Syria – Hafez al-Asad is back!

(SyriaComments, April 2, 2011)

A note from an American academic with long experience in Syria and a wonderful book on the Great Revolt in Syria 1925-1927.

This morning I had occasion to visit the Syrian Embassy in the European capital where I am living. There was a small anti-demonstration in the process of being taken over by a pro-demonstration. The people chanting praise of the president did not seem to be enjoying themselves much. Most of them seemed to be embassy employees and students. I guess employees of Syrianair and their families were there too. Nobody met my eyes as I stood by waiting for them to pass.

The president has argued that Syria is different from other states in the region because of its resistance and the dignity he delivers and symbolizes for his people. But if people are subjected to the kind of things we have seen over the last weeks, including his speech, and then compelled to act out spectacles of obedience, what kind of dignity has been delivered?

I think we saw evidence yesterday that the state has a depressingly limited repertoire of responses to crisis, and a basic inability to adjust course to insure at least grudging consent of its majority.

I remember in 1999 when Hafiz al-Asad won his final referendum. People went to the polls because not going was not worth the risk. The performative requirements of obedience to the system were not that great, and the potential costs of disobedience were significant. A couple friends scheduled doctor appointments, and one friend went to Lebanon for an “appointment” to avoid going to the polls. Most people just went. Socialism meant that everybody ate, and prospects were marginally acceptable for most people. The government spent money in the countryside and places like Deraa had pretty good schools and hospitals and other services.

A few months later Hafiz al-Asad died, and something changed. Once it was clear things would be smooth, people’s anxiety lifted. There was a referendum for the new president, and unlike a few months before, I didn’t know one person of my own age group (20s-30s), who admitted bothering to vote. A bit later, the president addressed parliament and said something like, (I paraphrase from memory) “all these displays (pictures and regime icons) are against our human dignity. From now on, government offices should have a smallish photo of the late president and one of the current president. We don’t need more.”

It was a very popular expression of collective dignity. And even friends who cared nothing for politics were impressed. The giant five story high banner of Hafiz al-Asad’s face on the bank at SahatYusuf al-‘Azmeh came down. Same with the central bank. Mezzeh prison was closed, and a couple new newspapers started. The streets were cleaner. The Barada was cleaned up a bit.

So eleven years later, it seems the late president has returned from the dead. The cult of personality is back with a vengeance. The difference is that there are 6 million more Syrians, proportionately fewer jobs, and major problems with the economy and conditions in rural areas. Rural migration to Damascus, is skyrocketing and the agricultural land surrounding the capital is being consumed for shanty-type housing and golf courses for the newly rich. It is not clear what average Syrians would get now in return for their grudging consent to a system that seems unable to deliver even dignity.

I looked at the list of the dead from Hauran you posted. I recognized many of those family names. People from outside Hauran assumed these were poor peasant youth, but I don’t think so. They looked to me like the sons of the leading families of their region. In other words, sons of the rural and provincial middle classes. There must be millions like them. They were raised in big families with some local prominence, but their generation has very limited career prospects and a lot of frustration. What does the government have to offer them, and how exactly can more time spent “studying” reform help the situation?

Over the years every retired Syrian politician I ever met and talked to said to me, “In Syria we have time.” America doesn’t have time, Israel doesn’t have time, but we have time.” I am sure you have heard the same from people you have interviewed. It is a smart strategy and it’s true until it’s not.

Syrian politics has been a long game since at least the 1970s. Bashar certainly learned the long approach to politics from his father. If you can hang on, through the crisis, and survive, you have won. But one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year, or maybe in five years’ time the long game won’t work. The crisis (whatever it is) will demand immediate change of course, and from what we saw yesterday in the speech, the president may not have the insight, or possess the latitude within the system he inhabits, to be able to adjust course. Waiting and surviving will not always be enough.

He has said that reform will take time. But what if eleven years is already too long, and everything important he could have learned and done, has already passed?

Thanks again, ya batal al-huriyya al-’ilm! Count me one of your many admirers-

Michael Provence