June 10, 2005


A New Syria? (David Ignatius, June 10, 2005, Washington Post)

Let's give President Bashar Assad the benefit of the doubt and imagine that he really does want to change Syria. The problem is that those hundreds of Baathists in their limos aren't about to give up the power that has made them rich, even as Syria itself has grown poorer. Assad has cautiously promoted reform. But he hasn't yet shown the toughness or political will to break the power of the Baathist apparatchiks and intelligence chiefs. Nobody has lost his Mercedes.

Back in town later that afternoon, I'm riding in a rickety yellow taxi. When I tell the driver I'm American, he looks me dead in the eye and says in broken English: "The Baath Party is dirty. They eat everything for themselves." He gestures with his hands, as if shoveling food into his mouth. The driver, a former Syrian soldier who served in Lebanon, says he likes Assad, whom he calls a "gentleman." But as for the ruling party, he says: "All Syrian people hate them."

I heard similar sentiments all week. This is a surprisingly open society for a police state. Social life and political discussion flourish out of sight of the Mukhabarat -- in private homes, cafes, offices. It's like mushrooms, sprouting in the dark. The regime is widely detested, but Assad himself is seen as a likable if ineffectual figure. And though people badly want change, they are also frightened of the disorder that might accompany it. That's why any uprising against the regime is unlikely, despite its unpopularity.

I visit with one of the country's reform advocates. He's dismissive of the party congress. "Assad is not a reformer," he insists. "Had he wanted change, he could have done it years ago." The regime can't survive unless it reforms, he argues. But a moment later, he admits that there's "no real opposition" and that "a majority of the country still believes in Assad." A Sunni from a prominent family sums up Assad's dilemma this way: "He wants change, but he also wants to keep power."

The prevailing mood in Damascus this week is confusion. "We don't know what's going on," laments a top Syrian businessman. Even senior members of the government don't seem sure of what will follow the congress. They say privately that they hope for a gradual process of change, but they can't be certain. And these are people at the top of the pyramid. It reminds me of the feel of Moscow 20 years ago -- a sense that the old regime can't last, and can't change, either.

And then it does.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 10, 2005 2:02 PM

Of course, the writer completely misses a key point: many of the Ba'athists in Syria are Alewites. They can't give up power without being exterminated by an enraged Sunni majority.

Posted by: Steve White at June 11, 2005 1:06 PM