'Civil Society', Buthaina Sha’banand, Farouq al-Shara, Hassan Abdul-Azim, Louay Hussein, Michel Kilo, missed opportunities, Monzer Haloum, Riad Seif, Sadiq al-Azm, The "opposition", The opposition in exile, the Semiramis Conference, the Syrian National Council (SNC)
(17, 533 Words)
Carsten Wieland studied history, political science and philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin (PhD in 1999), Duke University in North Carolina, and at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Since 2011, he works in the German Foreign Office. Before he entered the diplomatic career he worked as a political consultant, analyst, author and journalist and spent several years in the Middle East. Being a Syria expert for more than a decade, he published numerous articles and books on the Levant, amongst them Syria at Bay: Secularism, Islamism, and “Pax Americana”, Hurst, London in 2006. Carsten previously worked at the Goethe Institute in Cairo and Munich and as a country representative for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Colombia. He was a correspondent for the German Press Agency (DPA) in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Colombia, as well as DPA head of corporate communications and public affairs in Berlin. He is guest professor for international relations at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá and was a fellow at the Public Policy Department at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. (www.carsten-wieland.de).
[This chapter of the Syria Studies issue [PDF] The Syrian Uprising: Dynamics of an Insurgency “is based on Carsten Wieland, Syria: A Decade of Lost Chances: Repression and Revolution from Damascus Spring to Arab Spring, Cune Press, Seattle, 2012.”]
Asad’s Decade of Lost Chances
By Carsten Wieland
The autocrats who were toppled during the Arab Spring persevered for some 30 or 40 years before their power structure imploded. After only a decade of rule, the Syrian regime under President Bashar al-Asad seems to be nearing its end. The country, its morale and social fabric are in ruins. Born in 1965 he is the youngest among the Arab autocrats and already politically paralyzed -no matter with which scenario the bloody revolt in his country will end. How has this happened after Asad started his rule with so much anticipation and high hopes in June 2000? The story of his political career is a chain of missed chances and practical failures.
We can assess how far Asad has fallen when we compare to where he came from after the death of his father, Hafez. For this purpose I would like to quote a passage from my book “Ballots or Bullets?” in which I reflected the mood in the streets of Damascus some eight years ago:
Although his nimbus is fading, the young president possesses an image that, from the point of view of most Syrians, is neither stained with blood nor corrupted by radicalism or incompetence (though some would say more the latter than the former). He has successfully been able to distance himself from his father’s political Stone Age. Most Syrians tend to look for faults in Bashar’s surroundings rather than in Bashar himself.2
After 2011 the president will never be able to revive his former image. He has chosen bullets instead of ballots.
Usually, any assessment of Bashar al-Asad starts with his personality, although this approach fails to explain developments in their complexity. “Bashar is not the regime”, traditional oppositional figures used to reiterate. This was different under Hafez al-Asad. The regime is a complex web of direct or subtle influences, priorities, jealousies and power struggles. There are indications that at times Bashar was incapable of enacting decisions of his own or even fulfilling given promises, because others were calling the shots. A leading and well-informed oppositional figure said at the end of 2010 that Asad had been left to act freely in foreign policy only, whereas domestically the secret services, the Baath Party, his clan and big business representatives were controlling the sinecure.3
Without further evidence it is hard to prove if the observations also held true a few months later. In light of this thesis it remains an open question as to what extent the cruelty of 2011 and 2012 and the numerous technical mistakes committed in suppressing the popular protests are due to the plurality of power centres in the Syrian polity under Asad or if they can be directly attributed to him and his personal strategy. Whether he is personally responsible for each and every shot that was fired, for each child that was tortured and mutilated, for every armed attack of the shabbiha Alawite gangs to incite sectarian hatred, for cattle and fields that were burnt to starve dissenting villagers, does not really matter in the end. Since 2000 the president has reshuffled almost all important positions in the mukhabarat, the military and government bureaucracy. He is the president and thus responsible for the so-called security solution. The protests triggered typical reflexes of a thoroughly authoritarian culture with a cruel history of civil wars and crackdowns. Survival is a zero-sum game where the winner takes it all.
This outcome was far from inevitable as the following pages show. Asad had a plethora of opportunities that he missed one by one, domestically and internationally. Many Syrians pinned their hopes for the young president as a reformer (as their fathers and grandfathers had already projected their hopes on Hafez al-Asad as a “liberalizer” and “pragmatist” in 1970-1971). From the beginning of his rule in 2000 Bashar faced a very moderate and intellectual opposition that did not pursue the priority of toppling the president but that tried to press for incremental change and gradual pluralism. Bashar did not reach out to them but launched three major waves of suppression against the oppositional Civil Society Movement between 2001 and 2008-2009. The noose was tightening around the neck of the opposition despite increasing relaxation of international relations from 2008 onwards. Syria was by no means on a path of reform when the Arab Spring hit the country. Nevertheless, the international community was ready to listen to Bashar’s promises and to appreciate the certain stability that he embodied until he was rolled over by mass protests from March 2011 onwards. Bashar led his country into international isolation and traumatic destruction. Stability and secularism, the Asads’ main assets, are no more. Asad destroyed his political legacy, his family, his religious community, Syria as it used to be and probably himself. The decade of his rule is a tragic story because it could have ended so differently.
The Loss of Projected Innocence
The trained ophthalmologist -often described as western in outlook because of his studies in the United Kingdom -differs from the stereotype of a brutal dictator. In his youth he is described to have been relatively humble, honest, and even “non-ideological”.4 He did not display anything similar to the arrogant, dissolute, and excessive life-styles of the sons of the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Revolutionary Leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. Asad is no natural leader and did not intend to get involved in politics. He had to follow his father’s will after the premature death of his elder brother Basil in a car accident in 1994. Asad was more interested in the internet and computers than in conspiracies and arms. In one of the most sealed off countries ruled by the “Sphinx of Damascus”5, his father Hafez al-Asad, he became head of the Syrian Computer Society from which he later recruited some of his personnel.
Contrasted with the unscrupulous “security solution” against the mostly peaceful street protests of his own people in 2011, the following statements of Asad in his inauguration speech a decade earlier appear almost surreal:
I am not after any post nor do I avoid any responsibility. The post is not an end but a means to achieve an end. And now, and since my people have honored me with their choice of me as president of the Republic […] I would like to say that I have assumed the post but I have not occupied the position […]. I feel that the man you have known […]will not change at all once he assumes his post. He came out of the people and lived with them and shall remain one of them. You may expect to see him everywhere whether in the work place or in the streets or at your picnics in order to learn from you […]. The man who has become a president is the same man who was a doctor and an officer and first and foremost is a citizen.6
Indeed, Asad was seen at times in the lanes of old Damascus or Aleppo without visible bodyguards and dined in restaurants.
If assertions of Sheikh Ahmed Badr al-Din Hassoun, the Syrian Grand Mufti, reflect the truth, Asad confided in him more than once that in his dreams he would like to return to his profession one day and run an eye clinic. This was the first time that a confidant of the president had spoken of the possibility of a voluntary and premature end to his rule (although the remarkable utterances may have had tactical reasons in the tense political situation of November 2011).7
Indeed, Asad had not been known for his brutality and extravagance but for precisely the opposite: his restraint in private matters, awkwardness in public appearances, and even political ineptness up to the point that during the gravest crisis of his political life the media described him as “the dictator who cannot dictate.”8 A member of the opposition reported already years ago that some had complained about his “weak character.” “He holds the opinion of the person he last spoke to,” said an oppositional journalist who preferred to remain anonymous. His sister Bushra reportedly called him “stupid and nervous” when he allegedly was among a circle of relatives after the turbulent events in Lebanon in early 2005.9
Certainly, Asad has made a plethora of technical and strategic mistakes. After a decade of his rule everything pointed to the fact that despite his differences, he ended up sharing the other Arab autocrats’ cynicism, loss of reality and –contrary to his and Hassoun’s statements –an autocrat with an apocalyptic outlook will to cling to power at any cost.
The cynicism is reflected in his readiness to accept an unexpectedly high blood toll and to give carte blanche to the security forces and Alawi militias. A researcher close to the Syrian opposition said that during the uprising Asad calmly explained that his strategy was to get not more than 25 to 30 people killed per day, on Fridays maybe more, in order to avoid upsetting international public opinion.10 With several thousands of people killed since March 2011 as well as tens of thousands arrested and held under torture and abysmal conditions in cramped dungeons or sport stadiums (estimates from fall 2011 range from 20,000 to 50,000), it is possible that the number will equal the toll of the notorious massacre in Hama in 1982. The cruelty of tortures, rapes, collective punishment, the barring of wounded from treatment, and the cold-bloodedness of civilian killings in the streets of Syrian towns that are documented in countless amateur videos, despite the technical obstacles and personal risks, exceeds what the world had witnessed in the Libyan civil war that led to the fall of Qaddafi. Even worse, the displayed degree of atrocities against a widely unarmed population is not at all necessary to suppress a rebellion. Technically speaking, it is counterproductive. But we will come back to bad management and political mistakes during the upheaval later in the article.
Asad’s increasing loss of reality is well demonstrated in an interview that he gave to the Wall Street Journal on January 31. The president said that Arab rulers would need to move faster to accommodate the rising political and economic aspirations of Arab peoples: “If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform,” he chided his fellow leaders. Then Asad assured the interviewer (and perhaps himself):
We have more difficult circumstances than most of the Arab countries but in spite of that Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbances. So people do not only live on interests; they also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas. Unless you understand the ideological aspect of the region, you cannot understand what is happening.
In the lengthy interview the president also reflected on his people who were not yet ready for reform:
We still have a long way to go because it is a process. If I was brought up in different circumstances, I[would]have to train myself and, to be realistic, we have to wait for the next generation to bring this reform. […] If you want to be transparent with your people, do not do anything cosmetic, whether to deceive your people or to get some applau[se] from the West. They want to criticize you, let them criticize and do not worry. […] I do not think it is about time [for faster political reform, representation of people, and improving human rights], it is about the hope, because if I say that in five years’ time or ten years’ time may be, if the situation is going to be better, people are patient in our region.11
Not even two months later, the people’s patience ran out and confrontations between protesters and security forces across Syria shook the Baathist regime more than any challenge since the 1980s. And the first public appearance was a smiling president, surrounded by parliamentarian claqueurs, who made a surreal speech in the Syrian parliament at the end of March. Meanwhile, the Syria known for decades had already ceased to exist. The protests have torn asunder the delicate fabric of rules, explicit and implicit, that for decades had determined the relations between the regime and the citizenry. In the end, the nationalistic discourse, the antagonism with Israel and the West in general, and the pro-Palestinian rhetoric did not outweigh the daily social and economic grievances, the wish for the end of tutelage, and all this combined with the loss of fear after the successful popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The internal enemy overshadowed the external one to the surprise of many observers inside and outside Syria.
