Syria – the road ahead

REPORTER: MATTHEW CARNEY

Syrians are in a state of shock.

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They have lost the father of their nation, Hafez al Assad

– a man the people still see as their eternal guide and God`s beloved.

WOMAN (translation): We love him. He`s my soul and my heart. He`s my soul

and my heart. With my soul and my heart I would defend him. I can`t speak.

Nearly two months after his death, thousands still come to his tomb. For some, the

emotion is too much. For outsiders, it`s difficult to understand this genuine outpouring of

emotion. But for most Syrians, Hafez al Assad was the only leader they ever knew. For

30 years, all power belonged to him. His leadership could not be questioned and the

regime he created demanded and received the people`s respect. After his death, his

son, Dr Bashar al Assad, was anointed to carry on his work.

WOMAN (translation): God is generous. God took Assad, but left us his son. His

son is Assad too. His name will live on. Everything he raised us on and taught us will

remain because Bashar is like Hafez al Assad. Our feelings for Hafez will continue

for Bashar.

Dr Bashar al Assad`s rise to power was carefully scripted during his father`s long

illness. In 1997, Dr Bashar al Assad was suddenly promoted as the hope of Syria – the

man who would lead his country out of its isolationist past and modernise the economy.

To smooth the transition Hafez Al Assad spent the last years of his life removing any

opposition to his son`s leadership.

MEN CHANT (translation): With our souls and our blood we protect you, Bashar!

It was no surprise on the day of the presidential referendum last month Dr Bashar

received 97% of the vote. He was the only candidate and as it was reported throughout

Syria, nobody felt worthy to challenge him.

To prove their allegiance many of the regime`s fanatics voted in blood. This man was so

enthusiastic in his support that I saw him vote 5 times this way.

MAN (translation): I only voted once. But because I have five ID cards –

my sister`s, my mother`s…

Dr Bashar al Assad did not expect to be president. His father`s first choice was his

oldest son Basil, but when Basil died in a car crash in 1994, Dr Bashar was summoned

back from medical studies in London to prepare for leadership.

ADNAN OMRAN, SYRIAN INFORMATION MINISTER (translation): This day is a

historic day for Syria. It`s a poll for the values, principles and ideals that Lieutenant

General Bashar al Assad represents.

But the calls of modernising Syria is a message that resonates all over the country,

– especially with Syria`s young elite at Damascus University.

FEMALE STUDENT (translation): The spirit of youth we see in him reflects our

hope and the future we aspire to for us and our country. We are expecting more

openness to the world and for the world to understand what we are. We`re Arabs with a

united voice who want the world to understand us. We`re not reclusive. We want

development for us and our country.

MALE STUDENT (translation): Syrian people are open, educated and civilised and we

can go along with development. With the efforts of Dr Bashar, he`ll lead us and help us

to open up to the world and go along with development.

This new openness does not extend to politics or freedom of expression. The

regime Hafez al Assad created is still firmly in control. The Syrian Government

appointed a minder who controlled what we could see and who we could talk to. Even if

the students wanted to offer a dissenting view, they could not.

FEMALE STUDENT (translation): There`s no problem is the ideas are pro-

government. If they aren`t, problems arise.

And problems have arisen for thousands of Syrians who are regarded as enemies

of the state. This man is living in fear and exile in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

Assad`s regime sentenced him to death, but he escaped.

MAN (translation): I`m scared, of course. I can`t say I`m not. It`s dangerous. It

makes one scared. Thinking in itself is forbidden in our country. You shouldn`t think

unless it`s according to the regime. You must only think what the regime wants you to.

Assad and his inner circle established a vast army of intelligence operatives to

ensure power. He says these networks are playing a key role in securing Dr Bashar`s

leadership. Human rights groups are just starting to learn about a campaign of mass

arrests and imprisonment in the weeks leading up to Dr Bashar`s election.

MAN: Every person, every group and every section of society has someone

watching them. If they`re told to hold a demonstration, they will. Told to vote, they

will. There`s no freedom. The democracy they talk about is a joke and the elections are

rigged. No-one turns up at the polls, yet the results show 99.9%. You see? So the

whole exercise is clearly just theatre.

