The Future of the Democratic Movement in Syria

Radwan Ziadeh is editor of Tayyarat magazine, Director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, and a member of several human rights associations in Syria. 

 He wrote about 10 books on democracy, human rights, and modernizing Islamic thought, including “Islam in a Changing World”.

 He also writes regularly for many Arabic publications, including the London-based Al-Hayat, the Lebanese dailies Al-Mustaqbal, Al-Balad and An-Nahar, the Daily Star (see below), as well as Al-Ghad in Jordan.

The lecture will be in Arabic, but translation will be provided.

Seats are limited.  Please RSVP by Thursday, March 23, 10 AM to Sherif Mansour at:  [email protected] or call 202-265-1200.

Reform that dares not speak its name

The problematic legacy ceded by former President Hafez Assad to his son, Bashar, makes the issue of reform in Syria crucial, sensitive and difficult. It is crucial because the regime’s mechanisms have deteriorated to unheard-of levels; sensitive, because what is now required is structural change within the Syrian state and the Baath Party, and in how both are run; and difficult because what is at stake today is the continuity of the Assad regime, while its renovation on the same bases as those existing today and in the past creates an impossible equation.

Since President Bashar Assad took office in June 2000, the Syrian regime has been marching in place. The sum total of the promises and statements made by Assad, ministers, and members of the Baath Party Regional Command in favor of modernization and development has been enormous; however, real change has been insignificant. Assad himself acknowledged in an interview that much legislation had been issued but that it was never implemented; and he questioned the reasons for this reality.

Assad has hesitated to use the term “reform,” since it implies that what his father (who is routinely referred to in the official media as an “immortal leader”) left behind after 30 years in office somehow requires amelioration. So, the president prefers to use the terms “develop and modernize,” by which he means developing what was built earlier and modernizing it by applying the parameters and technology available today.

Regardless of this sensitivity, one wonders about the possibility of reform after the death of Hafez Assad, who laid the foundations of the present regime. The late president would have been the one most capable of introducing necessary domestic reform, but he didn’t or, because the system he created didn’t allow it, couldn’t. This suggests that Bashar will not be more able to do so. Indeed, he is faced with different scenarios of change, all of which are painful to him and threaten the regime’s future.

This inability to introduce change from within leaves the president vulnerable to changes imposed from outside. This may come in the framework of an imperialist democratization agenda imposed by the Bush administration, where Washington makes demands on a series of fronts – for example insisting that Syria control its border with Iraq and end its support for Palestinian organizations the U.S. describes as “terrorist,” such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Such requirements are resisted by the Syrian regime, which considers their acceptance as tantamount to national humiliation.

A way to resist outside pressure is to introduce change according to domestic Syrian needs, including true political reform and the taking of difficult decisions on the economy. True choice would lead to a Syria without the Baath Party, though the regime discards such an option due to the delicate balance between the security apparatus, the political class, and the party apparatus, and the personalities running them.

Therefore, is there the possibility of reform in Syria? All will depend on how the regime behaves. There can be no reform if Assad continues to show the little courage and vision to embark on reform that he has in recent years, in the face of impediments from the party, the security services, and the bureaucracy. In this context, the reform option might not only be limited in the future, it could well be eliminated.

On the other hand, change can come if the regime is willing to make sacrifices, starting with the dissolution of the Baath or its transformation into a party similar to other Syrian parties. Sacrifice also means changing the Constitution, which has given the Baath the authority to lead the state and society. In parallel, there should be a process of reducing and sometimes eliminating the power given to the security services, as well as the establishment of an independent and credible judiciary, without which no reform is possible. It is imperative that the focal point of reform must be the legal system, so that it can protect new national institutions and help transform Syria from an authoritarian state to one where the rule of law prevails.

Reform can be initiated by those in authority today, in conjunction with a democratic opposition that is not bent on seeking power, but is driven by the desire to build a state of law and order within a democratic framework, based on the peaceful transfer of power.

It has become difficult, perhaps impossible, after September 11, 2001, to separate domestic Syrian affairs from regional and international affairs. That’s why we must recognize that changes in the international situation may help prepare Syria for the required reforms. We do this recognizing that whatever ensues must be in the highest interests of the Syrian people. It is true that outside pressures on the Syrian regime will hit up against sensitive national issues, such as support for the Palestinians. However, regional support, national solidarity and European assistance will all enable Syria to protect what it considers its domestic priorities, while strengthening its hand in negotiating its regional priorities in a way that could, on balance, be beneficial.

Thinking of a better future, no matter how impossible that may now seem, is what drives Syrians. We continue to wager on the dynamism of social movements, and it is such movements that are today our source of hope.

Radwan Ziadeh is editor of Tayyarat magazine and a member of several human rights associations in Syria. He has written for many Arabic publications, including the London-based Al-Hayat, the Lebanese dailies Al-Mustaqbal, Al-Balad and An-Nahar, as well as Al-Ghad in Jordan. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.