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This article was published in Orient, Vol. 45, No. 2 (June 2004), pp. 239-256
death of Hafiz al-Asad on
al-Asad’s role as president of
Still, the transfer of power from father to son, smooth and free of turbulence as it was, evoked ripples of derision and criticism within and outside the country, especially regarding the suitability of the young son to lead the country at that time. The point was widely raised in this context that Bashar’s journey to the top had begun only on January 21, 1994, following the death of his older brother Basil in a car accident. Basil had been his father’s choice as heir, and was the focus of great expectations, while the selection of Bashar stemmed from a lack of alternative and was essentially accidental. It was also accidental in terms of Bashar’s personal career, which had been devoted until then to medicine rather than politics. Ultimately, the accident brought Bashar to the seat of the presidency.
Bashar’s rise to power came at a time when
long as Asad retained his grip on power in
answer is not self-evident, for today, four years after assuming power, Bashar
remains, in the view of many both inside and outside
ever since Bashar took control of
Syrian Ba‘th regime inherited by Bashar al-Asad from his father was a personality-based
regime revolving around the figure of Hafiz al-Asad, its founder and longtime
leader. The central pillar of the regime, Asad Sr. served as the force that
unified its varied, and sometimes rival, components. His character and
especially his image both within
At the same time, the regime was also family-run, or even tribal, in view of the central role played in it by Hafiz al-Asad’s family and tribe – the Kalbiyya tribe. Moreover, it was also an communal regime in its reliance on the support of the Alawite community. This group constituted an important element in the regime – in effect the element that held the other components of the regime together. In this respect, the regime reflected the ascendance of the Alawite community in the second half of the twentieth century from a minority of inferior status to an elite sector.1
Ultimately, the regime established by Hafiz al-Asad might be described as multi-faceted. Sometimes it displayed its personality-based character, and at other times its family-, tribal- or community-based character, depending on circumstances or, more accurately, the challenges faced by its leader. Moreover, the regime also had a party coloration as a Ba‘th regime, as well as a military character in that it relied on the support of the army and the security forces.
the regime was the product of a social and political revolution that took place
al-Asad thus inherited a functioning, if aging, governmental system, which
granted him a certain grace period which he would need at the start of his rule. Relying on the
system, he nevertheless attempted to introduce certain changes aimed at
integrating additional sectors of society into mainstream life, with an
emphasis on reinforcing
Bashar and his Regime
During his first years in power, Bashar was anxious to maintain the political system his father had established in Syria and not make substantive changes in it. In as much as the transfer of power to him was smooth, with no evidence of significant opposition to him or to the regime, he did not feel the need to take drastic measures to entrench his personal and public status or to build up power bases loyal to him in order to face down a rival camp.
Bashar’s confidants. In the perception of many Syrians, Bashar was an unknown quantity, i.e., he was not a product, as was his father, of the military or party system, from which Asad Sr. drew support and recruited a close circle of like-minded associates to help him rule the country. With this, Bashar appeared to have consolidated a personal staff to assist him in promoting his goals and lead Syria toward change, however limited. This staff consisted of young men his age who shared his world view, some of whom, like him, were previously unidentified politically. Three in this group, whom Bashar brought with him from the Syrian Computer Society where they had been involved in disseminating computer and Internet awareness, were appointed to the cabinet, heading the tourism, communications and higher education portfolios (see below). Another member in the society, `Imad Zuhayr Mustafa, computers professor in Damascus University, was appointed in January 2004 as Ambassador to Washington. Other friends and associates brought into this circle were Iyad Ghzzal, appointed head of the Syrian Railway Authority, whom Bashar had gotten to know when he served as an aide in the Presidential Palace; Dhu al-Himma Shalish and Rami Makhluf, both businessmen and a relatives of Bashar’s. This group, however, was unlikely to be able to assist Bashar in ruling the country, as they lacked power bases of their own and were not influential in governmental circles.4
The lack of background of these close associates in managing the affairs of state, and especially in guaranteeing the security of the regime, stood out in marked contrast to the powerful pillars who had supported the regime under Hafiz al-Asad: the Asad and Makhluf clans, the Kalbiyya tribe, numerous, highly placed Alawite army officers, and a close circle of politically experienced associates mostly from the majority Sunni community.
Clan, tribe and religious community. Ostensibly, the element of clan, tribe and community continued to play an important role in Bashar’s regime. Evidence of this was the presence in his inner circle of his brother, Mahir, and even more importantly, his brother-in-law, ‘Asaf Shawkat. Additionally, a large number of high-ranking army officers, headed by Bashar’s tribesman, Deputy Chief of Staff ‘Ali Habib, were considered personally loyal to him. However, neither his brother nor his brother-in-law appeared to be involved in managing the affairs of state or in decision making at the highest level. Moreover, the Alawite officers said to be close to Bashar were not depicted as a consolidated group molded by him, or as viewing him as their true leader. Apparently, Bashar had difficulty, or perhaps did not attach sufficient importance to, entrenching his regime on firm clan, tribal and communal foundations, as did his late father.
