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    Middle East
     Apr 26, 2005
Syria's Ba'athists loosen the reins
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - A new Ba'ath Party law is to be created in Syria, breaking the socialist parties' monopoly over politics in that country, in place (with the exception of the years 1961-63) since 1958. The move is a calculated gamble on the part of the government, and will also challenge a US bill against Syria calling for "Assistance to Support a Transition to Democracy in Syria".

On March 8, 1963, the Military Committee of the Ba'ath Party came to power in Syria, pledging to restore the Syrian-Egyptian Union of 1958. All parties that had supported the post-union order were outlawed, creating a one-party state in Syria, headed by the Ba'ath, modeled after Gamal Abd al-Nasser's Egypt since 1952.

The offices of the Communist Party, the Syrian Social Cooperative Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab Liberation Movement, the National Party and the People's Party were all shut down, and their newspapers were banned. Already on the blacklist of political parties in Syria since 1955 was the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).

Over the years, as the founders and members of these political parties died, either in exile, jail or political retirement, the parties evaporated from the consciousness of the four generations that emerged in Syria. The only exceptions were the Muslim Brotherhood and the SSNP, which although banned (for different reasons) remained popular, and the Communist Party, which decided to cooperate with the Ba'athists after 1970 to avoid the fate of other parties in Syria.

The 1974 party law, which laid ground for the National Progressive Front (NPF), a parliamentary coalition headed by the Ba'ath, allowed more parties to emerge, yet conditioned that they had to be from the socialist orbit. President Hafez Assad ended the one-party system, conditioning, however, that new parties be socialist ones, and allowed the creation of other socialist parties such as the Arab Unionist Party, the Democratic Socialist Party and the Unity Socialist Party.

The NPF monopolized power in the hands of the socialists, who functioned under the umbrella of the Ba'ath. Apart from the Ba'ath, which has nearly 2 million members, these parties have no power base throughout Syria. In 2000, independent figures tried to re-establish the National Party of Damascus and the People's Party of Aleppo, but for a variety of reasons the projects never materialized. The SSNP reactivated itself in public life, and so did the Communist Party in 2001, by republishing its two political weeklies, outlawed since 1958, al-Nour (The Light) and Sawt al-Shaab (Voice of the People). In February 2001, vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam reportedly promised Riyad Sayf, the Damascus deputy in parliament, a new party law for Syria.

For various reasons, that did not happen in 2001, but today it is almost certain in Damascus that a new party law will be created, and announced at the upcoming Ba'ath Party Conference in June, breaking the socialist parties' monopoly over politics in Syria. President Bashar Assad was very clear about that when speaking to Spanish journalists in Syria in March. He said, "The coming period will be one of freedom for political parties" in Syria.

In 1973, Article 8 of Syria's new constitution said the Ba'ath Party was the ruling party of the state and society. Ba'athist Syria was modeled after the USSR with regard to the ruling party and its relationship with state and society. Just as in Syria, the Communist Party of the USSR became virtually indistinguishable from the USSR, from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 until the Communist Party Conference of 1986, after which membership dropped significantly. When the conference took place, the USSR had 19 million people registered in the Communist Party. In Syria, with different proportions, the number is 1.8 million.

In both Damascus and Moscow, membership in the party became a privilege, and a guaranteed path to success in government, society and the civil service. The Ba'athists created the political elite of Syria from the 1960s onward, just as the communists did in the USSR. It became virtually impossible, in both the USSR and Syria, to assume senior government office without being a member of the ruling party. Some joined out of conviction, yet most out of a desire to advance in the civil service, military, diplomatic corps and government institutions. Not anybody could become a Ba'athist. And not everybody could become a Communist. One had to be recommended by an existing member, and one's past was closely studied. The slightest history of deviance was enough to turn down membership application. As several consecutive generations grew up under one-party rule, it became normal, and in some cases expected, for an ambitious man or woman to join the Ba'ath Party.

