Syria’s Broken Promises

There have been more and more cases of arrests in Syria, making some people wonder: does the regime benefit from the state of anarchy in neighboring Iraq, the amplified uproar on the Iranian nuclear dossier and Hamas’ ascent to power to tighten the grip on the opposition and the civil society? The Syrian regime sounded to be focused on the security issue, which raises questions about the credibility of any change at the top while the same structures and organizations remain unchanged.

The late President Hafedh Assad stayed in power for 30 years until he died in 2000. His severe rule had paved the way for the access to power of his son Bachar Assad, whose legitimacy is still affected by the regime’s failure to handle the economic and social challenges and the reformists’ aspirations. Needless to say, like the majority of other Arab countries, Syria is facing serious economic, social and political problems, and at the same time it is witnessing a population boom.

In spite of his promises and despite the fact that he belongs to the young generation educated in the West, familiar to freedom of thought and democracy, Bachar Assad has not introduced himself as the Gorbachev of Syria: he does not seem eager to launch the equivalent Syrian Perestroika or Glasnost, which might possibly lead him to being ousted from power. Bachar has actually pursued some political reforms, but many observers believe he remains circumscribed by power elites who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. A British-educated ophthalmologist who had held the rank of colonel in the Syrian army, Bachar had no government position at the time of his father’s death. However, he had become increasingly active in an anticorruption drive and in bringing the Internet to Syria.

Observers have described President Bachar al Assad’s modernization program as akin to the Chinese model, with emphasis on economic reform while retaining one party rule. Although he called for “steady, yet gradual steps” towards introducing economic changes and “removing bureaucratic obstacles to the flow of domestic and foreign investments”, Syria’s economy continues to suffer from a bloated and inefficient public sector, rigid central planning, and excessive administrative regulations.

Some Syrian observers say that Bachar repressed the reform movement that he himself had helped to launch as soon as he noticed its results on the political order. The government reshuffle initiated by Bachar shows that the authority center in Syria is still unstable, and subsequently the decision making in the country more obscure.

Some reports show that official powers of the country have remained in the hands of Alaouite officials. As an illustration, they say that Bachar’s brother, Maher, appeared as the strong man in the Republican Army, whose main task is protecting the presidential palace and the capital. Bachar appointed Ghazi Kanaan, the former head of intelligence in Lebanon and a trusted man of his father, as Interior Minister in October 2004. It seems that Kanaan is well known for his rude methods and precise tactics, although he has become a “supporter of gradual reform”. Bachar also had appointed his brother in law, Asef Shawket –” considered a hardliner –” as head of the military intelligence, well before some reports saw him as one of the occult master minders of the Lebanese former prime minister, al Hariri assassination.

Another hardliner, Bahjat Suleiman, presided over the internal security branch of General Intelligence. Besides, Gen. Mohamed Mansour replaced Kanaan as the head of the political security, and some reports pointed that his power was increasing. As for Gen. Shalash, Bachar’s cousin, he is in charge of the President’s protection. Brigadier Ali Habib replaced Hassen Turkmani as the Chief of Staff in May 2004; the latter replaced Mustapha Talas as the Minister of Defense. Except for Turkmani –”a Turkmen, as his name indicates –” all other officials are Alaouites. [1] The only Sunni official who was holding an important position was the former Vice President, Abdelhalim Khaddam; before he fled abroad and started accusing his old friends.

It can be concluded that the new hierarchical order of government positions in Syria has followed the same old method used by the late Assad. No substantial change has occurred in the institutional structures of the state.


[1]. The Alaouite sect is a small Islamic group, which comprises approximately 12 % of the Syrian population, but is disproportionately represented in the country’s political and military institutions.