Thursday, June 02, 2005

Baath Party Conference Watch

Will the Baath Party Congress be the "great turning point" that President Asad said it would be in his March speech to the Parliament? That is the question all journalists must answer. The migration has begun, and the three Damascus hotels - the Sham Palace, the Meridien, and the Sheraton - have turned into aviaries for our blessed birds of information.

The first round of stories will have to be all guesswork, local color and conjecture.

Some of the best color should come from Ayman Abdulnour, the Party member and editor of the influential newsletter all4Syria. After becoming enraged by the travesty of the election process in early May, during which the 2 million-plus party members selected the members of the congress, he launched a petition complaining about how many of the reformers had not been elected to the congress. His own election campaign was cut short when party leaders forbade him from passing out his bio and short program. The reformers are essential to the congress, many insisted, because they had been involved in writing up the working reports that will form the basis of discussion during June 6-9. "Who would be there to speak for, explain, and defend the proposed reforms," the Baathists complained, if the authors of the reforms are kept out of the congress? Many influential Party members signed the petition and demanded that 100 reform-minded Baathists be directly appointed to the congress to make up for the tainted election process which returned largely party hacks.

Ayman's efforts have born fruit. 150 new members have been appointed to the conference, including authors of the working papers, qualified economists and legal experts, as well as all the women members of the Party.

Ayman and the others, who put their energy and zeal behind this effort, should be congratulated. They did not give up on the system or the Party as so many have here. Their hard work paid off. Does this mean that the Party is reformable? I don't know, but thank God there are people like Ayman who are working for reform and Syria. The first person to get that story will have a golden nugget.

One of the main stories will be about how Syria is backing away from its uniquely Arab Nationalist identity and toward an articulation of a "Syrian nationalism" and identity. Syrian nationalism was outlawed in 1955, with the suppression of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) begun by Antoun Saade. The Party was just legalized by Asad two weeks ago and has taken a place in the National Progressive Front.

Bashar al-Asad is a SSNP sympathizer "in his heart" is what many here say. He was quoted along these lines in a 2001 interview carried by a Jordanian paper, which was banned in Syria. The Makhlouf (mother's) side of the Asad family was staunchly pro-Greater Syria, and Bashar is said to have taken after his mother and uncle in his sympathies and not his Baathist father, with whom he had strained and somewhat distant relations.

Other aspects to the story are Syria's making peace with its borders: giving up the lingering Syrian claim to Alexandretta to Turkey, building the sand wall on the Iraqi border, giving up the sliver of Jordanian land that Syria occupied in 1970, and now, most dramatically, pulling out of Lebanon. Only Syria's border with Israel remains unresolved, and that, many say, is not due to Asad's refusal to re-open negotiations and get it settled, but to Sharon's and Bush's desire to punish Syria. Pan-Arabism at Syria's borders is gone.

There is also an indication that Kurds will be given citizenship following the Baath Conference. Of the 200,000 and something Kurds that live in Syria but don't have citizenship, it seems somewhat less than 100,000 will be granted Syrian citizenship, thereby signaling another dilution, or partial dilution, of the "Arab nationalist" orthodoxy.

De-Baathification of the schools, making peace with Syria's pre-Baath history, and pardoning past coup-makers and presidents (Alwan and Amin Hafiz) are also indications of the step-down from Baathist orthodoxy of the last 40 years.

The "Regional Command" of the Party is going to be renamed the "Syrian Command." The "National Command" or "Pan-Arab Command" of the Party, which hasn't met for 20 years, may well be abolished. Ibrahim Hamidi's article in al-Hayat of 9 May 2005 is a useful key to understanding the reforms. Also see Ayman Abdulnour's all4Syria newsletter of Sunday May 29. Both lay out the clearest picture we have for what to expect.

The 21 member Syrian Command will be reduced to 15 members: one member from each Muhafaza or governorate and the president.

There is some debate about whether "Socialism" will be changed to "Democracy" in the party slogan.

Market economy will be embraced, but with the caveat that the poor be taken care of and economic security guaranteed. The phrase "free markets" will not be used; rather, the language will be "market economy mechanisms." Hamidi writes that the word socialism will not be cancelled for the Party creed and the party slogan: "Arab Nation with an eternal message" will be retained, as will that of "Continual struggle for the unity and issues of the nation." This means that Arab unity and the Palestine issue will remain central tenets of the Party and national ethos. The debate over these issues was evidently quite heated within the upper ranks of the government.

A new information law will be quite revolutionary. All punishments with imprisonment will be replaced by monetary fines. An exception to this rule will remain for those that compromise "state security," which we all know has very broad applications. Ibrahim Hamidi was jailed for 6 months under the "state security" clause, so it is hard to know what the exact impact of the law will be. The law will also cover TV and the internet, which is not covered by Syrian law yet.

The congress will present four reports or recommendations for reform. They will cover - Foreign policy, internal policy, Economy, and Party organization. These reports were written up by the working committees organized as a result of the last Party Conference in 2000, when the President was named the Party leader and made president. The reports have been amended during the last few months and are reportedly sitting on the President's desk. The congress will largely be a formality, but the discussions of the reports will be an important opportunity for party members to map out how they see the future of reform. We may get a clearer picture of how the government and its factions think.