This difficulty was apparent. The Asad clan avoided taking a firm stance on behalf of the young president. Two of his father’s brothers, Rif‘at and Jamil, voiced reservations about Bashar’s designation as successor to his father, and Rif‘at went so far as to challenge the legitimacy of the choice of Bashar as president. While Rif‘at was somewhat removed, in exile in Spain, Jamil was close at hand in Syria, elected in March 2003 as a delegate to the People’s Assembly from the Ladhiqiyya province Bashar’s problems in his immediate family were also public knowledge. Confrontations between the impulsive Mahir and the family’s “royal couple,” his sister Bushra and her husband Asaf Shawkat, were widely reported. Following Bashar’s marriage to Asma, rumors were spread in Damascus about the tensed relations between her and Anisa, Bashar’s mother and Bushra, his sister.5 And finally, in mid- 2003 Israeli media reported that the head of bureau of Mahir, Bashar’s young brother, initiated contacts with Israeli businessmen in Amman, in an effort to bring to the resumption of peace negotiations between Syria and Israel. Although, Syrians sources were quick to deny these reports, it seemed that Bashar had troubles in ruling his own family members6 Clearly, neither the clan nor the immediate family constituted a power base or a source of support for him, as they had for Asad Sr. at the start of his rise to power.
The trusted leadership nucleus (the jama’a). Asad Sr. had relied on a governing elite consisting of close associates with a shared viewpoint who helped him maintain his regime and thereby rule the country. This coterie was linked to him through four types of ties: (1) Family ties, exemplified by Asad’s co-option of his brother Rif‘at and a decade later of his sons Basil and later Bashar. (2) Tribal or communal ties, i.e., through his reliance on his tribe, the Kalbiyya, and his community, the Alawites. (3) Personal friendships, i.e., colleagues who shared his world view and life experiences, and associates and supporters dating back to the 1950s and ‘60s – the formative years of his ascent to power. (4) Work ties, i.e., a team of aides and advisors who had worked with him for a long time, or members of the military, the governmental and the semi-governmental elites with whom he had come in contact over time. The majority of this stratum were of Asad’s generation, i.e., men in their early 70s. A large proportion, especially those who held high political posts, were Sunnis, including both vice presidents, ‘Abd al-Halim al-Khaddam and Zuhayr Mashariqa; Minister of Defense Mustafa Talas (till May 2004); and Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shar’.7
The elite of Asad’s era essentially remained in place during the first years of Bashar’s rule. In contrast to Jordan, where King `Abdallah shook the foundations of the kingdom’s military and political elite and within a short time replaced them almost entirely, including those who had orchestrated his succession as king, Bashar avoided introducing dramatic changes in the Syrian leadership and especially in the military/security elite.
The only changes that did occur in the political and military leadership involved promotions of subordinates to leading posts, such as the promotion of Deputy Chief of Staff Hasan Turkmani to the top position, replacing ‘Ali Aslan, who reached retirement age in January 2002. In May 2004 Turkmani was appointed minister of Defense replacing Mustafa Talas who retired in the age of 72. Turkmani was replaced as Chief of Staff by his deputy, `Ali Habib. Notably, Bashar avoided leapfrogging young officers who were close to him, as well into key posts so as to build up power bases in the military and security forces personally loyal to him (see below). Similarly, changes he made in the governmental area – bringing in new faces in the cabinet in December 2001 and September 2003 and replacing officials in local government, party bodies and the media – were essentially insignificant, as they generally involved the retirement of veteran bureaucrats, to be replaced by younger ones with the same outlook, devoted to retaining the status quo in the state.
Bashar’s father had “anesthetized” the Syrian political, and especially the military/security leadership, allowing them to reach retirement age in the expectation of continuing on in their posts. He then implemented their legal retirement, a step he viewed as necessary to make room for a younger leadership that would identify with his successor - Bashar. Bashar retained this tactic, legally eliminating the old guard over a period of several years. While this measure was likely to benefit him in the short run, it could not, in itself, build power bases to help him promote needed reforms in the social and economic areas, or assure the long-term survival of his regime.
thus lacked a loyal circle of supporters with power and status on whom he could
rely at critical moments or whom he could involve in the decision-making
extant Syrian leadership elite – both the remaining old guard and their
successors in government and the military – did not owe any personal allegiance
to Bashar beyond the formal loyalty obliged by his office. This
absence of a close bond with a leadership circle, combined with the absence in
the new president of the kind of defined world view that stems from a coherent
personality and formative life experiences, appeared at times to be critical in
light of his youth and inexperience. Abroad he was sometimes perceived as
being led or managed by others rather than taking charge himself. The
decision-making process in Syria in the early years of his rule lacked the
balance that could have emanated from the leader’s historical memory (i.e.,
formative life experiences) or, alternatively, from a governmental inner circle
that could help him make the difficult decisions that were required. Indeed, in
some cases it was the remnants of the old-guard leadership that appeared to
function as a needed moderating influence, for example in their reservations
over Bashar’s encouragement of Hizballah activity in
Interesting in this regard was an interview, which was given in June 2003 by Bashar to al-`Arabiyya TV Channel where he answered the question to what degree the old guard restrict his activities: “the term old guard is a journalist term, but when they say old do they mean the age, the position of these people or simply the fact that these people belonging to the old guard simply protecting their interests. I think that they mean that the old guard protect its interests but young guard confronts them and what is more important is that the two groups are not important. What is important is the general order in the state. We made many personal changes and we determine to replace anyone who lost his value whether he belongs to the old or the young guard.9 .
