Back in June 2005, Joshua Landis’s Syria Comment blog ran a post entitled “Whither Syria?” in which Josh discussed a recent article by Sami Moubayed characterizing President Bashar al-Asad’s liberalization attempts as a kind of Syrian “glasnost”. Moubayed concluded his piece by saying:
As the press became more open in the USSR, the Soviets, just like the Syrians today, began to understand why the truth had been kept away from them for so long. The truth is that the USSR was in a mess, and for the first time since 1917, the people were demanding answers to the question: what went wrong, and why? The same mood prevails in Damascus today: Syria is in a mess, and the people want answers.
In many ways, that mood could not have been more different than it is today. At the time, al-Asad was under tremendous international pressure, his troops had withdrawn ignominiously from Lebanon, and many believed that the regime was on its last legs.
Today, Syria’s star (as we are frequently told in the press) is in the ascendant. Aside from the renewed diplomatic engagement with various Western and Middle Eastern governments and the steady traffic of Lebanese politicians on the road to Damascus, there is also, apparently, a boom in economic activity. There are plans to build a new oil refinery, expand gas production, and liberalize the investment and real estate sectors. What’s more, the Syrians are playing hard-to-get with the EU over trade agreements, and eating more sushi (a fact which apparently augurs changing political tastes, suggests The Economist).
These changes naturally bring to mind some of the reforms introduced by Bashar al-Asad during the abortive “Damascus Spring,” following his father’s death in 2000. When Syria decided not to join the Iraq War in 2003 and relations soured between the U.S. and some of its Arab allies following the Hariri assassination, Bashar battened down the hatches so as to consolidate his power base and prepare for the long hard slog that he has recently emerged from.
Are we, today, witnessing the beginnings of a Damascus Spring II? (I hereby claim the copyright for that phrase if people start using it regularly in the press.) How far will al-Asad go this time? And what effects would serious reforms like an amnesty law, a political parties law, and further economic and political liberalization — if enacted — have on the future of the regime? After all, let’s not forget the unintended consequences that glastnost had for the Soviet Union.
Can Bashar rebuild Syria like Theseus rebuilt his ship, one decaying plank at a time, preserving the basic ideologies of his father’s party while transforming its particulars? Or will the uncharted waters towards which Bashar’s patchwork ship inevitably veers spook the regime into tacking back towards the shore? (Here ends that over-taxed maritime metaphor…)
The floor is yours.