Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Syria and the Baath in the Squeeze

Bashar al-Asad's head must be spinning. Just when he thought he had smoothed the waters after imposing the Lahoud extension on Lebanon and provoking France and the US to gang up on him in the UN, he is discovering that a tsunami is headed his way. The US is not offering any carrots. Quite the contrary. This morning, he is looking at a forest of cudgels held at the ready. Bashar may have thought that Under Secretary of State Burns' visit and Powell's soothing remarks about the "positive" role Syria is playing meant he had successfully negotiated the rapids of his Lebanon gambit, but everything has changed since the Israeli assassination of the Hamas official in Damascus on Sunday - an attack which everyone believes had a US green light. Some even speculated that with the neocons embarrassed by their Iraq miscalculations and President Bush distracted by his election campaign, Powell would be back at the helm of the US foreign policy ship. This was assumed to mean that Syria could look forward to at least a few months of "positive engagement" from the US. This does not seem to be the case.

Syria is so weak and Washington emboldened by French support, that it is pressing its advantage wherever it can. With Iraq and Libya pacified, at least temporarily, Syria is the low hanging fruit ripe for the plucking many believe.

al-Hayat claims (09/26/04) to have gotten hold of a Pentagon report on American-Israeli planning for Lebanon and Syria. It says that Israel has identified 64 military and civilian sites to bomb in Syria.

40 Palestinians are identified for assassination outside of the territories.

Hamas was compared to the Mahdi Army of Muqtadda al-Sadr. Its headquarters and bases needed to be destroyed. The report argues that Hizballah has been active in Iraq, where it works hand in glove with the Iranians. For this reason, the report concludes that it is imperative to destroy the effectiveness of Hizballah in order to deny it influence in Iraq. 1559 may be the instrument for this increased pressure and possible action. If Kofi Annan prepares a condemning report October 1 and the US continues to win France over to its side, it may have the diplomatic cover to take action in Lebanon.

It is not clear, how significant this pentagon report is or whether it is just one possible proposal.

Christian Henderson writing in al-Jazeera in an article entitled, "Syria in Washington's, crosshairs" Quotes both Murhaf Jouejati of the Middle East Institute in Washington and Rim Allaf, associate fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, to say that: "The Syrians have bent over backwards and the Americans still don't pay attention."

Both Jouejati and Allaf poured cold water on Israeli and US claims that Hamas and Islamic Jihad's wings in Syria direct operations inside the Palestinian territories. They don't believe that its the way Hamas works and they think the US and Israel know this. Their interest is to use Syria's protection of the groups as an excuse to slam Syria. "Israel is trying to embarrass Syria by portraying Damascus as a safe haven for terrorists at a time when Syria appears to be inclined to meet US demands on several issues including support for Palestinian groups," one Arab diplomate concluded.

Michael Young of the Daily Star claimed that, "There is a feeling in Israel and in some places in Washington that Syria is so weak that it is possible to narrow Damascus' margin of maneuver with little chance of backlash."

In conclusion Allaf said the Syrians had miscalculated the international reaction to its support for an extension for a renewed term for Lahud. "I think they are a bit surprised that Europe and the US are coming towards one line," she said. Allaf suggested that despite its concessions, Syria's support for Hizb Allah was risky given the realities of the post-September 11 world. "Three years later the Syrians don't understand. It's not the same game any more. Israel left Lebanon and Hizb Allah is still active," she said. "The Syrians have a lot of just causes but they are getting lost."

Hamas is accusing Jordan of assisting Israeli intelligence in the Khalil assassination.
"This is the work of the Jordanian mukhabart [intelligence]," a Hamas official told Palestinian reporters. "We have been warned in the past that Jordan was stepping up its security coordination with Israel not only against Hamas, but also against other Palestinian groups. Hamas will find a way to punish the traitors." Another Hamas official claimed that initial investigations have indicated that the Mossad agents who allegedly carried out the assassination entered Syria from Iraq. "The Mossad is very active these days in Iraq and has many agents working there," he said. "They had no difficulty smuggling the explosives from Iraq."

Kim Ghattas of the BBC in Damascus writes an interesting article - Syria feels pressure to reform - recording the opinions of Damascenes about the government's on-going problems, which gives a good sense of the mood on the ground. She describes a popular play, "The Night Baghdad Fell," that has been showing in Damascus for almost a year. "Syrian state television is ridiculed on stage for the way it dealt with the war in Iraq. While statues were being brought down in Baghdad, Syrian TV was showing cultural documentaries. Humam el-Hout, the playwright, says that without rocking the boat too much, he is trying to send a message to Arab leaders: that they need to wake up and heed the fate of Saddam Hussein's regime. He says Syria might be the next target, and leaders of the country need to gain the support of their people to confront the threat."