The Alawite Officer Class. The Syrian regime which Hafiz al-Asad bequeathed to his son relied on the senior Alawite officer class, i.e., the heads of the security organs and the commanders of the army units, for stability in the state and, by extension, for the very existence of the regime. These officers were partners – some of them visible, most hidden – in the Syrian system of government. Their status and power not only stemmed from the letter and even the spirit of the Syrian constitution, but also reflected the prevailing balance of power in the coalition forces that supported the regime. Notably, although the Alawites constituted a minority of 12% of the Syrian population, the overwhelming majority of army commanders and heads of the security bodies – nearly 90% – were Alawites.
Several military leaders had a close relationship with Bashar, primarily within the context of their roles, especially former Chief of Staff ‘Ali ‘Aslan and Deputy Chief of Staff ‘Ali Habib. Yet, whether the military leadership regarded Bashar as one of their own, as they did his father, is doubtful. Bashar avoided forming close ties or promoting people personally loyal to him, thereby remaining dependent on the formal hierarchical command and perhaps on the tribal and communal solidarity fostered in his father’s time, which was sustained by force of inertia. The problem was that a power-based, strong-arm governmental system of the Syrian kind did not tolerate a vacuum or any sign of weakness in the ruling apparatus. A perception of Bashar as weak, therefore, could invite aggressive intervention by any of the power bases in the state. Conceivably, such a threat could come from one of the Alawite generals, or from one of the lower-ranking officers who, unimpressed by Bashar and his conduct of the state, might come to the conclusion that he could do a better job. At a given signal, such an officer might try to establish a new ruling elite based on the existing governmental coalition (Alawite generals and their colleagues from the other minorities, the rural population and the Syrian periphery).
Notably, the Syrian military leadership had been in a somnolent state during Hafiz al-Asad’s long rule. Prolonged political stability, signifying the durability of the regime, made the military leadership irrelevant to the ongoing conduct of the state (with the exception of such specific events as the suppression of the Islamic revolt of 1976-82 and Rif‘at’s revolt against his brother during 1983-84). Presumably, however, the instincts that had led the military to intervene systematically in the affairs of state during the 1950s and ‘60s and foment military coups could reawaken.
The Civil Governmental Structure
Formally, the Syrian governmental structure is made up of a series of legislative and executive bodies tasked to conduct the affairs of state – primarily the daily life of its citizens – on an ongoing basis. It is a well-organized hierarchical system based on both the Syrian and the Ba’th Party constitutions. It is made up of the cabinet, the People’s Assembly, the presidency of the republic and the Ba’th Party bodies. The importance of the system lies in its availability to the regime for rallying public or legal legitimation for its moves. It also provides the regime with a means of rewarding its supporters. By co-opting them into the system, the regime fulfills their aspirations for accessibility to political power and for economic and social leadership roles. Moreover, the system plays an influential role in the daily life of the people, as reflected in Bashar’s attempt to promote social and economic reforms under the aegis of the civic government. Evidently, he attached more importance to fostering a group of colleagues in governmental bodies who would support him in advancing Syria’s scientific and technological development than to mold such a support group by his father’s time-honored means focusing on army officers and party activists.
