Syria’s year of living dangerously

Special to The Daily Star

One year after the invasion of Iraq and with the US as its unwelcome neighbor, the Syrian regime (or, at least, most of its power centers and semi-autonomous institutions) seems to have finally grasped the reality of the need for drastic change, perhaps even for an overhaul of the old way of doing things. But can Syria in its current hopelessly divided state and given its poorly qualified cadres produce a sorely needed new vision and mechanisms for change?

Soon after the dust settled in Iraq and the Syrian regime managed to maneuver its way out of a potential confrontation with the US and its divided administration, the Syrian regime suddenly announced new unprecedented restrictions on the role of the Baath Party in the state. The party, we were told, would no longer be responsible for the daily management of the country’s affairs. Rather, its role would be limited to establishing and maintaining certain general guidelines in this regard.

More recently, a committee was established for reforming the Baath, with the help and advice of some long-standing dissidents. This downsizing of the party’s role and the apparent attempt to reach out to known elements in the opposition were seen by many as a signal sent out by the regime to the outside world to the effect that serious change was in the works.

Moreover, throughout the past few months Syrian civil society activists have been slowly re-emerging from the shadows into which they were pushed after the so-called Damascus Spring of 2000-2001 abruptly came to an end due to a government crackdown. Not only have these activists regained their confidence and their voice, they have become more emboldened. On March 8, they challenged government restrictions and organized a sit-in at the doorstep of the country’s Parliament, protesting Syria’s infamous 40-year-old state of emergency.

The crackdown that ensued was relatively mild and was orchestrated by mid-level security officers, apparently acting independently. In all, 30 protesters were arrested, including three foreign journalists and an American diplomat, all of whom were released unharmed a few hours later.

Even the crackdown against Kurdish protesters in the past 10 days was surprisingly mild by the country’s standards. Although hundreds of people were rounded up in a short period of time, most were released within days and will apparently not be charged with wrongdoing. Although the crackdown is not yet over, although many Kurdish protestors have been permanently expelled from their universities, although others remain in prison, the general mood in Syria (except in those areas directly affected by the protests and riots) is not one of mobilization, but of business as usual.

The early anti-Kurd rhetoric employed by some officials was quickly softened by more recent declarations. The government did nothing to prevent a delegation of civil society and human rights activists from organizing a visit to the Syrian city of Qamishli, where they met with representatives of the local Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian communities in an attempt to forge new ties and defuse the situation.

One must add into the mix various calls that have been directly or indirectly issued in Syria for a resumption of Syrian-Israeli peace talks (calls that Israel has ignored). These lead to a realization that this is not the same Syrian regime that ruled over the country a little less than a year ago. Or rather, while this is not yet a new regime, it certainly is one that is trying desperately to reinvent itself.

However, because there is no clear articulation of the exact role the Baath Party is supposed to play in the state, no clear statement of what the opposition is allowed to do, no lifting of the general state of emergency, no call for national reconciliation, no end to arbitrary arrests, no vision for economic reform and no final agreement on the Euro-Med association agreement, one can only wonder, good intentions notwithstanding, whether the regime is capable of reinventing itself.

The regime has accepted its blindness, it seems, but it can find neither the miracle cure for this, nor the right guide dog.

A year after the invasion of neighboring Baathist Iraq, the Syrian regime finds itself back where it started: It faces a serious existential crisis, that of potential international isolation as a prelude to potential regime change. Still, it does not seem capable of delivering much-needed reform to help avoid this. Its resources – its human resources to be specific – are obviously not enough, and its hesitant reaching out to the opposition is insufficient. Bolder initiatives for reform and a much clearer commitment to it are still needed in order to put an end to a long and unproductive year, if not era, of living dangerously.