Syria's Culture of Fear and Stalemate

It is not surprising that the new, young leader of an Arab country should be tremendously concerned, during his first years in office, with establishing his legitimacy and stature. In replacing his father, the late President Hafiz al-Assad, Syria's current President, Bashar al-Assad, urgently needed to demonstrate his command of his country's situation even more than other relatively new Arab leaders, such as Jordan's King Abdullah or Morocco's King Muhammad. For Bashar al-Assad selection as the replacement for his father, within minutes of Assad's death on June 10, 2000, had stunned Syria's entire system, despite the years of preparing public opinion for this succession.

Having failed to put forward a clear and effective program of internal reform, the young President sought to make up for his domestic failure in the realm of foreign affairs. Here, no surprise, the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict provided the most visible opportunity to establish his leadership credentials, especially in the aftermath of the democratic election of Ariel Sharon as Israel's new Prime Minister, a man reviled in the Arab world.

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During the recent Arab Summit in Beirut, the young President capitalized on the absence of the Egyptian, Libyan and Palestinian leaders (among others) to strike a positive chord with audiences in Syria and across the Arab world. In a well-rehearsed, self-assured manner reminiscent of his late father, Bashar al-Assad aimed a provocative lecture at his colleagues, supporting the Palestinians' "right of resistance," calling upon Arab countries to sever their relations with Israel, urging an Iraqi-Kuwaiti reconciliation, and endorsing Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah's peace initiative.

With these demands, the young President emerged in many Syrian eyes as the summit's "Man of the Hour," a leader with a deep understanding of the issues at hand. Through his confident performance, the new President gained in stature. More importantly, his performance deflected attention from any consideration of economic or political reform within Syria, at least for now.

Initially, President Bashar's accession to power was accompanied by a modest, but noticeable political thaw. Popular forums and private discussion clubs sprung up across Syria, allowing relatively open debate. After a few months, these popular forums were brought to an abrupt halt, as security services enforced a stringent set of regulations that effectively closed these open gatherings. The shortness of this Syrian "spring" came as a hard blow to the expectations of many of the country's intellectuals and professionals, young and old.

This blow was felt all the more sharply as it became obvious that curtailment of these popular forums did not stir a wide public reaction. Forced to recognize the prospect of being marginalized yet again by the new government, Syrian intellectuals turned their attention to Sharon and the growing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Once again, the Palestinian cause became a substitute for focused attention on Syria's domestic situation, offering Syrian intellectuals and professionals a politically safe way to vent their frustrations.

As for the Syrian "Street," that amorphous mixture of average citizens and popular consensus, not only did it lack any sympathy for the intellectuals, it also failed to show any systematic interest in domestic politics. The main concerns of the average Syrian, it seems, are definite improvements in living standards and a reduction in the high unemployment rate.

Broader concerns about reform - civil law, women's rights, and the role of religion in society - remain issues that the Syrian Street prefers to avoid. For better or worse, restrictions in these areas are well-understood constants of Syrian life. Challenging them in difficult and insecure times is not an appealing prospect.

The passivity of Syrian society is the result of a tacit agreement between people and government. The government does not dabble too much in social affairs, while the people do not involve themselves too much in internal politics. Meanwhile, the Arab-Israeli conflict serves as a mutually agreed upon rallying point for Syria's government and governed.

As the pretext for ignoring the repression of basic freedoms, that conflict has come to be described in powerful national and religious rhetoric throughout Syrian society. What might otherwise be seen as a political conflict has acquired significant socio-cultural dimensions.

It is therefore legitimate to wonder whether Syria's President can act with any real initiative toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite the dictatorial nature of his regime, President al-Assad still needs to satisfy popular sentiment regarding Israel. To betray this consensus runs the risk of mobilizing people on behalf of other, more domestically-oriented concerns. This is the risk of all popular mobilization in the Middle East; Syria simply exhibits a more potent version of it.