9 March 2005
Syria is in a fix over Lebanon.

Dictatorship Without A Dictator

International attention has been focused on Syria and its swinging between the old guard and the courageous but powerless new.   By Adel Darwish in Damascus

It was the politics of marches, and public-rallies, and reaction to them that focused observers' lenses last month on how Syria is swinging between the old and the new.

A 100 reformists, including lawyers, writers and Kurds, demonstrated in protest in Damascus, on March 10, to mark the 42nd anniversary of the imposition of emergency laws. They were confronted in a city centre square by 300 marchers wielding placards and sticks and guided by Ba'ath Party commissars. Ambulances were called as many were beaten up, but the police, present in large number, did not intervene. Instead, they confiscated the camera of a BBC news team, to the fury of Syrian information minister, who intervened to recover it. As old habits die hard, the minister, himself trying to modernies his department and the state owned Syrian media, urged the BBC producer not to show the scenes when his request to hand over the tape fell on deaf ears.

The organisers, National Co-ordination Committee for Basic Freedom and Human Rights NCBFHR accused pro-government supporters of `` repressive and uncivilised behaviour.'' Although government sources tried to present as two groups with opposing views clashing, witness said they identified some of the pro-government organisers as leaders of the rally outside the parliament in Damascus during President Bashar Assad's speech on Saturday March 5.
Mr Assad gave a long speech to Parliament in response to President George Bush's demands that Syria fully comply with UN security council resolution 1559 and pull all its troops out of Lebanon unconditionally.

The call came at the end of two weeks of anti-Syrian rallies following the assassination of pro-western former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, but were dwarfed by the massive Hizbullah pro-Syrian display of force, on Mar 8. Bare headed girls were more than a match in numbers to their veiled sisters, and portraits of their ` Cedar martyr' Mr Hariri, competed in numbers with those of President Assad and his late father Hafez, while the cedar Lebanese flags outnumbered all three. Such display pulled the rug from underneath earlier American claims that it was an orchestrated pro-Iran pro-Syria Hizbullah rally.

It also came at a time when Damascus, under a siege mentality with Syrians pulling deposits out of American and Lebanese banks, was desperately trying to regain the initiatives at the end of two weeks of immense American lead pressure.

Next day, a massive rally in Support of President Assad and denouncing resolution 1559, was organised by `` the public sector,'' and it was `` not a normal demonstration,'' in the words of a Syrian official, ie ` we didn't organise it ourselves pal,'. Tens of thousands were rallied by text messages, curtsy the largest private mobile operator Syria-tel, which, coincidentally, owned by the President's cousin,, just to back the officials claim of its independence.

They carried portraits of President Assad and his late father Hafez, and many of Colonel Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the late autocratic ruler of Egypt, where his portrait is no longer a rallying point for nationalists.

It was evident, how the old guard of the ruling Ba'ath party is still trapped in a time warp, and keeping many aspects of the country very much the old soviet style of bureaucracy, mismanagement, inefficiency and censorship, while keeping the public busy with slogans about gigantic tasks.

Ask any Syrian official and he will say troops are leaving Lebanon; press them on the question of Lebanon's national sovereignty and you get some meaningless slogans. Will the two nations exchange ambassadors and open embassies in each other's capitals?
`` We are not two nations, we are one nation,'' replied Buthaina Shaaban, Minister for Syrian migrants and a close associate of President Assad, but also a hardline Baathist.

Her remark highlights the contradictions within Syrian ruling elite.

Soon after he became president in 2000, the 39 year old once British trained ophthalmologist, let it be known he wanted to modernise and reform, which encouraged liberal minded reformists who, until then, either kept their heads low, or ruthlessly suppressed by his father who ruled Syria with an Iron grip.

Under the father's rule the regime was text-book totalitarian police state, akin to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But in the last few years, Damascus began to become more of a Beirut and less of a Baghdad.

Today the picture is different, but confusing. Tastefully decorated nightclubs, western style cafes and restaurants serving fine Lebanese, French and Italian win are frequented by Syrians dancing the night away with large screens play the latest Lebanese and Egyptian pop videos. A jungle of satellite dishes covers Damascus roofs as people get their news directly from Lebanese satellite TVA or the Internet, ignoring the dreary state owned newspapers.

Local Journalists say the margin of freedom has got broader: `` we now pay fines instead of going to jail for reporting the wrong story.''