I am copying a Washington Post article by Scott Wilson in its entirety because it is important and reflects a rare glimps into the inner debate amongst leading Baathists about the future role of the party.

Syria's Baathists Under Siege: Party Reformists Seek to Reduced Size, Influence
As editor of the Baath Party newspaper, Mehdi Dakhlallah has risen to a position of rare power within the institution that has dominated most elements of public life here for more than four decades. Now the balding, rotund intellectual is trying to tear his party apart.
In sober editorials, Dakhlallah has argued that the party is too big, too meddlesome and too removed from its founding principles of social justice, socialist economics and Arab nationalism.

The young people who are joining today, he laments, are drawn only by the promise of preferential treatment in university admissions and lucrative jobs in Syria's largely state-controlled economy. He wants the party to return to its ideological roots by becoming smaller, more democratic and, most controversial to his colleagues, less influential in government.
"The Baath Party is not going to change the world," said Dakhlallah, 57, who joined amid the revolutionary fervor of the late 1960s. "Right now we're fighting to separate the party from government. This is an essential step in changing and developing this country."

A year and a half after Iraq's Baath Party vanished with the U.S. invasion, Syria's branch is under siege from within its own ranks. Dakhlallah is among a vanguard of intellectuals trying to reduce the party's influence with the blessing of President Bashar Assad, who during four years in power has grown frustrated with the opposition many of its members are putting up to his plans for economic reform.

Since the revolution that brought it to power 41 years ago, the nearly 2 million-member party has grown into a parallel government, monitoring education, political and economic policy through a network of committees from the national to the village level. Assad is slowly dismantling the system of privileges the party has accumulated, allowing him to set the pace and extent of change at a time when Syria is in the cross hairs of the Bush administration's push to bring democratic reforms to the Middle East.

Assad, the party's titular head, has selected more than a quarter of his cabinet from outside party ranks since inheriting the presidency on the death of his father, Hafez Assad, four years ago. He is purging the Baath-dominated military of senior officers by enforcing for the first time regulations on mandatory retirement age, and he may push to remove the article of the Syrian constitution that guarantees his party "the leading role in society and in the state." At the same time, fewer young people are joining the party.

But as Assad, an ophthalmologist by training, works to remove the party as an obstacle to reform, he is also trying not to upset the political base that sustained his father for three decades. He is facing strong resistance from a group of septuagenarian holdovers from his father's administration and from provincial party leaders accustomed to influencing everything from teacher promotions to the price of vegetables in the market.

Those pushing hardest for reform within the party are primarily political ideologues, such as Dakhlallah, who do not hold posts with influence over state industry or the powerful intelligence services, where most of the opposition to change is coming from. A smaller party might be more amenable to Assad's economic reforms, and a new set of leaders could emerge from among those pushing hardest for change.

"Assad encouraged introspection within the party, and it is having a big conversation with itself that is not yet resolved," said Peter Ford, the British ambassador here. "But as of now you still can't ignore the party. You must work with it."

Hani Murtada, a soft-spoken pediatrician, is fighting the party from the outside at the president's direction. A year ago, Assad appointed Murtada minister of higher education, making him one of seven members of his 25-person cabinet who is not a party member.

Murtada was given control of a system comprising four public universities and 225,000 students but with a shortage of qualified teachers, classrooms and curricula. Since then, he has licensed Syria's first private universities, created e-learning programs in a country that still blocks certain Web sites, and dismantled the privileges extended to teachers and students who belong to the party. Soon, he said, "all 17 million people in this country will be treated the same."

In the past, 25 percent of university admissions went to party members whose test scores did not meet minimum standards, usually by only a few points. Murtada said he cut that to 10 percent this year and will eliminate it altogether for the next school year. A knowledge of English, he said, is a better ticket to promotion than party membership. He allows the party's education committees to comment on appointments but not to dictate them as in the past.
"Many look at the party now as an important symbol. But as something that controls the country, that is over," Murtada said in a recent interview. "The general vision of the country has changed completely in the last three years. They once thought the state should manage everything, and we have seen this is nonsense."

Assad, according to Syrian officials and Western diplomats, is increasingly concerned by the demographic challenge facing the country. Each year 300,000 young Syrians enter the labor market, while the economy grows at only 3 percent a year, not nearly fast enough to absorb the new job seekers.

So far the most notable economic change has been the recent licensing of three private banks, a step Assad proposed three years ago. Party leaders, many of whom have substantial stakes in the state-run banks and other government-controlled entities, resisted the move until party doctrine was amended to allow Assad to proceed.

