Whither Syria?

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 At the time, al-Asad was under tremendous international pressure, his troops had withdrawn ignominiously from Lebanon, and many believed that the regime was on its last legs.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.

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15 thoughts on “Whither Syria?

  1. It is very difficult to know the truth about what is really going on in Syria economically. Ok, a few hundred people are eating sushi, but maybe a million were displaced by drought.
    What is the sum result? Is Syria like the US in the fifties, destined for decades of fast growth, or is it like France on the eve of the revolution (a small elite exploiting a dirt poor majority)?

    I don’t know.

    Posted by AIG | April 8, 2010, 4:07 pm
  2. Dear QN,

    You have been supping on sushi, I suspect. The economist article is a throw away – equating a taste for raw fish with freedom.

    The opening up that Syria is witnessing is very far from precipitating a Damascus Spring I or II of civil or political rights, in my humble opinion.

    Syria is as different from the USSR as it is from China. Assad says he wants to follow the China model and rejects the Soviet model because Syria is not ready for a political opening. This is his own argument. Glasnost took place because Gorbachev believed in glasnost, as did many other Russians within the elite. The elite lost faith in communism. The Russian people probably didn’t make that much difference.

    I do not believe that the Syria elite has lost faith in authoritarian rule or Baathism, even though Baathism was never much more than a general faith in Arabism and fear of imperialism and the like.

    Syrians will not unify to overthrow their system any more than will the Lebanese. At a time when the Lebanese are rediscovering the wisdom on Assad, what makes you think that the Syrians will reject it? Sushi?

    Posted by joshua Landis | April 8, 2010, 4:27 pm
  3. Economic reforms in Syria are beyond the tipping point. We can all sense the obvious acceleration in the pace of those reforms… there is no going back.

    But Damascus Spring II will not be Glastnost II … that one will take 7 to 14 years as that brilliant Syria expert predicted … few years ago 🙂

    By the way … the countdown finally started last year. Now it is down to “5 to 12 years from now”

    Posted by Alex | April 8, 2010, 4:30 pm
  4. The photo you used is the 8th Gate city project just outside Damascus (Beirut Highway) … it is not going to be completed it seems since he Dubai based company building it is not as comfortable as it used to be 2 years ago.

    Posted by Alex | April 8, 2010, 4:39 pm
  5. Contrary to the gaurded optimism of alex and others I have not seen yet any real signs that Syrias economy and or civil society is on the mend.
    Quiet the contrary, I believe that the current regime is so insulated and the bureaucracy is so well entrenched that Soviet inefficiencies will even pale in comparisons.

    It is difficult to take seriously the explanations that a society in the 21st century can claim to be relevant when it is so much behind in all fields. The current Syrian regime is happy to play the role of the spoiler by allowing Iranian money to cross into Syria and by buying Saudi support by helping the Ayadi camp in Iraq. These small cameo roles are not to be mistaken for major performances that would win awards.
    The fact that the Syrian populace is not more discriminating does not mean that the current regime is strong and that the present leadership is shrewed.If that were the case then the Arab world is ruled by very capable regimes:-)

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | April 8, 2010, 8:29 pm
  6. Josh

    The question is not, to my mind, whether the people will rise up to overthrow the system. The people are not going to rise up. We agree on that point.

    My question is, rather: what kind of reform horizon are we talking about? How far is Bashar going to go? Is he hoping to radically transform the economic base of the country, or are these changes just cosmetic?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 8, 2010, 9:55 pm
  7. I’m not sure I understand the real practical meaning behind the words Joshua is using: The Chinese Model; Baatism

    I hear ‘The Chines Model’, usually with a worrying level of political euphamisation as further explanation, increasingly lately. As far as I can tell, what people mean is economic liberalism of sorts that allows growth without accompanying political liberalism. Is that the extent?

    Similarly, what does ‘Baathist’ mean in 2010?

    I’m not being facetious. I’m really trying to understand if these things mean anything apart from vague status quo.

    On a side note, in Israel deep fired sushi is readily available. I’m not sure what the economist would make of that.

    Posted by netsp | April 9, 2010, 7:58 am
  8. Netsp

    I think you’re right: the Chinese model amounts to some kind of authoritarian capitalism, to be followed, presumably, by very gradual political liberalization.

