Reform, Syrian Style


Yesterday, Syrian President Bashar Assad organized a significant cabinet reshuffle that brought a substantial number of Baathist officials into the government of Prime Minister Naji al-Utri.

Some Syrian pundits have argued that it shows how serious the regime is about reform; in fact the reshuffle appears to represent a hardening in Damascus, as the regime faces a number of major challenges that, it fears, may ultimately lead to its downfall. This includes increasingly vocal domestic criticism of the regime; the regime's utter inability (despite a plethora of intelligence services) to defend against Israeli attacks; U.S. and French pressure on Syria (through the UN) to pull out of Lebanon; and, even, growing tension in Lebanon after Assad imposed an extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's mandate over the wishes of most members of the (otherwise pro-Syrian) political elite.

The person to watch is Ghazi Kanaan, the new interior minister. He was for many years the Syrian proconsul in Lebanon, and returned to Syria to head the Political Security directorate. He will probably continue to do so, since it comes under the authority of the Interior Ministry, and he's powerful enough to impose his writ on both. The likelihood is that Kanaan was brought in to tighten the screws in Syria (he's the one who cracked down on Syrian opposition figures, but also on Syria's riotous Kurds last March), and to strengthen Syria's hold over Lebanon. It might be fair to say that the Syrian regime, for the first time since Hafez Assad died in 2000, is seriously worried about its future.

If this is all true, it would confirm that the four-year "reform" effort of Bashar has led mostly nowhere--as indeed it could not, since the president never sought true liberalization of the Syrian system. It also shows that domestic reform by Middle Eastern autocrats is a splendid fiction if it does not at the end of the day include the possibility of a non-violent change of regime. Bashar thought he could emulate the Chinese model; now he fears he might be Gorbachev. In fact, his ways are to be found neither in Moscow nor Beijing, but in Cairo and Tunis, where the populations have just been promised several more years of the same mediocrity at the top.