Ironically, it was Asad himself who made this form of upheaval possible in the first place. He became victim of his own modernization. By allowing satellite dishes and by fostering a modern communication infrastructure, albeit all in the hands of his clan, he created a modern form of protest movement that exchanges videos via YouTube and organizes itself via Facebook and SMS. Though several internet sites are permanently blocked, Syrians have far more access to information and the outside world, through satellite TV, blogs and foreign media. Precisely these visible signs of modernization caused hope among many young Syrians for further changes and at the same time nurtured the yearning for more freedoms when Asad took power.
The country has indeed made some progress during the ten years of Asad’s rule in areas that do not touch upon matters like democracy or human rights. Syrian media outlets are more numerous and plainspoken than under Hafez, provided that they do not cross red lines related to politics, religion and sex. Arts and letters have benefited from more freedom of expression. Cell phones and other modern equipment have become accessible to a wider range of people. Women’s organizations have gained strength and are granted room to maneuver even if they are not legally registered or explicitly supportive of the government.
Clearly, the development of the country under Asad has been an asymmetric one. Whereas reforms have become visible especially in the macro-economic realm, a stand-still or even reversal can be observed in the political, administrative, and socio-economic arenas. After political pluralisation seemed too risky the president reduced his aspirations first to administrative reforms (anti-corruption, efficiency, etc.), and when this was met with resistance, he concentrated on economic reforms that have been moving along a bumpy road since then but are indispensable for the regime’s survival.
Internationally speaking, Syria’s development in the past decade has taken place in unusually harsh and not entirely predictable conditions. The 9/11 attacks in Washington and New York in 2001 changed the whole board game in the Middle East and beyond, aggravated by the military approach of the US administration under President George W. Bush. No democratic experiment was going to be tolerated in Syria as US threats of regime change began to emerge in 2002, and the Baathist regime entrenched itself in ideological opposition to the Iraq war. Pressure mounted on Syria from abroad, especially from Saudi Arabia, France and the United States in subsequent years, culminating in the UN Security Council Resolution 1559, calling upon “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon.” Asad began to lose his nerve and pursued an abrasive policy towards Lebanon. This culminated in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, which aggravated Syria’s isolation and entailed the forced withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
Asad used to cite these events to justify the delay of domestic reforms. “We were affected by the situation in Iraq or in Lebanon. There are many things that we wanted to do in 2005 we are planning to do in the year 2012, seven years later! It is not realistic to have a timeframe because you are not living in situation where you can control the events”, he said in the WSJ interview at the end of January 2011. 12 He is definitely right about the fact that the foreign policy environment and the approach of some western countries in the region were not at all conducive to the opening up of minds and policies in Syria. But despite a series of external shocks, many mistakes were homemade.
Sticking to the Baath Path and a Narrowing Circle of Trust
The chain of possible chances starts right at the beginning of Asad’s rule. The first opportunity to change course occurred when the young heir to the republican throne was still highly dependent on the apparatus of his father. He could not be sure how supportive the power circles would be if he deviated too quickly from the trodden path of Baathism. Asad was dependent on key players of the old power structure who changed Syria’s constitution to the effect that Asad could become president at 34 years instead of the previously necessary 40 years of age. Theoretically, however, Asad could have tried to put his legitimacy on a wider basis by instituting himself as a transitional president who would call for a popular vote. Since there was no other candidate around and much less any organized party, he would have won by a landslide.
But any direct election would have called into question the Baath system as a whole that had served his father as a stable basis for three decades and enabled the smooth succession. Moreover, competition from within the family ranks was still looming. His uncle, Rifat al-Asad (who was exiled in 1984 after openly contesting Hafez al-Asad’s rule), for example, never really thought that Bashar was the right man for the job. He could have taken advantage of any mistake or volatility to snatch power himself. Similar ambitions could have emerged in the security apparatus or with other major political protagonists like long-time Vice President Abdulhalim Khaddam (who defected in 2005), or Syria’s experienced Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara.
Asad chose to stick to the Baath path. In reality, however, the Baath discourse camouflaged the ideological erosion of the system. There was not much left of socialism and neither of pan-Arabism. Asad weakened the influence of the Baath Party further during his rule but he never questioned the foundations of the system as such. Still, power relations have been renegotiated, and Baathist functionaries have been sidelined. In times of crisis the circle of persons that the Asad clan can trust has been contracting more and more up to the point that if the erosion escalates, it may become difficult to recruit enough staunch and qualified loyalists to effectively run the country.
In the years leading to the crisis, the circle of trust had been narrowing. The regime developed increasingly primordial features; it has become more Alawi compared to Hafez’s times.13 Interestingly, the second layer of regime functionaries after the Alawi avant-garde is composed of personalities from the Houran (especially Dera’a), including the Vice President and longtime foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara, who is a Sunni. Given the cruel events in Dera’a, this second layer of functionaries in the regime apparatus may prove less reliable in the future. Shara is still a man of the regime without any doubt, but he is rumoured to have had a difference of opinion with Bashar and especially Maher al-Asad on the crackdown in Dera’a. The communiqué of the foreign Syrian opposition after their conference in the Turkish city of Antalya in June called for handing over power to the vice president.
Louay Hussein, secular editor and leading figure of Syria’s domestic opposition, shed light on the differences of Bashar and Hafez al-Asad’s regimes in a conversation in October 2010. According to Hussein, the father was able to build his legitimacy on two pillars: social development and the liberation of occupied territories (or at least the attempt to do so). He had the power to control the Islamists and was ready to fight. “Bashar was handed power on a silver plate”, Hussein said. He has been lacking the two pillars of his father. The younger group had “no knowledge and vision of the state’s identity. They are playing around. They don’t know what losing means because they didn’t fight for anything and didn’t face any real challenges.”14 The moment to fight came unexpectedly, and it turned out that the system was exclusively based on hard power, i.e. on the extinction of dissenters and threats.15
Crushing the Damascus Spring: The Failure of National Reconciliation
A second opportunity to pursue sweeping changes was to come soon after Asad’s assumption of power. In his inaugural speech he called for Syrians to actively contribute to shaping the country’s future.16 Intellectuals were inspired and began to discuss more and more freely in the newly-found debating clubs in the halls of private houses. The dynamics that emerged thereof in September 2000 became known as the Damascus Spring. That fall, the Christian writer Michel Kilo headlined a group of intellectuals who published the “manifesto of the 99,” followed in December by the “manifesto of the 1,000.” The secular philosopher, Sadiq al-Azm, was one of the key signatories. Riad Seif, an entrepreneur and outspoken Member of Parliament, went the furthest, putting forward social-democratic ideals of a “fair market economy” that he upheld with decent labor practices in the companies he owned. Politically, he called for a constitutional state, an independent legislature and courts, and a free press. But Seif crossed a red line when he announced his intention to found a party of his own. He was arrested, and the Damascus Spring turned cold as the debating clubs in Damascus had to close down one after the other.
Had the Syrians listened more carefully to Asad’s inaugural speech, they may have anticipated that it was modernization that was on the new president’s agenda but not sweeping political reforms or even democracy. In this speech in June 2000, Asad had made his position clear.
We cannot apply the democracy of others to ourselves. Western democracy, for example, is the outcome of a long history that resulted in customs and traditions, which distinguish the current culture of Western societies. […] We have to have our democratic experience which is special to us, which stems from our history, culture, civilization, and which is a response to the needs of our society and the requirements of our reality.17
Simply, this meant that the Baath Party was to retain political leadership. In reply to questions about political reform, the president later answered with stilted formulations such as: “We need an intellectual basis. There should be a connection between the political proposal and the social structure in society.”18 And the latter, he implied, was not yet mature enough to enable the population to participate in politics as in a Western-style democracy. These are the very same thoughts that he reiterated in the interview with the WSJ in January 2011.
At the very beginning of his rule Asad plugged into the notorious discourse of other Arab autocrats in the region: Their people were not ready for democracy, and democracy was a “cultural phenomenon” of the west. In the Arab Spring of 2011 the people finally showed that, indeed, they were ready not only for practical changes but also for a new political discourse and even political culture. People demonstrated that it was their rulers who were responsible for keeping them in a state of poverty and intended political immaturity.
Although the mostly elderly protagonists of the Civil Society Movement oscillated ideological ideas sometimes aloof from the discourse of the younger people, the far-sightedness and intellectual maturity of the Syrian opposition’s discourse became clear unexpectedly ten years after the suffocation of the Damascus Spring. Sadiq al-Azm draws a parallel between the Arab Spring of 2011 and the Damascus Spring of 2001:
The Charter of 99 contained all the slogans, demands and aspirations wherever there is an intifada now. The Damascus Spring created the first documents that emphasized freedom, democracy, human rights, civil society and so on, and avoided the typical attacks on Israel. The Damascus Spring was a dress rehearsal of the Arab Spring.
The philosopher, who lives in Beirut now, observes a maturation of Arab society during the upheavals: “It was the regimes that represented themselves as representatives of enlightenment and state rationalism, and suddenly they clung to conspiracy theories and kept repeating them mindlessly, not the simple masses who had always been blamed for falling prey to conspiracies.”19
Despite his young age Bashar al-Asad did not distinguish himself from his elder counterparts. He rather tried to follow the Chinese example: economic liberalization without, or with only minor, political reforms at home—or bread before freedom, as expressed by Riad Seif.20 It took many Syrians and observers of Syria a long time to realize that, in the end, Asad was aiming at bread instead of freedom.
The clampdown of the Damascus Spring in 2001 was the first wave of suppression against the moderate Syrian opposition. Asad decided to prioritize regime stability before democratic experiments. This was a conscious step to secure his power after he felt he would lose control. The then Vice-president Abdulhalim Khaddam was instrumental in putting the brakes on the development, and the Civil Society Movement went underground -in the Syrian context more appropriately put: into the tea houses. Café Rawda was the most popular meeting point right around the corner of the parliament building. For the next couple of years the regime and the leftist intellectual opposition were to coexist side by side in a peculiar and very Syrian manner with protagonists of the Civil Society Movement taking turns in prison.
There was a time when even parts of the regime seemed to appreciate the constructive and prudent nature of Syria’s opposition. Bahjat Suleiman, the feared and powerful former head of Syrian intelligence, wrote in the Lebanese newspaper al-Safirin 2003, “In Syria, the regime does not have enemies but ‘opponents’ whose demands do not go beyond certain political and economic reforms, such as the end of the state of emergency and martial law; the adoption of a law on political parties; and the equitable redistribution of national wealth.”21 Forcible regime change, Suleiman knew, was only on the agenda of select exiles and US politicians.
