This is the second installment of a three-part series analyzing whether the Arab Spring is drawing to a close. Our first installment examined the issue of political pluralism in Bahrain and asked whether recent reforms by King Hamad are resolving the current political crisis to stave off another which might come down the road. In Part 2 of our series, we look at Syria and its history of what many refer to as missed opportunities for power-sharing and reform.
This May, Syrians, amid ongoing violence in their country, elected a new parliament for the third time since President Bashar al-Assad came to power 12 years ago. People’s Assembly Speaker Mahmoud al-Abrash said the latest election signaled “political pluralism,” as called for by the new constitution. But most opposition groups boycotted the poll, calling it a sham. They say power in Syria still rests with a small ruling elite aligned with the Assad family, not with any elected body.
Rewriting or adding reform clauses to constitutions, staging showy but largely meaningless votes and announcing reforms without real implementation – these are all actions that give the “veneer of political openness,” writes Marina Ottaway, Senior Associate with the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program. But, she argues, they fail to redistribute power in any meaningful way. Many analysts agree and history has shown that until and unless the Syrian regime relinquishes some of that power to respected institutions, it may be doomed to repeat the same cycle of dissent and crackdown which has plagued the country in the past.
Enter Hafez: Stability and financial reform
After its independence from France in 1946, various nations and factions competed for Syrian control: Coups, countercoups, and even a brief, failed union with Egypt left Syria in a state of political and economic chaos. In 1963, a young air force officer and member of the minority Alawite Muslim community Hafez al-Assad sided with a revolution led by the Arab-nationalist Baath party, which seized control of the country. Assad rose to become prime minister of Syria and, in 1971, was elected president.
Hafez launched what he called the “Corrective Movement.” Turning to the economy first, he opened it up to the private sector. This helped revive an entrepreneurial class, whose members reaped prosperity and financial security, giving the regime their loyalty in return. As these were deemed the best times since the country’s independence, Syrians seemed content to settle for stability over political inclusion.
A participatory form of government was also not on the regime’s agenda. In 1973, Hafez passed a new constitution which declared the Baath Party “leader of the state and society,” and gave it the majority of seats in the People’s Assembly, or parliament. It empowered the president to appoint ministers, declare war and states of emergency, draft laws and amend the constitution. The Assembly’s power was restricted to evaluating, modifying and passing laws. In a move to broaden his power base, Hafez set up the National Progressive Front, a coalition of political parties dominated by his own Baath Party.
Hafez offered Syrians something they desperately needed, says David W. Lesch, Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and author of The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria. “There had been nine coups in Syria in the previous 15 years,” says he, “and there was a great amount of chaos and instability on Syria’s borders – in Lebanon and Iraq – so it didn’t take much to convince the Syrian population, ‘we will provide you stability and some economic growth, but you will give up political freedoms.’”
Overkill: The Hama uprising and massacre
In the mid-1940s, writes Brandeis University Middle East scholar Dr. Liad Porat, various Syrian Islamic groups had united to form the Muslim Brotherhood, patterned after the eponymous movement in Egypt which sought a political system inspired completely by the Quran and sharia law. By the 1960s, the group had radicalized, angry over the government’s growing secularization, staging a series of riots and demonstrations.
Tensions worsened in 1973, when Hafez tried to remove an article in the constitution which designated Islam as the president’s religion and sharia the basis for the country’s legal system. After Syria intervened in support of Christians in Lebanon’s civil war, the Muslim Brotherhood rose up in violent rebellion, aiming to overthrow the regime and establish an Islamic state. Over the next few years, the Brotherhood, operating from the city of Hama, organized a series of armed attacks, suicide bombings and even an attempt on Hafez’s life. In 1982, Hafez struck back.
“I think Hafez came to a decision where he basically had had enough…,” Lesch said, “and decided just to smash out the opposition once and for all and to extend and reinforce his leadership and position.”
Syrian troops launched a massive air and ground attack on Hama that lasted three weeks, claiming as many as 30,000 lives. What came to be known as the “Hama massacre” was later described by author Robin Wright as “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.”
Hafez achieved his goal of crushing the insurrection, but there was a price to pay. For decades to come many in Syria came to see him as a brutal and ruthless leader willing to go to any length to retain power.
Most observers agree that there were two reasons why the Hama massacre worked and why Hafez got away with it. In the 1980s, killings of such proportions in a closed country like Syria were still relatively easy to conceal from the outside world. And, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood itself was fairly weak, with ill-defined political goals and little cohesion.
