Winds of change, or dust in the wind?

Omayad Square, Damascus’s inescapable central point where seven major roads converge, has recently become emblematic of the Syrian regime. Nearly two years ago, repairs began, aiming at reducing congestion by building an underground tunnel for cars going from Mezzeh to the Old City, freeing valuable space on the ground. The square quickly became, and remains, a massive construction site, driving Damascenes to despair even though the tunnel has already opened.

The square was closed for several days in March, re-opening with no evidence that anything had actually improved. On the contrary, its level has by now risen well above the surrounding roads and buildings, making Damascenes dread the autumn and winter rains which promise to overflow into the imposing Assad Library, the recently-inaugurated opera house, and the distinctive television center.

Theories abound on the reasons for this catastrophic outcome of a seemingly straightforward civil engineering task. Throughout Damascus, people openly mock the situation, blaming it on gross negligence, mismanagement, corruption and plain incompetence. The condition of Omayad Square, frustrating everyone but surprising few, is eerily reminiscent of other aspects of the Syrian regime, such as changes promised by the ruling Baath party to the country’s political and economic system.

Buzz about change

Numerous officials, including the president during his speech to parliament on March 5, have announced that important changes are to be expected during the Baath Party’s Tenth Regional Command Conference this month. At the same time, other sources have begun to issue mild warnings through the media, indicating that sweeping changes were difficult and that reforms should be made one step at a time. The unofficial motto seems to be “don’t expect too much reform lest you be disappointed.” Besides, reform is not a word the Syrian regime uses willingly, preferring to label its promises with the less insistent terms of modernization and development.

Indeed, some of these pledges have begun to materialize. One example is the decision in May to finally lower the tax rate on car imports, reducing it from 255 percent to sixty percent -” plus a forty percent “luxury tax”. But such reforms aren’t really concessions to the people; rather, they are part of Syria’s obligations to comply with the planned EU Association Agreement, assuming it goes ahead. While these changes are welcome, they are minimal and long overdue.

On the political front, rumour has it that a new party law will be announced during the conference; although significant, its impact will be limited. After all, Article 8 of the Syrian constitution, which maintains that the Baath must be the state’s leading party, was in no way affected by Decree 408 of July 2003, supposed to end the Baath’s entrenchment on all levers of control, and limit it to “supervising” governmental affairs.

Still, the long-outlawed Syrian Social Nationalist Party has now been approved, and others may follow. It is also said that the Baath’s slogan of “Unity, Freedom, Socialism” could lose its third attribute, recognizing that Syria’s economy is not quite socialist, and easing the psychological transition to a market economy.

In anticipation of the party conference, Syrian media has launched a veritable public relations campaign, inviting an array of ministers and government officials to live televised discussions, with seemingly genuine caller participation, on countless political, economic and social issues. A three-part program was even presented from Damascus by the pan-Arab television channel Al Arabiya, showing people like respected civil society activist Michel Kilo and prominent advisor Ayman Abdel Nour freely debating with government officials. Suddenly, transparency and reform, or synonyms thereof, became official Syrian buzzwords.

Reaching for the red lines

However, most Syrians’ immediate demands, some of which were famously submitted by the original 99 intellectuals during the Damascus Spring of 2000, have yet to be discussed in full, let alone approved: the revocation of the state of emergency law (in place since 1963), the release of all prisoners of conscience, the establishment of political pluralism, the enactment of laws allowing freedom of expression and of the press, the creation of a truly independent judiciary, and the restraint of the corrupt individuals who continue to openly abuse the country and drain its resources are only the tip of the iceberg of required reform in Syria.

Furthermore, the sweeping changes demanded by the current economic situation have not been properly considered. Syria’s decreasing oil output and exports, which currently account for some seventy percent of GDP, are rendering its economy even more vulnerable to alarming socio-economic factors. The challenges of providing higher education and creating jobs when unemployment is in double-digits and rising annually, with nearly eighty percent of the population under the age of 35 and a per capita income that barely exceeds $1,000, seem insurmountable unless drastic measures are undertaken.

In this context, limited reforms are empty gestures, mere crumbs thrown in the hope of warding off immediate pressure. Indeed, as in Omayad Square, a little reform may be practically worse than none at all, and the Syrian regime should think twice before carrying out only the minimum changes that it hopes will momentarily silence civil society and delay, if not eliminate, further foreign meddling.