In the USSR, a youth organization was founded called the "Young Pioneers", where young members would join until the age of 14, from which time they would become members of the Komsomol (Young Communist League) before becoming full-time members in the Communist Party. In Syria, the steps were repeated, only replaced with the Ba'ath Pioneers, Revolutionary Youth, and eventually full-time membership in the Ba'ath Party.

The SSNP in today's Syria
Under the new party law expected in June, parties not affiliated with the NPF will be permitted to operate as long as they are not Islamic, or encourage sub-national loyalties (eg Kurdish, Circassian, Armenian, etc). The first party expected to receive a license is the SSNP. It is also the party expected to obtain the widest popularity in Syria.

Founded in Beirut in 1932, originally as a secret society of five intellectuals, by the revolutionary philosopher Antune Saada, it grew into an official party and became immensely popular in Syria from the 1940s onward. A radical and secular party, it originally flourished among students at the American University of Beirut and spread to other intellectual centers in Lebanon and Syria, calling for the unification of Greater Syria (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan), and challenging the ideas of modern Arab nationalism that became popular in the 1950s under Nasser of Egypt. Meaning, the SSNP was uninterested in North Africa (Egypt included) or the Arab Gulf region.

It was outlawed in Syria in 1955 when some of its members were accused of assassinating Adnan al-Malki, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian army. Malki was an Arab nationalist, an ally of the Ba'ath, and his brother Riyad was a ranking Ba'athist in Syria. Authorities cracked down on the party, forcing it to move underground, and greatly persecuted SSNP members from 1955 onward.

Restrictions softened when Hafez Assad came to power in 1970, reportedly because he sympathized with the SSNP, and in February 2001, his son, President Bashar Assad, gave an interview to the Jordanian weekly al-Majd saying that he "did not mind" a relaunch of the SSNP in Syria. A few months later, the SSNP was permitted to attend a meeting of the NPF as an "observer".

This was seen as an indicator that the state was willing to grant more freedoms to the SSNP, especially since it tolerated its members having seats in parliament. After an uprising started in Palestine in September 2000, the party was permitted to stage a rally in Damascus, in favor of the Palestinian resistance, for the first time in 50 years. This month, Assad received a delegation of SSNP leaders in Damascus, including Issam al-Mahayri, the aging secretary general of its Syria branch since the party founder's death in 1949.

All of these are indicators that the SSNP is back on its way to becoming a main factor in political life in Syria. The failure of modern Arab nationalism, and the distance of countries once considered as solid Arab "brothers" such as Libya, Sudan, Morocco, Kuwait, Yemen and Oman, all explain why the concept of Greater Syria is on the rise in modern Syria. Of all the other parties that will be authorized, the SSNP probably has the largest power base (unofficially estimated at more than 90,000), matched only by the Ba'ath.

Other parties expected to emerge are the Coalition for Union and Democracy, a Nasserite organization, and the Arab Socialist Union of Jamal al-Atasi, a party that is Arab nationalist in outlook, pro-Nasser, relatively popular in Syria, which deviated from NPF ranks for ideological reasons in the 1970s.

If the arrested Damascus parliamentarian Riyad Sayf is released from jail (his prison term ends in 2007), he will strive to re-establish his Movement for Social Peace. An unofficial party, it was created and abrogated in 2000, lobbying for the creation of a multi-party system, a release of political prisoners, and an end to socialism in Syria. If no legal obstacle prevents him from getting a license (he might be stripped from his civil rights), then Sayf might succeed and his party would win during election time, because he is popular in Damascus.

A moderate Islamic party might be permitted to operate under the leadership of Dr Mohammad Habash, the regime-friendly Islamist deputy in the Syrian parliament, but no license will be given to the Muslim Brotherhood, which tried and failed to topple the Assad regime in 1982, inflicting a lot of blood in Syria.

Law No 49, which makes membership in the Brotherhood a criminal offense punishable by the death penalty, will most probably be abolished in the upcoming Ba'ath Party conference. This is seen as a gesture on the behalf of the government to build bridges with its opponents. Other similar gestures have been the return to the country of General Jasem Alwan, a Nasserist officer who tried to topple the Ba'athist regime in July 1963, four months after it had come to power. He was sentenced to death, escaped to Egypt, and ever since has been a loud critic of Ba'athist Syria.

