Thursday, April 28, 2005

Syria's Ba'athists Loosen the Reins by Sami Moubayed

This excellent article by Sami Moubayed gives an overview of party politics in Syria and explains what is likely to happen at the up coming Regional Baath Party Congress.

Syria's Ba'athists loosen the reins
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - A new Ba'ath Party law is to be created in Syria, breaking the socialist parties' monopoly over politics in that country, in place (with the exception of the years 1961-63) since 1958. The move is a calculated gamble on the part of the government, and will also challenge a US bill against Syria calling for "Assistance to Support a Transition to Democracy in Syria".

On March 8, 1963, the Military Committee of the Ba'ath Party came to power in Syria, pledging to restore the Syrian-Egyptian Union of 1958. All parties that had supported the post-union order were outlawed, creating a one-party state in Syria, headed by the Ba'ath, modeled after Gamal Abd al-Nasser's Egypt since 1952.

The offices of the Communist Party, the Syrian Social Cooperative Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab Liberation Movement, the National Party and the People's Party were all shut down, and their newspapers were banned. Already on the blacklist of political parties in Syria since 1955 was the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).

Over the years, as the founders and members of these political parties died, either in exile, jail or political retirement, the parties evaporated from the consciousness of the four generations that emerged in Syria. The only exceptions were the Muslim Brotherhood and the SSNP, which although banned (for different reasons) remained popular, and the Communist Party, which decided to cooperate with the Ba'athists after 1970 to avoid the fate of other parties in Syria.

The 1974 party law, which laid ground for the National Progressive Front (NPF), a parliamentary coalition headed by the Ba'ath, allowed more parties to emerge, yet conditioned that they had to be from the socialist orbit. President Hafez Assad ended the one-party system, conditioning, however, that new parties be socialist ones, and allowed the creation of other socialist parties such as the Arab Unionist Party, the Democratic Socialist Party and the Unity Socialist Party.

The NPF monopolized power in the hands of the socialists, who functioned under the umbrella of the Ba'ath. Apart from the Ba'ath, which has nearly 2 million members, these parties have no power base throughout Syria. In 2000, independent figures tried to re-establish the National Party of Damascus and the People's Party of Aleppo, but for a variety of reasons the projects never materialized. The SSNP reactivated itself in public life, and so did the Communist Party in 2001, by republishing its two political weeklies, outlawed since 1958, al-Nour (The Light) and Sawt al-Shaab (Voice of the People). In February 2001, vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam reportedly promised Riyad Sayf, the Damascus deputy in parliament, a new party law for Syria.

For various reasons, that did not happen in 2001, but today it is almost certain in Damascus that a new party law will be created, and announced at the upcoming Ba'ath Party Conference in June, breaking the socialist parties' monopoly over politics in Syria. President Bashar Assad was very clear about that when speaking to Spanish journalists in Syria in March. He said, "The coming period will be one of freedom for political parties" in Syria.

In 1973, Article 8 of Syria's new constitution said the Ba'ath Party was the ruling party of the state and society. Ba'athist Syria was modeled after the USSR with regard to the ruling party and its relationship with state and society. Just as in Syria, the Communist Party of the USSR became virtually indistinguishable from the USSR, from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 until the Communist Party Conference of 1986, after which membership dropped significantly. When the conference took place, the USSR had 19 million people registered in the Communist Party. In Syria, with different proportions, the number is 1.8 million.

In both Damascus and Moscow, membership in the party became a privilege, and a guaranteed path to success in government, society and the civil service. The Ba'athists created the political elite of Syria from the 1960s onward, just as the communists did in the USSR. It became virtually impossible, in both the USSR and Syria, to assume senior government office without being a member of the ruling party. Some joined out of conviction, yet most out of a desire to advance in the civil service, military, diplomatic corps and government institutions. Not anybody could become a Ba'athist. And not everybody could become a Communist. One had to be recommended by an existing member, and one's past was closely studied. The slightest history of deviance was enough to turn down membership application. As several consecutive generations grew up under one-party rule, it became normal, and in some cases expected, for an ambitious man or woman to join the Ba'ath Party.

