Some thoughts on a mundane Baath event

Special to The Daily Star

Syria has been abuzz with all sorts of nasty and hopeful rumors regarding the Baath Party congress that will begin today. Some predict that a virtual coup will take place as a result. Others, claiming to present a more sober assessment of the potential outcome, assert that only a few, albeit important, reform measures will be adopted. But these measures, they argue, are simply bound to pave the way for more critical developments in the years to come. “Years” being the operative word here. 

However, increasingly, and for those who are truly sober, the upcoming congress promises to present just another opportunity for Syria’s “wise leaders” to commit a major screw up. After all, it has been months since they have committed such a faux pas and they are not in the habit of making us wait for long. In this respect, our leaders have never failed to live up to our expectations. If this sounds facetious, it’s probably because the circumstances more than justify recourse to facetiousness.

There is simply no other way to deal with those who still think that the key to change in Syria lies in the hands of the corrupt officials who paved the way to the miserable state of affairs the country finds itself in today.

The Baath, both as an ideological construct and an instrumental one, has long failed Syria and its people in numerous ways: It failed to protect the territorial integrity of the state by losing the Golan Heights to Israel in 1967, and by never managing to get it back, whether through force or negotiations. It transformed a rich country into an impoverished one, where a considerable chunk of the population is living below the poverty line. It failed, its populist policies notwithstanding, to establish an adequate and modernizable educational system and health care programs. It failed to safeguard social peace between the various constituent communities in the country. It twice led Syria into a period of international isolation – once in the late 1980s, and again now. Under its rule, state corruption has reached unprecedented levels, with most top Baath figures taking an active part in this.

How can such a party, then, be expected to provide any solutions? In other words, how can those who charted our way into the quagmire be able to chart a way out? If modern history has taught us anything, it is that corrupt and autocratic parties like the Baath have never been about “resurrection,” the word’s meaning in Arabic, nor have they been “resurrectible.”

If reform is indeed what’s on the mind of Syria’s leadership, then the Baath congress will prove to be an exercise in futility, especially when considering that not a single reformer won in the elections preceding the congress. What will in fact take place is an attempt to reinvent Syria’s authoritarian system, as many dissidents have rightly pointed out. Yet even here the regime will fail, for none of the people involved in the reinvention process can really carry it through, or produce an outcome that satisfies outside parties. For let’s not forget that the real impetus for reform came from external pressures, and as such, the congress is really aimed at an external audience.

The domestic audience, on the other hand, consists of two groups of Syrians: those who have power to influence the reform process, but who tend to be high-ranking regime members who are more interested in regime survival than reform; and those who are seriously interested in reform, be they dissidents or other citizens, but who are simply too disorganized and weak to have a say in the matter. In fact, no one is consulting them. The whole purpose of the Baath congress is to present them with a fait accompli that they will be expected to endorse, perhaps via some popular referendum that will most likely generate the usual 99 percent favorable outcome, given that the factors of fear and wishful thinking are still involved.

For so long as Syrians keep hoping against hope that this regime is still capable of representing a viable option, they will continue to endorse it. The alternative, they fear, could be chaos, which represents a greater fear for the Syrians than authoritarianism and corruption.

But fear is beside the point. Wishing the regime to remain viable will not make it so. As such, its coming up with a package of reform promises is not the major issue. The key is implementation. However, since the successful implementation of promised reform requires know-how, skills, a guiding vision, a sense of leadership, pragmatism and gumption (the very qualities that have been missing from Syria for the last five years), the congress will prove to be the long-awaited beginning of the long-awaited end.

The bankruptcy of the regime will be impossible to hide after the congress ends, leaving the Syrian people with a clear choice to make: to take their destiny into their hands, or leave it in the hands of others. Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, Syrians will finally have to face the hard truth of it all: that change paving the way to freedom depends on their own ability to seize the initiative and not allow it to remain in the hands of the regime.