Having spent more than 40 years in banishment, he returned to Syria this month, and so did Yusuf Abdelki, a popular and widely respected artist, persecuted and arrested previously for his communist views. Abd al-Hamid al-Sarraj, the ruthless director of intelligence who persecuted the Ba'athists from 1958-61, and has also been in Egypt ever since, is also due for return in 2005.

Probably, in a healthy political environment, independents will strive to re-establish the National Party of Damascus, loyal in the 1950s to Syria's late president Shukri al-Quwatli, who died in 1967, and others will work for the People's Party of Aleppo, whose president and co-founder Nazim al-Qudsi died in 1998. Both parties were non-ideological, unlike the Ba'ath and communists, but rather mirrored the socio-political interests of their respective communities, and promised to represent them adequately in parliament during the 1940s and 1950s.

The National Party ruled Syria from 1946 to 1949, and again in 1955-58, while the People's Party reigned in 1949-51 and 1961-63. These parties did not have firm objectives, and were pragmatic, doing what was in their communities' interest to survive politically. When it was popular to demand union with Iraq in 1949, for example, the National Party did that, yet when it became needed to support a union with Egypt instead in 1958, it also did just that.

The new generation of Syrians will head toward politicians who have no ideological convictions, and are working only for the interests of their respective communities. It is not a crime in politics, contrary to what many believe, to be pragmatic, and change sides and convictions according to needs and circumstances. Since ideologies have failed their founders all over the world, these non-ideological parties will probably be the most popular if a true multi-party system emerges in Syria.

In 2000, Paris-based Syrian businessman Umran Adham tried to re-establish Quwatli's National Party, but the project was delayed "because the state was unenthusiastic". A legal team was put in charge of paperwork, and the National Party's 1946 constitution was updated to apply to modern Syria. Adham had explained that the party should be ready by late 2001 and able to take part in the parliamentary elections of 2002. He then spoke to the Beirut-based Daily Star and said the project had been delayed "for another three to four years". He added that he had "sent out signals" showing that the project was ready and awaiting approval, and received "an extremely passive response" from senior state officials, showing that no Ba'athist leaders wanted to resurrect the National Party in 2001.

Today, the mood is different in Damascus. It is very likely that a resurrection for the National Party, the People's Party and the SSNP will happen. To succeed, they need credible people to lead them. The success of the National Party, for example, was due to the immense popularity and trust that people had in its unblemished leader Quwatli and his prime ally Sabri al-Asali. There aren't many people in Syria today with the caliber of someone like Quwatli to inspire immediate confidence among the public. Without real leaders, both the National Party and People's Party will be failures.

The question that many are asking: "Why now?" Why has the Syrian government decided to create a multiparty system which might challenge the power of the Ba'athists? Contrary to what many believe, the Ba'ath Party is very strong in Syria, and has a lot of active supporters. Changing the views of a society indoctrinated with Ba'athist views since 1963 will not be easy. The masses, who generally lack a proper democratic culture, will not readily join other political parties, especially ones that challenge Ba'athist ideology.

This is the exact reason. The state is confident enough that no real threat will be presented to its power if a multi-party system emerges in Syria. Let the parties operate, and let them win parliamentary seats. The ruling party of the state and society will still be the Ba'ath Party, since amending Article 8 of the constitution, which gives it that leadership status, will not be discussed at the upcoming conference. A multi-party system will threaten nobody, and yet be greatly welcomed by the Syrian masses, who are demanding such a kind of political reform in Syria.

The Syrian masses will be pleased, and the Syrian government will get good public relations credit for it. It will also challenge a US bill against Syria, presented on March 8 in the House of Representatives, calling for "Assistance to Support a Transition to Democracy in Syria". It reads: "The president is authorized to provide assistance and other support for individuals and independent non-governmental organizations to support transition to a freely elected, internationally recognized democratic government in Syria."

The message from the public and government alike in Damascus is clear: there is no need for US help, the Syrians will democratize on their own, at will.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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