Behind the theatre, the billboards and the government propaganda is the reality of

no political openness, economic stagnation and at least 20% unemployment. They`re

problems this 34-year-old President says he will solve. Dr Bashar al Assad`s pledge is

to free up the monolithic state-controlled economy, purge Syria of corruption and create

an environment in which the private sector can flourish. If Dr Bashar al Assad is

to survive in the longer term he will have to deliver on his these promises to families like

the Khatibs. They are a typical family living in Damascus.

AHMAD KHATIB (translation): We have high hopes for Dr Bashar. He will follow in

the steps of his father, the late, eternal Hafez al Assad. He will build things and improve

our living conditions by increasing wages and improving the economy and healthcare.

Ahmad Khatib has 12 children, eight of whom are still at school. Ahmad survives in

this four-room house on about US$200 dollars a month. Half of Syria`s population is

under the age of 15. They will need education and jobs, putting more pressure on

Syria`s ailing infrastructure. It`s critical that Dr Bashar`s economic plans show early

signs of success. His people are expecting it.

SURIA KHATIB (translation): Everything comes from God. I ask for a beautiful life

and a big house for my family, and for each of my children to have a house.

To drive his economic reforms, Dr Bashar will have to resuscitate the great

tradition of Syrian entrepeneurship. It`s something the Sankar brothers understand.

Hafez al Assad was threatened by the traders and merchants who had dominated

commerce in Syria for centuries. Faced with the limitation of operating within Assad`s

Soviet-style economy most of them fled overseas. The Sankars were one of the few

families to stay.

KAMIL SANKAR: This is my father. He was the first to import machinery, big

machinery from France. He always had strategy for the future.

Kamil Sankar`s father was allowed some economic freedom because he was a

friend and confidant of Hafez al Assad.

KAMIL SANKAR: Our president, Hafez al Assad, he really played with us. He put

his hand on our hair and he loved to play outside the house here. We have very good

memory about that, believe me.

But the Sankars moved a lot of their capital offshore during the 1970s and 1980s.

It`s only in the past decade, when changes in investment laws gave them more control,

that they decided to move their money back. The family now has six high-tech food

processing factories. They have invested in Syria, taken advantage of its cheap labour

and rich local produce and are exporting their product all over the world.

Dr Bashar is trying to entice most of Syria`s entrepreneurs back home. If they did return,

they could inject $50 billion into the stagnant Syrian economy. To achieve, this Sankars

believe the Government must move faster with its reforms.

AMIR SANKAR: In Syria, we`ve already started to have a market economy, but the

steps are too slow.

KAMIL SANKAR: They need people like us and also people coming also from outside.

We need the investors to come also to make joint venture with them.

AMIR SANKAR: Here, we need many things. We need the banks to become more

modern. You know, today we need the computer system for everything. Also the

internet in this time, but our banks still deal in the very old mentality.

Dr Nabeel Sukkar is the man who drew up the blueprint to transform Syria`s

centrally planned economy into a market-based model. While Dr Sukkar does not

question Dr Bashar`s commitment to economic liberalisation, he is surprisingly frank in

his criticism of what`s happened to date.

DR NABEEL SUKKAR: I think so far, our reforms have been ad hoc and

pragmatic. We do not have a plan yet, and I think what should we should have is a

comprehensive economic reform program, so that we know where we are heading and

what measures need to be done and in what sequence.

To free up Syria`s state economy, banks will have to be created and most of

Syria`s law changed. It is massive, fundamental reform.

DR NABEEL SUKKAR: That involves liberalising the exchange regime, liberalising

imports, improving our company law, our tax administration should be improved, as well

as the tax system, we should improve our judiciary system, we should have more

transparency in the system. These are the things we should introduce now to create a

more favourable climate for foreign investment as well as for domestic investment, and

therefore encouraging the private sector overall.

Even before he became President, Dr Bashar al Assad began this process. Last

year, he introduced mobile phones and the internet – the last country in the Middle East

to do so. His father barred them, fearing they might be used as tools to undermine his

government. Dr Bashar has approved only three internet cafes, but demand has been

great. 50,000 Syrians have logged on in this internet caf”š since it opened in January.

The hook-up to the world has already started to change the mindset of the people.

MAN (translation): Of course. This should happen between people. We learn from

their values and they learn form ours. There has to be cultural exchange, because one

cannot live in isolation.

YOUNG MAN (translation): It helps with information about education abroad. I might

want to study abroad.

The Government`s reforms will change Syrian society forever. Along with economic

liberalisation and information technology will come the inevitable calls for greater

participation in the political process.