But instead of reaching out to these opponents, who defined a gradual transition toward civil society and pluralism as a soft landing within the system and who shared basic foreign-policy assumptions of the Baathists, the president treated these intellectuals like a gang of criminals in subsequent years. Thus he disillusioned many Syrians who had hoped for a common ground towards incremental change. Looking back at Asad’s first big opportunity, al-Azm says: “Asad should have brought Riad Seif into a reshuffled government in 2001. His original sin was not to have offered national reconciliation. Many even said that he would have been ready to reconcile with Israel but not with his own people.”22
With remarkable foresight, Michel Kilo stated in 2003 that the Syrian regime was not reformable. This was true for all authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. “They are not in a situation of stability but in a stable crisis,” said Kilo. “When the regime in the Soviet Union wanted to reform itself, the regime was gone. It will happen the same way with the regimes in the Arab world. This is part of the drama of these regimes.”23 Thus, Asad resisted any pressure for real political reform. While others still projected hope in the president, Kilo was without illusions. “Bashar has allied himself with the corrupt forces. Thus he has basically renounced reform. […] Bashar is not only unable to act, he does not want to act either.” The president, he lamented, wanted to circumvent the issue of democracy. “He only wants a reform of power, not of the system.” Another leading member of the Civil Society Movement, who preferred to remain anonymous, came to a similar conclusion: “Bashar is aware of his weaknesses.” For this reason he is largely keeping out of domestic politics and has abandoned his originally ambitious reform program. “He has capitulated to the hardliners and opted for stability instead of progress.”
Suleiman’s distinction between opponents and enemies was to become highly topical again in the 2011 upheavals, however, in a much more polarized setting. It is part of the Syrian tragedy that even after the bloody escalation in 2011 some oppositional figures tried to keep the doors open in the hope of dialogue for the sake of Syria’s stability and in order to avoid a civil war, most notably Kilo himself. Ignoring the constructive opposition has been one of Asad’s gravest errors of his tenure. A decade later, the days were over when obstreperousness was defined as discussion in the back rooms of teahouses suffused with the aromatic smoke of water pipes. The Syrian president learned to face a new and young opposition in the streets and the whiff of gunpowder.
External Shocks Exacerbate the Domestic Situation
The clampdown on the Damascus Spring took place when the young Asad was still in a phase of orientation. External shocks were soon to hit the region and the Syrian regime that were beyond its control. But the Damascus Spring was strangled before the first external shocks occurred, which were the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in Washington and New York. After 9/11 and in the “war against terrorism” the Arab autocrats received a new pretext to get tough on oppositional figures (many of whom were located in the Islamist spectrum outside Syria) and a new context in which to frame their policies.
9/11 yielded a double-edged sword for Damascus. On the one hand, the events opened an opportunity for the Syrian mukhabarat to employ their year-long experience in the fight against Islamists of all kinds. Moreover, it represented a point of contact with western interests and was a welcome opportunity to underline the secular credentials of the Baath regime. Indeed, Syria was a valuable partner for the West in the fight against Islamist terrorists. It was no coincidence that the security establishments both in the United States and Israel used to take more conciliatory positions vis-à-vis Damascus than the respective political establishments. For example, George Tenet, who resigned from his position as head of the CIA, was, with his organization, one of the few moderating voices with regard to the Syrian regime within the US administration of George W. Bush.
On the other hand, despite Syria’s willing cooperation in the fight against Islamist terrorism, it did not succeed in trading in this commitment for substantially better relations with the United States or Europe. Such a development would have given a boost to the section of the technocratic and political elite in Damascus that was westward-looking and pragmatic. Some of them lobbied for a rapprochement between Syria and Europe and favoured the signing of the long-postponed EU Association Agreement. One of the key representatives was Sami Khiamy, Asad’s economic adviser who later became the Syrian ambassador to London.
The problem for Syria was that two political types of discourses were simultaneously active on the international stage particularly in Washington. One was the discourse oscillating around the fight against Islamist terrorism, which included the debate over direct consequences from the 9/11 attacks. It also went further and posed fundamental questions about a readjustment and the value-orientation of western foreign-policy vis-à-vis so-called pro-Western regimes that had nurtured Islamist terrorism for years, above all Saudi Arabia.24 If this discourse had been seriously pursued, Syria could have gained strategic advantage on the security level in view of its contribution against militant Islamism (much less, obviously, on the level of democratic governance).
The second discourse had less to do with protecting the United States from terrorist threats but with catering for Israel’s security concerns in the region. The pro-Israel discourse did not always overlap with the anti-Islamist-terrorism discourse. In this frame Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed a threat to Israel and thus became a target of the Israel-friendly neo-conservative foreign-policy of the Bush administration. Already at that time also western governments such as France and Germany were not convinced that Iraq had something to do with al-Qaida (and chemical weapons) and opposed an attack on the basis of these reasons.
What it meant for Syria was that the pro-Israel discourse proved stronger and in the end impaired efforts undertaken within the anti-Islamist-terrorism discourse. Because Syria has a political, ideological and territorial problem with Israel, it was never a candidate to enter into a pro-Western camp under the influence of the Bush administration and Israeli interests. Nevertheless, Syria did continue to cooperate with western secret services even after the Anglo-American attack on Iraq up to the fall of 2003. When the regime in Damascus did not harvest any rewards from its engagement, but threats of regime change instead, it was not interested in further cooperation.
This time it was the West that had missed a great chance. Instead of placing Syria within the “extended axis of evil” and of pushing it into the arms of Iran -which many Syrians detest culturally, ideologically and religiously –there was a window of opportunity to focus on common secular values and the tolerance of religious minorities, on the fight against militant Islamism. Perhaps there was even a chance to embark on technical forms of Syrian-European cooperation such as the Association Agreement. This would have strengthened the pro-western actors within the Syrian bureaucracy and political elite. It would have resonated among parts of the educated middle class as well. Around this time blue car stickers with yellow stars became popular in Damascus that served to imitate EU number plates. Instead, secularist Syria began drifting more and more into the Iranian orbit and into alliances with Islamist groups.
Ideological Encrustation in Context of the Iraq War
The Iraq war was definitely the worst external shock to which the Asad government was exposed. The regime was not ready to embark on democratic experiments as long as its neighbourhood was violent and while the regime’s survival was openly put into question by Washington. In turn, this situation represented a comfortable excuse for the regime not to enact any political reforms and to suppress the domestic opposition further.
The Iraq war presented a further opportunity for Asad to demonstrate whether or not he had the political shrewdness of his father. On the one hand, he used the situation very well to galvanize Syrian public opinion and to rally the whole “Arab street” behind him. Asad became a hero from Baghdad to Casablanca as the only Arab leader who confronted a belligerent Bush administration. He even enjoyed the company of European countries like Germany and France in the anti-war camp. But it was Syria alone that raised the flag of anti-imperialist pan-Arabism again. The resistance discourse resonated well and Asad enjoyed a time of almost unanimous domestic support. In this matter he could be sure to have great parts of the Syrian opposition behind him. On another note Syria became the hub for Arab resistance fighters who trickled into Iraq. The regime in Damascus was content to get rid of Syrian Islamists who crossed over to Iraq where the Americans even did the job of killing them. Furthermore, the Islamists distracted the Americans from leaving Iraq prematurely and from choosing Damascus as their next target for regime change. An attack on Syria had been a realistic scenario in the first months after the Iraq invasion.
Syria’s rejection of military intervention in Iraq was definitely understandable. Raymond Hinnebusch interprets Syria’s stance in terms of an ideological rationale: “Opposition to the US was a collective decision that would have been taken by any nationalist leadership in Damascus. Not only did the invasion threaten vital Syrian interests in Iraq, but it was also an egregious affront to the Arab nationalist values so ingrained in Syrian thinking.” After all, the invasion of Iraq was in Israel’s best interest.25
Against this background of domestic and regional popularity, there is certainly debate as to whether Asad’s actions were politically useful in the long run. Discussions with Syrian intellectuals at that time indicated that Asad could have reacted to the Iraq war with more political foresightedness and less ideological fervor. In search of a direction for his foreign policy, Asad used the Anglo-American attack on Syria’s neighbor to revive pan-Arab rhetoric. People in tea houses wondered how Hafezal-Asad would have acted in this situation. Some considered the young Asad’s policy to be even more ideological than his father’s in this respect. For in the end most Syrians were glad that Saddam was overthrown, the Syrian Baathist establishment included.26 Why should Syria have suddenly lent support to the Iraqi dictator, its Baathist archrival? Michel Kilo is convinced that “Hafez al-Asad would have avoided the conflict with the United States.”27
It is hard to say whether Asad is really more ideological than his father. He may be less intellectually flexible and less politically shrewd by changing sides whenever it looked opportune. The young Asad’s ideological hard-line position on the Iraq issue was part of a search for political orientation, a learning process concerning foreign policy rather than an entrenched ideology. It is scarcely surprising that it was the Baath cadres in particular that were said to have advised Bashar to adopt such a strict pro-Iraq and anti-American position. For them it was a welcome opportunity to begin to replenish the empty reservoir of the Baath ideology at a time when they were otherwise running out of answers.
Previously, the best export product Syria had was its foreign policy, as Syrian analyst Samir Altaqi puts it.28 Hafez al-Asad used to secure sources of money and room for political maneuver. Syria received money from the Arab states in 1967 because it was engaged in a war with Israel, again in 1973, and once more in 1976 when Syrian troops intervened in the civil war in Lebanon. Then, in 1982, Syria was given support when Israel invaded Lebanon and occupied the southern part of the country. At the same time, Asad secured extensive debt relief from the Soviet Union in exchange for approving the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. In the Gulf Warin 1991,Hafez al-Asad did a U-turn and accepted financial aid from the Gulf States, primarily Kuwait, as thanks for supporting the coalition troops against Iraq. Finally, in another U-turn, money flowed from Baghdad after an unexpected honeymoon with the Saddam regime after 1997, and especially after Hafezal-Asad’s death.
Applied to the Iraq scenario in 2003 this means that Syria would have naturally rejected the Anglo-American invasion. But the way in which Asad surfed on the wave of anti-Western, pan-Arab nationalism -that notably merged with staunchly Islamist discourses -did not leave much leeway for a future change of tactics. Moreover, this served as a catalyst for Syria to close ranks with Iran, a process that had started with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In the wider political scenario the Syrian regime has always been aware of the necessity of US support for any major achievement in the region, if only for the famous last mile in a possible peace agreement with Israel. Many of Asad’s foreign policy endeavours after the Iraq war were indeed directed towards finding some kind of acceptance in Washington, hence antagonizing it was impolitic.