Try reading a newspaper, speaking to frustrated reformists or any service from banking, to hotels to the Syrian airlines, and it is flashback to the Soviet Union days - the plane was still a few feet above the runway when a dozen passengers were up collecting their hand-luggage, while the crew were no were to be seen.

Western diplomats agree that the old guard, who changed party rules and constitution to let Bashar inherit the presidency, are holding him to ransom. People smoking ` argilh' on the cafes draw unfavourable comparisons between Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez.
They feel freer now, the say, but the father was stronger and wiser. While Hafez was assiduously courted by the West, even at times when they knew the mess they were hiring him to clear was partly his own.
Bashar finds himself in catch 22 with the old guard stopping him modernising, which is steadily losing him friends whom he needs to reform and check the old guard. French President Jacques Chirac, who backed Bashar and promoted him in Europe , grew frustrated with fee-dragging over reform and was anger by an 800 M dollar gas contract slipping from the fingers of Total; He joined Washington to sponsor resolution 1559. Tony Blair, who took the risk of inviting Bashar for a state visit in 2002, has forsaken him.
Even Egypt and Saudi Arabia joined the chorus calling for Syrian troops to leave Lebanon .

This is in contrast to his father's foreign policy of turning a crisis into an opportunity. He might have followed his fathers track of radical Arab nationalism in Foreign policy, but he lacked the father's cunning. The father kept ideology for internal consumption or to raise his profile in the populist competition with Saddam Hussein, agisnt whom he sent troops to liberate Kuwait in 1991 and in exchanged for exiling Lebanese nationalist ledear Gn Michel Aoun and a free hand in Lebanon. Bashar, in contrast, denounced the war that toppled Saddam and is accused by the Americans of harbouring some of the insurgency leaders, while allowing foreign fighters to cross the borders into Iraq.

``Bashar is trying to bargain after the crisis, '' said an Iraqi academic exiled in Damascus, `` Hafez would bargain to snatch the deal in advance of the crisis and avoid it.''

The Ba'athist ideology is also preventing Bashar from exploiting his good deeds with the Americans. In February, they handed over Saddam's half-brother, Sabawai Ibrahim who was masterminding the network of the insurgency to the Iraqi government, yet Damascus kept quiet about it despite accusing Sabawai of entering Syria illegally and killing Syrians in the 1980s. `` why didn't you charge him before a judge and hand him over publicly and gain world's admiration?''

They didn't want to alienate Arab nationalist opinion, they said.

Few believe that the President is really calling the shots, many believe that his father's Baathist old guard are pulling his strings.
`` This is a dictatorship without a dictator,'' western diplomats say.

Bashar's friends from the days when he ran the Syrian Computer Society - and shocked his father's cabinet in 1998 by promoting the Internet cafes and expanding service providers against the advice of the powerful intelligence service, say he is a modernist and reformist but powerless against the old guard.

Several Syrian academic and businessmen, claim they have advised Bashar to take Colonel Gaddafi's rather than Saddam's rout. By giving up his nuclear programme, Gaddafi has quickly changed from Reagan's ``mad dog'' into a friend of the West - and nobody is asking him to become a democrat.

The young Assad, it seems, is aware of his fix. He gave an interview to an American reporter from Time Magazine, and told him as he was leaving : ``I am not Saddam Hussein, I want to do-operate.''. Pulling out of his troops from Lebanon, once unthinkable, could be the start of a series of reforms, both in foreign and domestic policies. But it could also be used to block them with by saying ` we have made enough concessions in one day, let us hold into the bastion of Arab nationalism.'

The regime will find it hard to distract America by offering small steps and concessions here and there, said one Damascus businessman, on Bashar's side, what we need is bold steps.
Syrian intelligence could help, as they did in two occasions according to the Americans, do-operate in the war against terrorism, make peace with the Palestinian legitimate authority instead of supporting the hardliners and harbouring Mahmoud Abbas's dangerous opponents and do more to round up insurgency leaders.

Western diplomats agree, but warn that change of policy could endanger his power base or his life; however, with Syria now is in President Bush's target finder, the alternative is worse if the regime doesn't change its ways since what America want is the regime to change its ways, not a regime change.

Copyright © Adel Darwish & Mideastnews and its parent company World Media UK Limited 2005. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means or used for any business purpose without the written consent of the publisher. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that the information contained herein is as accurate as possible, the publisher cannot accept responsibility for any consequences arising from its use. 
Back to the top
Main Page