Hamidi wrote that the economic report includes a recommendation that Public sector controlled industries that are in the red be privatized. There are important qualifications though. "No workers" can be fired and the public companies, which will become private, will still be owned by the government and sign contracts with the government. Most of Dardari's recommendations (Ministry of Planning - non-Baathist) have been pushed forward with slight modifications.

Party Law
Article 8 of the constitution, which establishes the Baath as the ruling party, will not be eliminated. There will be a new party law recommendation, permitting the legalization of parties so long as they don't have a religious or ethnic basis, have branches in all 14 governorates (are nation wide), and can get 1,000 signatures. Many have pointed out the "no ethnicity" clause is hypocritical because the Baath Party is the "Arab" Baath Party and thus is expressly ethnic itself. Oh Well.

Law 49, outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood and declaring membership in the Party a crime punishable by death, will not be lifted. All the same some Baath leaders say that because the law is "secret" it can also be secretly eliminated. They point out that Muslim Brothers have not actually been executed for years and the law is no longer enforced. The MB will not be legalized though because it is explicitly religious in nature.

Emergency law will not be eliminated either, but the government has been looking for ways to narrow its application to certain questions of national security. Evidently authorities have asked European nations for legal advice on how this might be done.

Trade unions and professional organizations will be slowly "de-baathified" or allowed to become more independent and allowed to become "plural." Perhaps more than one for each profession will be allowed.

Decentralization will be another recommendation. There is great demand to allow the governorates to have greater autonomy from central planning and control over their own budgets. Investment and development in the poorer governates will be called for.

Of course the Baath is not a law making branch of the government and all its proposals will be "recommendations" to the government.

Perhaps the biggest change will be in personnel. Almost all the 21 members of the Syrian Command are expected to be changed.

Then a new government will be formed. Already it is rumored that Khaddam will not present himself for further office. Foreign Minister Sharaa will become V.P. in his place. Walid Mualim will become Foreign Minister. Buthaina Shabaan will become Information Minister. Some speculate Dardari will become P.M. but he has just undergone double by-pass surgery after suffering, what was said to be, a minor heart attack. The Prime Ministership is slated for an independent economist, according to most betters.

All in all, it is hard to tell how important these recommendations will be. The economic recommendations will be the most important for many. Everyone wants to see foreign investment boosted by eliminating bureaucracy and rationalizing the financial sector and giving greater legal guarantees to capital. There is strong sentiment in favor of Dardari being given greater power to push through his economic reforms.

De-Baathification and a reduction in the powers of the security forces are also looked for. All of these essentials are included in the recommendations of the Congress. So far there has been absolute silence around the question of granting greater independence to the judiciary, eliminating corruption, etc.

The proof will be in how the Baath's recommendations are put into law and acted on. Like everything in Syria, chances are it will be a piece meal affaire that proceeds with a snail's pace. The Baath is not a legislative organ, although it does represent a broad spectrum of Syrians, rich and poor, north and south, as well as the various religious and ethnic communities.


At 6/03/2005 05:49:00 AM, Blogger sasa said...

With the information law spreading its tentacles into the internet for the first time, will that give the Old Guard the power - if they want - to clamp down on us.

At 6/03/2005 06:21:00 AM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

Dear Sasa,
Ayman Abdulnour says it won't because the laws are being changed for all information media, but of course it will make controling the internet easier because there will be a legal framework for the government to use. Anyway, the national security language is so broad that the gov. can do pretty much do as it pleases, I presume.

At 6/03/2005 06:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the asad's dictionary,national security means the sectarian regime's security.

At 6/03/2005 07:48:00 AM, Anonymous Ghassan said...

Dear Syrian neighbors,
We, Lebanese would like to encourage you to liberate your country from the Syrian mafia (Asad and cronies). Don't ever give up demanding transparency, freedom, and democracy! Dictators and dictatorship will not last forever, fight back and demand end to the mafia control!

At 6/03/2005 08:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ghassan Habibi,

Why don't you mind your own business and start by ridding yourself of your own mafia (incl. Harriri, Jumblat and company)! We are now out of Lebanon finally (thank god for us the people), now you have the freedom you have always longed for so clean up your mess first! What ever we do with our mafia is our problem, thank you!

We have enough issues to worry about and certainly are quite capable of sorting them out without your kind "brotherly" advice.

At 6/03/2005 12:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

to Anon 8:55. Nice advice. How come you Syrians never heeded it in at least fifty years in your dealing with Lebanon? You smothered it with your brotherly neighbourly "opinions"- to say the least.

At 6/03/2005 03:49:00 PM, Anonymous Haidar said...

50 years? Try 30.

Anyways, there was a part in there about the "sliver of Jordanian land" Syria still occupies. Where is this piece of land, is it near Dar'aa?

