The Internal Dynamics of Syrian Politics

Lecture at the Brookings Institution

Syria has developed a reputation as an esoteric state because of the actions of its late President, Hafez el Asad.  Asad’s rural beginnings, military education, and limited exposure to the West contributed to his deep familiarity with Syrian social and political culture. But, it also limited his understanding of ever-changing global realities, especially in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the West, Asad was, nonetheless, perceived as a political genius because Western knowledge of Syria was extremely limited.

Asad’s unique ambitions were a consequence of his popularity among Western leaders and the Arab nationalist movement from which he emerged. In the post-1973 era, Asad posited himself as a likely pan-Arab political successor to Nasser. In reality however, Asad was unable to fulfill this role and the quest for this status both regionally and internationally ended up isolating the country. In response to this failure, a cult of personality developed and delusions of grandeur compelled Asad to garner internal support in the face of external disappointment.

The renewal in Asad’s external popularity followed Western appeals to Syria for assistance during the first Gulf War, its involvement in the peace process following Madrid, and the country’s role in the EU’s Barcelona Mediterranean Dialogue Project. The coincidence of internal support and Western attention legitimized Asad’s domestic populism project and engendered a sentiment in the regime that Syria could afford to wait for others to meet its requirements.  Syria’s failure to achieve a peace agreement with Israel is partly a result of this attitude.

The legacy of Asad’s cult of personality has formed the foundation for Syria’s current disarray. President Bashar al-Assad, as the inheritor of his father’s mantle is constrained from challenging the main tenets of the cult.  Syrian support for Hizballah and  Hamas has been maintained along with the preservation of the military’s central role in politics. Bashar’s failure to support civil society is indicative of his status as the scion of his father’s legacy. In response, civil society has organized forums out of which emerged a demand to dismantle the regime. This degree of antagonism between civil society and the regime could have been avoided if Bashar had met some of the demands made by civil society advocates. Instead, questioning of the legitimacy of the people who produced the Declaration of the 99[I], encouraged further discontent, leading to a widespread crackdown on various reform groups.

The President lacks a reformist vision.  Because of this he focuses his energies on maintaining consensus among competing interests within the regime.  But the regime is composed of many semi-autonomous institutions and the absence of a strong central authority has encouraged fragmentation within the system and the independence of local actors. For example, smuggling is rife because local authorities keep borders relatively porous in an effort to secure financial rewards. Another example of the breakdown of central authority could be seen in the recent Kurdish riots during which the local police apparently acted without the direction of the presidency.

This growing decentralization and resulting confusion characterizes Syria’s foreign policy as well. The absence of a vision for progress at the most senior level has contributed to the absence of new and emerging alternatives in the international arena. The problem is further compounded by the government’s failure to recruit “new voices.” There exists a pressing need for a new vision yet the current officials are unlikely to provide the leadership necessary for such a comprehensive change.

Given the entrenched stagnation and resistance to change, the only way to promote systemic reform is through a process of non-violent change – a top-down approach in which the President enlists the aid of opposition groups and international advisors. He should develop a political vision of both democratization and modernization.  Privatization and deregulation would require some existing bureaucrats to reinvent themselves as actors in the private sector, where they could protect and promote their economic interests. Allowing certain elements in the regime to develop a stake in the new order could help make it more plausible and peaceful.

Civil society has a significant role to play in the reform process and the increasing political fragmentation within the regime has created an opening for civil society to generate new ideas for reform. Much of this work is currently conducted through the internet, which provides a way for civil society leaders to communicate their ideas and shine a light on the activities of the government.  Through this and similar efforts, Syrian individuals have also managed to launch an informal dialogue between the government and opposition groups.

External actors, including the U.S., have an important if not a critical role to play in supporting the indigenous reform movements in the Arab World. But, U.S. efforts, such as the recently passed sanctions against Syria, only serve to reinforce negative patterns of behavior because they punish the average man and not those in power. A more effective method should be based on a carrot and stick approach that would encourage the regime to change but avoid punishing the people if it does not. It is essential that Europe and the United States work together in this regard.

European business initiatives are already assisting in the development of the private sector. The challenge however, rests with the rigidity of the current politico-economic establishment. Those occupying the higher echelons of power are incapable of being retrained because they are not qualified to occupy the positions in which they currently serve.

At the moment civil society remains very limited, with little coordination or common objective. The Muslim Brotherhood also remains weak and is in the process of reinventing itself. Wahhabi fundamentalist groups that are anti-American and anti-Semitic comprise the greatest obstacle to liberal reform. Because the government allowed these groups to function more freely as an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, large and important segments in Syrian society fell prey to their control.

Reform is needed across the board, and reform focused on one element such as the economic sphere will not work. Change is needed to tackle all problems simultaneously. Yet change can only come about as the result of a political decision.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian author and founder of the Tharwa project on minority rights in the Middle East. Abdulhamid is currently a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy’s Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World. His fellowship is sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

[I] A declaration signed by 99 Syrian intellectuals calling for the adoption of specific reform measures, including the release of all political prisoners and putting an end to the state of emergency that the country has been wallowing under since the Baath Coup of 1963.