Friday, October 08, 2004

More on New Syrian Ministers

I have received a few notes from readers that are smart. This was posted as a comment, but I fear it will be missed. There are other good comments as well on the last post. Tony zings me a good one.

At 1:58 AM, Anonymous said...
I would be interested to see what your thoughts are on removing Ghassan al-Rifai as minister of economy. It seemed to me that he was always regarded as Bashar's neo-liberal economic reformer. Or at least seen, by some publications such as the Oxford Business Group, as a person helping to break away from the old system. I remember talk in Damascus during the last reshuffle of September 03 that al-Rifai staying on (although his ministry was slightly hallowed) indicated he was Bashar's point-man following Issam Zaim's fall/sabotage as Industry minister.

They replaced al-Rifai with Amr Lotfi who although is regarded as "open-minded" and a long-term oriented (although I confuss to not knowing him). Nevertheless, Lotfi was still the head of a big state-industry meaning he is yet another Bathist (and subject to the screening process to be where he is currently at). So any thoughts the group may have on al-Rifai's exclusion would be appreciated.Two - I see Kanaan appointment to do as much with Syrian internal security as with the situation in Lebanon. Rustom al-Ghazaleh was Kanaan second-in-command during the twenty-years Kanaan ran Lebanon so it seems that this network allow Kanaan to have considerable sway in Lebanon and in Syria (no one seems to mention that Kanaan ran political intelligence in Damascus after he was called back in Oct 2002). Perhaps, Damascus is aiming for an unseen presence in Lebanon - that is few troops on the ground while maintaining the mukhaberat and the increasing integration of Lebanon and Syria (economically and politically).

Lastly, I don't see the appointment of Dakhlallah as really all that impressive. He was head of the Bath newspaper and although he is a good face to the west in terms of his reform discourse, I don't really see his appointment to Info minister as a significant departure structurally. It is reasonably recognized that the Alawi generals run the state newspapers and have made tons of money doing so. In this way the media in Syria is serving at the behest of those unnamed Alawi generals who have developed feifdoms. Thus, the M of Info was being regarded in Damascus as sort of a managerial post without much teeth. Dakhlallah's appointment maybe more "signal left, turn right" type of politics than has been set forth in the press.

Perhaps it is just my inexperience, but I do not see this latest reshuffle as a victory for the reforming wings of the Syrian governments - be they official or unofficial. Unfortunately most of the commentary in the press goes against this reading arguing change is coming. Or else understanding the reshuffle is so orientalist regarding Syrian politics to begin with that it falls into Pipe-sque type of analysis essentializing the Syrian system's complexity.

I continue to see the dynamic of the security services vs. the party being played out. I respect that Bashar is likely frustrated over the reform pace (which is really minimal to be honest) but his appointment of non-Bathist Sunni Damascans in the education sector don't seem to have the high policy impact one would expect to see from a consolidating president. As far as I can see, Bashar is not all that good at protecting his people or insulating his position. That is not to say I think the presidency is irrevelent. He does set the tone of the nation and receive the foreign dignataries - but I would not argue he is in institutional control of the system. Who is? Well that is always the mystery when dealing with Syrian politics, isn't it?

Looking forward to further posts.

I also received this from Michael Young, the Opinion Editor at the Daily Star.

I read your post on SC, and, I think you have it wrong, This isn't a pro-reform cabinet at all; it's a more Baathist cabinet that, to me, confirms that Bashar's so-called reform effort has all but collapsed. The Kanaan appointment undermines your argument, and I would go further: we may be seeing the emergence of a new strong man in Syria (perhaps backed by the Alawite leaders), something Bashar has not been. Indeed, the mood in Damascus is that Bashar is fast becoming a figurehead, caught between the various poles of power and his own family.

I think at this point that we may be unwise to assume Bashar is the main mover of events in Syria. I suspect that power is so diffuse that resorting to Ghazi became inevitable. And my feeling is that Ghazi imposed himself (actively or passively) on the regime--he can help in Iraq, Lebanon, inside Syria and has ties to the US that he he started in Lebanon and pursued in Syria. He may have made himself uncircumventable.

Also, your wrong to see a link between the Syrian opposition and the Christian Lebanese opposition. In fact, it's broader than that: it's between critics of the Syrian regime in Syria and those in Lebanon, Christian or otherwise. For the moment, I wouldn't overplay that, though, since it largely takes place in the press, and I wouldn't consider the joint statement opposing Lahoud's extension signed a few weeks ago by Syrians and Lebanese as a Syrian-Christian thing; it was Syrians and Lebanese.

Just some thoughts, hope you're well.
Best, Michael
See the article Michael wrote yesterday here. A more informal piece at Reason Magazine is here.


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