Meanwhile in 2011, Syria’s foreign policy options have narrowed down to alliances with, roughly speaking, Iran, Russia, China and Venezuela. Apparently, family members of higher regime loyalists did not see other options once the uprising began than fleeing to countries such as Malaysia, Iran, the UAE, China, Ghana, and Nigeria.29 On a political level the newest trend is East Asia, as Syria’s foreign minister Walid Muallem announced in anti-Western anger at the end of October 2011 in front of a group of Indian academics and journalists.30 President Asad underlined this when talking to a Russian TV station. Interestingly, in this interview Asad backdated the decision to look to the Far East to the year 2005, precisely at the moment when an economic reform programme was announced in the Five Year Plan and the European model of Social Market Economy was declared, on paper.31
The Unresolved Kurdish Question
Domestically, Asad missed an important chance during and after the violent Kurdish protests in March 2004, a failure that is likely to close in on him, too. This was one of numerous unresolved problems that cumulatively rebounded on Asad in 2011.
In 2004, bands of Kurdish demonstrators rioted in several cities, including Aleppo and Damascus, setting fire to cars and fighting battles with the security police. But within a week Asad had the situation under control. The riots were sparked during a soccer match but the causes lay deeper. The Syrian Kurds have a score to settle with the Syrian regime. A Syrian population census in 1962 ignored about ninety thousand Kurds in order to stop the demographic balance in the north tilting toward the Arabs’ disadvantage. As a countermeasure, the Baath regime tried to settle Arabs in a belt along the Turkish border. An estimated two to three hundred thousand Kurds were without citizenship, including descendants. They were not allowed to travel or to own land, among other things. Today a total of one-and-a-half to two million Kurds live in Syria.
Two aspects are interesting here. First, the moderate opposition from the Civil Society Movement, in particular the human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bounni, tried to mediate and exert a moderating influence on Kurdish activists. It was against the patriotism of the Syrian opposition to allow any form of Arab-Kurdish cleavage. Kurdish political leaders who agreed to avoid a rift between them and the Arab oppositional counterparts conceded that they had lost control over parts of their constituency. This would have been yet another opportunity for the regime to reach out to the opposition on behalf of the common national interest in times of external turbulences such as in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Secondly, after the riots Asad [traveled] to the neglected Kurdish region in northwestern Syria and promised to look into the issue of Kurdish grievances. The years passed without any reforms. Rules against Kurds were even tightened, particularly in the field of purchasing property. It was only under the existential threat of the mass protests of 2011 that the president -as one of the first measures -announced a grant of citizenship to stateless elements of the Kurdish population. Thus he intended to prevent a strong Kurdish participation in the protest movements. However, at this point this was no longer received as a welcome reform but considered as a half-hearted concession at the last minute. Thus it lost its political effect like so many other last-minute concessions that Asad announced in the wake of the street riots in spring and summer 2011. The Kurdish issue was one of the easiest concessions to make. Asad lacked the political instinct to launch a solution at the right moment.
Asad’s Critical Half-time
During the military intervention in Iraq and the danger this involved for Syria’s national security, Asad had the Syrian population staunchly behind him. As mentioned above, anti-Americanism helped to revive the skeleton of Pan-Arabism as an antipode, this time with a more Islamic flavor. The Civil Society Movement simmered after 2003, while economic reforms started to bear initial fruits of visible day-to-day improvement, especially in the banking system.
In this sense the Iraq war as an external shock bore positive potential for Asad. He could have used it once again to strengthen his legitimacy with a popular vote. But he did not. The predicament of reforming without destroying was not resolved. Former and frustrated Baath member Ayman Abdul Nour who has known Asad since his youth said in 2004 in a quite realistic assessment: “If there were free elections controlled by the UN, the president would be sure to win. But if he did this, he would admit that the past thirty years were illegitimate.” This is an ideological dead-end. Nour conceded that if there were free parliamentary elections with new parties, the percentage of Baath Party members in parliament would be certain to slide to below 50 percent.32
So it was Asad as a person who continued to have a wide social base -especially within Syria’s Alawite, Christian, Druze, and Ismaili minorities as well as the moderate Sunni merchant class -but he decided to remain attached to the encrusted Baath structure and within reach of the vested interests of his clan. The role game was well distributed among the leading family members. Asad remained the friendly face to the outside world, his brother Maher and his brother-in-law Asef Shawkat were responsible for the elite soldiers of the presidential guard and the mukhabarat, and cousin Rami Makhlouf with his commercial monopolies amassed riches from all kinds of businesses in Syria to secure the clan’s finances.
Reference to the “old guard” of functionaries from Hafez al-Asad’s times initially served as an argument not to embark on political change beyond administrative adjustments and insulated economic reforms. However, the picture was more complex. Old-aged functionaries were not necessarily part of the “old guard”, and young ones not necessarily reformers and westward looking. Gradually, Asad placed his people in the key political and security positions, so that the argument of the “old guard” became less and less tenable.33 Since mid-2004, observers concluded that Bashar was finally able to consolidate his position within the regime machinery. In July of 2004, he got rid of the long-serving military Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabiand replaced four-hundred-and-fifty army officers (during the existential threat of the 2011 upheavals, some of these figures were reactivated since Asad was in desperate need of their military experience).
Precisely at this half-time of his rule, when Asad felt relatively secure, he committed one grievous error and missed another formidable chance.
The error was to press for an unconstitutional extension of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoudat any cost. Asad took a personal decision against the advice of the experienced Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam and the Baath Regional Command. After the extension of Lahoud’s term on 2 September 2004, the UN Security Council, led by a remarkable coalition of the United States and France, passed Resolution 1559. Although it did not name Syria directly, the resolution was a clear challenge to Damascus, calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon, for the disarmament of militias (which meant, above all, Hezbollah), and for free and fair elections the following May.
The insistence on violating Lebanon’s constitution and of prolonging Lahoud’s presidency bore heavy long-term costs for the Syrian regime. Among other repercussions Syria lost France as a benevolent partner in Europe. It had been France’s President Jacques Chirac who was the only western statesman to attend Hafez al-Asad’s funeral in June 2000. In subsequent years French consultants poured into Damascus to help Syria to reform its administrative and judicial system. Now it was the personal friendship between Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and Chirac that proved stronger. Syria was isolated. Not a single Arab state moved a finger in support.
In the following months, the resolution became the main tool for pressuring Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. It also served to considerably narrow Syria’s room for political maneuver. Asad had a personal fall-out with Hariri and created an aggressive anti-Hariri atmosphere. So fingers immediately pointed to the regime in Damascus and to Hezbollah after Hariri was assassinated by a huge car bomb in downtown Beirut on 14 February 2005. A wave of anti-Syrian protests swept Lebanon, and Asad humbly had to announce the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Subsequently, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, whose role was to investigate the Hariri assassination, became yet another political instrument for Syria’s enemies to put pressure on Damascus.
During these months rumours spread of a coup d’état in the presidential palace in Damascus. Regime loyalists debated whether Asad was capable at all of defending Syria’s national interests. Asad’s power became challenged as never before. Only in 2011 was a similar discussion again sparked, this time involving much higher stakes. Asad has piled up political debts from his family clan and the Alawi security establishment. Earlier missed chances began to take their toll. Without having risked a popular vote or at least reached out for national reconciliation with the moderate opposition Asad had nothing much but his clan and the security apparatus to fall back on. This has made the president sink ever deeper into the self-interested power structure up to the point of no return. The political blunder of the Hariri assassination, whoever was behind it, marked the beginning of the decline of Asad. The trauma of complete isolation created a certain paranoia also with regard to domestic challenges.
Despite the foreign policy disaster in the beginning of the year 2005 the subsequent months yielded a valuable opportunity for Asad to reposition himself domestically. In June of that year Asad called the 10th Regional Baath Congress, the first one under his leadership. Expectations were high. But oppositional forces and foreign observers were disappointed because they had expected more sweeping political reforms, the end of martial law, immediate permission for the creation of independent parties, reform of the judiciary, and the abolition of the Baath monopoly, as well as the release of the key opposition figures of the Damascus Spring. Instead, the results were merely announcements that never took effect until the regime struggled for survival in 2011.
In the five-year-plan under the auspices of Abdulla al-Dardari, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, the term Social Market Economy was adopted. Dardari was active in opening Syria’s economy while trying to limit social shocks. The technocrat gained credibility abroad and with foreign experts who were invited to support the government in this effort, mostly Germans and French. Hopeful signs of economic development blended with worries of an increasing social disequilibrium.
Some progress was achieved between 2005 and 2011. The investment environment was improved. Clearer rules were established and a competition law against monopolies was initiated, be they state owned or private. Import bans were lifted and the state further relinquished its monopoly on imports. Syria had already opened its market by signing the GAFTA (Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement) in 1997, and bilaterally to Iran, Iraq and, most significantly, to Turkey. The Central Bank was granted more autonomy in monetary policies, and a private banking sector was established. A stock exchange was founded and real estate laws relaxed. A sales tax was introduced and older taxes abolished. Foreign debts were comparatively low and foreign money reserves high (more than 60% of GDP).As a result, economic performance improved and foreign investment steadily grew. After Lebanon became more volatile again in 2006 many tourists and investors from the Gulf States went over to Syria. Tourism boomed. All these positive developments delivered a financial buffer for the government when the Arab Spring revolts paralyzed the Syrian economy. Among other things the government profited from a high amount of foreign currency reserves that it could then use to finance the crackdown.
However, already a few years later it became clear that Asad’s government was about to give away a socio-economic opportunity after the country’s painful emergence from a socialist command economy. Instead of serious attempts to implement the ambitious concept of a Social Market Economy in a coherent way, economic reforms stopped short at the point where they would have hurt the wider clan’s vested interests and privileges. Not even a strategy paper existed that defined a Social Market Economy in the Syrian context.34
The dynamics of economic reform had started to fade before the Arab Spring set in. A foreign expert who worked with the government referred to the concept of Social Market Economy at the end of 2010 with the following remark: “I think two or three years ago one was more ambitious than today.” Conservative forces realized that their vested political or business interests were in danger if reform got serious, and they started obstructing. In particular, the Minister of Finance and the Planning Commission were dragging their feet. Apart from that the foreign expert criticized a series of contradicting and technically flawed public policies.35
Another foreign expert asked why the Social Market Economy in Syria had one face only, namely Darari himself. It was because thus it was easier to abandon and go on with business as usual whenever necessary without even making the attempt to please western discourses. This is precisely what happened at the beginning of 2011 just before the protests started to gain momentum. Dardari was kicked out of the government.
The chronology is important because it means that this reform concept was meant to fail before widespread protests caused the need for pure crisis management. The term Social Market Economy did not find its way into the next five-year-plan, and with the violence that erupted, the Syrian economy and whatever was left of an economic reform process lay in tatters.
