By M. S. Ahmed
Since succeeding his father, Hafez, as president in 2000, Bashar al-Asad has been going through the motions of reforming the political, security and economic policies and practices bequeathed to him. But although he has released most of Syria’s estimated 50,000 political prisoners, declared corruption his principal target, and made some changes to the cabinet, Bashar remains firmly committed to the bloodstained legacy of his late father. This applies particularly to the Muslim Brotherhood, who, far from being reprieved, have been chosen to be the ‘terrorists’ that Bashar needs to pursue in order to demonstrate his support for the West’s “war on terrorism”.
After declaring their backing for the war, the president and his senior officials openly advised the Bush administration to take a leaf out of Syria’s book, claiming that Damascus had been the first victim of terrorism but had managed to defeat it. According to the government’s newsagency, Bashar urged a US delegation visiting Damascus in January to “take advantage of Syria’s successful experience”. Adnan Omran, the minister of information, even suggested that the terrorists the US is facing could have been the same people whom Syria fought off in the past. “The kind of terrorism we faced was the same and probably the same persons are now fighting the US,” he said. “We were ahead in fighting terrorism.”
What the Syrian leaders are crowing about is the massacres committed in February 1982, when Syria’s security forces attacked the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama. They killed 10,000 residents and arrested several thousand members of the Brotherhood, who have since disappeared without trace. Their disgraceful claim of victory also relates to the extensive security and intelligence machinery put in place afterwards to control the Muslim Brotherhood. The old regime devoted substantial resources to the establishment of an intelligence unit covering all aspects of every Islamic group, not only in Syria but also in the Muslim world and Europe. By all accounts the unit has over the years collected “impressive information” on Islamic movements in those areas.
Bashar is peddling this information to the Americans, who have praised him for his cooperation, especially his readiness to share intelligence material. But still they are not prepared to remove Syria from the list of states that “support terrorism”. Washington has, of course, never been worried about the fate of Islamic movements (which, after all, are the main target of the “war on terrorism”) and Syria is on the list because of its support for Hizbullah in Lebanon. Hizbullah is a sworn enemy of Israel, which is occupying the Golan Heights (which are really Syrian territory), and Bashar cannot afford to target it. And Washington, which values the cooperation of Damascus, is not demanding that Bashar publicly drop the movement, but wants him to stop its attacks on Israeli forces — making it ineffective and losing the wide support that it enjoys at present.
Recent reports cite the fact that Hizbullah has not carried out any attack against Israel since October as evidence that Bashar has indeed succeeded in persuading Hizbullah to suspend its attacks, if only to avoid being targeted by the US as a terrorist organisation. But Hizbullah is not the only cause of friction between Washington and Damascus. The US government’s refusal to allow any definition of terrorism to be agreed internationally (mainly because it could catch the US and Israel) and Syria’s need to have movements fighting Israeli occupation of Arab territories classified as freedom-fighters, rather than as terrorists, are another. When, for instance, Syria became a UN security council member on January 18, it compared Israel’s destruction of houses in the Ghazzah Strip with the attacks on the US on September 11, Americans were furious: one unnamed official called it “outrageous” and secretary of state Colin Powell dismissed it as “hysterical”.
But the Muslim Brotherhood cannot draw comfort from any of this. The recent release of many of its members cannot be taken as evidence that the regime is relenting. According to Khalid al-Shami, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was released in December after 20 years in prison, members of the Brotherhood are being released only because of health problems. He himself had a heart attack in jail several years ago. The fact that more than half of the 1,000 political prisoners still left in Syrian jails are members of the Brotherhood does not suggest a change of heart on the part of the authorities.
Moreover the Bashar regime, like its predecessor, sees Muslim Brotherhood as a representative of the country’s Sunni majority. The Asad clan and its political allies see themselves as members of a tiny Alawite minority targeted by the Sunni majority. The arrest of Riad Seif, a member of parliament, in September of last year shows how sensitive the sectarian issue remains. Seif was arrested on the grounds that he had reopened his ‘democracy forum’, a discussion outfit, without permission. But his supporters say that his criticism of a mobile-phone contract given to “a presidential cousin” was the real reason, while his detractors accuse him of going too far by criticising the late Hafez Asad and discussing the role of sectarianism in Syrian society.
So much for Bashar’s political, security and social reforms.