Hafez died in June of 2000; within two days, his son, Bashar, was nominated to succeed him and in July, he was elected to a seven-year term. Because he was young and Western-educated, it was hoped that he would usher in badly needed reforms – and, for a while, he seemed willing to deliver. In his inaugural address, he called for “discarding outdated ideas,” talked about the need for administrative reform and improved accountability; he talked about democracy and transparency. For the first few months in office, says Lesch, Bashar gave Syrians unprecedented political freedoms – a period which was dubbed the “Damascus Spring.”
According to Lesch, “[Bashar al-Assad] released people from prison, he licensed private newspapers, allowed unprecedented criticism of the regime and questioning of the regime’s policies.”
Bashar also shut down the notorious al-Mazze military prison, where many political prisoners had suffered under his father’s regime. He encouraged political dialogue, and in salons and cafes across the country, intellectuals and activists debated Syria’s future.
But Bashar’s Syria still had a long way to go. In October of 2000, a group of 99 Syrian citizens issued a statement demanding an end to martial law, the release of all political prisoners, the return of exiled dissidents, the right to assemble, a free press, free expression and “a public life free from the laws, constraints and various forms of surveillance imposed on it.”
The government made no move to address these demands. In a February 2001 interview with Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Bashar backpedalled on promised reforms, saying “… the timetable for development is not linked to months or years; rather it is linked to the development of society…in my inaugural speech I did not promise anything except to work.”
By mid-decade, the Damascus Spring was officially over, and many believed that the window of opportunity had closed.
Bashar: Puppeteer or puppet?
Why did Syria’s president change course? One possibility is that Bashar never intended to seriously overhaul the system of government that had served his father so well.
“In the interviews I had with him,” Lesch says, “he always spoke about reforms in the economy, administrative reforms, reshuffling and reform in the ministries to make them more efficient, more merit-based rather than family-based. All of these things are good, but he never spoke much about political reform, and when I brought it up with him… he would always say that Syria just wasn’t ready for it yet.”
The other possibility, says Lesch, is that Bashar’s hands were tied. “I’m not sure he knew how to do that while maintaining the base of the regime in power.” “Essentially, in doing my research,” adds Lesch, “I came to the conclusion that some of the ‘old guard,’ came to him at a certain point in late 2000, early 2001, and said, ‘Listen, young man, this just isn’t how we do things. You’re unleashing the genie out of the bottle here, and it’s going to undermine our position.’”
Bashar would have had to comply, says Lesch, because he needed the old guard to help “fend off international challenges.”
Middle East Voices posed the same question to Ribal al-Assad, son of Hafez’s brother Rifaat, who commanded Syria’s security forces at the time of Hama massacre. Rifaat is said to have attempted to seize power after Hafez fell ill in 1984. Hafez recovered and Rifaat was exiled to Europe. Today, his son, Ribal, Bashar’s first cousin, heads the London-based Organisation for Democracy and Freedom in Syria and is a strong critic of the present regime.
The real power, Ribal says, lies inside the Syrian security apparatus. “They are the ones who really control everything in Syria,” Ribal said. “The only reason they brought him into power is that he would keep their interests in place…He’s a weak person, someone they could scare quite easily.” He names two individuals in particular: Colonel Hafez Makhlouf, Bashar’s cousin on his mother’s side of the family, head of general intelligence, and his brother Rami Makhlouf, a wealthy businessman said to control more than half of Syria’s economy.
Bashar’s Arab Spring challenge
Then came the Arab Spring. Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, opponents of Bashar’s regime took to the streets only to be crushed fiercely, but not subdued. According to Ribal, there was a time in the rebellion when Bashar contemplated compromise.
Ribal says Bashar had planned to announce reforms in his June 20, 2011, speech. “But an hour before his speech, he got a visit by his uncle Muhammad Makhlouf and his two sons, Rami and Hafez. They stayed with him one hour, and his speech changed completely. [Bashar’s media adviser Shaaban] Bouthaina and the vice president were completely shocked. This is not what was supposed to have gone on.”
In his speech, Bashar blamed “outlaws” and “foreign conspiracies,” for the unrest in Syria though he admitted that a few protesters had legitimate demands. He promised to draft a new constitution. What he did not do was call for a halt to the relentless military crackdown which to date has claimed at least ten thousand lives in the fifteen months since the uprising began.
Most outside observers agree that Syria’s Arab Spring started as a peaceful protest movement seeking tangible reforms that were addressed but left unresolved during previous periods of change. Although some issues were publicly addressed by Bashar, he was either unwilling or unable to implement them.
As the conflict continues, despite international efforts to calm it, its outcome remains an open question. Will Bashar survive it, just as his father survived Hama and continue in his ways? Or will he be toppled, either by regime insiders or by his own people? Whatever the scenario, Syria, many analysts agree, once again in its history seems to have missed an opportunity for power-sharing and reform.
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for Dubai-TV English. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf regions, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA and MEV a keen understanding of the region's top social, cultural and political issues.