Syria: De-Baathification from the Top?

A regime caught in the throes of self-reinvention
Syrian Studies Association Newsletter 

The months that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq witnessed mounting pressures on the neighboring country of Syria and its ruling Baathist regime. These pressures, in many ways, came as a result of the Syrian regime’s combative stands vis-à-vis the United States during the early stages of the invasion and its support of the nascent insurgency against it, and were thus aimed at forcing the regime to reverse its policies. Soon, however, the scope of change demanded of the Syrian regime expanded to include its backing of outlawed Palestinian groups and its continued dabbling in Lebanon’s internal affairs and its support for Hezbollah’s activities there.

Despite this focus on regional policies, the pressures exerted by the US and its occasional threats ended up creating a wave of panic that swept across the various ranks of the regime, and the country as a whole, strengthening of the reformist elements in the regime and emboldening the country’s opposition members and rights activists. The result was the launching of a new and more bold Damascus Spring, in which calls for lifting the state of emergency and amending the Constitution were once again heard.

But actually, it was the Baath Regional Command, the Party’s highest executive body, that took the most important step at the time when it passed a resolution calling on party officials and institutions to distance themselves from the “daily executive work” of governance. While this move seems to have come more as an easing of the bureaucratic restrictions on the operations of the various reform element within the regime, than as a sign of political openness, it soon acquired certain political dimensions as well, as it served to further embolden the country’s hopeful activists.

The debate on reform soon moved closer to home and began to take place on the Internet through such websites as ilaf.com and thisissyira.com, but more importantly on the pages of the electronic bulletin Kulluna Shurakaa (all4syria.org), run by a Syrian engineer known for his affiliations with the reform-minded Syrian President. The Kulluna Shurakaa Bulletin encouraged in a sense an indirect dialogue between government and opposition, and eventually lured some government officials to come out in support of reforms, political as well as economic.

Eventually, and in the last few weeks, the dialogue moved to the pages of the country’s state-run press, and involved important members of the Baath Party itself, such as the editor-in-chief of the Baath Party’s official news paper, al-Baath, who actually dared question the continued wisdom of maintaining the state of emergency in the country, at least in its current comprehensive formulation.

The next such coup came soon afterwards when the Syrian Vice-President, Abdulhaleem Khaddam, was asked during an interview with the country’s only private political magazine (owned by Bilal al-Turkmani, the son of the country’s new Minister of Defense) whether Article 8 of the Constitution affirming “the leadership role of the Baath Party in state and society” can be amended. Although the answer was a categorical and unsurprising no, the very fact that the interview took place at all on the pages of a Syrian magazine of things is in itself indicative of the depth of the regime’s crisis and its attempt to appear more open.

This attempt at maintaining the appearance of openness, though mostly designed for the benefit of external observers, is, nonetheless, meant for internal consumption as well, that is, for the internal consumption of the regime itself.

For in the aftermath of the retirement of Syria’s longtime Minister of Defense, Mustafa Tlas, and the enforcement, by presidential decree, of the compulsory retirement age in the ranks of the military, many high ranking figures in the regime are now trying to reposition themselves so as to avoid being purged, no matter how benignly, or having their powers curbed.

This does not, however, mean that these elements are necessarily losing their power and stature in the regime. Rather, what is taking place is a simple attempt at “playing it safe,” so to speak, vis-à-vis new and old internal rivals and opponents. In other words, members of the regime are simply trying to outsmart each other in a new round of internal power conflict, with the net result being that the regime as a whole always is outsmarting itself, and painting itself into an ever more tight and dark corner.

For in reality, this entire process of de-baathification from the top comes as a half-hearted haphazard measure, one that lacks a guiding vision and a strong will to back it up. This has indeed been the bane of the reform process in Syria from the very beginning, a fact that reflects that particular character, disposition and aptitude of Syria’s young President. What this means in practice is that that any progress made on any front could easily be checked, even reversed, at any given moment. This indeed seems to be the gist of what has been taking place over the last four years. More importantly though, this seems to be the gist of what has just taken place with regard’s to Syria’s dabbling in Lebanon.

At the time when the Syrian regime seems to have gone to some pains to distance itself from appearing to be overtly dabbling in Lebanese affairs, out of the blue, it did an about-face and went ahead and interfered, in a most blatant and visible manner, in what should have been, even to the most foolish of observes, a purely internal Lebanese affair, namely the presidential elections. When push came to shove, members of the Syrian regime, especially those ranked among the old guard or, as some observers refer to them, the “status quo beneficiaries,” could not but fall back on old habits and attitudes, having failed to develop new ones.

The repositioning and jockeying in this case simply had to stop, for there was a clear-cut issue at stake here – that of continued undisturbed control. A new Lebanese President, no matter how friendly to Syria, would have brought with him a new set of attitudes and issues to address, at a time when the Syrian regime, with its old and new guards, is already too bewildered, confused and shaken.

So, at the end of the day, and unable to invent a new vision for itself and for the future, the Syrian regime stuck with the man it knows best. It held its grounds at the risk of angering even its most useful European ally, France, because, after all is said and done, it had reached the limits of its ability to cope.

It is, therefore, safe to assure that the ongoing process of de-baathification from the top has proven quite hollow, despite the seemingly sincere intentions behind it on part of the President and his supporters. The lack of a vision, a strategy and, more importantly, the political will to back it up were the decisive elements here.

Still, the future of the country and the regime depends in no small part on the ability of the regime, or the opposition, to provide these missing elements. Without this, external pressures and threats would only serve to make the regime commit more and more tactical errors in its regional and internal calculations, eventually isolating itself and providing what could be the prelude to another Iraqi-style intervention in the region, or, alternatively, another Lebanese-style civil war, no matter how unlikely such developments might seem at this stage. For, in this world, dysfunctional states cannot last forever, and seem to beckon external dabbling and intervention, or collapse under the weight of their growing internal problems and contradictions.

Written in Washington, D.C. during my fellowship at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.