The reform announcements of the 10th Baath Congress of 2005, however, had at least served as a yardstick for the opposition’s demands. Of particular importance were the party law, the lifting of the state of emergency, and the separation of party and government. The announcement to fight corruption provoked hopes, too, but was not in any case more sincere than the other declarations. For Asad himself the most important outcome of the Baath Congress was a thorough reshuffling of top positions in the National Command and the Central Committee of the party, the government, and the military, consolidating his power.
The Second Wave of Repression
Instead of working toward the fulfillment of the reform promises, a second clampdown on the Syrian Civil Society Movement was soon to follow. In face of the obvious vulnerability of Asad’s regime due to the Hariri assassination, the secular opposition gained momentum and was encouraged by western diplomats and politicians. At that time a historic step toward a more unified opposition was achieved through the Damascus Declaration of 16 October 2005. For the first time, all major opposition groups-reaching from the secular Civil Society Movement to Kurdish activists, moderate Muslims, and even the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in London -issued a broad call for democratic change in Syria. Michel Kilo as the head of the Civil Society Movement composed the original draft before it underwent a lengthy process of discussion among the different groups.
A wave of suppression followed suit in the first half of 2006 when those who had been spared in 2001 were arrested like Kilo and human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bounni. The hunt for signatories of the Damascus Declaration was linked to the accusation of pursuing the agenda of western interests while the Syrian regime suffered from the “Lebanon trauma” of increased isolation and stigmatization. In this respect the suppression of civil society went hand in hand with external developments.
Soon after Kilo was arrested in May 2006 the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah broke out. Its result was a public diplomacy disaster for Israel, although the human and material damage on the Lebanese side was far higher. This war offered Asad yet another opportunity. After Hezbollah declared “victory”, Asad in a rather dogmatic speech tried to cash in on the triumph as part as his own policies of resistance against Israel. Syrian public opinion stood behind him, while Hezbollah and to some extent Asad became the heroes of the Arab street far beyond the Levant.
In this way Asad could orchestrate the due presidential and parliamentary “elections” in Syria in 2007 with a comfortable cushion of popularity. Syrians were proud of their president who had resisted international sanctions, the US intervention in Iraq and international pressures connected with the Hariri tribunal; he was the only Arab leader left who dared to speak out against Israel. With the main protagonists of the Civil Society Movement behind bars and the street behind him, this would have been another apt moment to formalize his popular support within reformed political structures. Instead, Asad chose to be acclaimed again by manipulated referendum (or “election” as it was officially called) for another seven-year-tenure.
On the public policy level, the selective economic reforms started to hurt the poor and the lower middle classes while corruption and mismanagement thrived. Kilo asserted in late 2010 that transition in Syria toward a post-Baath era was achieved by an alliance of the mukhabarat with the new rich.36
One aspect of the domestic climate in Syria was that single issue groups with new forms of organization started to replace the old Civil Society Movement as the main actors of change from below. The secular and intellectual civil society activists had pursued a holistic approach of society and politics including conceptions of an ideological überbau, did not shy away from delicate issues such as political pluralism and democracy, and posed demands of domestic and foreign-policy relevance.
The new single issue movements did not deal with these dangerous and sometimes unwieldy aspects but focused on immediate priorities such as women’s rights, the fight against honour killings or the opposition against the planned reform of the Personal Status Law. As long as they did not mention democracy and did not criticize the President, these local NGOs seemed to enjoy a greater amount of tolerance. Given the practical defeat of the Civil Society Movement by 2010 and the taboo surrounding the notion of civil society, the regime made efforts to re-appropriate the term for itself.
Civil society in Syria–as it became frequently used by the government and international donors and agencies–is not the civil society as understood in the historical context of Europe in the sense of an enlightened, self-determined, critical and politically active bourgeoisie or societé des citoyens. This is what the Civil Society Movement had in mind when they founded the debating clubs during the Damascus Spring. Accordingly, Kilo defines civil society as “a society of free citizens, exclusively defined by their freedom, independently of any objective ascriptions such as religion or ethnicity.”37 Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Asad put herself at the forefront of “civil society” development in the government’s formal sense of “non-government” organizations that work on the grass root level but with clear restrictions. Freedom was clearly not part of this definition of citizenship. In 2007 the First Lady formed an umbrella for the NGOs in Syria called the Syria Trust for Development. Those civil society activities were given access to shared resources, research and administrative services, and at the same time were restricted to the red lines of the regime because there was no legal activity outside this realm.
This was part of a strategy to enhance the Syrian image abroad by plugging into a widely accepted international discourse. It also served the purpose of repairing distortions of unequal economic development and employing NGOs in a buffer function against socio-economic shocks. Syria Trust was certainly also a tool in the power struggle between conservative ideologues and reformists, an attempt to gain the upper hand and create incremental action, looking possibly to incremental change. Finally, it was an attempt to fill the vacuum against potential Islamic charities.
In a bitter irony, considering the clampdown on the Damascus Spring, the Syrian Government’s Five Year Plan (2006-2010) addressed the limited role of civil society in Syria’s development. Recognizing that “the role of the civil associations and institutions in the socio-economic development wasn’t as good as desired,” the plan envisaged “radical changes in order to activate and enhance the capabilities of the civil society role in the coming stage.” The First Lady conceded in an international civil society conference in Damascus in January 2010: “The government alone cannot move this country forward.”38
Despite all scepticism this represented an important step forward and a radical change compared to the decades of socialist etatism under Hafez al-Asad in which Syrians had nothing but the state as their reference point in life from charity to education or rural development. Nevertheless, NGO activists hoped for a more liberal NGO law. Since 2005 a new NGO law had been “in planning” but it never materialized similar to the long-awaited law to liberalize the party system that was announced at the 10th Baath Congress.
Observers expressed concern that while covering the conference in January 2010, the Ministry of Information and state press outlets continued to use the term ‘paternal society’ instead of ‘civil society’ in their Arabic-language coverage. This, they claimed, signaled that the will to loosen government control over the sector remained limited.39
So far the government restricted NGOs mostly to their role in development, shying away from allowing interest groups to play a part in the system. Given that the economic opening is sandwiched between Baathist state control and neoliberal elements, the Baathist trade unions became frustrated with this development. Even in a market economy, trade unions would have the right to go on strike. Not in Syria.40
International Success and the Third Wave of Repression
All in all, the hope that Syria would adopt domestic reforms if it did not continue to feel threatened from abroad did not materialize. In previous years, the thesis was plausible that with Syria’s isolation and existential threat against the regime, the political leadership was less ready for experiments and cracked down all the more on opposition movements.
The reversal of this thesis has not come true. Despite a relaxation of international pressure and Syria’s re-emergence on the Arab and international stage, the suppression of political dissenters and human rights defenders has even increased since 2008. Correlations between domestic and foreign policies that were visible in the past were replaced by contradictions between both realms.
Some three years before the wave of Arab protests reached Syria, the regime in Damascus had started to regain the initiative in foreign policy matters. European governments and even the US administration had come to the conclusion that Syria was at least a stable, politically approachable, and important geo-strategic player in the Middle East whose president was on the path of piecemeal reforms. US President Obama played soft on Syria in his effort to reverse the Syrian drift towards Iran and sent an ambassador to Damascus in January 2011 after nearly six years of diplomatic vacuum. This represented the last foreign policy success for Asad before the popular protests.
It was hard work for the Syrian president to get to this point after years of isolation and stigmatization following the Iraq war and the Hariri disaster. Until 2011 it seemed that Asad had overcome his weakness as a political leader. In light of Iran’s post-election Green Revolution in summer 2009 Asad’s grip on power looked even stronger than that of his ally President Ahmedinejad. However, two years of successful diplomacy, constructive engagements such as the state recognition of Lebanon, rapprochement with Europe and even with the US, and a clever diversification of Syria’s foreign policy with Turkey as a close economic and political partner were destroyed by the failed approach of the Syrian regime towards popular demands.
On the other hand, clinging to power by all means created common grounds with other autocratic Arab states and Asad was able to temporarily ease traditional tensions like those with Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States. It is worth remembering that Syria declared the Saudi military invasion to crush the protests in Bahrain as justified.41 However, this overlap of authoritarian interests between Syria and Arab monarchies in the Gulf peninsula was fragile and short-lived.
In all three waves of domestic suppression, the secular Baathist regime silenced above all the moderate, secular voices calling for pluralism and piecemeal reform. In turn, Islamist currents had been gaining ground in Syria. To be sure, the Islamization of opposition politics is a general trend in the Arab Middle East and Syria is not immune. Yet there were other, more specific explanations. First,the regime, despite its secular orientation, and often more out of necessity than enthusiasm, is allied with Islamist partners like Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas in an “axis of resistance” to US and Israeli prerogatives. The regime certainly could not afford confrontation on two fronts, external and internal. A second explanation is that, not unlike other Arab regimes, Damascus adopted a conscious strategy of toleration for Islamism. Michel Kilo summarized the division of power between the regime and the Islamists with the pointed words: “Ours is the power, and you get the society.”42 This arrangement could be presented to the West as evidence that Syria would turn Islamist if the Baathists were to lose the state.
In November 2010,when today’s events seemed still are mote possibility, Michel Kilo reflected upon the failures of the Civil Society Movement. He complained that the movement had been stopped in its tracks before it was able to broaden its circle of supporters, much less engineer the foundation of parties. But, in accordance with revolutionary patterns in Europe, he said, Syria’s educated middle class had been awakened. “Once the spark ignites the younger generation, we can withdraw, ”Kilo concluded. “At least we have paved the way.”43 In conclusion, the domestic secular opposition in Syria had not profited from the new dawn in Syria’s foreign policy nor had benevolent dissenters or cautioning voices. An experienced Syrian analyst, who worked within the government realm, conceded in an interview in October 2010: “I made the same mistake. I thought there was a correlation between foreign and domestic policy. […] With or without external pressure we have no political change in Syria. Domestic repression is a continuity not a contradiction.”44
Analytical voices that had previously been approved by the government were silenced, too. The Orient Center for International Studies (OCIS), a think tank initiated by the foreign ministry and headed by Samir Altaqi, was closed in 2010. Apparently, their analysts became too frank about critical issues, such as economic development and foreign policy, and their contacts with foreigners could have been be misinterpreted as track two diplomacy. A disappointed member of the think tank said that the government was not interested in professional analysis any longer but restricts itself to “intellectual masturbation” within a small circle of its own.45
A well-known moderate sheikh, who has held political positions and was known to be pro-regime for years (but who also preferred to remain anonymous here), made a remarkable comment in visible frustration, equally at the end of 2010: “Unfortunately, under the pressure of the US the situation here was better. Now they [the regime]think they have a strong message.” He paused and added in a pensive tone: “We are going through a sensitive phase, through difficult times.”46
These three quotes show that general frustration had been growing visibly within the wider sphere of regime supporters before the upheavals broke out. Barely five months later, the exuberant self-confidence of the Asad regime, the arrogance of power, was seriously challenged. International recognition and importance was a valuable asset that had strengthened the regime’s domestic position vis-à-vis the opposition but also vis-à-vis former allies that had become too outspoken. Moreover, every criticism that was directed against Iran was interpreted as a pro-American stance and punished. The room for even cautious dissent had shrunk to dimensions of Hafez al-Asad’s times.
