Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Lesch: Bashar is Recasting Syria’s Operational Philosophy

David Lesch is guest contributor today. He is writing a biography of Bashar al-Asad which will appear this coming spring with Yale University Press. He recently interviewed Bashar for many hours in Damascus as well as his wife Asma and many top government officials.

He is the author of two important books on the Middle East, one of which is on Syria and the United States. The other is 1979: The Year that Shaped the Modern Middle East. His edited book, The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment, has become a standard in classes on US foreign policy in the region.

Bashar is Recasting Syria’s Operational Philosophy
By David W. Lesch
Trinity University
San Antonio, TX

Over the last few years Syria has been criticized—even ridiculed—for the apparent slow pace of reform after what appeared to be a promising start following the death of long-time President Hafiz al-Asad in 2000. Case in point were the derisive comments in a host of columns for passing a law that eliminated military style uniforms in what is the equivalent of our high schools. It was portrayed as a sad attempt at educational reform, with the implication that the Syrian government was either unwilling or unable to enact serious measures.

After spending three weeks in Syria recently, having numerous discussions with leading figures in the country, visiting Syrian schools from the elementary to university levels, and at the ruling Ba`th Party’s Regional Command HQs actually going through line by line the official document outlining specific measures on higher education, I can categorically state that the Syrian government is serious about educational reform. Just at the university level, whether through raising fees for students, increasing teacher salaries, opening up four private universities (with ten more on the board), establishing Open Learning Centers (akin to continuing ed programs), increasing the number of computers and internet accessibility by a factor of almost 2000, and creating a Syrian Virtual University that enables Syrians to take classes online, the government is taking tangible steps to shift from a free quantity-based to a more competitive quality-based system.

Behind it all is the vision of Syria’s 38-year old president, Bashar al-Asad, with whom I spent 8-9 hours of vigorous and enlightening conversation during my stay. Toward the end of one of our meetings I asked him what he considered to be his major accomplishments as president in his four years in office; he hesitated for a moment, and then he indicated that he had yet to really achieve anything significant. Frankly my first thought was that this would not work at all in a US election cycle, but it also engendered two important observations: 1) that this was a refreshingly honest statement; and 2) that he had his eyes set on the big picture. There have been achievements, such as the establishment of private banks, the aforementioned private universities, administrative adjustment, etc., and considering the ossified structure he inherited these are no mean feats. He has also brought in experts from Britain and France to help reform the financial sector and the judiciary system, looking to the outside world for assistance much more so than his father did.

But he is after something much bigger: a restructuring of Syria’s operational philosophy. Educational reform and human resource development are perhaps the two overarching immediate goals of the regime, which will pay dividends down the road but are barely perceptible to the casual observer now. Because of the stagnant nature of the Syrian system, rife with entrenched interests and inertia, maybe this is all he can do at the moment, peck away at the edges, plan for the long-term—but it is also doubtful anything else would work at the current time without serious societal disruption or sacrificing depth of reform for expediency. It may be a race against time before the spokes of the wheel start flying off, but as he stated, you cannot drive an old, broken-down car very fast.

A child of the information age and perfectly comfortable with it, Bashar is trying to do nothing less than to foment a revolution of the mind. It is a pains-taking and halting process, but unless you have the human resources, skilled workforce, individual empowerment to creatively make decisions, and a meritocracy rather than an oligarchy, the reform process will be stillborn. This is difficult even under ideal conditions, but he is attempting this in a regional environment that is anything but beneficent. I believe Bashar’s vision is serious, as is his willingness to implement it and his recognition of the obstacles he faces in doing so. Ultimately the Syrian system may be “unreformable” after so many years of statism and bonapartism, but I am thoroughly convinced that, yes, the son of Hafiz al-Asad, who left his study of ophthalmology in London to return to Syria after his elder brother died in 1994, is the right person, indeed maybe the only person in the country, for the job. The continued US pressure on Syria to change what Washington considers deleterious behavior, symbolized by the Syrian Accountability Act, is counter-productive, hindering rather than helping Bashar’s attempts to reform, something that has been generally acknowledged even with many of the pro-democracy opposition to the regime in and outside of Syria.

Perhaps Washington should embrace benevolent vision and good governance before instantaneous democracy. Some may say that a successful political and economic transition must be based on institutions rather than individuals in order to succeed over the long haul, but the problem is that in order to erect these institutions one must first have a critical mass of people in leadership positions who are willing to do so. Bashar al-Asad is definitely one of these people. Now to many it may seem anathema to support in any way, shape, or form someone named Asad, but this attitude emerges from a combination of misperception, deception, and reality—and it is also history. He is his father in some ways, but in many ways he is not—and this is abundantly clear to anyone who speaks with him. And Syria is certainly not Iraq. Sometimes he retreats into the cover of Arab-Israeli typology from which he, himself, is trying to emerge, producing some rather unfortunate comments on the subject at times. But he is a child of this conflict and approaches the situation from a completely different perspective and experience, so we need to inspect the entire package and not just isolated, conveniently disparaging moments.

In the strongest terms possible, I would recommend to any US administration to give this man a real chance—he still may fail, but Syria will most definitely fail without him. Yet if he is successful and establishes a working relationship with the US, then we may see those sought-after dominoes rising in the region. As opposed to Libya, Syria really could contribute to US interests in fighting terrorism, producing stability in Iraq, dealing with Iran, and finally putting to rest the Arab-Israeli conflict. After his brother, Basil, died there were posters throughout Syria depicting Hafiz, Basil, and Bashar together as the “leader,” the “example,” and the “hope” respectively. At least in the last case they are correct—Bashar is Syria’s hope for the future, one that must be seen and appreciated beyond the headlines.


At 9/16/2004 08:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across the following report sourced from the German Die Welt newspaper alleging that Syria is testing chemical weapons on civilians in Darfur "and killed dozens of people.":

What should we make of this?


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