Reform, Syrian Style

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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.

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  1. Bashar’s problem is that he’s already IN Damascus.
    He should have his driver drop him off somewhere ON THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS.”

  2. “It also shows that domestic reform by Middle Eastern autocrats is a splendid fiction ”

    and reform by US bombs is what?

  3. and reform by US bombs is what?

    Considerably more effective. 🙂

  4. Ok, this stupidity about “reform by US bombs” or “democracy with the barrel of a gun” passing as a smart comment is really annoying, and incredibly ignorant.

    Democracy and reform are not brought by the gun, but the conditions for democracy and reform to take root and flourish might very well need the guns and US bombs. You bet your sweet ass.

    Only someone completely ignorant about the nature of the ME regimes (as well as other experiments in Germany, Spain, Italy, and Japan, to name but a few) would think that democracy in Saddam’s Iraq had a chance in hell to even be conceived, let alone be given the space to flourish. Where else in the ME? Syria? Just read the above post by Michael. Egypt? Saudi Arabia?

    Get serious and enough with this bullshit.

  5. Well, the shut up, Tony.

  6. Most Iraqis want the US army and their sweet seeds of democracy to get the hell out of Iraq. It is easy for you to say othewise when you are not at the receiving end of a ‘smart’ bomb.

    Beside, what the hell ‘Germany, Spain, Italy, and Japan’ have to do with the discussion. You are not claiming that the US went to war with Japan and Germany to democritize them, are you?

  7. Dan,

    Not really. Unless a civil war in Iraq is considered “reform.”

    Tony,

    I am serious; you are not.

    Anyone silly enough to think that American military force is enough to create democratic institutions doesn’t know much about the various failures of such force to do so. Indeed, the historical record is replete them – from Haiti to the Phillipines to Mexico. Indeed, what it can create is a rather undersired reaction; as was the case when the U.S. invaded Mexico during the Wilson Presidency (when we landed troops at Veracruz) during the early days of the Mexican revolution (this was before Pershing’s effort to chase down Villa). The only thing it accomplished was to unite the various Mexican factions against the U.S. Wilson politely left with his tail between his legs. He didn’t want a repeat of the Phillipine fiasco of the previous administrations.

    In other words, military force is not the deftly handled weapon for democracy, etc. that folks like Dan and Tony so incredulously always infer; and the historical record bears this out nicely.

    anon,

    One wonders if Tony even realizes that the U.S. has never invaded Spain proper. I suppose he might be referring to the regime of Franco, but there is a great deal of myth-making by apologists for his fascist-light regime that ignore the reality that Spain’s development was undertaken despite Franco’s efforts, and Spain is still today dealing with the anti-freedom that was at the heart of his regime (Zapatero is now dismantling his predecessor’s efforts to make religious instruction in Spanish schools mandatory for example).

  8. Dan, Not really. Unless a civil war in Iraq is considered “reform.”

    It is undeniably reform when compared to what came before it. The nation is more democratic, its economy is improving, and fewer innocent people are being killed. I call that progress.

    But why limit the discussion to Iraq? The original poster didn’t; he sneered at the very idea of “reform by US bombs”, conveniently ignoring the fact that Japan, Afghanistan, and most of Europe are democracies thanks to the “reform by US bombs” technique. So even if one could convincingly argue that the idea is failing in Iraq, the simple fact is that it usually succeeds — countries we defeat in war, with few exceptions, become freer and more democratic.

  9. Dan,

    It is undeniably reform when compared to what came before it.

    When some starts off by telling me something is undeniable, my bullshit detector goes off-scale.

    The nation is more democratic, its economy is improving, and fewer innocent people are being killed.

    Its not democratic at all (indeed, it is “run” by a largely unelected caste of appointed leaders, who in reality do not even run the country, whose power is less than the popular regional leaders who have sprung up in the wake of the invasion); its economy is not improving (the mere fact that its pipelines are so frequently shutdown is demonstration enough this); and lots of innocent people die daily (whether few die daily is unestablished).

    …he sneered at the very idea of “reform by US bombs”, conveniently ignoring the fact that Japan, Afghanistan, and most of Europe are democracies thanks to the “reform by US bombs” technique.

    Afghanistan is not a democracy; hell it hasn’t even had a nation-wide election yet.

    As to the other countries mentioned, Japan is not a “democracy”; it is a heriditary constitutional monarchy (as it was before and during the WWII). It is not a democracy (as in the institutions of popular sovereignty) thanks to American bombs, as it was “democratic” througout WWII. It did end Japan’s imperialist and militarist desires on Asia and the Pacific, but that’s an entirely different thing.

    France, the low countries, Denmark, Norway, etc., were all democracies (in that they had some measure of popular sovereignty) prior to WWII; so they were not democracies due to American bombs, but their institutions were restored in part due to American (and Soviet and British) efforts. You distort the nature of the conflict by implying that those institutions were restored soley by American effort.

    And Spain did not become a democracy due to American bombs, nor did most of Eastern Europe. Indeed, there was no direct U.S. military involvement in their development.

    I have to say that this is one the most poorly argued posts you’ve made, and I find your willingness to distort the historical record to be especially disconcerting.

  10. Anyone silly enough to think that American military force is enough to create democratic institutions doesn’t know much about the various failures of such force to do so.

    Silly is the one who doesn’t read properly. I clearly said that it’s not guns that make democracy (people do). Guns, I said, “might very well be needed” to create the conditions for democracy to take root and flourish.

    Next time read before you open your mouth.

  11. I have a different view than Michael, for whom I have the greatest admiration. See my post at http://syriacomment.com “What Does the New Syrian Cabinet Portend?”

    Also see the article in the Daily Star by Nicholas Blanford “Questions remain after Syrian Cabinet reshuffle” http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=2&article_id=9029

    Joshua

  12. In other words, military force is not the deftly handled weapon for democracy, etc. that folks like Dan and Tony so incredulously always infer; and the historical record bears this out nicely.

    mr bourne, how dare you cite the historical record in the face of the commonly-accepted ideology of the day!

    lol — kudos to you, sir.

  13. The bottom line here is that until the Syrians (and for that matter, the Lebanese) are willing to seek reform by themselves, we’re going to stay on the same merry go round.

    In the Middle East, politics is like the souk, the marketplace.

    The fun is in the theatrics of the haggling– the longer and more complicated and intense, the happier everyone is.

    Plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme.

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