The third wave of suppression –and the last one before the uprising in 2011 -started with the arrest of senior human rights advocate Haitham Maleh, head of the Human Rights Association of Syria (HRAS), in October 2009 and had been ongoing since then with various travel bans and the intimidation of intellectuals. The 80-year old Maleh was released only during the hectic weeks of late March 2011, after he had gone on hunger strike. Human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bounni was able to leave prison after ending his regular term in May 2011. Having spent five years in harsh conditions, Bounni stepped into freedom but also, amidst the revolt, into an unrecognizable Syria.
Against this background, the military clampdown during the popular revolt in 2011 has been both a continuation and an escalation of the violation of human rights. Syria was by no means on the way toward serious reforms before the Arab Spring hit the Levant. This happened despite Asad’s soft-spoken appearance and Syria’s growing recognition on the international stage.
Precisely at the moment when practically nobody in the international community, to some extent not even Israel, really had an interest in Asad’s ouster but tried to engage Syria as an important actor in a regional peace scenario, the president committed his most grievous mistakes and missed perhaps the last chances of his political career.
Asad’s Last Chances
In its foreign policy, ideological makeup and social composition, Syria differs from Tunisia or Egypt. Yet the reasons and patterns of Syria’s crisis are similar to those in other Arab countries. The basic demands are about social justice, the end of arbitrariness and corruption, freedom of speech, perspectives of economic living-conditions, and democracy. Even in highly ideologized Syria the protesters did not go into the streets to blame powers outside their country. They were not linked to an anti-imperialist discourse nor filled with hatred against foreign enemies, not even against Israel. In January one of the first reflexes of the regime in the light of the protests in North Africa was to increase salaries, subsidies and social benefits. The government knew exactly where its soft spot was and reacted quickly. But the measures turned out to be of little use, and were detrimental to the government’s long-term reform agenda. Political survival became the first priority.
As in Tunisia, the main protests in Syria were sparked by a rather minor incident. After first peaceful gatherings in Damascus that went into oblivion later on, teens in Daraa sprayed buildings in town with graffiti in mid-March inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. They wrote the famous slogan “The people want to overthrow the regime.” Instead of handling this incident with utmost care given the revolutionary environment in the region, the secret police forces arrested the children, put them into prison and tortured them. Family members protested. The police, being unused to civil unrest, used the logic of violence and shot several protesters dead. Anger rose countrywide and triggered more widespread demonstrations, which were met with more brutal force, in turn fueling more protest. The brutality of the security forces and the brazen arrogance of the governor of the Houran province were inherently typical of a suppressive regime and nothing really remarkable. But in the context of the Arab Spring even the people in Syria had lost their fear. The system failed to adjust its measures accordingly. Authorities lacked a tool set to cope with the situation. The political class was petrified when the protests spread to other towns and regions. It is no surprise that the Arab Spring hit precisely the most suppressive states in the Arab world. Ideologically and structurally, they do not have any room for absorbing societal and political shocks. The mindset as well as the training of authorities at all levels lacks deescalating strategies. In August Asad “acknowledged that some mistakes had been made by the security forces in the initial stages of the unrest and that efforts were under way to prevent their recurrence.”47 By then the damage had already been done.
But for several weeks into the protests it was not yet too late to preserve the famous red line in Syria: criticizing the president. Initially, the demonstrators’ wrath did not, by and large, target Asad himself. The fury was first directed toward Bashar’s brother Maher, who possesses a reputation for personal cruelty and, as head of the Fourth Division of the Republican Guard, is the backbone of the security solution. Other names increasingly heard in the protesters’ chants were Asef Shawkat, husband of Bashar’s sister Bushra, and deputy chief of staff of the army, and, above all, Rami Makhlouf, who owns Syria’s cellphone companies, duty-free shops and almost everything else that promises quick profits. Like his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, Makhlouf is a beneficiary of a classic predatory arrangement. The stories of Makhlouf’s corruption incense ordinary Syrians, from the working poor to the hard-pressed middle class. The first wave of protesters in Daraa did not topple statues of Asad but burned down the local outlet of Syriatel, Makhlouf’s cell phone company, as well as the court building and the Baath Party offices.
After so many years of stalled reforms and broken promises the president missed this last minute opportunity to convince his population that he was different from the other Arab dictators and that he had the corrupt and violent authorities under control. As a result, he was to lose this crucial last asset, the strong red line that had become intrinsic to Syrian society since Hafez al-Asad. Several times Asad announced that the army would stop the killing of civilians and nothing changed. The positive attributes of his character that had circulated among Syrians throughout these years as well as his authority faded away quickly. Alawi paramilitary units, the so-called Shabiha, emerged at the hot spots and added to the indiscriminate slaughter. Either Asad played a double game or he was not in full control. The former confidence that had once been projected by the youngish leader will never be restored again. Asad lost the most important part of his political capital.
In the first weeks of the protests the president mostly kept a low profile, feeding the gossip that he and his family were feuding over how to respond. Asad behaved like the leader of a “jumlukiyya,” as the Syrian opposition calls the country’s political system, melding the Arabic words for republic and monarchy. Rather than assuming responsibility for the crisis, the republico-monarch shunted blame downward, offering to reshuffle the cabinet and sack the lieutenants responsible for the hot spots around the country. In terms of public relations, the regime tried to make do with sending advisers, deputies or ministers before the cameras to explain its point of view, trotting out the president only in extremis. Much of the regime’s verbal response aimed to criminalize the protests or portray them in sectarian terms; in tandem, the regime resorted to lethal force to suppress the agitation.
By playing the sectarian card openly as never before during his rule, Asad destroyed the secular legacy that had been one of the Baathist trademarks. In addition, he tainted the Syrian spirit of tolerance that has century old roots in Syria’s social history. In better times the Syrian polity proved much more inclusive than that of other Arab states. The very same regime now chose sectarian strife as its emergency plan for survival. The targeted violence for sectarian purposes has become one of the greatest challenges of the Syrian people: resisting the temptation to fall into this trap.
However, sectarianism can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy amidst a tremendous propaganda war from all sides. Asad and his government started to criminalize and primordialize oppositional activities in their discourse, and some armed gangs did emerge to fulfill this prophecy, be it with sectarian slogans or with criminal energy. Mistrust between the religious groups has been rising, which has cost the protest movement momentum and followers.
Secular Syrians, and especially Alawites, complain about the rising influence of radical Sunni groups, of Saudi influence, and of ever more daring preachers who use their exposure in the only legal civil public spaces –the mosques –to incite an open religious antagonism that had been absent from Syrian streets under the rule of the Asads. Witnesses report that Sunni groups entered Christian villages and intimidated them into joining the protests. In Homs and probably other places as well the takbir (the call “allahu akbar” -“God is Great”) called from balcony to balcony at nights has turned into a battle slogan for some protesters.
All of this frightens religious minorities and secular Sunnis who fear religious radicalism more than a superficial secularist ideology and Baathist authoritarianism independent from the fact that they despise the regime’s violence, too. Many members of religious minorities, such as Christians and the Druze, not to mention Alawis, fear possible retribution from the Sunni majority. High-ranking Christian clerics in Damascus and Aleppo issued statements of support for Asad as late as 2012 fearing an Iraqi scenario.
But cleavages are not so clear cut. Much of the Sunni merchant class, as well, stuck to its alliance with the Asad regime. As minorities and middle-class Sunnis make up more than 50 percent of the population, they are not a negligible constituency. This is a highly significant political asset. If Asad loses the moderate Sunni merchant class, he is likely to lose it all.48 This might happen because of an economic downturn triggered by the protests or a sectarian escalation.
On the Christian side some of the community joined the protests in the street, especially at the beginning,49 and some key oppositional figures are in fact Christians, like Michel Kilo. Christians and secular people meet in mosques for the purpose of assembling after Friday prayers. Muslims in Hama invited Christians to join their demonstrations at an early stage, and Muslims and Christians went out to demonstrate harmony as was reported from Damascus to mention a few examples only.
A similar official propaganda that incited sectarian mistrust could be witnessed in Tunisia and especially Egypt, too. However, the peaceful character of the demonstrators and their cross sectarian solidarity prevailed in the minds of the revolutionaries and in the international media(despite some setbacks in the post-revolutionary period). This may be harder to recognize in Syria where for a long time cross-sectarian appeals have had little central direction and few political slogans.
In conclusion, one of Asad’s strategies was to keep up the fragile alliance between religious minorities and the moderate Sunni merchant class. This worked as long as the state propaganda managed to uphold a different narrative of the crisis as led by criminals and terrorists directed from abroad. It also worked as long as the clampdown did not pass a certain limit of atrocities and bloodshed. Later it became more and more difficult for clerics, who represent the religious communities, to find supportive words in favour of the regime. The fear of post-revolutionary chaos and possible persecution of Christians or other minorities by radical Islamists as in neighbouring Iraq floated in a delicate balance with disgust about the regime’s methods. It was up to Asad and his clan to define the tipping point.
Attempts at Political Appeasement
As the protests escalated further, the regime turned to attempts at political accommodation and, eventually, measures of appeasement. In Tunisia and Egypt, such concessions had no conciliatory effect upon the crowds because the announcements always came a few days or weeks too late. Also in Syria the concessions appeared poorly chosen for the circumstances. On April 7 2011,Asad granted citizenship to 150,000 Kurds in Syria who had been stateless, answering the long-time demand of Kurdish activists. The measure was so overdue that Asad got little credit for it. “Our cause is democracy for the whole of Syria. Citizenship is the right of every Syrian. It is not a favour. It is not the right of anyone to grant,” retorted Habib Ibrahim, leader of a major Kurdish party.50
Nevertheless, the Kurds did not join the protest movement as vehemently as their deprived status would have suggested. Other reflex-like concessions, like permitting schoolteachers to wear the niqab (full face veil) again after abolishing it the year before, closing a casino, and launching a new religious state TV programme were made to placate Islamists, but meant little to the wider base of opposition demonstrators who called for real political reform.
The regime hastily announced political pluralism (or a semblance thereof) under the pressure of the street. Suddenly, long-standing demands of the opposition were readily picked up. Among them was in particular the new party law which was meant to break the monopoly of the Baath Party. The draft had been gathering dust in a presidential desk drawer for years. By Syrian standards, the political concessions were very far-reaching; long years of civil society activism had been unable to achieve them. By the yardstick of the times, however, the moves turned out to be inadequate. The same dynamic holds for the regime’s various other promises, like erecting a legal framework for the activities of NGOs or promulgating a new media law. It even holds for declaring an end to martial law, a step that, rhetorically, has always been tied to liberation of the Golan Heights from Israeli occupation and the end to hostilities with Israel. Now it was purely domestic stresses that brought such measures to the forefront of regime calculations. The government was about to lose one trump card after another.