In the USSR, a youth organization was founded called the "Young Pioneers", where young members would join until the age of 14, from which time they would become members of the Komsomol (Young Communist League) before becoming full-time members in the Communist Party. In Syria, the steps were repeated, only replaced with the Ba'ath Pioneers, Revolutionary Youth, and eventually full-time membership in the Ba'ath Party.

The SSNP in today's Syria
Under the new party law expected in June, parties not affiliated with the NPF will be permitted to operate as long as they are not Islamic, or encourage sub-national loyalties (eg Kurdish, Circassian, Armenian, etc). The first party expected to receive a license is the SSNP. It is also the party expected to obtain the widest popularity in Syria.

Founded in Beirut in 1932, originally as a secret society of five intellectuals, by the revolutionary philosopher Antune Saada, it grew into an official party and became immensely popular in Syria from the 1940s onward. A radical and secular party, it originally flourished among students at the American University of Beirut and spread to other intellectual centers in Lebanon and Syria, calling for the unification of Greater Syria (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan), and challenging the ideas of modern Arab nationalism that became popular in the 1950s under Nasser of Egypt. Meaning, the SSNP was uninterested in North Africa (Egypt included) or the Arab Gulf region.

It was outlawed in Syria in 1955 when some of its members were accused of assassinating Adnan al-Malki, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian army. Malki was an Arab nationalist, an ally of the Ba'ath, and his brother Riyad was a ranking Ba'athist in Syria. Authorities cracked down on the party, forcing it to move underground, and greatly persecuted SSNP members from 1955 onward.

Restrictions softened when Hafez Assad came to power in 1970, reportedly because he sympathized with the SSNP, and in February 2001, his son, President Bashar Assad, gave an interview to the Jordanian weekly al-Majd saying that he "did not mind" a relaunch of the SSNP in Syria. A few months later, the SSNP was permitted to attend a meeting of the NPF as an "observer".

This was seen as an indicator that the state was willing to grant more freedoms to the SSNP, especially since it tolerated its members having seats in parliament. After an uprising started in Palestine in September 2000, the party was permitted to stage a rally in Damascus, in favor of the Palestinian resistance, for the first time in 50 years. This month, Assad received a delegation of SSNP leaders in Damascus, including Issam al-Mahayri, the aging secretary general of its Syria branch since the party founder's death in 1949.

All of these are indicators that the SSNP is back on its way to becoming a main factor in political life in Syria. The failure of modern Arab nationalism, and the distance of countries once considered as solid Arab "brothers" such as Libya, Sudan, Morocco, Kuwait, Yemen and Oman, all explain why the concept of Greater Syria is on the rise in modern Syria. Of all the other parties that will be authorized, the SSNP probably has the largest power base (unofficially estimated at more than 90,000), matched only by the Ba'ath.

Other parties expected to emerge are the Coalition for Union and Democracy, a Nasserite organization, and the Arab Socialist Union of Jamal al-Atasi, a party that is Arab nationalist in outlook, pro-Nasser, relatively popular in Syria, which deviated from NPF ranks for ideological reasons in the 1970s.

If the arrested Damascus parliamentarian Riyad Sayf is released from jail (his prison term ends in 2007), he will strive to re-establish his Movement for Social Peace. An unofficial party, it was created and abrogated in 2000, lobbying for the creation of a multi-party system, a release of political prisoners, and an end to socialism in Syria. If no legal obstacle prevents him from getting a license (he might be stripped from his civil rights), then Sayf might succeed and his party would win during election time, because he is popular in Damascus.

A moderate Islamic party might be permitted to operate under the leadership of Dr Mohammad Habash, the regime-friendly Islamist deputy in the Syrian parliament, but no license will be given to the Muslim Brotherhood, which tried and failed to topple the Assad regime in 1982, inflicting a lot of blood in Syria.

