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    Middle East
     Jun 22, 2005
A hint of glasnost for Syria
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - A week after the Ba'ath Party conference in Syria, which many people believed could mark significant change in the country, it's clear that it was foolish to think the Ba'athists would willingly abandon their status in government. On the contrary, the conference came out with a very strong message to Syrians and the world: the Ba'ath is here, as it has always been since 1963, and plans to stay around for a whole lot longer.

The majority of Syrians were misinformed about what the conference would bring. Some talked about a general amnesty. Some said that law 49, which says that membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is a capital offense, punishable by death, would be abrogated. Others dreamt of a pardon for all political exiles. Many believed that article 8 of the constitution, which says that the Ba'ath Party is the leading party of state and society, would be amended.

None of the above happened, yet the conference came out with the advice to the Syrian leadership that the Ba'ath Party's role in daily decision-making had come to an end. The party will supervise, but not interfere in, the mechanisms of government. According to the London-based daily al-Hayat, the number of cabinet seats allocated to the Ba'ath will be reduced from 17 to 10.

The Ba'ath still had a lot to offer Syria, its assembled leaders said. If anything, the conference showed that President Bashar Assad is totally in control of domestic affairs, despite what many people have speculated in the Arab and Western press.

Number one on the reform list was the retirement of many members of the Ba'ath Party, some of whom had been in office since 1963. With a few exceptions, these were the same men whom the press had accused of hampering reforms since 2000, claiming that Assad had been unable to get rid of them.

Among those to lose their jobs were ex-chief of staff Ali Aslan, his deputy Abd al-Rahman Sayyad, ex-chief of Military Intelligence Hassan Khalil, ex-director of political security Adnan Bader Hasan, ex-vice presidents Abd al-Halim Khaddam and Zuhayr Masharka, ex-premier Mohammad Mustapha Miro, ex-defense minister Mustapha Tlas, ex-assistant secretary generals of the Ba'ath Abdullah al-Ahmar and Sulayman Qaddah, ex-speaker of parliament Abd al-Qadir Qaddura, and two generals, Shafiq al-Fayyad and Ibrahim al-Safi.

Many in Syria were unimpressed, claiming that retiring officials who had been in the Ba'ath for 40 years, and replacing them with those who have been around for 20 years, cannot be called real reform. On June 16, Assad launched a security shake-up to further make his point that matters were changing in the country. The president replaced Bahjat Sulayman, the strong director of internal security at General Intelligence, with Fouad Nasif, an officer from Military Intelligence.

Mohammad Sa'id Bukhaytan, an "enlightened" Ba'athist, has replaced the aged and ailing Abdullah al-Ahmar as deputy secretary general of the party, while Hisham Ikhtiyar, a retired officer from Damascus, has replaced Bukhaytan as national security adviser. Ali Maamlouk, another Damascene officer in his mid-50s, has become the new director of General Intelligence. He has promised, according to a popular online news bulletin, to minimize interaction between the intelligence offices and Syrian citizens, emphasizing that intelligence officers had a duty to monitor the security of Syria, not the affairs of its citizens. 

He also said he would tolerate political dissent and not persecute citizens for views that were opposed to the Ba'ath Party. This might explain why, coinciding with his appointment, was the arrival to Syria, from the US, of US-based opposition member Nabil Fayyad, who joined the Party of Syrian Reform earlier in the year. Fayyad, a one-time ally of the Syrian regime, fled to join US-based opposition leader Farid al-Ghadry. Surprisingly, although he called for "regime change" while based in America, and promoted himself as "president of the Reform Party-Syrian branch," Fayyad has not been touched by the Syrians.  

Abdullah al-Dardari, a non-Ba'athist and highly respected man in Syria who studied in Great Britain, worked at the United Nations Development Program, and had been director of the State Planning Bureau since 2003, became deputy prime minister for economic affairs. Walid al-Moualim is tipped to become minister of foreign affairs. Moualim's appointment is due to his good relations with Washington, where he served as ambassador from 1990 to 2000. He is expected to mend relations with the White House and end Syria's isolation after the Lebanon debacle, which he recently handled until Syria withdrew its troops after the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February.

This is the biggest shake-up in Ba'athist history since late president Hafez Assad came to power in November 1970. The changes put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the Syrian president. For five years, Syrians have believed their president was a reformer, but that those around him were not. Overnight, Assad got rid of them all. True, this pleases Syrians for today, but it also leaves no excuse for delayed reforms from now on. The people also believed that Ba'athist interference in day-to-day affairs of the state was a damper on reforms, since whenever the Ba'athists wished they could arrest or fire people, or delay legislation, claiming that it "contradicted the principals of the revolution". At the conference, this revolutionary term has been dropped and the Ba'athists recommended that the party be separated from government affairs, echoing a law issued by the Ba'ath in 2003.