Many opposing the changes are in their seventies; the president, a generation younger, is waiting them out. He is also enforcing mandatory retirement, commonly waived for powerful military officers in the past. Western diplomats here say several hundred party members in the officer corps will be out over the next eight months, including the directors of four intelligence services.

"The end result will be to get the Baath Party out of the government and, particularly, out of making economic policy," said Waddah Abdrabbo, editor of the Economist, an independent weekly newspaper. "These people know that change is coming. They can fight it for a year or two, but in the end they will not be able to do anything about it."

Damascus University was once fertile ground for party recruiting when Soviet-style socialism and Arab nationalism captured the imaginations of many students across the Middle East. Today a broader range of political opinion is reflected in its sunny courtyards.

Dima Bawadikji, 18, said she joined the party in high school because she believed "any party member would have an easy life." A freshman studying library science, Bawadikji was the only one among five children in her family who joined the party, which in high school meant special picnics and sports days for members.

Sitting next to her on the shady steps of the journalism building, Amer Hassan, a 24-year-old student of English literature, said he joined the party a decade ago even though he "didn't know anything about it." Only a few people from his high school class in the southern province of Daraa didn't join, and he said he feared that failing to do so would hinder his ability to travel abroad, which he hopes to do some day.

"This party has been around for more than 30 years, and it's done nothing for us," Hassan said. "This president is a good one, and I respect him. But he can do nothing against these people because they run everything."

On the streets of Daraa, 70 miles southeast of Damascus, Yasseen Damara's smoky waiting room fills with men in military uniform and in the red-checked kaffiyehs of Bedouin farmers. He is the province party boss, and he is a busy man.

His calendar is filled with the weddings and funerals of provincial notables, and he is in constant contact with the provincial governor, another party member, for consultations ranging from the status of medicine in the hospital to problems with the electricity grid. Assad, father and son, look down on him from his wall as he works through committee reports on youth, economics, politics and education.

If vegetable prices in the market are too high, a party member will tell the vendor they should come down. The education committee recommends teachers for promotion, though Damara insists ability is the deciding factor. Despite his post, he said, two of his children were recently denied admission to the highly competitive local nursing school.

The changes being proposed by the intellectuals in Damascus make little sense to Damara, 51, a beneficiary of the party for decades. Land reform that followed the 1963 Baath revolution quadrupled the size of his father's tiny wheat, barley and garbanzo fields in the village of Maarea, making the farm profitable enough to sustain his family of eight. He joined the party in high school and never left.

"The party is still close to its principles, even though some individual members have made mistakes," said Damara. "It will always be the leading party. Why? Because its goals will always be supported by the people."

A contrary view of the Baath is given by the Washington-based Syria Reform Party. It writes that President of Syrian Parliament confirms one-party system.

The president of the Syrian parliament Mahmoud al-Abrash, confirmed, in a meeting he made with the Syrian press, that the Ba’ath party is the only party that will be allowed to rule Syria and that Clause 8 of the Syrian constitution, which provides the Ba’ath Socialist Party with absolute power, will not be amended nor changed. What amounted to a rebuff to all political parties that have been pressuring the regime for pluralism in Syrian politics, the latest salvo confirms that the Ba’athists are unwilling to reform the country or allow voices of dissent to participate in the political process. In reference to other parties, Al-Abrash said: "Parties made up of 10 people will not be allowed to change this regime. They were born to subvert this nation".

It is believed he was referring to the Reform Party following many past accusations that RPS is made up of "few" people. "Anyone who wishes to participate in the political process (under the Ba’ath umbrella) is welcome to Syria" he added. He also reiterated that the Ba’ath Party owns the Syrian street and that the party enjoys the support of the majority of Syrians. The last election won by Assad gave him 99.99% of the votes. In February of last year, al-Abrash forbade any Syrian parliamentarian to address the media in any form or shape setting a new precedent in unilateral dictatorship. This new attack on political parties comes at the heels of a new initiative by William Burns of the U.S. State Department that is providing the Ba’athists with political cover. Analysts expect that the Syrian regime will become bolder in the weeks to come and will revert back to methods and tactics of oppression that will, in one way or the other, provide Syrians with excuses to support terrorism.

A Syrian-made documentary critical of the Damascus regime has been applauded on its first showing in Lebanon - a country still dominated by its powerful neighbor - but attacked elsewhere in the Arab world as part of a Zionist plot. Omar Amiralay's "A Flood in Baath Country" is a harsh indictment of the regime, portraying the devastating effects of 35 years of rigid Baath Party rule on Syrian society.


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