At 6/03/2005 10:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

there was somthing about the gov still haying ownership in companeis, the gov of syria should learn the western system which is called Taxes actualy the gov can change it,s ownership by changing the tax law and rate without taking any risk,about syria and lebanon syria should treat lebanon and most the lebanese as enemies as they declared themself as such ,that means close the border visa system no busnes in syria for any company that deos not have arepresentitiv in syria ,declare lebanon as a dangerious state for syrians to viset iwould actualy go to break all relation with that country and it,s ungratfull people syria lost 14000 syria to save lebanon from itself and to keep that country as one,shame on them especialy when they try to tell syria about the that it has forgetting the mafia fameies that they have at least in syria relign is not on ID cards.

At 6/04/2005 12:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the side of the regime nothing will change and all is going to get worse because the true threat is a free syrian people human rights,political life, ,democracy,corruption fight and all these nice words are a a threat for assad mafia monopoly.
The sectarian regime is afraid to lose the power because perfectly aware of its economic and human crimes committed against the syrian people and expect the logic reaction.
It's time for the alawite community and other syrians linked to the regime to show their belonging to Syria and to stop their support to a regime that transformed Syria into a big jail and torture rooms.

At 6/04/2005 02:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon 8:55,
Your words are so naive. As long as your regime who is responsible for all our griefs is still in place, the issue remains our business.

Nothing against the syrian people, we love you, you are our neighbours, and we are family related.
But the regime is something else.

At 6/04/2005 07:49:00 AM, Anonymous Lattakia Boy said...

Ghassan encourages us to stay strong and demand our rights back and all we do is tell him to mind his business!! Shame!
I think if Josh's predictions of the changes will actually take place it will be a great start! Once we feel an increase to our rights and freedoms we will move closer to a civil society. I sadly think no matter how much how cleaning we conduct, we will always have some level of corruption that we hate! Lets face it, my generation of under 35s who are the majority in the country have grown up on bribery and corruption and instead of being ashamed that we actually do it, we brag about how someone was bought for a few hundred pounds. It is hard to erase this kind of mentality overnight!
I still would love to know what part of Jordan do we occupy? As to Alexandretta, well if the Syrians who live under Turkish rule are not protesting then why should we. On the question of the Golan, well I guess Israel does not to give it back with or without peace.

At 6/05/2005 08:16:00 AM, Anonymous MAD said...

To Demented ANON 10:59,

Syria's regime arms Palestinian and Lebanese outlaw militias in Leb for over 30-years.

They kill leader after leader in Leb, including presidents and PMs.

They probably killed a journalist in Beirut, 2 days ago.

And Lebanon is a danger to Syria?? Please, oh please, seal the fucking border NOW, and go fiddle with your idiotic constitution that no one follows anyway.

At 6/05/2005 09:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

syria and hisballa not the us and the un forced israel out of lebanon and for that all lebanese should be gratfull until international law can be implemented where the weak can get his due process terrorism will continue.

At 6/06/2005 08:57:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lattakia Boy,
Do you not have a sense of national pride? The Syrians in Alexandretta have not protested because the Turks have been strict on minorities, and are only just starting to lift its restrictions because of the EU. Anyone who is willing to give up Alexandretta and Antioch is no true Syrian, and a traitor to the Syrian nation.

At 6/07/2005 05:08:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is interesting to note that, how researchers and accademics are biased, based on their ethnicity. These blogs are promoted by the american media. Where else can you see hypocratic policies. American has been promoters of sectarian regime. Just read through the news statements of Your Christian Cleric, and Crusader 'MR.BUSH' who confessed that america benefited by dividing europe. The whole christian ideology of sectarianism and ideology based on ethnicity and skin color is so sick, that people start hating these propogators of hate for their own survival.
How can it be Legitimate to fund opposition groups in other countries and destabilize their economies. Isn't it terrorism funding then, what america does is right? you fools? do not preach false ideologies to people. Just go to and see the pack of lies.The concentration camps around the globe like GUANTANAMO BAY, Afghan military base camps are testimony and abuse of abu gharib prison. That is your ideology, Why dont you speak out the truth, you dont have the balls to speak out! We havenot elected you! Nor your Bush, who the hell are you to dictate your opinions on us, we have our own we can speak for ourselves.
What have you done in Africa is a testament of it, What have u done in America is a testament of it, Today the native RED AMERICANS have been erased, What next! You build their museums around! The arabs have taught you animals how to live for centuries, and they will certainly teach you how to live. ISLAM is not a religion based on skin color, nor on ethnicity, and jesus is not a king as in christianity.

It is ridiculous to grant SAINTHOOD to a person 'LATE-POPE' one who couldnt cure himself, one who couldnt speak properly what can he do miracles for others. MILLITARY might cannot cover the naked truth.

What next are you going to do, invade syria, lebanon, occupy them and later erase the heritage of the people there and then replace your false ideologies, and chruches, by destroying our heritage.

There is a reason for them to hate you, for you propogate 'HATE'. I was born a christian and i converted to islam, since christianity is a religion of hate, and a religion based on ethnicity and skin color.

At 6/07/2005 02:31:00 PM, Anonymous kingcrane said...

To: Anonymous at 8:57AM:
I agree with you about the issue of the Sanjaq. The real problem with the final application of the Sykes-Picot accord is that all the country maps in the area are utter BS, and this is the reason Parties like the SSNP and the Ba'ath have attracted so many.


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