The Syrian government (the cabinet). Bashar’s influence was evident in the formation of the new government in March 2000, three months before the death of his father, the late Hafiz al-asad. A government reshuffle – the first in a decade – included the replacement of the prime minister, Muhammad al-Zu‘bi, who had held the poet since 1987, by Mustafa Miru, a veteran Ba’th activist who had served as governor of the provinces of Dar‘a, Hasaka and Aleppo, successively, over the preceding twenty years. A group of senior ministers were also replaced, generally by younger ministers described as close to Bashar and his outlook. Prominent among these was `Isam al-Za’im (b. 1940), of Aleppo, who, as minister of planning in the new government attracted attention by advocating economic reform, albeit limited and under official supervision. Meanwhile, however, Bashar had to accept two key holdover ministers – Muhammad al-`Imadi (Finance) and Muhammad Khalid al-Mahyani (Economics) – as a compromise with the regime’s old guard, who opposed making overly dramatic changes in the composition of the government.10
The trend of promoting relatively younger technocrats close to Bashar and sharing his outlook was particularly evident in a further cabinet reshuffle on December 13, 2001. The new minister of interior, ‘Ali Hamud (b. 1944), from Hums, who took over from Muhammad Harba, had headed the General Security Administration in the past and had taken part in suppressing the Islamic revolt during 1976-82. Another significant shift was the replacement of the veteran ministers of finance and economics, `Imadi and Mahyani. The finance portfolio was given to Muhammad al-Atrash (b. 1934), from Tartus, who held a doctorate in economics from the University of London and had served in the past as an advisor to the World Bank. Atrash had been minister of economics in the early 1980s, but had resigned over differences of opinion with then-prime minister Ra‘uf al-Kasm. The ministry of economics and foreign trade was turned over to Ghassan al-Rifa`i (b. 1942), of Hums. Like Atrash, Rifa`i, too, had a Ph.D. (University of Sussex) and had been associated with the World Bank as a deputy to the director-general of economic policy. The reshuffle also included the promotion of `Isam al-Za‘im from minister of planning to minister of industry.11
The most significant of Bashar’s moves was the co-option into the cabinet of three of his past assistants in the Syrian Computer Society. In contrast to his father, who brought army colleagues and party comrades into the government, Bashar co-opted partners in the shared vision of the computer and the Internet revolution. Sa’adallah Awa al-Kalah (b. 1950), of Aleppo, appointed minister of tourism, held a doctorate in computer science from the University of Paris and had been in charge of information at the Computer Society. Hasan Risha (b. 1945), from Misyaf, appointed minister for higher education, held a doctorate in engineering from the Leningrad Polytechnic and had headed the scientific committee of the Computer Society. Muhammad Bashir al-Munjayad (1947), of Damascus, who held a doctorate in electronics from the University of Paris, had served as Bashar’s deputy in the Computer Society. As mentioned before, the newly appointed Syrian ambassador to Washington, `Imad Zuhayr Mustafa, was also an active member in the computer society. Mustafa, a professor of computer engineering in the university of Damascus, where he met Bashar who came to hear one his lectures.12
In September 2003, three years after Miro was appointed as prime minister in order to lead Syria into the 21st century, his government was defined as “total failure”13 and reached its end. Miru was replaced by Naji al-`Atari, born in 1944 in Aleppo. `Atari was a Ba`th activist who has a BA in Construction Engineering from the university of Aleppo and an MA in Urban Planning from a Dutch university. He served as the mayor of Aleppo, the head of the engineering union in that city, and later -- in Syria. He then became the governor of Hums. In the first Miru government he had served as deputy prime minister for services and in March 2003 he was elected as the speaker of the people Assembly. His appointment as prime minister should be seen as another compromise made by Bashar. After all, reports from Damascus suggested that not `Atari but a man who has no political background will be appointed as prime minister that time14.
Alongside the replacement of Miru by `Atari there was a wide reshuffle. First the number of ministers was decreased from 35 to 30 and half were new faces. Thus the former ambassador to Tehran, Ahmad al-Hasan, replaced the information minister `Adnan` Unmran. The spokesperson of the foreign minister and the personal translator of Bashar Butahyna Sh`uban was appointed to the Minster for the expatriates. Sha`ban was born in 1953 in Hums. She got her PhD in English literature in York university and served as lecturer for poetry and comparative literature at the Department of English Language and Literature in the University of Damascus. Other new faces was Hani Murtada the president of the Damascus University who was appointed as the minister for higher education `Adnan `Ali Sa`d, who had been Dean of the Faculty of Education in Damascus university, was appointed minister of education.15
Among those removed from the government Isam al-Za`im had been known till that time as close to Bashar. A few weeks later a decree confiscating all his money was announced. It became clear that he was accused of corruption and bribery for his involvement in the allocation of 19.5 m dollars for the building of textile factory in Ladhaqqiyya. The Factory was never established but the money disappeared16.
The task of government in Arab countries is not necessarily to run the country’s affairs but to ease pressures on the president or the monarch and protect them public criticism. This is why many rulers tend to make often reshuffles. It seems that Bashar is no exception.
The People’s Assembly. The primary legislative body in Syria, the People’s Assembly (majlis al-shab) was made up of 250 delegates elected regionally every four years. Approximately 60% of its members represented the Progressive National Front, an umbrella organization of all the political parties officially permitted to operate in Syria, foremost of them the Ba‘th Party. The remaining 40% of its members were independents. Essentially, the Assembly was a symbolic body lacking decision-making power or influence regarding regime policy.