Law No 49, which makes membership in the Brotherhood a criminal offense punishable by the death penalty, will most probably be abolished in the upcoming Ba'ath Party conference. This is seen as a gesture on the behalf of the government to build bridges with its opponents. Other similar gestures have been the return to the country of General Jasem Alwan, a Nasserist officer who tried to topple the Ba'athist regime in July 1963, four months after it had come to power. He was sentenced to death, escaped to Egypt, and ever since has been a loud critic of Ba'athist Syria.

Having spent more than 40 years in banishment, he returned to Syria this month, and so did Yusuf Abdelki, a popular and widely respected artist, persecuted and arrested previously for his communist views. Abd al-Hamid al-Sarraj, the ruthless director of intelligence who persecuted the Ba'athists from 1958-61, and has also been in Egypt ever since, is also due for return in 2005.

Probably, in a healthy political environment, independents will strive to re-establish the National Party of Damascus, loyal in the 1950s to Syria's late president Shukri al-Quwatli, who died in 1967, and others will work for the People's Party of Aleppo, whose president and co-founder Nazim al-Qudsi died in 1998. Both parties were non-ideological, unlike the Ba'ath and communists, but rather mirrored the socio-political interests of their respective communities, and promised to represent them adequately in parliament during the 1940s and 1950s.

The National Party ruled Syria from 1946 to 1949, and again in 1955-58, while the People's Party reigned in 1949-51 and 1961-63. These parties did not have firm objectives, and were pragmatic, doing what was in their communities' interest to survive politically. When it was popular to demand union with Iraq in 1949, for example, the National Party did that, yet when it became needed to support a union with Egypt instead in 1958, it also did just that.

The new generation of Syrians will head toward politicians who have no ideological convictions, and are working only for the interests of their respective communities. It is not a crime in politics, contrary to what many believe, to be pragmatic, and change sides and convictions according to needs and circumstances. Since ideologies have failed their founders all over the world, these non-ideological parties will probably be the most popular if a true multi-party system emerges in Syria.

In 2000, Paris-based Syrian businessman Umran Adham tried to re-establish Quwatli's National Party, but the project was delayed "because the state was unenthusiastic". A legal team was put in charge of paperwork, and the National Party's 1946 constitution was updated to apply to modern Syria. Adham had explained that the party should be ready by late 2001 and able to take part in the parliamentary elections of 2002. He then spoke to the Beirut-based Daily Star and said the project had been delayed "for another three to four years". He added that he had "sent out signals" showing that the project was ready and awaiting approval, and received "an extremely passive response" from senior state officials, showing that no Ba'athist leaders wanted to resurrect the National Party in 2001.

Today, the mood is different in Damascus. It is very likely that a resurrection for the National Party, the People's Party and the SSNP will happen. To succeed, they need credible people to lead them. The success of the National Party, for example, was due to the immense popularity and trust that people had in its unblemished leader Quwatli and his prime ally Sabri al-Asali. There aren't many people in Syria today with the caliber of someone like Quwatli to inspire immediate confidence among the public. Without real leaders, both the National Party and People's Party will be failures.

The question that many are asking: "Why now?" Why has the Syrian government decided to create a multiparty system which might challenge the power of the Ba'athists? Contrary to what many believe, the Ba'ath Party is very strong in Syria, and has a lot of active supporters. Changing the views of a society indoctrinated with Ba'athist views since 1963 will not be easy. The masses, who generally lack a proper democratic culture, will not readily join other political parties, especially ones that challenge Ba'athist ideology.

This is the exact reason. The state is confident enough that no real threat will be presented to its power if a multi-party system emerges in Syria. Let the parties operate, and let them win parliamentary seats. The ruling party of the state and society will still be the Ba'ath Party, since amending Article 8 of the constitution, which gives it that leadership status, will not be discussed at the upcoming conference. A multi-party system will threaten nobody, and yet be greatly welcomed by the Syrian masses, who are demanding such a kind of political reform in Syria.

