrians, much the same can be said for his reform programme and the country could be in for a protracted stand-off between the regime and its opponents.

“I don’t think the regime is in immediate danger of falling, but I don’t think that it’s possible to go back to where we were a month ago either,” says Allaf. “The pressure will keep on building because the regime doesn’t seem ready to give the reforms that people are demanding, politically and economically. However, it’s likely that the more it refuses to budge, the more protests will increase, and the more so-called reforms will ultimately have to be made.”