This is the story of a little regime that thought it could—that is, deal with a changing world using the same old set of worn-out ploys and policies and actually get away with it. This is also the story of a regime which is beginning to realise, perhaps a little too late, that it actually couldn’t—and is therefore engaging in a furtive and desperate attempt at reinventing itself.
The story began when the Arab-Israeli peace process collapsed in 2000 and Syria, an important participant, experienced a change in leadership, with the eldest son succeeding his deceased father as president ina largely ceremonial affair. The succession was accepted by the international community in the hope that Bashar Assad would help facilitate his country’s integration into the emerging global order. Instead, four years later, Syria’s young president, under the influence of a coterie of advisers dominated by his father’s old comrades, has led the country into a virtual showdown with the world’s sole superpower and into further isolation.
How did this happen? International observers simply overestimated both the new president’s abilities and the scope of his mandate. After all, he was a product of the very system they wanted him to replace, and his political and economic training was under his father’s cronies. In fact, Mr Assad, his own intentions notwithstanding, was specifically chosen for the sake of maintaining the regime’s stability and legitimising the transformation of the military and political junta into an economic elite. Internal political reforms were never on the agenda and foreign policy was entrusted to the late president’s advisers.
The reform process launched by the new president was little more than an exercise in futility. In reality, the ruling elite became even more powerful and strengthened its stranglehold on the country’s economy. A crackdown on dissent soon followed and Syria’s foreign policy continued to ascribe more importance to the country than merited by its size and capabilities. Self-delusion and blindness to ever-changing global realities ruled the day.
Only after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on America—and ensuing US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—did the Syrian regime begin seriously to reconsider its policies. The Iraq invasion in effect served to revitalise Syrian civil society and emboldened reformist elements in the regime including, in some respects, Mr Assad. Calls for lifting the 40-year-plus state of emergency and amending the country’s constitution to allow for a peaceful transfer of power were once again heard. The Ba’ath Party itself embarked on internal reforms and its members were asked to refrain from interfering in day-to-day management of the country’s affairs.
However, the old ruling elite remains in charge and continues to fall back on the usual security measures. Dissidents continue to be arrested and, in the aftermath of Kurdish riots that rocked the country in March, Syria’s Kurds have become targets of a heavy-handed security crackdown. But in terms of Syria’s relations with Lebanon, the usual tactics backfired woefully. The regime’s strong backing for amending
Lebanon’s constitution to allow Emile Lahoud, the pro-Syrian Lebanese president, to extend his term aroused international ire, culminating in a swift United Nations Security Council resolution calling for withdrawal of all foreign (read “Syrian”) troops from Lebanon.
This international action seems to have set the scene for a long overdue overhaul of the country’s ruling establishment, which many believe will take place in the upcoming conference of the Ba’ath regional command. More importantly, Syria has just undertaken a major redeployment of its 20,000 troops in Lebanon, moving most of them closer to the Syrian border. However, it is unlikely the international community will settle for anything less than full withdrawal. Another important development in this regard has been the reported US-Syrian agreement on establishing joint patrols for monitoring Syrian-Iraqi borders to prevent infiltration by would-be insurgents.
All these steps come as concessions by the Syrian regime in response to international pressure. As such, they are indications of weakness and of Syria’s relapse into its former status as an insecure country trying to survive in a rather tough neighbourhood—as evidenced by the recent Israeli-sponsored assassination of asenior Hamas official in Damascus.
Indeed, Syria can no longer even try to act as the regional power-broker it sought to be under Ba’ath leadership. Reformists within the ruling regime will be better off accepting this state of affairs rather than attempting to challenge it. For the world is a very hostile place for little regimes that can’t—accept their limitations, that is.