first elections to the Assembly during Bashar’s term
of office, held on
Although the elections resulted in many new faces in the Assembly (178 of the 250 delegates), most of them young, ultimately, no change was made in the status of the body within the Syrian political system. Significantly, the elected chairman of the Assembly was Muhammad Naji al-`Atari, a veteran Ba‘th politician who had served as deputy prime minister in charge of the service sector. He replaced the outgoing chairman of the Assembly, ‘Abd al-Adir Qadura, himself a veteran Ba‘th activist. In October 2003 `Atari became prime minister and was replaced by another Ba`th activist, Mhmud al-Abrash.19
The Ba‘th Party. The Syrian constitution grants the Ba‘th Party a preferential status in the country’s political life. Article 8 of the constitution states: “The Ba‘th Party is the leading party in society and the state and heads the Progressive National Front, which works toward consolidating the power of the masses and harnessing it to serve the aims of the Arab nation.”20 Extensions of the Ba‘th Party are to be found throughout the state. These extensions – branches, departments and cells – facilitate the spread of the party’s message to all parts of the country. Every four years, the party branches elect delegates to the party congress, which in turn elects the members of the party’s two bodies: the Central Committee (al-Lajna al-Markaziyya), consisting of 90 members; and the Regional command (al-Qiyada al-Qutriyya), with 21 members. The Regional Command is the party’s supreme body and thus the most powerful institution in Syria. This status is reflected in the method by which the president of Syria is elected: the National Leadership recommends the presidential candidate, the candidate is then brought to the People’s Assembly for approval, and, with the granting of approval, a national referendum is held. The party is headed by a secretary-general, a post held today by Bashar al-Asad.
Ever since Hafiz al-Asad took power, and especially in the last two decades of his rule, the Ba‘th Party expanded rapidly. According to a report published for the sixth Ba‘th Party Congress, held immediately after Hafiz al-Asad’s death in June 2000, the membership of the party was 1,409,580, of whom 406,047 were full members (`Adw `Amil) – the highest category of membership (followed by trial member [Murshshah] and supportive member [Nasir]). Notably, in 1971 the membership was 65,398, in 1981 374,332, and in 1992 1,008,243.21
The 2000 report cited 67,18% of the members as below age 30, and 18.75% ages 30-40. Approximately 35.70% were students, 16.50% farmers, and 20.60%civil servants. Women constituted 29.14%. The army had 27 party branches, 212 sub-branches, and 1,656 clubs, with a total of 25,066 members. Additional data pointed to the absolute hegemony of the party in many social sectors. For example, 998 of the 1,307 sitting judges in Syria were members, and apparently most of the intellectuals in the country were at the service of the party: 56% of the lecturers at the University of Damascus were party members, as were 54% at the University of Aleppo, 79% at Tishrin University in Ladhiqiyya, and 81% at al-Ba‘th University in Hums.22
The immense growth of the party did not necessarily indicate the extent of its support or popularity in the population or the attractiveness or relevance of its ideology. Rather, it pointed to pure opportunism on the part of the new members, for whom the party had become a favored and convenient track to social, economic and political advancement. Notably, side by side with the party’s vast numerical growth came a loss of its ideological vitality in light of the collapse of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe along with the collapse of Syria’s economy.
Cracks also appeared in the commitment to Arabism and Arab solidarity in the face of the regime’s preparedness to advance the peace process with Israel and its dialogue with the West, as well as the development of a statist tendency on the part of the regime’s leadership. Lastly, demographic changes in Syria, especially the country’s accelerating urbanization, posed a challenge to the party in terms of preserving its relevance for sectors of the population destined to play a decisive role in Syrian life, especially the populations of the poverty-stricken neighborhoods surrounding the large cities.
despite the impressive numerical growth of the party, fears of a loss of
vitality and relevance, and ultimately a loss of influence in
Apparently, therefore, Bashar intended to continue using the party as a convenient, accessible and above all irreplaceable vehicle to rally broad public support for himself and his policies throughout the state, especially in such sectors as the farming community and among the workers. As part of this effort, he initiated a process of replacing the leadership of the party, a necessary step since the leadership had not been rejuvenated for decades. He also tried to introduce a trend of limited reform within the party by ordering genuine elections for the leadership of the party cells and branches, with candidates to be drawn from all ranks instead of the entrenched practice of handing down a list of approved candidates from above.
Prior to the party congress, preliminary elections were held in May 2000 in the party branches, sub-branches and clubs, in which 24,703 candidates contended for approximately 650 seats in the congress. These elections, held in a spirit of relative openness according to the new norms, witnessed surprising failures at the polls of several prominent figures, including a number of government ministers. Some 1,150 delegates were designated for participation in the party congress, including 650 elected delegates, 300 delegates drawn from the party’s higher bodies, and 200 delegates with the status of observers.24
During the congress itself, elections were held for the party’s highest bodies, namely the Regional Command and the Central Committee. A list of the newly elected members of these councils showed that veteran politicians and high-ranking military officers had lost their positions over the years, including Muhammad al-Khuly, ‘Ali Duba, Hikmat al-Shihabi and Mahmud al-Zu‘bi. The Regional Command acquired 11 new members, including Bashar al-Asad and Prime Minister Mustafa Miru. The Central Committee gained 62 new members, including Mahir al-Asad, the president’s brother; and Manaf Talas, son of former Minister of Defense Mustafa Talas and a close associate of Bashar’s. The representation of the military in the Regional Command dropped from four to two – Talas and the former chief of staff, ‘Ali ‘Aslan. while in the Central Committee it remained at 20.25
In the wake of the congress, the leadership in the party branches throughout the country was replaced in the latter part of 2000. Younger secretaries-general and leaders were chosen in elections described as “democratic,” at least in comparison with the previous practice of automatic approval of dictated lists of candidates. In early 2004 Bashar also issued a decree forcing Bath party officials and bureaucrats ’s to retire at the age of 60.26 Nevertheless, whether these younger local leaders would become loyal supporters of Bashar’s reformist policy was doubtful. At issue was not their age, i.e., a generational clash, but rather the very survival of an establishment system still regarded by the Ba’th membership as essentially a vehicle for personal and political advancement.