Another noted reform was the Ba'ath conference recommendation that Syria authorize the creation of political parties, not necessarily affiliated with the Ba'ath. Effectively, this breaks the Ba'ath Party's monopolization of power since 1963. A law is yet to be issued, yet a group of activists has already taken matters into its own hands and issued a declaration to create the Movement of Free Patriots, in Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city.

Its main founder and spokesman is Samir Nashar, a 60-year-old businessman and political activist who belongs to the mercantile class of Aleppo and who has been active in civil society movements since 2000, being a co-founder of the Abd al-Rahman Kawakbi Salon for Political Debate in Aleppo. Two of the founders, Dr Talal Kayyali and Mustapha al-Jabiri, are part of the political establishment that ruled Syria, academically known as the "urban notables", before the Ba'ath Party came to power in 1963.

The Soviet model
With all these events taking place in Syria, many are starting to draw a parallel between the Ba'ath Party conference of 2005 and the Communist Party conference in the USSR in 1986. Syria must read the details of Mikhail Gorbachev's 1986 conference because they were the cornerstone that created the new Russia that exists today.

Gorbachev attacked the recent past, pointing out that mistakes had been made, but individuals were responsible for them, and not the Communist Party. The Soviet conference called for a more flexible system of economic management, the loosening of outdated bureaucratic laws, encouraging greater openness, less interaction between Soviet citizens and the secret police, and more publicity about the shortcomings of the regime. This was called glasnost. It unwillingly exposed the weakness of the Soviet system and the much-needed reforms in all sectors of life. Censorship eroded, taboos were lifted, banned works were published, and writers were permitted to explore forbidden themes. Through glasnost, Gorbachev attempted to mobilize the intelligentsia to his side, in addition to the Soviet youth, something that Assad has been trying to do since 2000.

The Soviet press became more transparent, and people were allowed to learn of the mistakes of the past. When the reality of failure became so clear to everyone, Gorbachev abolished high school exams in 1988. History books in the USSR had been used to glorify the Communist Party and its role in Russian history. It was pointless to maintain these exams in 1988, since so many of these myths had been challenged or destroyed completely by the openness and transparency of glasnost. Will this take place in Syria? Syria's curriculum, after all, has concentrated on glorifying the post-1963 era and describing everything that preceded it as "regressive" and "wrong".

As the world watched in admiration, Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan, just like Assad has withdrawn his troops from Lebanon. Assad does not want to dismantle the regime of the Ba'ath Party. He wants to reform Syria from within, yet maintain the status quo. There is a general consensus in Syria of him being a true president if he succeeds in implementing glasnost.

Assad wants to restore the confidence of the Syrian people in Syria. In June 1988, at the Communist Party's 19th conference, Gorbachev dictated that party committees could no longer issue instructions to the state, or enforce (and hamper) economic legislation. The Communist Party was not above the law, he added, and should cease its role as administrator of the whole country. The USSR should democratize, he added, on the basis of multiple candidates, and this was echoed by Assad in an interview with Spanish journalists in March when he said that "the future will be for political parties in Syria".

Thousands of prisoners were released by Gorbachev, again, as Assad is doing in Syria. In March alone, Assad released 312 Kurdish dissidents arrested for creating disturbances in 2004, and since coming to power in 2000, has released over 1,000 political prisoners. Still, many remain behind bars, including parliamentarians Riyad Sayf and Maamoun al-Homsi, economist Arif Dalilah, and Ali al-Abdullah, an activist arrested last month for reading a declaration on the behalf of the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet this past week, a European Union parliamentary delegation visiting Syria received assurances from the authorities that all political dissidents, including Sayf and Homsi, would be released within a week. With regard to the Kurds, Assad has also promised to grant 225,000 of them Syrian citizenship, which they were deprived in 1962, before the Ba'athist regime came to power.

As the press became more open in the USSR, the Soviets, just like the Syrians today, began to understand why the truth had been kept away from them for so long. The truth is that the USSR was in a mess, and for the first time since 1917, the people were demanding answers to the question: what went wrong, and why? The same mood prevails in Damascus today: Syria is in a mess, and the people want answers.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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Syria's Ba'athists ease up, just a little
(Jun 11, '05)

A watershed in Syria (Jun 7, '05)

Syria's Ba'athists loosen the reins
(Apr 26, '05)


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