For the first time in decades, Syrian public opinion is critical of its authorities’ role in Lebanon, with the majority holding them responsible for the situation there. The economic situation has deteriorated to levels dangerous for social stability. Direct criticism of the President and his team by the business community is unprecedented. The opposition overcame its weaknesses and political and civil society movements signed the “Damascus Declaration” calling openly for peaceful “regime change”. The prospects for peaceful change depend on the findings of the UN investigation commission over the assassination of former Prime Minister of Lebanon Hariri, the ability of the opposition to propose a platform to demonstrate to the Syrian public that change will not lead to chaos; and the ability of the “power system” to respond intelligently to the combination of international pressures and internal challenges on the economic, social and political front.
Syria has undergone considerable changes in 2005 in its regional and international positioning, as well as in its internal politics and public opinion. This policy brief discusses the domestic prospects for change and the potential for reforms.
It does not address in detail the regional and international perspectives, but analyses their impact on the internal situation.
The assassination of former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafiq Hariri and the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon lead to an internationalization of the relationship between Syria and Lebanon, with several UN Security Council resolutions that, for the first time, condemned Syrian behavior in a country central to its regional and internal policies. This process has lead to several changes in the perspectives inside Syria:
For the first time in decades, Syrian public opinion was critical of the authorities’ role in Lebanon, with the majority holding them responsible for the situation there.
A wider range of actors inside Syria became convinced of the need for rapid economic and political reform. However, the Congress of the Ba’ath Party in June 2005 and successive speeches of the President undermined these expectations while reinforcing the control of the Presidential Palace and the security forces over public life, suppressing any dissent within the regime and the Baath Party.
The Syrian opposition overcame its weaknesses and called for “radical change” of the regime in a declaration. They were joined in that call by a wide range of civil society movements, as well as by the defecting Syrian vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam.
The perspectives in early 2006 are still not clear and depend on three factors:
1/ the findings of the UN investigation commission over the assassination of the former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafiq Hariri; 2/ the ability of the opposition to propose a platform to demonstrate to the Syrian public opinion that change is not chaos; and 3/ the ability of the “power system” to respond intelligently to the combination of international pressures and internal challenges on the economic, social and political front.
The year 2005 in Syria
2005 has been exceptional on all counts. Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in a humiliating fashion; relations with the neighboring country transformed from a latent crisis with local politicians to an open conflict, involving major world powers; several UN Security Council resolutions were issued against Syria with the core of its “power system” being accused publicly and by an international investigation of the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and other prominent Lebanese figures. On New Year’s Eve, the former Syrian vice-president joined the accusations, targeting the Syrian President directly, creating a political shockwave in the country, despite a negative public opinion on Mr. Khaddam himself.
In this course of events, a congress of the Baath party was held in June. It postponed the long awaited political reforms that had been promised by the President in his speech on the withdrawal of troops from Lebanon. It also brought members of the security services into the Baath Regional Command, while adopting “social market economy” in breach of the 1973 “socialist” constitution of the regime, and promoting a “reformer” as Deputy Prime Minister and strong government figure. The main economic reforms introduced by President. Bashar Assad have lately yielded some results, with an impressive growth in the private banking sector and of imports.
Further, while the UN investigator Detlev Mehlis was delivering the committee’s report accusing Syria of Hariri’s assassination, the Syrian government announced confidently that new foreign investments amounted to US$7-10 billion, a level never reached before, that relations with the European Union and international financial institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) had also improved dramatically as the authorities launched a major fiscal reform programme. In light of the international investigation however, Europe suspended the finalization of the Association agreement which was reached at the end of 2004. The level of economic activity started slowing with the turmoil, and government plans to reach a 7% annual growth rate for the next decade, (the minimum to cope with the rapid decrease in oil production and increase in unemployment) appear unattainable. The economic situation has deteriorated to levels dangerous for social stability, despite trade opening.
However, the major change that occurred in Syria in 2005 is political. A few days only before the Mehlis report was released, several political and civil society movements signed the “Damascus Declaration” which, for the first time, called openly for peaceful “regime change”. The political debate in Syria has never been so intense and public, on internet sites and in the official media. Several times, the President has been forced to address directly public opinion and Syrian officials, including heads of security services, intervened on-air on Arab satellite channels to respond to public criticism. Everyone is questioning the country’s political future in the wake of the “Iraqi chaos” and the “Cedar revolution” in Lebanon. Attempts to create political movements are emerging here and there. It is on this political level, where things are moving fast, that the future of the country shall be drawn.
The Battle for Syrian Public Opinion
One of the major battles of 2005 was to gain Syrian public opinion. Through his increasingly frequent speeches, President Bashar Assad focused on gaining public opinion, appealing to its national pride and fear of chaos. The US policies lack credibility when they call for a “change of behavior of the Syrian regime”, a slogan interpreted by Syrian public opinion, as relating to the Iraqi and the Palestinian-Israeli situations as well as to the issue of Hizbollah , more than to Lebanon or Syria or the issue of democracy. Lebanese politicians have lost many opportunities to gain Syrian sympathy to their cause because they were not able to differentiate between the Syrian power system, the security services, the population and the immigrant workers on their soil.