In July 2003, the national leadership of the Ba’th Party made a historic decision regarding the “separation of authority between the party and the governmental institutions of the state.” The decision (No. 408) read:
The task of the “Leading Party” [the official title of the Ba’th Party] is to plan, supervise, guide, review and necessitate reports. The Party electors and institutions must refrain from intervening in the daily working of the governmental institutions and allow the comrades appointed to those institutions to discharge their duties.... Every appointment to managerial and executive positions in the governmental offices will be made on the basis of the suitability of the candidate to his job regardless of his party affiliation27.
The decision evoked a stormy public debate, in Syrian terms, between perceptions of it as a first step in the political marginalization of the Ba’th Party in Syria, and implacable opposition, mainly by party activists, to any thought of weakening the party status. Side by side with proposals to dismantle the “national Command” of the party as part of needed radical reform,28 other opinion, e.g., in the party organ, al-Ba’th, held that “the existing political system [the Ba’th Party] is capable of renewal and of setting into motion processes of change and development, so that there is no need whatsoever for changing or dismantling it so long as it does not hinder the development of the state.”29
In any case, it is too early to know whether the prospect of weakening the grip of the party on the Syrian politics, which Bashar al-Asad undoubtedly favors, is realistic. Even if he seeks this development, so as to allow additional sectors of society to enter into the country’s political life, his capability of bringing it about is doubtful, as his party colleagues will be unlikely to permit it. Indeed, the composition of the new government in Syria in September 2003, as shown above, constituted clear proof of the retention of the status quo.
The Progressive National Front. Other parties officially permitted to operate in the electoral realm were mainly leftist groups that functioned as satellite parties to the Ba‘th. They consisted of two factions of the Syrian Communist Party and several Nasserist parties, mostly remnants of the political mindset that had prevailed in Syria in the 1950s and ’60s. These parties – a total of seven – were amalgamated in an umbrella body called the Progressive National Front (hereafter, the Front), formed by Asad Sr. in 1972 and headed by him until his death. Aside of the Front the regime formed a series of government-sponsored organizations representing various sectors of the population, such as professional associations, the workers union, the farmers union and women’s groups.
Bashar attempted to infuse the Front parties with greater vitality, although in vain. The extant political array permitted in Syria, i.e., the Front, reflected an outdated reality that had prevailed a half-century previously, when the Syrian street was captive to the Ba‘th Arab nationalist ideology or, alternatively, to that molded by its ally (and later its confirmed enemy) President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir of Egypt. The willingness of the regime from 2000 onward to co-opt the Syrian National Party into the Front, and possibly other Nasserist and leftist factions as well (see below), was far from reflecting genuine openness to the current leanings of the Syrian public, inter alia the attraction in the urban centers to Islamic groups. Witness to this was borne, for example, by the statement of Daniel Nu`ayma, a member of the Central Committee of the Bakdash Faction of the Communist Party, who remarked sadly that "The National Progressive Front parties can be compared to horses who have been closed up in a stable for thirty hears and are now are incapable of competing in a race as Bashshar is asking them to do". Nu`ayma also warned against "excessive democracy", since, according to him, "Should elections to the People Assembly in Syria be held according to the Lebanese system, i.e. completely free elections, the bourgeoisie and the Fundamentalists will control the People Assembly30”
Moreover, with the passage of time the parties of the Front, like the Ba‘th regime itself, had become dynastic, controlled by relatives and close associates of their leader. With the demise of a number of these leaders, the leadership passed on, to the consternation of the membership, to relatives. For example, when the founder and long-time leader of the Syrian Communist Party, Khalid Bakdash, passed away in 1997, his wife, Wassal Farha, succeeded him as chairperson, and their son `Umar, appointed to the party’s central committee, began managing the party on his mother’s behalf. The Bakdash family’s domination of the party evoked protest by the membership, especially in the Damascus region. A group of members announced their resignation and in 2001 formed an independent Communist faction, the Qasyun Group (majamuat kasiyun).31 Older factions of the party that had split off earlier, were the Communist Party–Yusuf Faysal Faction, founded in 1985 when Faysal, a member of the Communist Party central committee, split away from the mother party; and the Communist Party–Political Bureau, established in 1973 by Riyad al-Turk (see below).