DR NABEEL SUKKAR: A significant feature of the new administration could be

increased participation. I expect to see that happening in Syria more and more, starting

with the economic field, and then in civil society, and then more of the political

inclusionism. I expect this will come about at the end of the tenure.

The dilemma for young Dr Bashar is how to manage these calls for greater political

openness. Balancing the tensions between an emerging civil society and his father`s

dictatorial legacy will define his success or failure. To understand this dilemma, you

have to examine the forces his father crushed on his way to the top and then

manipulated during his domination of Syria.

Hafez al Assad`s rise to power is a remarkable story. He was born in these mountains

into the Alawite sect – an obscure offshoot of Shia Islam. The Alawites took refuge here

from the powerful Sunni majority, who persecuted them as heretics because of their

unorthodox tribal rituals. Downtrodden, they were the poorest of poor. Mr al Shariqi

shared those hardships with the young Hafez. They were neighbours and childhood

friends.

MR AL SHARIQI (translation) : Imagine when this village did not have water and

had no electricity or schools. Indeed, some of us had to walk for a distance of 15 km to

get home.

The fortunes of the Alawite minority changed when the colonial French enlisted

their help put down the Sunni independence movement in 1930s. The colonial mentality

of divide and conquer saw the French bolster the poor Alawite community and offer

them an education for the first time. Hafez al Assad proved to be a brilliant student.

MR AL SHARIQI: He managed to come first at every level. We used to call him the

loyal student, who was sincere, proud and intelligent and enjoyed all the characteristics

which made him an intelligent, outstanding and unique student.

President Assad started out in politics at just 16 years old when he joined the

socialist Ba`ath party calling for an Arab revolution. He would later dominate the Ba`ath

party, but his avenue to power was the military. With the help of his Alawite army

comrades he took control of Syria in 1970.

Assad`s hometown of Qardaha is a testament to the Alawite victory over the powerful

Sunni majority. New houses have replaced the mudbrick dwellings of Assad`s youth.

The late president gave his village a new hospital and a mosque dedicated to his

mother. In appreciation, when President Assad returned home, his car would be picked

up and carried around the village.

But there was one more brutal battle to win. Radical Sunnis, frustrated at losing their

power, armed themselves and went underground. In 1980, the Muslim Brotherhood, as

it become known, succeeded in securing large areas in Syria`s north. Assad was losing

control, and after he narrowly survived an assassination attempt by the Muslim

Brotherhood, he decided to act. He sent in his army to crush an uprising in the city of

Hama in 1982. President Assad was at war with his own people.

ALI SADRADDIN AL BAYANUNI, SYRIAN MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD (translation):

There was a sort of huge popular uprising. So the regime, the military and security

forces confronted the uprising with extreme brutality. The army used cannons and tanks

to bombard the city and destroy most of its buildings with the occupants still inside.

There were an estimated 20 000 victims and some estimates exceed this figure. The

scene of families, women and children who fell victim to this bombardment was a

horrible sight.

After he destroyed the Muslim Brotherhood, Assad maintained his grip on Syria by

skillfully playing off one power centre against the other. Syrian commentators are

waiting to see if Dr Bashar will rule Syria with the same ruthless skill.

PATRICK SEALE, HAFEZ AL ASSAD`S BIOGRAPHER: The skill the late

president Assad had was to balance, to keep in balance the various internal forces.

Now, we have to see whether Dr. Bashar can do that. It`s not a monolithic

system. There are many different centers of power. He has to be very skilful in his

handling of those different sectors, balancing one against the other, making sure that

no one becomes to strong to challenge the summit. Now, he`s had a lot of training;

whether he can do it, we`ll have to wait and see

Patrick Seale is Hafez al Assad`s biographer. He is the only Western writer to be

given extensive access to Assad, his family and the various strata of Syrian society.

PATRICK SEALE: There are the armed services, and there are a lot of generals in

the Syrian Army; there are the various intelligence agencies, three or four important

ones; there are of course the Ba`ath party and its various factions inside the party; the

Alawite community; there are the merchants of Damascus, which are largely Sunni;

there are the rural masses, which again are a constituency he has to look after; and

there are a mass of government servants, fairly low-paid, who are demanding higher

pay.

To manage this political complexity, Dr Bashar`s government says it will allow more

political debate and participation – something Hafez al Assad would never have done.