The Syrian masses will be pleased, and the Syrian government will get good public relations credit for it. It will also challenge a US bill against Syria, presented on March 8 in the House of Representatives, calling for "Assistance to Support a Transition to Democracy in Syria". It reads: "The president is authorized to provide assistance and other support for individuals and independent non-governmental organizations to support transition to a freely elected, internationally recognized democratic government in Syria."

The message from the public and government alike in Damascus is clear: there is no need for US help, the Syrians will democratize on their own, at will.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

It is worth reading the commentary on the article by, which Tony B brought to my attention. They think that opening up new parties will be the beginning of the end for the Asad regime. I can't agree. Many other Middle East authoritarians have done this as a means to let off social steam, please Washington, and build a more responsible and organized civil society. So far liberalization in the Middle East has not led to democracy. But that does not mean it won't in the future. Certainly having elites practiced in party life, even circumscribed party life, is a good thing. Syria's reforms will be window dressing at first. But maybe with time that will change as the regime and society work out better ways to organize political life and reestablish some sense of trust and dialogue.

What introducing party life means is that Bashar is trying to move Syria off the list of "Dictatorial Regimes" and put it into the growing camp of "Liberalizing Authoritarian Regimes," such as those of Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. It means some party life, more active NGOs (which Syria has yet to allow) and allowing for the growth of civil society.


At 4/28/2005 09:58:00 AM, Anonymous kingcrane said...

I agree with you and with Sami Moubayed. The only problem I had with his article is the absence of a clear line separating news from history or editorial opinion. As to people who believe that the Baath is an oppressive party that will be voted down, think again: the Baath has very prgamatic people who can become empowered by Bashar Assad and reform the party this summer. In fact, there is no danger for the Baath for the following reasons: I believe there are two anti-Baathisms: sectarian Moslim Brotherhood type (based on anti-minority thoughts) which has no room in Syria and non-sectarian (people who oppose the economic policies, the wide-spread corruption, or the vestigious Nasserian arabic-only educational system which needs to be repealed ASAP).
Why do I care? I have as much family in Syria as I do in Lebanon, and I lived in Syria for years a while ago. I am curious about what the SSNP will do: they will compete for the same minority constituencies the Baath finds a good audience within.

At 4/28/2005 10:52:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

if president Bashar Assad does take a step forward in allowing new parties in the political life in the country, that would be the best senario for the Syrians. A complete change in the regime is bad for the country,, a gradual but straight path is better tolerated by the public. If President Bashar does that, he should not fear loosing his position, after all, Syrians moght see that he was genuine in bringing more freedom to them, and maybe he will be a front runner in multi-candidate elections. I know that many Syrians especially young Syrians like Dr. Bashar. i wish the best for Syria

At 4/29/2005 05:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article lack of intellectual courage , it is even an arrogant and insuling text toward the Syrian people.
The nature of the Syrian regime is not a secrecy,It is a sectarian regime disguised behind the clothes of Arab nationalism and ideologies insipred by the european fascism and national socialism.
What predict this text is not more than a cosmetic conversion of the old system.
Such regime is not able to reform.

At 4/29/2005 05:46:00 AM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

A new Ba'ath Party law is to be created in Syria

Great news indeed! The future is going to be bright! Bachar truely understands what syrians want, they want a new Baath of course!

Seriously this is usual Bull S. I think people are expecting REAL changes.

At 4/29/2005 05:57:00 AM, Blogger Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

About the SSNP isn't Bashar trying to replace the Baath by a similar party but which is less corrupt?

It's too late to save the baath from corruption so maybe he hopes to create a Baath bis with more popular support?

At 4/29/2005 11:09:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Moubayed's article on the need for Syria to reform on its own, without the help of anyone; mainly the USA. The Syrians had a democratic culture many years ago and can replace it if they want. Now, with Lebanon out of thier hair, they can concentrate on Syrian affairs.

