Syria Under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy Challenges
Syria Under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy Challenges
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
Report 24 / Middle East & North Africa

Syria Under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy Challenges

Bashar al-Assad’s presidency has failed to live up to the hopes for far-reaching domestic reform that greeted it in 2000. After a brief opening, Syria clamped down on dissent, and economic change remains painfully slow.

Executive Summary

Bashar al-Assad’s presidency has failed to live up to the hopes for far-reaching domestic reform that greeted it in 2000. After a brief opening, Syria clamped down on dissent, and economic change remains painfully slow. Many who once viewed Bashar as a potential partner, open-minded, and Western-oriented, now perceive him as, if anything, more ideological than and just as tied to the Baathist regime as his father. Both assessments are overly simplistic and poor guides to dealing with a Syria that is at a crossroads. Syrian officials hint at significant steps in mid-2004, including possible changes in the Baath Party hierarchy and doctrine and moves toward a more open and inclusive political system. Scepticism is in order, as such pledges have repeatedly been made in the past only to be ignored. But with reform now a strategic imperative, Syria should turn hints into reality and the international community should find ways to encourage and to assist it.  

There is good evidence that Bashar came to office aware that bold economic measures were needed to rationalise public administration, curb corruption and otherwise modernise the country. But his legitimacy and power base are closely tied to the Baathist system. However much he may understand that his plans cannot succeed with the current regime, he fears that he may not long survive without it. It is not a question of merely ridding the system of remnants of his father’s rule. The system has been shaped by powerful constituents – a political/economic elite entrenched in the public sector, the army, security services and a vast, lethargic bureaucracy accustomed to benefit from the status quo. Far more than his father, Bashar has to share authority with multiple power centres, as Syria’s “pluralistic authoritarianism” becomes less authoritarian, more pluralistic. An aspiring reformist, the President realised that his longevity was tied to the stability of the regime he sought to reform.

In the past, foreign policy dividends – income generated by aid from Iran in the 1980s, from the Gulf in the early 1990s, and from illicit trade with Iraq since then – made up for domestic shortfalls. Those days are gone. Syria urgently needs domestic change. Its economy is plagued by corruption, ageing state industries, a volatile and under-performing agricultural sector, rapidly depleting oil resources, an anachronistic educational system, capital flight and lack of foreign investment.

The image of a regime that owes its durability solely to repression and a narrow, sectarian base is wide of the mark; the Baathists built support from a cross-section of Syria’s socio-economic and religious groups. Still, the regime is by no means immune to internal challenge should the economy continue to deteriorate. At the least, a flagging economy will gradually undercut its legitimacy and undermine its support, and shrinking economic resources will reduce the availability of rents and economic privileges that have been used to ensure backing from key groups.

Syria’s foreign reserves should not be used as a pretext to defer reform but rather to put in place the safety net necessary to protect the population from hardships that will inevitably accompany restructuring. To be effective, however, economic reform must be accompanied by political liberalisation. Without greater accountability, transparency and a freer media, it will be extremely difficult to break the cycle of corruption and inefficiency. And with fewer economic resources to distribute, it is all the more important to build a stronger domestic consensus through greater public participation.

Any reforms will, no doubt, be gradual and carefully managed; even so, some argue that they will spark unrest and open the door to radical Islamism. While the history of the Muslim Brotherhood’s violent activities in Syria certainly is cause for concern, the available evidence suggests that the rise of militant Islam has been nurtured by a repressive, closed system that prevents free expression and association and has badly damaged the bond of trust between citizens and state. The stifling of political participation and the discrediting of official ideology leads to a vacuum that radical Islamic discourse is best equipped to fill.

This report is published simultaneously with another on Syria’s foreign policy challenges.[fn]ICG Middle East Report N°23, Syria Under Bashar (I): Foreign Policy Challenges, 11 February 2004.Hide Footnote  The two subjects are interconnected. A strengthened domestic Syrian consensus, including national reconciliation and renewed political legitimacy for its leadership, will make it possible for Syria to play a more effective and confident role on the regional scene. Conversely, what happens internationally affects Bashar’s domestic standing and ability to push through reform.

Amman/Brussels, 11 February 2004

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