The process of political reform in Syria initiated by president Bashar al-Asad after he took office in July 2000 has met its most serious setback. On September 12 Syrian authorities arrested two opposition activists, Habib ‘Issa, a lawyer, and Fawwaz Tello, an engineer. Both are founding members of the Human Rights Society in Syria. Their arrests are the latest in a crackdown that shows the government’s unwillingness to brook further dissent.
On September 9 five political activists were arrested for taking part in a political forum hosted by independent MP Riyad Sayf, who had himself been detained on September 6. The authorities did not specify any charges to justify their arrests, saying only that they would appear in court shortly. But Aktham Nueisa, head of the Committees for the Defence of Human Rights in Syria, said that they were arrested for taking part in an unauthorised political forum organised by Sayf.
The arrests came soon after the arrest of the country’s leading political dissident, Riyad al-Turk, on September 1. Turk, a 71-year-old former communist leader released in 1998 after serving a 17-year prison term for his opposition to the regime of the late Hafez al-Asad, was reportedly arrested at a doctor’s clinic in the coastal city of Tartous.
Another independent MP, Ma’mun al-Humsi, was detained on August 9 for staging a hunger strike against corruption and state security measures. The two MPs were referred to a civil court; the other dissidents were referred to the State Security Court. Established in 1964 under the state of emergency in force since 1963, the State Security Court is not governed by civil law and its decisions cannot be appealed against.
In August Turk made a series of speeches and statements in which he called for a “transition from despotism to democracy”. He also denounced the “hereditary” succession that allowed Bashar to assume the presidency. During the debate Turk was scathingly critical of the late president.
Turk’s arrest earned the Syrian government harsh criticism. A group of 216 academics, journalists, filmmakers and writers condemned Turk’s arrest as an “arbitrary and illegal measure,” demanding that he “be freed immediately and that those responsible for his arrest be prosecuted.” Similarly the Paris-based Arab Commission for Human Rights issued a statement holding “the Syrian authorities responsible for what may happen to Mr Turk,” characterising the decision to detain him as one that “crosses the red lines in relations with the democratic opposition.”
The state-run media shot back. In a front-page editorial, the government daily al-Thawrah (September 5, 2001) accused Turk of having “made a decision to denigrate, defame and unjustly accuse all those who opposed his attempt to stop the process of modernization and development in all sectors.” Another government daily, Tishrin (September 5, 2001), while not referring to Turk by name, attacked those who it said “want to create a negative climate by breaking the law, trying to sow divisions and distort the image of the great changes” in Syria.
After he became president, Bashar vowed to introduce wide political, economic and administrative reforms. He relaxed many of the tight controls instituted by his late father, loosening somewhat the state’s grip over civil society. In November 2000, he ordered the release of more than 600 political prisoners belonging to several banned political parties. He also closed the notorious Mazzeh military prison on the outskirts of Damascus, and permitted the parties of the National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition between the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party and six socialist and/or Arab nationalist political groupings, to publish their own newspapers. According to the Lebanese daily as-Safir (January 10, 2001), Bashar has expressed in one of the meetings of the Regional Command of the Ba’ath party his desire to introduce democratic elections for the presidency, instead of the established practice of holding a referendum to elect the head of state. In February he raised the prospect of allowing the formation of new political parties, alongside those currently in the NPF.
Heartened by this atmosphere of openness, civil society associations began to appear all over the country. Political forums or ‘salons’ (al-salonat al-siyasiyyah) became a prominent feature of the political landscape in Syria. However, debates were limited to technical matters such as economic policy. Discussions at the new forums shifted to political issues. The forums’ sessions, which are held at private homes, usually open with a lecture on a prearranged topic, followed by comments and discussions from the floor, comprised mainly of intellectuals and academics. The forums gained such popularity that even the Ba’ath Party decided to start its own. This forum was devoted to discussing cultural issues.
But the non-governmental political forums became much too political. Participants in these forums criticised the government’s policies and called for free elections, the suspension of martial law, ending the Ba’ath Party’s near-monopoly of political power and the release of all political prisoners. The approach to reform adopted by Bashar, albeit slow and measured, seems to have alarmed the bureaucracy, the security services and the old guard in the Ba’ath Party, who are now obstructing political liberalisation.
Syria has been shaken this year by a growing state crackdown on unmonitored political activity. The political forums were shut down in March, under pressure from officials who argued that the meetings sowed civil discord and belittled the regime.
By allowing the crackdown on political dissidents, Bashar seems to be driven by considerations of raison d’etat, notwithstanding his much-touted preference for political openness. Bashar realises that his hold on power depends on his ability to accommodate the army generals and intelligence chiefs who sustain the regime. The sort of open society portrayed in Bashar’s public talk about political reform is the stuff of nightmare for the military establishment that has been the main foundation of the power of the Asad “republican dynasty.” The recent crackdown demonstrates the establishment’s reluctance to risk the major changes that must come with the relaxation of strictures on Syrian society. The inhibitions to the violence of the state resulting from political reform are anathema to the interests entrenched in Syria’s corridors of power.
The old guard are afraid of what happened after Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (‘openness’), when reform brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union. The example of Gorbachev clearly shows the brittleness of the security establishment, as well as its lack of legitimacy and its inability to stem the tide of reform. Besides, the vivacity and dynamism shown during Bashar’s glasnost indicate that the Syrians’ struggle for reform may be reaching a point of no return.