    I recently asked a group of students in a section that I’m teaching on modern Middle Eastern history whether they would prefer to be reborn in a society like Syria or one that was somewhere between Iraq and Lebanon (i.e. with the potential for tremendous sectarian violence and instability, but with greater freedoms and potential for democratic governance, etc.)

    At least half said that they would prefer the Syrian model. Keep in mind that these are smart, ambitious, Harvard undergraduates. The allure of stability is not to be taken lightly.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | April 9, 2010, 9:17 am
  9. Only the timid settle for the stability of an authoritarian, dictatorial system. These are the ones who will live the rest of their lives in bondage. Isn’t that always the argument against revolution and for slavery? After all the master provides you with a meal once a day.
    I sure feel sorry for such students. That does not bode well for the future, for creativity, for risk taking and for change.

    Posted by ghassan karam | April 9, 2010, 9:39 am
  10. QN,

    Security certainly isn’t to be taken lightly and theoretical freedom can easily be taken too seriously. But the choice you gave is usually a false dichotomy.

    The process of change itself can be dangerous (eg Russia), but there are lots of examples of stable liberal democracies. I would even wager that they are more robust. The US wouldn’t in danger of a system collapse even if the financial crisis was much worse. China (if conventional wisdom is correct) would have been. I don’t think there are many genuine cases where long term stability and free societies come into direct, irresolvable conflict.

    In almost every case, this choice between stability and liberalisation is needed by authoritarians so it is constantly presented. The Chinese seemed to have thrown in prosperity, which is novel.

    I’m not sure what a classroom experiment like that demonstrates anyway. Real choices are made by feel. From the few anecdotes I know of Lebanese expatriates kids love going to Lebanon. Syrian’s don’t seem to.

    Posted by netsp | April 9, 2010, 11:12 am
  11. One of the critical aspects of the Chinese model is strict population growth control, something that is totally lacking in Syria.

    Also, China despite its authoritarianism, is a meritocracy when it comes to civil servants.

    So whatever model the Syrians are following, it is not the Chinese one.

    In any case, economic openness and motivation for economic growth should always be applauded. It reduces significantly the chances of war. The best way to scare investors is war. The more Syria will emphasize its economic credentials, the less credible its “resistance” credentials will be. I suggest that Lebanon, Syria and Israel just ignore each other for 30 years and concentrate only on economic development.

    Posted by AIG | April 9, 2010, 11:22 am
  12. @AIG

    “I suggest that Lebanon, Syria and Israel just ignore each other for 30 years and concentrate only on economic development.”

    I’ve suggested the exact same thing myself. It’s brilliant in its simplicity.
    Too bad it’s completely unrealistic.
    But I am convinced, as i think you are (even though the statement was in jest) that if these 3 countries were allowed to ignore each other for 30 years, and focus on development, the coming generations wouldn’t even understand why there was any kind of conflict in the first place.

    Posted by Bad Vilbel | April 9, 2010, 12:47 pm
  13. Netsp, QN, this conversation , which, as any good old conversation, has a unsolvable and eternal dilemma at its hart, has already been synthesized (netsp #7) Syrian style: row fish is dangerous for you (the country can buy a little, but is not ready to handle it in a safe way), get used to fried sushi!

    Asking the question to Harvard students risks the answer to be an assessment of general moods, wills, or intentions, opposed to what people would actually do when put in the situation. I personally concentrate in listening to people who have been in both situations, (which by the way entails people doubling the age of your students, whom I assume to be fresh and tender, lol). To have an informed opinion on this matter, one should ideally have lived both situations, and known what they actually taste like. Nowadays, i.e, I carefully listen to Cubans of all sides.

    AIG, VB, watch the “Jaffa, the orange’s clockwork” by Eyal Sivan as a reminder why it’s not that easy to go business as usual, at least in Israel/Palestine. By the way, it seems Israel is actually able to do it, i.e., just to ignore the other and concentrate on economic development and, apparently, is not afraid that war will scare its investors…

    Posted by mj | April 10, 2010, 3:46 am
  14. I don’t know why you like to qoute Landis alot and take him as a big shot. And by the way sushi is sushi not a raw fish freedom tast.

    Posted by Bassem | April 10, 2010, 11:20 pm
  15. Bassem,

    That’s been my question for the past 4 years. His yearning for an American-Syria “love-nest” will never pan out. Hope springs eternal…

    Posted by Akbar Palace | April 11, 2010, 7:48 pm

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