Tuesday, October 05, 2004

What Does the New Syrian Cabinet Portend?

What do the recent changes in the Syrian cabinet mean? See the fine article by Nicholas Blanford in the Daily Star: "Questions remain after Syrian Cabinet reshuffle" for views of Ibrahim Hamidi and your humble servant among others.

The change of information minister Ahmad Hassan to Mahdi Dakhlallah is an important sign that Bashar wants more reform faster.

Dakhlallah is known as the pro-reform Baathist. He is editor-in-chief of the ruling Ba'ath party daily Al-Ba'ath. Whereas, Ahmad Hassan, the outgoing Minister of Information, is know to be quite ideological and a true believer in the special role of the Baath Party, Dakhlallah is a reformer, who insists he wants to make the Baath smaller, more democratic and less involved in day to day politics.

He 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." He doesn't have much respect for the new generation that is entering into the party, claiming they do so mostly in the belief that it will advance their careers. It is the promise of preferential treatment in university admissions and lucrative jobs in Syria's largely state-controlled economy that draws them to join up. He wants the party to return to its ideological roots. It should be smaller and more democratic, he says. Most controversial, he says he wants the party to play a smaller part in the government and believes there should be more democracy and a greater field of parties vying for political influence. See Scott Wilson's excellent article on the reform culture brewing within the Baath Party, which I reprinted several posts ago.

Bashar has been nibbling away at the influence and power of the party ever since he became president. Many of his education reforms, canceling militaristic school uniforms, dropping the requiremnet that students be members of the Baath in order to participate in campus politics, annulling the obligatory "national culture" classes in university, which formed the backbone of Baathi indoctrination for university students, starting four new universities may not seem like much on the surface. But they are very important in the long run. Smart students don't have to join the party today and I imagine they are not doing it. Down the line this will have a profound effect on Syrian culture and education. Dakhlallah's appointment will hasten such reforms and give teeth to the new culture of openness that Bashar has been gently pushing ever since he became President.

Bashar is anxious about the slow pace of reform. He has admitted to reporters recently that he has not accomplished much. All the pundits have been claiming that the old guard really controls things and that the official government doesn't really count. It is the secret government of security chiefs and Baath apparatchiks who really run things, they say. That is why the hundreds of new laws being passed change so little. Bashar pushes the buttons of government power, but nothing happens, is the standard complaint.

Bashar must get the buttons of government to work if he wants to be taken seriously. For too long governments have understood that they are largely window dressing. Bashar is frustrated with this paralysis. By changing the government, he is letting officials know that he expects results and that they will be responsible for performance. He wants action and accountability.

His father held fast to the same group of people for 30 years. He valued stability above all else. He proved this by staying extraordinarily loyal to his original friends who helped him to power. He stuck by them and they by him. This policy was good for Syria in its day. Every one wanted stability after so many decades of political turbulence. Syria was known as the banana republic of the Middle East in the 1960s. Many Syrians welcomed a change of reputation. But the cost was that Hafiz al-Asad produced a culture of caution, procrastination and extreme conservatism in Syrian politics and among bureaucrats.

Bashar knows he must break Syria's culture of caution and prevarication. He has been shaken by France's turn toward the US. Paris finally got tired of seeing no change in Syria. They had gambled on Bashar and worked with him, believing he was the best vehicle for change in Syria. After four years, Paris became disillusioned with the pace of change in Syria and the US insisted France was being made a fool of by Bashar. By taking French leave and joining with Bush to write resolution 1559, Paris gave Bashar a wake up call. He knows he must deliver on reform or he will fail to get out of the dog house the West has placed him in.

Mahdi Dakhlallah, devoted two editorials to the subject of reform recently: "Reform: Political or Economic?" [1] and "Developing the Social Foundation: Much Work Awaits." [2]The following are excerpts from the editorials:

'Reform: Political or Economic?'

