Syria with improved economic and political clout, but still without civil society: review of a decade under bashar al-assad
Ten years ago, bashar al-assad succeeded his father hafez al-assad as syria’s president. In the state that george w. Bush’s “axis of evil,” much has happened since then. And at the same time very little.
July 17. For the first time in the history of the republic, the constitution was changed so that bashar al-assad, then 34 years old, could be sworn in as president (the law stipulated a minimum age of 40). The fact that the regency passed from the late father, hafez, to the son was also a precedent in the entire arab region.
Nevertheless, the beginning seemed devastating. In his inaugural speech, the young, dowdy man, whose life plan was actually a career as an ophthalmologist, declared that it was time for “creative thinking” and “transparency.
He also ensured transparency – for his own. Thus he began to replace the “old guard” who had run the country with his father for three decades with relatives such as his brother maher, his brother-in-law assef shaukat and his cousin rami makhlouf. Meanwhile, the cornerstones of the old assad regime fell away one by one: interior minister ghazi kanaan (see drumbeat before un report) committed suicide in 2005 (according to official reports), ex-vice president abd al-halim khaddam even joined the opposing muslim brotherhood and today lives in exile, just like the latter. Die systematische ausdunnung der alten machtbasen sicherte dem unerfahrenen bashar, der erst nach dem unfalltod seines alteren bruders zum „thronfolger“ ernannt wurde, letztlich alle kontrollmechanismen.
Transparency in domestic policy, creativity in foreign policy
The newcomer also surprised on the foreign policy front. Instead of bowing to the prere from the. Instead of bowing to the prere from the u.S. That began after september 11, 2001, he played the exact cards that george w. Bush had threatened him with. Bush warned him about under the threat of “regime change”: sunni groups in iraq, hezbollah in lebanon and hamas in the gaza strip.
With them, al-assad has kept the u.S. And israel on their toes and continues to do so with the support of the state that is the biggest thorn in the side of the “international community” and that only really became a regional power as a result of the centrifugal forces unleashed by the u.S. In iraq: iran. The close relationship with iran also gave syria weight in the west in that its role as a potential mediator became increasingly clear. At the same time, israel’s war against hezbollah in 2006 was extremely beneficial for the latter: its armed arm, consisting of several thousand fighters, demoralized the seemingly invincible high-tech israel. This left an impression not only there, but also in the own country: since the elections in 2009 the lebanese parliament is not able to make decisions without the “party of god”.
And in this respect, too, al-assad can pat himself on the back: the un commission investigating the 2005 assassination of lebanon’s ex-premier rafik al-hariri, which had targeted the syrian regime for years, began turning its attention to hezbollah last year. Damascus seems to be out of the line of fire.
The first signs of al-assad’s return to the international stage were seen as early as 2008, when the president, who had been bypassed by the bush administration, was invited by nicholas sarkozy to attend the founding summit of the mediterranean union in paris together with 43 other leaders.
A year earlier, al-assad had begun indirect peace negotiations with israel, which, however, in the absence of the latter’s intention to clear the golan heights annexed in 1967, can safely be regarded as flimflam. Nevertheless, it is doing well in the political arena, and relations with the united states have at least warmed up under obama. Distrust remains, however, on both sides: washington’s decision to send an ambassador again after a five-year ice age has not yet been rubber-stamped by the u.S. Congress, and instead syria has once again been hit with economic sanctions.
To improve his political and economic clout, al-assad is therefore looking elsewhere, first and foremost in turkey. After the mutual lifting of visa requirements, the two countries began extensive cooperation in military areas and transportation investments; there was an increase in the volume of trade, an easing of customs regulations, and joint construction projects, including, after the discovery of numerous gas deposits in syria, a joint gas network.
Furthermore, shortly before his inauguration, al-assad embarked on his first tour of latin america. While demonstrating mutual reinforcement with argentina’s president cristina fernandenz de kirchner – de kirchner reaffirmed syria’s claim to the golan heights, al-assad vice versa argentina’s claim to the falkland islands – he reached a $100 million trade agreement in venezuela and an agreement for a free trade zone in brazil.
In a country suffering from drought and shrinking oil revenues, this is a drop in the bucket, especially as its population grows and becomes increasingly impoverished.
Civil society on the ground
The young president, who is said to have slept on the floor with his school friends in his youth and never made much fuss about his origins, shows little concern for the welfare of civil society. The gap between an oligarchic minority and the rest of the 19 million inhabitants is growing. Corruption is rampant – among 180 countries monitored by the non-governmental organization transparency international, the country currently ranks 126th. The country ranks second and is only beaten by mauritania among arab countries. Civil society is nonexistent.
In this respect, there is a great deal of transparency in syria – among the regime. Its secret service is one of the most powerful in the region. Opposition members no longer disappear, but end up in court, only to disappear afterwards – but at least into known prisons, for a certain period of time. Likewise, they no longer have to fear torture. Not much else is clear, especially the number of political prisoners, which in the absence of official information is estimated at over 3,000.
The main targets are kurds and islamists. Dissidents such as anwar al-bunni and muhannad al-hasani were sentenced to five and three years respectively for “endangering national security,” and even the frail 78-year-old haitham al-maleh was not spared. Those released from prison, such as michel kilo, yassin al-hajj saleh and riad al-seif, who has been imprisoned several times, have distanced themselves politically. Assemblies of more than seven people are prohibited. The title of the report on the human rights situation, published just in time for human rights watch’s 10th anniversary, therefore sums it up very clearly: “a wasted decade”.