Asad missed the chance to save his legacy by making a last-minute U-turn against internal resistance. After years of waiting he could have promoted himself as part of the solution instead of persisting as part of a growing problem. Many Syrians would have preferred to embark on a transition in stability. For this purpose Asad would have had to overcome his personality and to counter family resistance. Asad does not have the audacity and vision of his personal friend King Juan Carlos of Spain; he is no political hero who would become a champion of reform, instead resisting it within an obsolete and ideologically eroded system. For example, if Riad Seif had been included in Asad’s reform government at an early stage in 2011,this would have silenced half of the opposition, opined Sadiq al-Azm.51 But Asad missed it once again.
Bridges in a Country on Fire
Few leaders who apply a similar cruelty with the aim of suppressing popular demands are as fortunate as Asad with regard to enjoying the last remnants of a moderate opposition. Once again the quote of former head of Syrian intelligence Suleiman from the year 2003 comes to mind: The Syrian regime can be considered lucky that it had opponents but no enemies. This even held true when the country was on fire.
The willingness to build bridges despite all reservations was supported, most prominently, from an unexpected protagonist –Michel Kilo –who has been in conflict with the regime and Asad personally all his life, who was imprisoned twice, and who played a leading role in Syria’s Civil Society Movement and the Damascus Spring. In articles in the Lebanese press, Kilo called for a national dialogue with Asad on board. Kilo feared the collapse of Syria’s societal fabric and civil war. “This civil/consensual Syrian possibility implies two things”, Kilo reflected in the leftist independent newspaper, as-Safir, in April 2011,
[t]he regime’s abstinence from relying on the security related solution in confronting the current situation; and the abstinence of the current movement from calling for ousting the regime. There must be a solution entirely based on a global national dialogue that would push away these two situations in order to prevent the country from turning into a fighting arena […]. No matter who will be the victorious side, the cost of the confrontation will be deadly for the regime […]. In addition, [there will also be a hefty price to pay] for the other side, which must realize that erroneous calculations will not lead to the desired freedom but rather to the collapse of the Syrian society’s unity in addition to the destruction and dismantlement of the state. The only side that could benefit from a security solution […] will be Israel.52
This discourse once again displays the embeddedness of important parts of the traditional Syrian opposition in the Pan-Arab nationalist discourse.
His stance against the polarizing currents in Syria brought Kilo considerable criticism from oppositional figures who were being hunted down, who had to fear for their lives, who changed their beds every night or who saw their friends being tortured. Others applauded Kilo’s far-sightedness in such a crucial moment of Syria’s history. Kilo was invited for talks with Asad’s adviser Buthaina Sha’banand Vice President Farouq al-Shara, something that had been unthinkable in the past. Kilo’s travel ban was lifted and he went to Europe and Cairo to defend his mission. The German-speaking opposition activist possesses a wide intellectual horizon and knew that he was walking on a dangerous tightrope especially in a situation in which it was not clear where the regime defined its limits of violence. While his method may have been controversial, there is no doubt that Kilo’s fundamental goals remained clear. He intended to work toward change “from the status quo to the revolution; from tyranny to freedom; from change driven by the authorities to societal change; and from the familial society to the civil society.”53
People like Kilo in tandem with the secular editor Louay Hussein and a few others provided another window of opportunity for Asad. Hussein was the main organizer of the famous conference at the Semiramis Hotel in downtown Damascus on 27 June 2011. In the first open gathering of its kind in Syria the domestic opposition tried to redefine itself in heated debates, while an escalation of the conflict was looming on the horizon. Critics said that the regime allowed the meeting with the intention of driving a wedge between the opposition groups inside and outside Syria.54 The opposition in exile has always rejected anything less than regime change. The declaration of the Semiramis Conference called for a peaceful transition to democracy and an end to the Asad family’s 40-year-old monopoly on power. Thus the final goals have become almost identical. What divided the groups were the means on how to get there (apart from personal jealousies and the question of foreign support or even foreign intervention). The Semiramis Conference also called for an immediate end to the security crackdown and the army’s withdrawal from towns and villages. This demand has been pending since then without having been fulfilled.
A tweet that was sent out from the hotel gathering attributed the following quote to Michel Kilo: “80 percent of the Syrian population are under 35. Where are they in this conference?” The young people were not interested anymore in declarations and debates. Most of them had never been involved in the discourse of the traditional Civil Society Movement. These young people were now in the streets.
The Semiramis Conference can be considered as yet another last-minute opportunity to engage with the opposition before Syria headed one step further towards the edge of civil war. The minimum condition to continue a dialogue was not met, since the violence continued unabated. Instead, the regime tried to launch a national dialogue on its own. But it failed to convince most oppositional figures inside and outside Syria. A Syrian researcher based in France and linked to the opposition recalled that he received a phone call from Syria’s Vice President Farouq al-Shara, who asked him if he would participate in the national dialogue. The researcher wanted to know who the protagonists on the government’s side were. Al-Shara responded that it was himself and the President’s adviser Bouthaina Sha’ban. The researcher replied that it would not make any sense because even these political veterans did not exert any influence any longer on the Asad clan’s decisions. According to the researcher, al-Shara did not even contradict him.55
In the standoff between the regime and the opposition Kilo refused to become a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC) that was founded in September/October 2011 and comprises various new opposition groups like the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, long-known protagonists like the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, other oppositional figures in exile but also members of the domestic opposition like Riad Seif. All of a sudden, Kilo, who had only left prison in summer 2009, found himself on the regime’s list as being part of the “good” or the “nationalist opposition” (mu’arada al-wataniye) in contrast to the foreign elements of conspiracy against Syria in exile (mu’arada al-charijiye) in the regime’s terminology.
Whether it is actively promoted by the government or not, the opposition is far from united. Kilo and others formed the Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (CCDC) that stands against the mostly exile dominated SNC. In November several members of the CCDC left the organization because they suspected cooperation between the regime’s secret services and the Committee. Syria is polarized not only between pro and anti-Asad camps. The deep rift between the main oppositional streams of thought became tangible when on 10 November 2011 representatives of this Committee, Hassan Abdul-Azim, Michel Kilo, Louay Hussein and Monzer Haloum, were attacked on their way to a meeting with the Arab League on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The Syrian assaulters blamed them for cooperating with the regime in Damascus and called for international protection of civilians in Syria.56
The regime’s continued and uncompromising “security solution” undermined all persisting efforts to search for a middle way. Moderate oppositional figures who had stood up for a “soft transition” to democracy for a decade were now losing their authority in this polarized environment.
Foreign Initiatives Rebuked and Friends Lost
While the UN Security Council was at loggerheads with Russia and China protecting Syria, the regime did not have to fear any foreign intervention similar to the Libyan case. Nevertheless, several external initiatives have tried to build bridges for Asad to end the crisis. All of them have been rejected.
The first important opportunity offered itself with the Turkish initiative. In the years after 2004 relations between Syria and Turkey radically improved. Both governments held common cabinet meetings and talked of “family bonds” when they referred to bilateral relations. Not long before the crisis Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spent a few days on holiday with the Asad family. The countries abolished visas requirements between the two states and established free trade across their borders. The good relations with Turkey certainly represented the greatest success for Syria in the past few years. Thus Damascus aptly managed to diversify its foreign policy.
However, the uprising in Syria put Turkey’s pro-democracy stance to a serious test. After a phase of deliberation, similarly as in the Libyan case, the Turkish government finally opted to support the side of human rights and democracy. Criticism from Ankara rose with the escalation of violence in Syria. Erdogan followed through his role as an advocate of change in the Arab world after harsh criticism against autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt.
Given the former harmony of “family bonds” on the emotional level and the practical improvements between both countries, the visit of Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu on 9 August 2011 to Damascus represented a shocking change of paradigm. Davutoglu came to Damascus to deliver an “earnest” message from Erdogan that called for an end to the violence and for all sides to embark on a Turkish sponsored peace plan. Asad reacted indignantly and said: “If you came for a compromise, then we reject it. If you want to have war, then you can have it –in the entire region.”57 This was an affront to Erdogan, not only personally, but also vis-à-vis Erdogan’s envisaged role of Turkey as a regional player and mediator.
The willingness to relinquish friends and political trump cards in rage or short-sightedness has deprived the Syrian regime of possible future options within the framework of steering out of the crisis. As mentioned above, the protests hit Syria at a time when Western governments had more or less accommodated themselves with the Syrian regime or at least with its strategic importance in the region despite Syria’s tainted human rights record. European and US diplomats, high-ranking politicians, and academics went back and forth to Damascus until the time when the revolt broke out.
Still in late March US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out: “There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress from both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”58 This tone was dramatically different not only from the condemnations of the Libyan regime, but also from rhetoric once employed by President George W. Bush. This change of attitude in Washington had been the Syrian political aim for many years. And it was destroyed so quickly.
In July Clinton made clear that the US had definitely changed sides when she claimed that Asad had lost his credibility to rule. “President Assad is not indispensable, and we have absolutely nothing invested in him remaining in power”, Clinton said.59 In only three months Asad lost yet another important chance to become part of the solution instead remaining part of the problem.
Asad’s tone vis-à-vis former friends and the international community became harsher the longer the conflict simmered. He burnt important bridges and lost his soft-spoken and educated image that he had gained in various conversations with foreign heads of state and other politicians. In bilateral conversations as well as in interviews Asad used to impress his conversational partners with his reflective style.
Despite the rebuke of Turkey’s peace offer, Erdogan’s hefty criticism against Asad’s policies, and the hosting of Syrian opposition groups in Turkey, links between Ankara and Damascus were not cut. Economic cooperation continued unrestrictedly. Even Davutoglu did not refrain from visiting Damascus again in October. But this meeting did not contribute to a settlement either. More menaces emerged from Damascus. According to Arab sources, President Asad said: “If a crazy measure is taken against Damascus, I will need not more than six hours to transfer hundreds of rockets and missiles to the Golan Heights to fire them at Tel Aviv.” The Arab source said that the Syrian president told the Turkish Foreign Minister that he would also call on Hezbollah to launch a rocket attack on the Jewish state.60 Asad’s warning came after Davutoglu informed him that he would face a war similar to the NATO aggression on the Libyan regime if he continued to crack down on his people.
