March 17, 2006
by Nibras Kazimi
Dictatorships usually derive continuity from having a group of people who will fight to the death to maintain the status quo. Syria is most definitely a dictatorship, but finding its base is a hard thing to do these days.
Three weeks ago, two events occurred in Damascus that gave some indication as to Syria's economic direction: a first KFC fast food joint was opened in an upscale neighborhood, and taxi meters were recalibrated to reflect increasing international prices as the government starts reducing its subsidies of energy. Coming around the 43rd anniversary of the March 8 Ba'athist coup d'etat that started it all and that launched a homegrown interpretation of socialism, an observer would be tempted to think that Syria's dictator Bashar Al-Assad is trying to take a country scarred by his father's legacy in the right direction.
Yet the meters for most taxis prowling the city have yet to be upgraded, given the snail-based machinations of a bureaucracy obsessed with multiple permits and never-ending paperwork. The compromise has been to print a sticker with the price adjustments so that patrons and drivers don't enter into endless arguments over the fare. As of a few days ago, the authorities ran out of stickers too.
On the other hand, the prices for an order of fried drumsticks would be prohibitive to the vast majority of Syrians, but they can gawk at the diners who can afford it. Up the road in the Abu Rommana neighborhood stands the American Embassy; looking more than a barracks hunkered down behind coils of barbed wire than a beacon of Americana, which makes sense given that rioters tried to burn it 8 years ago, and a couple more times since. Also around is the burnt-out hulk of the building that used to house the Danish Embassy—another victim of rioters just a few weeks ago.
Climbing up to higher ground, one would spot the Presidential Palace, where security personnel in badly tailored black suits and ties adorned with a picture of Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar's father, mill around trying to stay out of the sun. Traffic is sparse and eerily silent as no one dares to honk. It is puzzling how a horde of hooligans would have been able to run about unchallenged while burning embassies in this, the most secure of Damascene neighborhoods.
Maybe it had something to do with the campaign to boycott Danish products being advertised on huge billboards all over town, bearing the phone number of the public relations company managing the ad blitz. In other words, embassies burn because the regime allows them to, even though this same regime is going through the motions of political and economic reforms. Syria, like all dictatorships, is not governed by the rule of law, rather by a capricious coterie of individuals who arbitrarily draw red lines: you only know that you've crossed the line after the fact, when you've landed in a whole world of trouble. The same coterie decides where the populace can vent its anger, this time around against the hapless Danes.
Six years ago, when new of the death of Hafez Al-Assad was broken to the world, many observers were optimistic that the Syrian regime would be transformed by his heir Bashar into something less unsavory. But where is Syria today? Is it still a repressive Ba'athist regime that found it necessary to smash Hama, a sizable town that could have been one of prettiest in the Middle East, and massacre many thousands of its people in the early 1980s, in order to stay in power? Or is it a land that is trying to go internationally legit and to open up to the world?
Syria under Bashar seems caught in a time warp. On one hand, the Syrian citizen is allowed to receive a whole spectrum of information. Arabic and Lebanese dailies that run stories critical of the Syrian regime are sold on the streets unimpeded. Satellite TV has been available here for a decade, manifested by the rusting dishes on rooftops. But at the same time, almost every shop bears the pictures of Papa Assad and his son, and almost every area of free wall space is painted with Ba'athist slogans. The most ubiquitous of those is the one that trumpets: "Our Leader Forever is Chairman Hafez Al-Assad."
But he's dead, I keep thinking; wouldn't his expiration put the myth of his immortality to sleep? Isn't it time for a fresh coat of paint and more up-to-date slogans? Visiting Papa Assad's grave in his hometown of Qirdaha in the foothills of the Alawi Mountains, one is attended by security men wearing the same suits and ties as around the Presidential Palace. I keep looking for comparisons between Assad's Ba'athist regime and Saddam's own version, and at least when it comes to thinking in terms of a sectarian minority holding a monopoly on power. In Qirdaha and its surrounding villages, as well as elsewhere in the Alawi domains, the squalid dwellings resemble Syrian villages all over the country, with the only difference being that some local village boy who had made it big in the city as some officer or bureaucrat has built a gauche villa—modest by Iraqi Ba'athist standards—to show off his good fortune.
So if the Alawis seemingly did not get the best deal out of 30 years of Hafez Al-Assad's rule, then who did? Which community or social class is providing the Praetorian Guard to maintain this legacy, and why?
Wandering across large portions of Syria, the bitter aftertaste one is left with is that this country is in a very shabby state, in fact, even its people seem to have blended in with their dreary surroundings. Whether the traders of Aleppo, or the Ismaili farmers of Salamiyah, or the workers at a gas plant in Banyas on the coast, or a Druze driving a cab around the capital, most seem to realize that this country is in the doldrums and that their lot could be a lot better. They are resigned to the Ba'athist whip, but they are uncertain as to who wields it: the Alawis, the merchants of Damascus, the Zionists ... etc. They dabble in endless conspiracy theories, making excuses for their tyrants—especially Bashar—by blaming excesses on the corrupt circles around them, and hoping that this will all blow over somehow without them sticking their necks out. The regime survives by dint of their political lethargy.
The Syrian regime seems brittle, and after all this time, there may be too few people who can make sense of why it should continue. Syria under Bashar is a land of co-existing contradictions that allow embassies to burn, while wanting to be part of the world community, or whose stilted bureaucracy would thwart an effort as simple as recalibrating taxi meters. It is adrift and characterless: this dictatorship does not seem to inspire a base that would defend it. This is good news for the handful of local democrats pushing back at the regime to gauge the limitations of freedom, but also for shadowy jihadists, who may be preparing for a blitz of terror. The current regime will not sustain a challenge from either, and it is now a question of who rises to the challenge first.
Mr. Kazimi, an Iraqi writer and visiting scholar at Hudson Institute, writes a weekly column on the Middle East for The New York Sun. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org