Another party in the Front was the Arab Socialist Movement (Harkat al-Ishtrakayyin al-`Arab), whose founder was Akram al-Hurani, a prominent leader of the Ba‘th Party in the 1950s. He was succeeded by ‘Abd al-Ghani Qanut, who led the party for a long period until his death in 2001. His successor, Mustafa Hamdun, like the party founder, had been a Ba‘th leader but, after a falling out with his colleagues, had fled to Iraq, where he remained in exile for over 35 years. He was permitted to return in 1998, apparently due to the mediation of his uncle, Walid Hamdun, a member of the Syrian Ba‘th Regional Command. Mustafa Hamdun’s election as leader of the Arab Socialists was enabled by a deal he made with Ahmad Qanut, son of the late leader, who sought a leadership position in the movement and, accordingly, was appointed to the party’s central committee. Some of the movement’s leaders, angered by Hamdun’s election, attempted to block the elections for the party leadership by force and later petitioned a court in Damascus to disqualify the elections – a first move of this type in Syria.32 A splinter party of the movement emerged in the early 1990s when ‘Abd al-‘Aziz `Uthman split away and formed the Arab Socialist Movement–`Uthman Faction. Upon his death in 2001, his son Asan ‘Abd al-‘Aziz `Uthman took over as leader of the faction. In an interview he granted in early 2004 Ghassan revealed that the party has 8,000 active supporters in 12 branches all over the country. The most active of them were those of Damascus, Tartus and Dar`a.33
The Front also included the Socialist Unionist. al-wahdawiyyin al-ashtirakiyyin), under the leadership of another former Ba‘th Party activist, Fa’iz Isma’il. A splinter group, the Democratic Socialist Unionist Party (al-hizb al-wahdawi al-Ishtiraki al-dimuqrati), was founded in 1974 by Ahmad `Aql al-As`ad, who broke away from Isma’il’s party. Following Ahmad al-As`ad’s death in 2001, his son Faris al-As`ad took over as leader.34
Lastly, the Socialist Arab Union (al-Ittihad al-`Arabi al-Ishtiraki), led by `Imad Safwan al-Qudsi, was also part of the Front. Pro-Nasserist, the party was founded by Ghasim `Alwan, an aggressive rival of the Syrian Ba‘th Party in the early years of the Ba`th regime. He had fomented the revolt in the regime in July 1963 that ended with the death of many of the rebels, including `Alwan himself. The party was rejuvenated in 1964 under the leadership of Jamal al-Atasi. It joined the Front in the 1970s under the leadership of Fawzi al-Kiyali and Isma’il al-Qadi, the latter serving as its secretary-general. In the wake of this move, a group of its members split off, led by Jamal al-Atasi himself and Yusuf al-Juwa’ydani. Elections in the Socialist Arab Union in 1984 brought in Safwan al-Qudsi as secretary-general, a post he retains to the present. In March 2000 his wife, Bari’a al-Qudsi, was appointed minister of labor and welfare, representing the party in the government, although she was removed from the post in the cabinet reshuffle of December 2001.35
Parties courted by the
Progressive National Front. From the 1990s onward, the regime made strenuous efforts to co-opt
into the Front various parties not officially permitted to take part in the
political process in
major target was the Syrian Nationalist Party, which in the 1950s had been the Ba‘th’s most formidable rival for
control of the state. In the late 1990s, however, the regime signaled its
desire to turn a new page in its relationship with this party. The state-run
press ran articles that in effect cleared the party from responsibility for the
murder in 1955 of `Adnan al-Maliki, deputy chief of
staff and a Ba‘thist. That incident had been a
watershed in Syrian political life, as it engendered the elimination of the
Syrian Nationalist Party by the rest of the political forces in Syria then,
under the leadership of the Ba‘th Party,36 As a result the party’s
headquarter was moved to Lebanon where the party is still active to day. Since
the mid 1970s when Syrian forces entered
In 2002, the Syrian Nationalist Party was permitted to hold a first-time commemoration marking the anniversary of the execution in 1949 of the founder of the party, Antun Sa’ada, by the Lebanese government. Thereafter, Bashar al-Asad met with several of the party’s leaders, including `Isam al-Mahyari, head of its political bureau, and Jubran `Arij, secretary-general.37 Early in 2003, the party was invited to attend the annual conference of Front parties. Thereafter, it ran over 20 candidates in the People’s Assembly elections of March 2003, who were incorporated in the Front’s list of candidates. The list was headed by Josef Suwayd, head of the Syrian Nationalist Party political bureau. In effect, the party had been represented in the People’s Assembly for over 12 years by one of its leaders, Basil Dakhdukh. Dakhdukh was expelled from the party for “deviating from its principles,” but he, together with Suwayd and two other candidates identified with the party, run in the election and were eventually elected to the Assembly.38
regime also reached out to the Democratic National Unity (al-tahaluf al-watani al-dimukrati) led by Hasan ‘Abd al-‘Azim, an umbrella organization founded in 1979 that
included five opposition parties. The affiliates were: (1) The Democratic Arab
Socialist Union, under the leadership of ‘Abd al-‘Azim
consisted of former members of the
Socialist Arab Union who, headed by Jamal al-Atasi, broke away in the early
1970s when the Socialist Arab Union joined the Front (see above). (2) The Communist
Party–Political Bureau, led by Riyad al-Turk, which
had split off from the Syrian Communist Party in 1973 (see above). (3) The
Democratic Socialist Arab Ba‘th Party, a splinter group that had broken away
from the Ba‘th Party. The
group was made up mostly of past supporters of Salah Jadid, the strongman of
Early in 2001, Vice President ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam met with Hasan al-‘Azim (Democratic Arab Socialist Union) and Riyad al-Turk (Communist Party–Political Bureau) to explore the possibility of co-opting the Democratic National Unity into the Front, an effort, however, that proved unproductive.40 Later that year, Turk was imprisoned for a period of about a year for criticizing the late president, Hafiz al-Asad, thereby bringing the dialogue between the regime and the Democratic National Unity to an end. Nevertheless, one of the parties in the Unity – the Democratic Arab Socialist Union – began holding a series of public events which the authorities appeared to ignore, and in which representatives of the Ba‘th Party participated. The Democratic Arab Socialist Union also announced the resumption of political activity by several of its key activists who had kept a low profile during the preceding decade.