After the alienation of Turkey it was up to the Arabs to offer Asad a way out. The Arab League headed by the former transitional foreign minister of Egypt, Nabil al-Arabi, presented two peace initiatives in September and November 2011. Reportedly, Arab states offered asylum to Asad to defuse the situation, too. The mediation attempts included a call to halt all violence against civilians and to withdraw Syrian troops from the cities. The League urged Asad to avoid sectarianism and –entirely in line with the Syrian government –strongly recommended not to create a pretext for any kind of foreign intervention. It further called for compensation for the families of the victims and for a release of all political prisoners. The initiative moreover called on Asad to commit to the political reforms he had announced, including a multi-party system.
Asad chose not to benefit from either of the initiatives, although he formally accepted the second one. But nothing happened, similar to the moment in which he had declared reforms and an end of the shooting in April. Instead, the killing went on also in November and escalated in the cities of Homs and Hama in particular. A refreshed Arab League – composed of autocracies but also of post-revolutionary states in democratic transition –condemned the killing of civilians in unusually harsh terms. Anti-Syrian Qatar held the presidency of the League, and Syria’s adversary Saudi Arabia grew increasingly impatient, too.
Even observers who have often echoed parts of the regime’s ideology grew increasingly frustrated by the gambling away of political options. The young historian Sami Moubayed, professor at Syria’s prestigious private University of Kalamoon and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine, reasoned after the failure of the first Arab League initiative: “It could have been a lifejacket for the nation that would end the deadlock between the government and demonstrations which have continued non-stop, despite violence and the rising death toll, since mid-March. By snubbing it, the Syrians probably have lost a golden opportunity.” Moubayed recommended: “What they should have done is take it as it stands, then rebrand it as a Syrian initiative -regardless of the Arab League and Qatar -because it is a win-win formula both for the Syrian government and the Syrian street. To quote the Godfather, it was an offer they shouldn’t have, rather than “couldn’t have refused.”61
In the preceding years Asad had managed to accommodate some of Syria’s enemies, including Saudi Arabia, and he had made new friends in the region and on the international stage. Every month that went by in the year 2011 Asad gambled away remnant pieces of his credibility and political leeway. His accumulated foreign policy successes now lie in shatters. He manoeuvred himself into a far worse position than he had been under international isolation following the Iraq war and the Hariri assassination. In case Asad survives the protests, it is improbable that he will ever recover politically and be able to rebuild the foreign policy environment that he had so arduously worked to achieve. He will have to rely ever more on his staunchest ally Iran and on Hezbollah, whereas under his father Hafezal-Asadit was rather Hezbollah that relied on Damascus. If at all, Asad will rule a crippled Syria, domestically and internationally. This is dangerous since the tectonic plates of Iranian and Saudi Arabian interests pass through the Levant. Frictions will increase.
Syria, once the self-confident, pragmatic middle power under Hafez al-Asad and the incarnation of authoritarian stability in the region, could turn into the chessboard of conflicting interests, a hub for arms trade and instability. No matter how events in Syria unfold, it has been shaken beyond return, domestic power structures are shifting, and the regime has destroyed its legacy. Only a peaceful transition could avoid a decomposition of Syria’s rich religious and ethnic mosaic and a decline of Syria’s weight in the region. After a decade of missed chances and numerous sacrifices Syrians long for the fruits of the Arab Spring: good governance and the end to fear.
1 This chapter is based on Carsten Wieland, Syria: A Decade of Lost Chances: Repression and Revolution from Damascus Spring to Arab Spring, Cune Press, Seattle, 2012.
2 Carsten Wieland: Syria -Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant, Cune Press, Seattle 2006, p. 40.
3 Author’s interview in Damascus on 23 October 2010.
4 According to sources in the Civil Society Movement who preferred to remain anonymous; Carsten Wieland: Syria -Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant, Cune Press, Seattle 2006, p. 13.
5 Moshe Ma’oz: Asad: The Sphinx of Damascus: A Political Biography, London 1988.
6 SANA, quoted from the English translation.
7 „Assad könnte zurücktreten“, in: Der Spiegel, 45/2011 (7 November 2011).
8 “Bashar al-Assad: the dictator who cannot dictate”, James Denselow, guardian.co.uk, 11 May 2011.
9 Carsten Wieland: Syria -Ballots or Bullets? Democracy, Islamism, and Secularism in the Levant, Cune Press, Seattle 2006, p.13.
10 Author’s interview on 29 October 2011 in Italy.
12 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703833204576114712 441122894.html.
13 For more on the political history of inter-religious relations in Syria, see Nikolaos van Dam: The Struggle for Power in Syria, London 2011 (4th ed.).
14 Author’s interview in Damascus on 31 October 2010.
15 A good analysis onthe Asad regime’s handling of resistance is the piece by Salwa Ismail: Silencing the Voice of Freedom in Syria, in: Index on Censorship, 8 July 2011(www.indexoncensorship.org/2011/07/silencing-the-voice-of-freedom-in-syria).
16 Quote from Asad’s inauguration speech of 18 July 2000: “[…] Thus society will not develop, improve or prosper if it were to depend only on one sect or one party or one group; rather, it has to depend on the work of all citizens in the entire society. That is why I find it absolutely necessary to call upon every single citizen to participate in the process of development and modernization if we are truly honest and serious in attaining the desired results in the very near future.”
17 SANA, quoted from English translation; see also: Alan George: Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom, London, 2003, p.32.
18 Interview in the Syrian Times, 25 May 2003.
19 Author’s interview in Berlin on 8 July 2011.
20 Alan George,Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom, London, 2003, p.170.
21 Al-Safir,15 March 2003.
22 Author’s interview in Berlin on 15 July 2011.
23 Author’s interview in Damascus on 4 April 2003 and 30 September 2003.
24 This debate stirred emotions and hit taboos in the United States. In July 2002, Laurent Murawiec, a French neo-conservative who worked in the RAND think tank in Washington, strongly attacked the Saudi connection to international terrorism. In a presentation before the US Defence Policy Board Advisory Committee he called for an “ultimatum to the House of Saud”and described Saudi Arabia the “kernel of evil”. When the briefing was leaked, Pentagon and State Department officials distanced themselves from his comments to avert a major diplomatic crisis between the United States and its longtime ally, less than a year after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Murawiec was subsequently expelled from RAND. (See: “Laurent Murawiec, 58; Strategist Said Saudis Backed Terror”, in: Washington Post, 14 October 2009).
25 Hinnebusch, Raymond A.: “Syria after the Iraq War: Between the Neo-con Offensive and Internal Reform,” DOI-FocusNo. 14, March 2004, p.12.
26 International Crisis Group (ICG), Middle East Report No. 23/24: Syria under Bashar, Amman/Brussels, 11 February 2004, Vol. II: Domestic Policy Challenges, p.i.
27 Author’s interview in Damascus on 5 May 2005.
28 Author’s interview in Damascus on 7 May 2004.
29 According to reports from the oppositional Strategic Research and Communication Center (SRCC) in a briefing from12 November2011, “the family members of Asad regime officials have been fleeing the country as over a hundred security, army, and government cars are seen daily at the Aleppo International Airport, with mostly women and children accompanying massive loads of luggage. According to airport employees, most of the passports are Lattakia issued [i.e. with Alawi background], and most of the flights are fully booked departing to Malaysia, Iran, UAE, China, Ghana, and Nigeria.”
30 SANA, 20 October 2011.
31 “Syria, Russia, India and China are east,“ Asad said. “There are many countries that have good relations with Syria whether in the east, in Latin America or in Asia. […] I don’t recall any period in which there weren’t [sic] under some sort of western blockade on Syria, but this blockade intensifies during crises, which is why we decided six years ago –in 2005 –to head towards the east.” President Asad to Rossiya 1 TV on 31 October 2011, quoted according to SANA.
32 Author’s interview in Damascus on 16 May 2004.
33 Over the years, Bashar has managed to place a considerable number of technocrats and personal trustees around himself, some of whom he has promoted to key positions at home and at embassies abroad, such as in Washingtonor London. A concise overview of such key figures can be found in: Flynt Leverett: Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire, Washington, D.C. 2005, p.71ff.
34 Samir Seifan: Syria on the Path of Economic Reform, St. Andrew’s Papers on Contemporary Syria, Fife 2010, p.12-13,and foreign experts that were interviewed by the author of this article.
35 Author’s interview in Damascus on 01 November 2010.36Author’s interview in Damascus on 23 October 2010.37Author’s interview in Damascus on 23 October 2010.
38 “Syrian Civil Society Empowerment 2010: New Directions for Syrian Society”, by Stephen Starr, in: Forward Magazine, Issue 37, 03 March 2010.
39 “Access to All Areas?: NGOs in Syria”, Dalia Haidar, in: Syria Today, March 2010.
40 There was a minor strike effort during the Diesel price hikes in May 2008. But when two bus drivers had their service taxis confiscated by the secret service, the strike broke down quickly.
41 “Syria Justifies Saudi Military Intervention in Bahrain”, in: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, 20 March 2011.
42 Author’s interviewin Kassab on 14 July 2009.
43 Author’s interview in Damascus on 28 October 2010.
44 Author’s interview in Damascus on 23 October 2010.
45 Author’s interview in Damascus on 23 October 2010.
46 Author’s interview in Damascus on 24 October 2010.
47 “Asad Admits Mistakes“, in: The Daily Star, 11 August 2011. Statement quoted from a release of India’s U.N. mission after a meeting with a delegation from U.N. Security Council members Brazil, India and South Africa.
48 A good insight into the appropriation of the Sunni merchant class by the old Asad regime can be found in Salwa Ismail: Changing Social Structure, Shifting Alliances and Authoritarianism in Syria, in: Fred Lawson (ed.): Demystifying Syria, London 2009.
49 “Still bubbling: In Syria’sthird-biggest city people fear for the future”, in: The Economist, 16 June 2011.
50 Quoted from Al-Jazeera English service on 8 April 2011 (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/04/20114711251531744.html9).
51 Author’s interview in Berlin on 8 July 2011.
52 “Yes, there must be a political solution”, Michel Kilo, in: As-Safir, 16 April 2011, quoted according to Mideast Wire.
54 By that time the opposition in exile had already had three major meetings in Istanbul (26 April), in Antalya (2 June), and in Brussels (8 June).
55 Author’s interview on 29 October 2011.
56 “Syrer treffen Arabische Liga“, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 10 November 2011.
57 “Unruhen in Syrien “Wenn Sie Krieg wollen, können Sie ihn haben”“, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 09 August 2011, translated from German.
58 Hillary Clinton on CBS program “Face the Nation” on March 26, 2011.
60 “Syria:No Message Was Conveyed between Assad, Davutoglu“, Naharnet Newsdesk, 06 October 2011, http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/16787-syria-no-message-was-conveyed-between-assad-davutoglu.
61 Sami Moubayed: “More Missed Chances: An offer Syria shouldn‘t have refused“, Mideast Views(http://www.mideastviews.com/print.php?art=547), 21 September 2011.