"All systems in Syria – political, economic, legal, and cultural – operate mutually and in agreement within the overall social system. Any significant change in one system directly affects the others and the overall social system… There is no doubt that it is impossible to bring about significant economic change without developing the entire political sector, especially in a country like Syria, in which the political regime is considered the primary motivating force in society.

"Giving temporary priority to economic reform being 'the first among equals,' does not change this truth. Rather, it is based on a different truth that raises a different question: Is the political system [in Syria ] – the most important factor in political life as a whole – still capable of bringing about [economic] development? Is there enough space in the infrastructure of the political system and its activities to absorb the innovations and advance together with them?

"The answer is definitely affirmative. It is the political and ideological system in Syria that began to raise the issue of [economic] development, and it is the primary force that promotes economic development and directs it… There is no doubt that the announcement of specific laws aiming at accelerating economic reform is thought to be a change in the content of the political system… however, this does not change the structure of the system itself.

"…There is no doubt that [more] advanced stages of [economic] reform will [also] demand [alterations] in the structure of the political system, which will help continue the push forward. What is surprising is that our political system [itself] is capable of developing its activities at the appropriate stage.

Ghazi Kanan as minister of interior suggests that Bashar wants a stronger grip on the interior situation. As a master Mukhabarat maystro, he will be dealing with the people as a policeman. See the interesting and informative biography of Kanaan done by the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, which is on this page and written by Daniel Nassif.

This is consistent with Bashar's determination to follow the China model. He believes he needs internal stability and control in order to reform the economy and cultural life.

Also, the nature of the Syrian opposition is changing rapidly. It is no longer so much internal as it is, on the one hand, connected to the Christian opposition in Lebanon, who have won important US legislative backing and linked up very effectively with US pro-Israeli lobby groups, (also the new Jumblatt connection) on the one hand, and the very dynamic landscape in Iraq on the other, which is producing jihadists and a complex of new Iraqi resistance organizations. These changes are bound to have a profound impact on Syria if they turn inward. (witness the al-Qaida cell in Lebanon just cracked) Also Washington allegations that the Tikriti cousins are ensconced in Syria and running money, guns and men to Iraq. There is also a new and, as yet amorphous, network of civil society groups that are becoming very outspoken inside Syria. Managing this new architecture of opposition will take real dexterity and a new class of educated and worldly men at the top.

Kanaan may fit this picture. Having been responsible for Lebanon for so many years, one can expect him to be much more sophisticated than the traditional mukhabarat men of the 1980s, who were brutal and focused on the Muslim Brotherhood. Bashar has, by and large, made peace with the Brotherhood. He has released the scores of prisoners who were languishing in prison for the last 20 years. Brootherhood exiles have been permitted to come home on a case-by-case basis.

Dealing with the civil society groups will be a big challenge. All my friends in these groups are very anxious about the recent arrest of Nabil Fayyad - see my recent post on him. They are also looking at what has happened to Issa Touma, the gallery owner and artist-entrepreneur from Aleppo who has been battling against Baathist narrow-mindedness for several years in a very vocal fashion. Touma's gallery has been shut, his large international festival closed down, and his life made extremely difficult. His friends are worried that he may be arrested as well.

There seems to be a crackdown on intellectuals going on now because the regime has been shaken by events in Lebanon. A chill has spread throughout the community of civil society types. Their story needs to be told and the US embassy should stand up for them and insist that Kanaan discriminate between real opponents of the government and intellectuals like Fayyad and Touma, who are responsible for bringing the kind of fresh ideas and open debate that Syria needs.

Bashar has not indicated that he wants to shut down the civil society or the small cultural renaissance that has begun since 2000. The new quasi-"think tanks" that have cropped up in Syria are a god send. Perhaps Kanaan will not be ham-fisted in this regard. Bashar needs a very smart and educated Minister of Interior. I don’t know if Kanaan is that man, but his experience with the very smart Lebanon crowd may have taught him a thing or two about the much more sophisticated and complex architecture of Syrian opposition politics now emerging.

