“May you rise with the sun to a new Coup D’etat”. This was a common greeting heard on the streets of Damascus during the 1950’s and 60’s. Although politically satirical, this phrase symbolized the frailty of institutions of a fledgling Syrian republic before Hafez Assad became President. Forty years on and the Assad family like no other in the region is poised to leave its indelible mark on a power base that stretches from Iran to the East and Gaza and Lebanon to the West. Today Assad the son under pressure from the uprising in many cities in Syria announced the lifting of emergency laws that have been in place since 1962. Will he be successful in implementing the changes needed before it's too late? Syrians who lived in paralyzing fear for more than four decades might have reached the point of no return.
On a recent visit to Syria while working on an EU project, I met with the now ousted governor of Daraa, Faisal Koulthum who was a high ranking official in the Baath Party. A professor with two PhD degrees from the West, Koulthoum represented the promise of the new leadership under Bashar Assad. I wondered why such an important Baath party figure so close to the president could be appointed to a remote area like Daraa? I suspect now that Assad wanted a loyal ally with a common vision for reform to lead that region. Obviously the problems were beyond poverty in a drought-stricken region, it was more of a political power struggle for leadership between the Old Guard of Assad the father and the educated class of the son.
The uprising that started in the impoverished city of Daraa on March 20th unexpectedly crept into the psyche of freedom loving Syrians all throughout the country and has the potential of toppling the regime and tipping the delicate balance of power from Iran to Israel. Political observers in the West who might have been skeptical of whether real change will come to the whole region, held their collective breath until Syrian youths took to the streets of this drought stricken farming Governate of Daraa. World Leaders who have been very vocal about Libya and Egypt have been unusually silent about Syria. What does the political world know about Syria that the rest of us don’t know? Would a strong condemnation from the West and the Arab League trigger the awakening of the powerful Shia Crescent --Iran, Syria and Hezbollah -- and would such an awakening trigger a region-wide conflict?
Syria is one of four major sphere-of-influence nations in the Arab world. Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the other regional powers to which Arab masses gravitate. All the remaining Arab countries are considered client- nations according to Soheil Kash, author of In The Beginning was the Objection: An Introduction to Arab political thought. These four power centers were the ones who manipulated the Arab street and influenced Western interference in the region. Now, it is these four power poles the are leading change in the Arab World. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced $40 Billion of economic stimulus to quell any potential uprising. King Muhammad VI of Morocco responded to the demonstrations with a timetable for constitutional reforms. In Egypt the political tug of war between the military establishment and the reformists which include the Muslim Brotherhood leave the country with an uncertain political future. In the last week the wind of change has broken down the door to Syria.
“Our political evolution will be different” tells me an aid to the Governor of Daraa. “ Hafez Assad brought stability to Syria by oppressing the people and enriching the Baath Leadership. The son is trying his hand in reform without the political and military clout that his father had.”
Syria’s regional dominance started when Assad the father came into power in 1970 through a bloodless coup and after the death of Jamal Abdel Nasser the most charismatic politician in modern day Middle East. Assad immediately aligned himself with the Russians to reach strategic parity with Israel which was an ally of the other superpower, the US. His initial ambition had the potential to develop Syria politically and economically, but as things evolved he failed to deliver on his promises. This failure steered much internal unrest but the shell of social secularism he created kept the Alawite minority in top positions of the Baath party. The military became the sole tool that Assad used to make his local and regional presence known from crushing the uprising in Hama to the meddling in Lebanon’s civil war and helping Iran cement Hizbollah’s role as the front line resistance against Israel. These policies stayed in place until Bashar Assad came to power in June 2000. The son was hailed as the reformer, but was unable to break the barriers to the network of high corruption and the economic monopolies that his father’s inner circle had created. Bashar coundn’t even deliver on his promise to eliminate the notorious Mazze jail -- the thought of which still sends shivers down the spine of every Syrian and Lebanese political descendant.
Mohammad, a Syrian archaeologist working on the restoration of one of the most preserved Roman coliseum outside Italy was very outspoken about the current regime. We met when I was in Daraa working on a development project with the EU. Mohammad caught the freedom bug while studying in Italy and he frequently joked about the number of times the Syrian Mukhabarat (secret service) picked him up and hauled him to jail in the middle of the night only to be let go a few days later after his mother begged local authorities for his release.
Criticizing the regime was off limits. Even though Bashar Assad set out to be more progressive than his father, he had to adjust his vision to how much he can do in light of the opposition from the old guard. Many Syrians I met praised him and his educated wife Asma for their approach on Syria’s transition to modernity. Bashar implemented mandatory education for all young people, brought computers to schools and community centers, renovated libraries and more recently opened up the banking system and started the first stock exchange in Syria. While all these changes were happening, they were not met by corresponding inclusion of opposition parties and political reforms that would enable their long-term viability. During a recent interview with al-Arabiya TV network a high ranking supporter of Assad’s reforms was pressed by the interviewer about the lack of progress on the reforms that were promised by the President. When he was pushed to change his standard answer, the truth about what was preventing real change from taking place came out of his mouth in a barrage of repetitive phrases “it is the Old Guard...its the Old Guard..”
Based on my past work in Syria and the study of its value-systems, religions, power structures, and the dynamics of polarity, the chances of the country falling into a sectarian civil war are high. The most pressing issue is the possible defection of powerful Sunni generals who now have orders to shoot at their Sunni brothers.Should this happen the Alawite high command of the Syrian Army could seek the help of Iran and Hezbollah turning an internal conflict into a regional one. In such complex situation the fall of the regime in Syria has far reaching ramifications between the Sunni and Shia crescent and the potential of tipping the balance of power in the region.
In this still unfolding dynamic two scenarios could emerge: the first one would call on Assad to prove worthy of leading his people by immediately curtailing the power of the old guard in any way possible; introduce a specific timetable for reforms and lift emergency laws that have been in effect for 48 years. In this scenario Assad would need to bring the opposition leaders in Syria and abroad to the table, and establish structures and milestones to be achieved by a Syria-specific formula for power sharing. The second scenario, sees the failure of Assad to embark on real reforms where the old guard continues their monopoly over the country’s institutions and economy leading to a prolonged civil war with rippling effects in the region. This will play well into the hands of the Iranian regime that has been pumping billions into Syria. Iran will not sit quietly watching its investment into the Shia crescent go to waste.
The Western world's reluctance to interfere in the affairs of Syria might be well justified right now. However, the US and its allies have to have a systemic strategy that can meet the different scenarios and outcomes of the Syrian uprising.
While in Bosra Al-Sham a village on the outskirts of Daraa, I met many promising high school girls who had a good understanding of what their generation needs to do to help build Syrian society. Learning English was on the top of their list tells me Dalia a young woman who teaches at the girl’s school where most courses are taught in Arabic. Growing up in such a poor region learning English is a ticket out of poverty as it will provide a tool to communicate with tourists and to connect with the world on the Internet. Throughout my travels in Syria, I did not meet a young Syrian who does not exhibit a sense of nationalistic pride.In spite of the political conflicts that seem to hover as a dark cloud over their ambitious minds, they still keep their resolve to build Syria to a 21st century standard.
Tomorrow, Bashar Assad will speak to Syrians, in what his spokesperson called “A very important speech.” How important would this speech be to the heroic Syrian activists who risked their lives --many of them were jailed for several years-- to afford their fellow Syrians freedom of speech, the right to have an attorney defend you before they throw in jail, and the right to have descent jobs. What kind of vision Assad will present to the nation to move it to the 21st century, and what is his time line to implement reform and awaken the capacities that are waiting to burst in young Syrians?