Assad’s grip tightens

The Baathist dictatorship in Syria looks more secure than ever and could remain in power for years to come. That’s the view of leading regional commentators, who say that despite hopes in Washington that the regime is close to collapse, the reality is that without a viable opposition, little is going to dislodge Bashir Assad’s government other than a military invasion.

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By  David Robinson Published  August 28, 2005

Assad’s grip tightens|~|assad-200.jpg|~|NO CHANGE: Syria's President Assad is set to remain in power for many years to come. |~|The Baathist dictatorship in Syria looks more secure than ever and could remain in power for years to come. That’s the view of leading regional commentators, who say that despite hopes in Washington that the regime is close to collapse, the reality is that without a viable opposition, little is going to dislodge Bashir Assad’s government other than a military invasion. “The regime has never been stronger,” said Rime Allaf, an Associate Fellow specialising in the Middle East at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. “It has been helped by the Iraq war. The US-led invasion has been such a catastrophe that it has led the various sides in the dispute to try and work with what they have.” The expulsion of Syrian troops from Lebanon by a popular uprising has been viewed by many as an indication of the regime’s underlying weaknesses. Long-term state control has bred inefficiency and corruption in the country, creating an economic and demographic time bomb. Almost 80% of the population is under 35, and perhaps 20% of the workforce is unemployed. “The regime is under tremendous pressure. Most of the pressure is external and comes from the United States and some pressure is internal and has to do with the economic situation,” said Murhaf Jouejati, from the department of Middle Eastern Studies at George Washington University. Hawks in Washington have long argued that unless the Syrian regime reforms, it will collapse. But Jouejati questions how this will come about. “Those who say the regime will cave in do not provide the mechanisms of how that is going to happen,” he said. “There is a lot of discontent in Syria, as there is in many Arab states. But discontent has never translated into revolution. Discontent needs to be organised and need to be mobilised against one particular target and here I do not see any serious political organisation on the ground in Syria that may threaten the regime,” he made clear. The reality is that if the Baath regime of collapsed suddenly, there would be nothing to replace it. No movement, no party, no likely leaders, and certainly no liberal democrats in the wings. Many observers predict chaos. The biggest beneficiaries, if any, would be adherents of hard-line Islam. The most likely scenario is that Assad’s regime will be around for many years to come. This is despite the failure of the Baath Party Congress in June this year to deliver long overdue reforms. “[The small scale reforms the party did introduce] don’t go far enough to address structural problems Syria has; they were cosmetic rather than significant,” Jouejati said. Real reform would have meant the release of political prisoners, allowing a more open media and an end to 42 years of martial law. The government’s repressive controls on public life have left little or no room for organised dissent and a trail of human rights abuses. Nonetheless, Assad’s government does seem to be inching through just enough reforms to survive international scrutiny. But what changes it has made are not nearly enough to make a real difference in the lives of a population now in its fourth decade of authoritarian rule. The Association Agreement Syria signed with the European Union last year should provide a small shot in the arm to the country’s flagging economy. In May, for example, Syria significantly reduced import duties on automobiles. The agreement provides a framework for political dialogue between Brussels and Damascus on such issues as missiles, counter-terrorism and human rights, as well as envisioning the creation of a free trade area between the EU and Syria. “The regime is saying it is introducing reforms, but in fact they are part of the EU Association Agreement,” Allaf said. “The Syrian government is worried. They are trying to show there’s some limited reforms going on.” Meanwhile, Assad has indicated that alternative political parties to the Baath party will now be permitted. However, they must not be linked to ethnicity or religion. Therefore no Kurdish or Islamist parties will be allowed. “In a sense the regime is showing we are strong enough and tough enough to still be able to dictate what happens politically,” Allaf said. “ What the regime is trying to do is get away with some economic reform, and forget about political reform. It doesn’t understand that both go together.” For the most part, what opposition there is in Syria can be divided into two types: the western, liberal, pluralist opposition that is still emerging and very fragmented; and the Islamist movement, typified by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood has strong support in the country leading many observers to suggest that Syria is ripe for Islamic fundamentalist rule. “The Muslim Brotherhood is the only organisation that could fill the vacuum of power if the regime were to fall,” Jouejati said. Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said that the Baath party is likely to stay in power, but not in its current form. “The status quo doesn’t seem very stable,” he said. He questioned whether the system as its currently constituted, can work without the authority of the former leader Hafez al-Assad. His son Bashir has not established the authority his father had, possibly intentionally. “The problem of maintaining existing patronage networks and existing loyalty under current rules is a growing problem, Syria has relied on external subsidies for decades, from the Soviet Union, from Saudi Arabia, from Iraq, from Lebanon, with all of those sources drying up. You can’t maintain the same networks.” However, he added: “Change doesn’t necessarily mean that the country has to become fundamentalist or a liberal democracy. The change could mean an element establishes control within a tighter circle, perhaps establishing control more around the family.” Over the last few years, Syria — the last rogue Arab state and refuge of a number of anti-American extremist groups — has been the recipient of mounting threats from the United States and Israel. But Alterman said the Americans have slowly realised there are no other alternatives to a Baathist government in Syria. The US is in no position to invade the country and there is no other way to facilitate change. “The general consensus is that it’s better to work with the regime,” he said. ||**||

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