Kanaan's most significant achievement during the 1980's was his successful effort to lure collaborators within the predominantly Christian (and ostensibly anti-Syrian) Lebanese Forces (LF) militia. Kanaan has good relations with several American officials, particularly in the intelligence community, and has visited Washington DC on at least one occasion (in February 1992). His skill in dividing his enemies and his connections to Washington will surely make him a valuable minister of interior now that Syria has the opportunity to strengthen its relationship with Washington through cooperation on the Iraq-Syria border.


At 10/05/2004 07:31:00 PM, Blogger Anton Efendi said...

As it often plays out, Michael Young and I disagree. I'm pasting Michael's post here as it contains rebuttals to many of your overly optimistic contentions:

"Reform, Syrian Style

Yesterday, Syrian President Bashar Assad organized a significant cabinet reshuffle that brought a substantial number of Baathist officials into the government of Prime Minister Naji al-Utri.

Some Syrian pundits have argued that it shows how serious the regime is about reform; in fact the reshuffle appears to represent a hardening in Damascus, as the regime faces a number of major challenges that, it fears, may ultimately lead to its downfall. This includes increasingly vocal domestic criticism of the regime; the regime's utter inability (despite a plethora of intelligence services) to defend against Israeli attacks; U.S. and French pressure on Syria (through the UN) to pull out of Lebanon; and, even, growing tension in Lebanon after Assad imposed an extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's mandate over the wishes of most members of the (otherwise pro-Syrian) political elite.

The person to watch is Ghazi Kanaan, the new interior minister. He was for many years the Syrian proconsul in Lebanon, and returned to Syria to head the Political Security directorate. He will probably continue to do so, since it comes under the authority of the Interior Ministry, and he's powerful enough to impose his writ on both. The likelihood is that Kanaan was brought in to tighten the screws in Syria (he's the one who cracked down on Syrian opposition figures, but also on Syria's riotous Kurds last March), and to strengthen Syria's hold over Lebanon. It might be fair to say that the Syrian regime, for the first time since Hafez Assad died in 2000, is seriously worried about its future.

If this is all true, it would confirm that the four-year "reform" effort of Bashar has led mostly nowhere--as indeed it could not, since the president never sought true liberalization of the Syrian system. It also shows that domestic reform by Middle Eastern autocrats is a splendid fiction if it does not at the end of the day include the possibility of a non-violent change of regime. Bashar thought he could emulate the Chinese model; now he fears he might be Gorbachev. In fact, his ways are to be found neither in Moscow nor Beijing, but in Cairo and Tunis, where the populations have just been promised several more years of the same mediocrity at the top.

The change of information minister Ahmad Hassan to Mahdi Dakhlallah is an important sign that Bashar wants more reform faster.That's hardly the impression one gets from this quote:

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.Yeah that's the way forward! More ideological rigidity and a return to the "roots" of the party! Is the future of democracy in Syria the past of the Baath!!?? Since when was democracy and individual rights and liberties at the root of the Baath party!?

I really cannot understand this post.

At 10/05/2004 09:56:00 PM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

Ed Jazairi sent me this:
Mr. Landis: Hello again...no one should speculate much about the cabinet reshuffle in Syria too much. The "reform" minded president of Syria Bashar Al-Assad has appointed Gen.Ghazi Kennan, a known drug lord, to the position of Interior Minister. It is like the President of the USA appointing John Gotti or AL Capone to the position of Attorney General of the United States. Please do not read too much into the cabinet reshuffle. This is the way that the other "western" educated Medical Doctor of the Middle East ALA "Papa Doc Chevalier" known as Bashar Al-Assad, M.D. of Syria makes his decision.
Ed Jazairi

At 10/08/2004 01:58:00 AM, Anonymous 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

At 4/12/2005 06:38:00 PM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

Is Ghazi Kanaan really in charge? I always thought that security ministers were nothing more than formal position (like the Mustafa Tlass joke)


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