At 4/29/2005 11:12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of the best articles I have read on the Internet regarding Syria. Obviously this is because someone living inside Syria has written it, who understands the dynamics of Syrian politics and is not living in NY or Washington, chomping on a big cigar and giving theories on how to deal with Syria. Thank you Dr Landis for bringing it to our attention.

At 4/29/2005 12:26:00 PM, Anonymous Firas said...

With all due respect, I think Syria, specifically and more than others in the region, needs those people from Paris, Washington or wherever else, to inject new ideas and thoughts for reforms. Having been so closed for so long and with the cream of our intellectuals and thinkers systematically drained, we need the contributions of those Syrians to help shape a desperately-lacking vision for the country's future...with or without their cigars!


At 4/29/2005 12:50:00 PM, Blogger Nafdik said...

These rumors of upcoming reform are in my opinion a stalling tactic.

The regime knows it is very weak right now. It is worried of a open protest that they will not be able to crush Hama style, as the world is focused on them now.

They are telling the poeple to be patient for a few months since they want to reform. I suspect they are waiting for the world to forget them so they can go back for business as usual.

At 4/29/2005 01:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just got a email of this article from my friend. I want to thank Mr Moubayed for showing us our history. I know ur site and I like it. I was born after the Baath Revolution of 1963 and want to no more about Syria befor that time.

At 4/29/2005 04:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

SSN Party in Lebanon is insignifiant force.
I dont think that SSNP in Syria will be more popular.
And who say SSNP in Syria ,Say Makhlouf ,symbol of corruption.
As for the Baath ,any syrian know that 99 % of Syrian baathists are profiteers or members by need.

If fair elections are conducted properly in Syria what will be the score for these parties ? 2 % or 10 %???
Do u call this reform ?

At 4/29/2005 07:54:00 PM, Anonymous John said...

In case you didn't see it before, readers might be interested in this linked transcript. Flynt Leverett (former government official) recently wrote a book on Syria under Bashar. Also commenting are Martin Indyk and reporters Sy Hersh (New Yorker) and James Bennett (New York Times).





Monday, April 25, 2005


At 4/29/2005 07:57:00 PM, Anonymous John said...

Try to write that link again

At 4/29/2005 07:59:00 PM, Anonymous John said...

This should do the link. Just click on it.

link to pdf transcript

At 4/30/2005 04:53:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Moubayed. I always read his articles and i must aknowledge that they are very interesting. I hope to see new parties and new positive reforms in Syria soon.

PS i do not see in this article any insult ot he Syrian people/

At 4/30/2005 06:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, Thanks John

At 4/30/2005 08:39:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the link to president speach in the people's asemply on April 28, 2005 translated. Could not find it next day, so I went to my history browsing and find the link:
Interesting and very general without any direct approach. Why they do not air it and take about it over and over like before?. Very strage.

At 4/30/2005 10:15:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Asad did not give a speech on April 28. This was March 5, in his address to Parliament announcing Syria's troop withdrawal from Lebanon!

At 5/01/2005 03:09:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

News from the north-western city of Latakia has relayed information on the exposure of Dr. ‘Arif Daleela’s household to a raid conducted by a terrorist group armed with knives and staffs. Dr. ‘Arif is currently detained due to his activism in “Damascus Spring events”. The attack resulted in numerous wounds suffered by his son, Shadi Daleela, a thirty-year-old engineer. The injuries necessitated that he be transferred to the hospital’s intensive care unit. Sameera Daleela, Dr. ‘Arif’s sister, also suffered contusions in addition to verbal insults and threats. In the aftermath of the attack, Dr. ‘Aref’s brother, Ghazi Daleela, was stopped for questioning, instead of pursuing the criminal terrorists who are supported by influential security and tribal forces.

At 5/01/2005 03:12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

are u waiting reforms from criminals and thieves?


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