ISSAM EL ZAIM, SYRIAN PLANNING MINISTER: We have institutions that allow

debate, and I think this will take place in the future. Already, we debate in the Council of

Ministers, we debate in the newspapers, we debate in public meetings. We do debate

about economic reforms. I think this will go on – the more we progress in proving the

administration of our economy, the more people will be debating.

MATTHEW CARNEY: So in a sense, you`re saying it will be more in a Western-

style multi-party system, is that what you`re thinking?

ISSAM EL ZAIM: We have a multi-party system, but we may have some changes

to this multi-party system. There are some ideas about this system, but we have

already a multi-party system, and one of the ideas that has emerged recently, very

recently, is to activate more the role of the allied parties, to give them more say, but

also to consider authorising other forces to play on the stage. It`s very difficult, at this

stage, to tell you what is going to happen. I can tell you more about economic change

than about political change.

This new openness is surprising. A good test of how far this regime is prepared to

go down the road to political pluralism is the way it will handle its old enemy, the Muslim

Brotherhood. To do that we have to go to London to meet with the head of the Syrian

Muslim Brotherhood, Ali Sadraddin Bayanuni. After the massacres at Hama, the Muslim

Brotherhood was persecuted and its members executed or jailed. Some, like Bayanuni,

were lucky enough to escape and continue their opposition in exile.

ALI SADRADDIN AL BAYANUNI (translation): In Syrian jails at the moment, there

are about 6,000 political prisoners. The manner in which these prisoners are treated

and their horrible conditions inside the jails are reasons for sadness and sorrow.

Despite this sadness, the Muslim Brotherhood feels there is an opportunity for

dialogue.

ALI SADRADDIN AL BAYANUNI: We have called on the new Syrian leadership to

open a new page with the Syrian people and to undertake political reforms and

openness and to take steps towards democracy and political pluralism. We have

expressed our willingness to cooperate positively if such steps are taken.

The mood in Syria is of change, and a historical shift might be under way. Just a

few weeks ago, the mere mention of the words Muslim Brotherhood could land you in

jail. Those close to Dr Bashar, like his cousin Rami Makhlouf, say there is talk of

rehabilitating the Muslim Brotherhood.

RAMI MAKHLOUF (translation): There might be more openness with certain

parties. Parties that haven`t come here in 30 years are welcoming Dr Bashar. He might

welcome them too. Maybe.

However, the reintegration of the Muslim Brotherhood will be problematic. The

regime is still based around the Alawite sect. The Muslim Brothers are drawn from the

Sunni majority which makes up 70% of the population. While this process of

reintegration of the Muslim Brothers might take years, Dr Bashar has more pressing

concerns. Threats to his leadership could come from his inner circle.

PATRICK SEALE: The most important thing for him to do is to retain the loyalty of

the armed services and the intelligence services, and indeed of his own Alawite

community. These are the underpinnings of the regime, the muscles of the regime, the

sinews. Any threat to him could come from those quarters.

Here, people pray to Hafez al Assad – a man who championed the Arab cause and

maintained Arab dignity in the face of Israeli and US aggression. If his son fails to

honour this legacy, his support will falter.

PATRICK SEALE: If he`s seen as a weak leader, if he doesn`t succeed in

mastering the internal and external game, if he is destroyed by an external or internal

crisis, then of course he will be challenged, as any leader would be in any country. But

all we can say is that the transition has been extraordinary smooth.

The man who will guide Dr Bashar al Assad on the international stage is veteran

Foreign Minister Farouk al Shara. He left no doubt Dr Bashar will follow in his father`s

footsteps in demanding the return of every inch of the Golan Heights from Israel.

FAROUK AL SHARA, SYRIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (translation): Syria`s

program, in the mind and conscience of Dr Bashar al Assad, is about recovering all of

the Golan up to the 4th of June line. To him, this issue is final. The issue also follows

the course set by his late father, Hafez al Assad. He is now pledging this to the Syrian

people, who believe that Dr Bashar will be an example to follow in the struggle to

retrieve our occupied lands and to build a modern and more advanced Syria.

For Dr Bashar al Assad, his father`s legacy is both a curse and a blessing. Dr

Bashar was given the leadership, but he will have to change the system if he`s going to

lead Syria on his own terms. He will have to harness the forces that will be unleashed

by change and placate the forces from his father`s regime that will resist transition. The

Middle East is waiting to see if Dr Bashar displays the political skills and cunning

needed to take Syria into its new era.