Politicians, journalists and opinion makers in Lebanon regularly criticize Syrian public opinion as being insensitive to their struggles and complain against the practices of the Syrian authorities and intelligence services in Lebanon. In effect, even the intellectuals and activists of the “Damascus Spring” have avoided addressing the Syrian presence in Lebanon while asking for democratic freedoms in their country. The “Declaration of the 99 intellectuals” issued at the start of the “Damascus Spring” did not mention the Lebanese issue, nor did the “Statement of the 1000” or the basic document for the creation of the “Committee for Reviving Civil Society” described below. The question of the “occupation” of Lebanon continues to be seen as an element in the regional confrontation with Israel and major outside powers since the 1980s and, in fact, while Syrians are well informed about Lebanese politics, they envied the “minimal” freedoms enjoyed by the Lebanese “under Syrian occupation” which, if applied to Syria itself, would constitute a major achievement.
Security Council Resolution 1559 voted on September 2, 2004 contributed to this confusion. The resolution was passed in response to the Syrian regime’s imposed change of the Lebanese constitution to renew the mandate of the Lebanese president Emile Lahoud. The resolution not only called for the cancellation of this unconstitutional procedure and for the withdrawal of the Syrian troops, but also for the disarming of the Hizbollah which, for the Syrian public, is the most popular political force in the region because they achieved the liberation of Israeli occupied land. This is a sensitive issue for Syrians who feel the humiliation of the continuing occupation of the Golan Heights. In addition, this was not the first time that the Lebanese constitution had been changed to accommodate Syrian interests.
The assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister on February 14, 2005 focused Syrian public opinion on the Lebanese issue. The event itself was a shock, as were the massive demonstrations of March 8 (pro-Syrian) and March 14 (anti-Syrian). For the first time, Syrians discovered the level of anger that the actions of their troops and security services have created in Lebanon, and the speed with which the Lebanese changed from seeing Syria as a protector (after the civil war) to an occupant. The pride of having significant support from key Lebanese actors remained, especially as it came from the popular secretary general of the Hizbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in a speech claiming obedience to the “Syria of the Assads”. In the following months, the Syrian public witnessed the dramatic return of hundreds of thousands of poor Syrian workers from Lebanon, amid rumors - exaggerated by the official Syrian media - of Lebanese reprisals against them. The fact that many of the slogans of the “Cedar Revolution”espoused anti-Syrian views, has also contributed to the rise of an anti-Lebanese sentiment in Syria. The predominant feeling during this period was that the events were part of an American-Israeli “plot” to push the Syrian troops out of Lebanon, to weaken Syria and to drive it as well as Lebanon into a situation of chaos and sectarian strife similar to Iraq’s, now under occupation.
However, following the UN Security Council resolution 1595 establishing an independent international investigative commission, the arrest in August of the heads of Lebanese security forces, the preliminary findings of the first Mehlis report, and the Syrian authorities’ apparent lack of interest in establishing another thesis on the assassination, all these developments led to a gradual shift within a majority of public opinion towards admitting Syria’s responsibility for the situation in Lebanon. This constituted a sea change in the country.
With this change, albeit with the belief that the President himself is not implicated, Syrians became worried about the price they would pay, especially since Resolution 1636, which followed the first Mehlis report on October 21, raises the possibility of sanctions or even military intervention. A period of nervous tension followed, with spectacular “shows” of witnesses denouncing their earlier statements and of Saudi officials mediating to obtain that Syrian officials be interrogated on Syria’s terms. The tension eased only on December 15, following the publication of the second Mehlis report when no sanctions were decided and the controversial UN investigator resigned. At this moment, it was thought that a “deal” had been reached with the international community and that another would follow with Lebanon. But this feeling of reprieve was short lived. The defection and declarations of former vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam, one of President Hafez Assad’s close collaborators and the artisan of Syria’s international and Lebanese policies for decades, came as a shock. A widely broadcast parliamentary meeting accusing Khaddam of treason and corruption worsened the situation. For a moment, in the early days of 2006, the Syrian power system appeared to be losing its moorings.
Economic or political reforms
The need for reforms has been under discussion in Syria since the end of the 1980s, but mainly in economic terms. It was in fact between 1986 and 1992 that the first significant economic reforms were introduced, where mainly agriculture was liberalized and subsidized (to achieve food independence) and foreign imports freed from state monopolies and administrative burden (leading to a first sharp increase of imports). Various laws and decrees, culminating in the investment law of 1991, and protectionist measures for local industries have, to a certain extent, permitted a private sector to develop, shifting the country out of socialist and state capitalist practices. The financial crisis of 1986 was the major motivation for these reforms. The ensuing rise in oil production, the flow of financial transfers from Syrian expatriates (in particular from the Gulf countries and Lebanon), and the improving prospects of peace in the Middle East contributed to unprecedented high growth rates until 1996. The absence of further reforms in the mid-1990s slowed growth to the point of recession in 1999. The death of President Hafez Assad and the accession of his son to the presidency have not changed these conditions, despite bold measures announced such as the 2000 decision to allow private banks in the country. The policies of President Bashar Assad in the first four years introduced even more confusion. A sudden opening of trade with Iraq, under UN sanctions, introduced opportunities for low added value exports and smuggling. The invasion of Iraq lead to a brutal termination of these economic opportunities. Moreover, new openings were made for private operators directly linked to the power system to establish new rent-seeking activities, such as in mobile phones, free trade zones, advertising, real estate, etc. Major private monopolies appeared in the country, in direct competition with the rest of the private sector and with the unreformed state-owned sector.