Another dialogue initiated by the regime was with Karim al-Shibani, leader of the Nasserist Socialist Arab Party (al-hizb al-Ishtraki al-`arabi al-nasiri) established in the late 1980s. Shibani, an Alawite from Ladhiqiyya, had in the past been a member of the Socialist Unionists (see above), and had been elected as a delegate from it to the People’s Assembly in 1986, but had left that party in the late 1980s.41 The regime met with greater success in an approach to the Democratic Arab Union (hizb al-tajamu` al-arabi al-dimukrati), led by Muhammad al-Sufi, who had served as defense minister in 1963. According to reports in the early 1990s, the regime itself encouraged the establishment of this party. Members of it were included in the list of Front candidates for the People’s Assembly elections of March 2003. The regime also extended its patronage to the newly established (January 2002) Unity for Democracy and Solidarity led by Muhammad bin Mahmud Sawan, who had formerly been associated with the Socialist Arab Union.42
should be mentioned that the fall of Saddam Husayn’s
regime, along with the presence of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers
in late 2003 the establishment of the Syrian reform party (Hizb al-Islah al-Suri) was announced in
Hafiz al-Asad’s regime relied essentially on himself, on an inner circle of loyal colleagues, and on the army and the Ba‘th Party. These bodies incorporated, first and foremost, members of his family, his tribe and his community – the Alawites, and only thereafter his coalition partners. Of all these elements, the influence of the Alawite officer class was the greatest, for Asad himself had risen from its ranks, while the day-to-day affairs of state were entrusted to Ba‘th Party officials and governmental bureaucrats, most of whom were, surprisingly, veteran associates of Asad’s from the Sunni community who shared his philosophy and life experience.
al-Asad avoided introducing significant change in this order, although
apparently he hoped to cultivate a coterie of bureaucrats to help him promote
what he perceived to be needed reforms in the state. The question was whether he would be
able to accomplish this. Could such a group, however unified and committed, be
instrumental in implementing a true process of change? Moreover, what would be the response
of the Alawite military elite and the Ba‘th Party
cadres whom Bashar presumably sought to force out and marginalize? Various
problems piled up at Bashar’s doorstep. Along with
regional and international challenges which required the wise and careful
conduct of Syrian foreign policy, was the domestic reality of a depressed
socioeconomic system and, even more unnerving to the Syrian regime, the Islamic
threat, however latent.
Moreover, the presence of hundreds of thousands of American
soldiers in neighboring
Bashar is a young leader with his future before him. He has refrained from
making irrevocable mistakes. He was endowed with a good grasp of events, curiosity and a readiness to learn. He appeared to
understand the need for change. Reports emanating from
*This article is based mainly upon press and electronic monitoring services during the period under review, including Syrian, other Arab and foreign sources; economic and political surveys and research published in Syria and abroad; and, of course, discussions and interviews with Syrians, other Arabs and Westerners who are permanent residents of Syria or who lived there in the past.
Bashar interview to Al-Sharq al-Awsat. Al-Sharq al-Awsat,
more on the debate over Bashar’s policy and vision
For more see Ma`ariv,
See for example, Le Point,
Al-`Arabiyya TV Channel, 9,
17. Tishrin, 6 March 2003; al-Hayat, 13 March 2003; the Assembly’s members from within the Progressive Front were split as followed: the Ba`th Party – 132; the `Arab Socialist Union (of Safwan al-Qudsi) – 7; the Socialist Democratic Union (of Fa’iz Isma`il) – 7; the Communist Party (the Bakdash Faction) – 4; The Communist Party, Yusuf Faysal Faction – 4; the `Arab Unionists (the `Uthman Faction) – 2; the Socialist democratic union (the Fadlallah Nasir al-din Faction) – 4; the `Arab Socialist Union (the Ahmad Ahmad Faction) – 3
Syrian TV, 18 Janaury 2003; al-Sharq al-Awsat,
R. Damascus, 18 March
for the constitution see al-Thawra,
See for example
See more al-Hayat,
See also al-Nahar,
See the Muslim Brothers web site
See al-Hayat, 6 June,