Syrian beat

The question remains: to what beat is Syria moving? Internal and external pressure have been building for years, but the regime managed to remain intransigent for decades, so what has now caused this seemingly radical change in attitude? Some may conclude that the events in Lebanon, following those in Iraq, have triggered winds of change, but it would be an incomplete assessment.

A more comprehensive explanation is that the regime actually now feels not only strong enough internally to effect the few changes that will buy it time and not shake its foundations, but also strong enough to avoid more substantial reforms it feels cannot be forced on it. This is possible, in effect, because it has survived both the crisis in Iraq and in Lebanon, in spite of American pressure – or perhaps because of it – and believes it can smoothly circumvent other pressing factors for the time being. Yet, the US is advocating regime change, on the misconception that it is crumbling.

Shaking the tree

The Syrian regime has of late been described as a “low-hanging fruit” in Washington circles, but it is unclear exactly how the US arrived at this depiction, or how it planned to proceed if this were correct. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be a real American policy towards Damascus, apart from destabilizing the regime without due consideration to the possible consequences, and with no regard to Syria’s legitimate national concerns.

In May, despite Syria’s timely withdrawal from Lebanon, in compliance with UNSC Resolution 1559, President Bush renewed the sanctions he had imposed a year ago under the Syria Accountability Act. Indeed, American objectives appear to aim more at Syria’s isolation and instability than at Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Damascus offered numerous concessions on other fronts, particularly in Iraq. In January, Syria ensured successful out-of-country voting for the tens of thousands of Iraqis who found refuge in Syria. Syrian efforts to control the border, partly with sandwalls, have been acknowledged by coalition officials. It has also moved to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iraq, broken decades ago.

Peace overtures to Israel have been repeatedly and unreasonably rebuffed by the US and Israel, which remains inflexible despite unconditional Syrian offers of negotiations on the return of the Golan Heights, in accordance with UNSC Resolution 242. Syria has also openly supported the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and toned down pro-Palestinian resistance rhetoric. This is in addition to invaluable Syrian assistance in America’s "war on terror" since September 11.

If reform is understood as concessions, then many Syrians actually feel their regime has given too many in the international arena, including to Israel. Most Syrians are happy that their troops are finally home from Lebanon, although they wish it could have happened earlier in a less harried manner. But many feel that dropping Syrian claims to Alexandretta and recognizing Turkey’s border was unjustified, believing that US efforts to isolate Syria will not be bypassed solely through help from Ankara.

The US is still not satisfied. The American ambassador to Damascus, Margaret Scobey, recalled in the aftermath of Rafik Hariri’s assassination, has yet to return to her post. Washington continues to issue regular but vague warnings to the Syrian regime, in a manner reminiscent of the campaign against Iraq before the invasion. The US congressmen who sponsored the Accountability Act are now proposing a Syria Liberation Act – a similar procedure was followed for Iraq, making money available to help dislodge the government.

Time for realism

Nevertheless, claims that the Syrian regime is living its last days are greatly exaggerated, and the internal impact of its withdrawal from Lebanon has been overestimated. Unlike the US, France isn’t working for regime change, considering that Lebanon’s regained independence is a satisfactory outcome. Saudi Arabia, which some sources implied was pushing for regime change in Syria, is on the contrary working to ensure a return to a normal state of affairs.

In the past, the Syrian regime had given contradictory signs of its readiness to adapt to new situations, and had shown extreme unwillingness to abandon the status quo. But it may have now realized that it needed to change if only to remain in power, adopting a new approach despite being reluctant as of yet to forsake the absolute prerogatives it has enjoyed for the past four decades.

If significant reform does not materialize, Syrians will inevitably conclude that the announced winds of change are mere flecks of dust in the wind; they are unlikely to stand for it for much longer.

The invasion of Iraq and the trouble emanating from Lebanon have only reinforced Syrian’s patriotism; people rightly maintain that they have demanded increased freedom long before the US started advertising regime change, debaathification or democratization. The regime seems to have understood the message and decided its interests lie with calculated changes, irrespective of American pressure. But, as with Omayad Square, mismanagement can have dire consequences.