Bashar al-Asad, who succeeded his father, Hafez, as president in July 2000, has come under strong attack from Syrian human-rights groups, not only for failing to reform the repressive political and judicial systems he has inherited, but also for allowing the country’s dismal human-rights record to sink to the levels of the 1980s, when the worst violations were committed. One group, the Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC), sets out the most serious charges in its annual report, published on June 27, while five groups – including the SHRC – take the regime to task for its treatment of the Kurdish minority in a joint statement published on July 2.
The system of government, which Bashar promised to reform but now clearly intends to preserve, is dominated by the Ba’ath party and security forces, which have ruled the country since 1963, with real power concentrated in the country’s tiny Alawite minority. It was during an inaugural speech in July 2000 that Bashar promised "modern thinking" in place of "old ideas that have become obstacles," but the changes so far have succeeded only in consolidating the role of the Ba’ath party and security forces. No meaningful change can be brought without amending the constitution, which guarantees the ruling party’s pre-eminence. The constitution, promulgated in March 1973, declared that Syria is "a democratic, popular socialist state" and that the Ba’ath party is "the leading party in the state and society".
A tradition of what has been described as "collective discipline and loyalty"– no doubt reinforced by the Alawites’ distrust of the Sunnis – has cemented ties between the party and military. The late Hafez al-Asad, who belonged to both and ruled the country from 1971 to 2000, did more than anyone to establish those ties and create Syria’s dominant old guard. This enabled him to pass the presidency to his son, in what is ostensibly a constitutionally socialist democracy, as if Syria were an absolute monarchy. But Bashar is not a member of the armed forces and is too old young to be a member of the old guard, whose loyalty he enjoys because he is his father’s son who is committed to preserving his legacy. Part of that commitment is to target the country’s Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation and as Syria’s principal enemy.
Bashar and his officials wasted no time in expressing support for Hafez’s bloodstained legacy, part of which is his mass-murder of members of the Brotherhood in 1982, when 20,000 residents of the city of Hama were killed by the security forces, and many thousands arrested, who have since disappeared without trace. After September 2001, they reminded Washington that Syria had been targeted by ‘Islamic terrorists’ 20 years earlier and defeated them: an allusion to the Hama massacre. "The kind of terrorism we faced was the same kind and probably the same persons now fighting the US," they crowed. "We were ahead in fighting terrorism."
It is true that Bashar released many members of the Brotherhood, and other political prisoners, as soon as he became president, but that was mainly because they were ill and he did not want them to die in prison. As the annual report of the SHRC shows, Bashar has in any case also ordered the arrest of hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, it is not only Islamic activists who remain in Syria’s jails or are being arrested. According to the report, hundreds of Palestinians, arrested during Hafez’s rule because of the regime’s hostility to Yasser Arafat, are still held. So are thousands from Lebanon and other countries. But even those political detainees who have been released continue to be denied their civil rights, the report says. "Many of them cannot travel abroad and are not allowed to work in the public sector, or, indeed, to set up their own private business," it says.
But, equally seriously, the report charges that political detentions under Bashar’s rule have multiplied, to the extent that they are reminiscent of the 1980s. According to SHRC, thousands of Syrians, many returning from war-torn Iraq, have been arrested, taken to unknown destinations, and probably tortured. For instance the report cites the arrests of more than 35 Syrians arrested in Halab province for unknown reasons, who are being kept in isolation and probably subjected to torture. This tendency on the part of the Syrian security forces to arrest and detain people in mysterious circumstances explains why the authorities even now refuse to solve the of mystery about thousands of missing persons. According to the report, the government refuses to "take any steps capable of revealing the fate of the 17,000 people missing since the late seventies and early eighties... most of whom are members and sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood, and [who] might have died as a result of collective or individual executions or of torture, illness and bad diet." The government has dismissed all enquiries from relatives and organisations representing them, the report adds.
The report also asserts that the "Syrian authorities have played an important role" in the arrest and savage interrogation of many Arabs suspected of having ties with al-Qa’ida or of being sympathisers. The authorities have all cooperated with the intelligence agencies of certain countries, such as Pakistan and the US, and have shared with Washington the information extracted or collected, the report adds. "Numerous innocent people have fallen victim to these actions, which are inspired by the Syrian regime’s historical enmity towards Islamic organisations," the report says.
Other victims of the Bashar regime’s violations of human rights covered by the report include Lebanese missing persons, whose relatives and Lebanese human-rights groups believe that they are still in Syrian jails, and members of the Kurdish minority, who are denied civil and cultural rights, such as the right to teach their children their own mother tongue in their schools. The Syrian authorities are under great pressure from Lebanese and Kurdish activists, as well as human-rights groups, to come clean on these issues. The statement, issued in July 2 by five Syrian human-rights groups, including the SHRC, accuses the authorities of arresting seven Kurds in Damascus, the capital, for demanding to be granted Syrian citizenship during a demonstration on June 25, which was International Children’s Day. According to the statement, about 200 children also took part in the demonstration and carried placards whose slogans demanded the return of Syrian citizenship to the Kurds.
The regime is showing signs that it is aware of the pressure, but there is little evidence to suggest that it will respond adequately. Ali Hamoud, the minister of the interior, would allow himself to respond only to the pressure brought on account of Lebanese missing persons in Syrian jails. He said unambiguously on July 4 that there are no Lebanese missing in Syria, nor Lebanese political detainees in Syria’s prisons. The only Lebanese people in Syrian jails are criminals convicted of crimes, particularly drug-smuggling, he said. He did not even refer to the other issues raised in the SHRC’s report.
Bashar al-Asad has clearly no card of his own to play, because he is hostage to the old guard and his father’s legacy, which he openly and strongly defends.