Long road to reform in Damascus

Abigail Fielding-Smith guardian.co.uk

“The smell of freedom is in the air,” announced a Newsnight correspondent in a recent report from Lebanon. The overthrow of the Iraqi regime and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon have led to talk of a domino effect in the Middle East, and all eyes are now on the ancien regime in Damascus.

Anyone expecting to find the Syrian people on the verge of overthrowing the government will, however, be disappointed. Old men sit at cafe tables drawing pensively on their sheesha pipes. The younger crowd meet in mixed company in the city’s burgeoning collection of bars and cheerfully dance off a week’s work. In contrast to a pro-government demonstration last week, which drew thousands of people, only 100 gathered to protest at the government’s abuses of power.

The Ba’athist regime in Syria has been very effective at suppressing opposition. As the dissident writer Yasseen Hassalah says: “When you put a complete society in a bottle for 25 years, you cannot expect people to get out of the bottle strong and ready to fight.”

The government of Bashar al-Assad has also passed just enough reforms that the police state no longer looms quite so ominously in Syrians’ lives. In contrast to 10 years ago, people are reasonably comfortable talking to western journalists. The availability of satellite TV and the internet has opened up space for a greater diversity of views than would have been tolerated under Bashar’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, although the state still blocks certain websites.

There is, nonetheless, an enormous sense of frustration among reformers. The new political space has not been safeguarded with legal rights and so could close up again when the political weather changes. People who speak to western journalists are less likely to be tortured or imprisoned by the Mukhabarat, the secret police, but they will probably receive a visit from them. “They talked to me very politely about my excavation work,” an anglophile archaeologist recalls wryly.

The most damning assessment of Bashar’s reform programme has come, inadvertently, from the mouth of one of his supporters in the Syrian media. “Before we used to be sent to prison for writing things that caused offence,” he enthuses. “Now we only have to pay a fine!” The press are now permitted licensed criticism of certain issues, although firm red lines are drawn around the president himself.

Many reformers in Syria opposed the American invasion of Iraq but admit that it has strengthened their position vis-a-vis their own government. Although officially the opposition parties have rallied around the regime in the face of external threats, behind the scenes there is much political bargaining going on ahead of the Ba’ath party congress this summer.

However, Amer [sic] Abdulhamid, a human rights activist, is sceptical about the potential of such negotiations. “I am only able to be here talking to you because of these political calculations,” he says. “Calculations lead to cosmetic changes but they are not going to get us out of this quagmire. For that we need real, grassroots reform.”

The American project in the Middle East has muddied the waters for the kind of reform Mr Abdhulhamid seeks. Criticism of the state has now become associated with the supposed imperialism and Islamophobia of the west. The self-image the regime has traditionally projected – staunch defender of the Arab world, nobly holding out against the forces of western imperialism and Zionism – is gaining, not losing, its appeal.

The Syrian regime is not subtle in its tactics. It has erected billboards proclaiming “Proud to be Syrian”, and the monopoly mobile phone company, owned by the president’s cousin, issues young people with spanking new Syrian flags to take with them on pro-government demonstrations. But the patriotism appears to be genuinely felt.

“To support Bashar Assad is to refuse foreign intervention in internal affairs, to refuse the double standards of the west, to refuse US and Israeli occupation,” explains Rashid, a student at a recent pro-government demonstration.

Mr Abdulhamid shakes his head at such sentiments. “We should be looking to the state to provide us with services, not with a sense of identity” he says. “We seem to be becoming more insular, when what we should be doing is establishing international networks and exposing ourselves to outside influences.”

One opportunity to foster greater links between Syria and the western democracies exists in the form of an EU association agreement. This would provide for increased trade between the two countries and assistance in institution building and tackling corruption; it also contains human rights obligations.

Such an agreement has been initialled, but the last minute insertion by the EU of a clause meant to prevent the proliferation of WMD means it now sits unratified in Brussells. In the current international climate, it looks unlikely to be revived.

Without this kind of long-term, constructive engagement, reformists such as Mr Abdulhamid look likely to be sidelined. “What we need now is for the international community to be creative,” he says. This means offering carrots to the right people, as well as sticks. Unfortunately, in the words of one Damascus based Western diplomat: “The only carrot I can see the Americans offering is to stop beating Syria around the head.”

Real freedom in Syria will be achieved in spite of the American military machine stationed next door, not because of it.