This week's question | 2006-05-04

How did Syria perform over the past 40 years compared to its neighbors?

Comparing the Syrian regime's accomplishments to those of its neighbors does not give us a realistic picture; given the poor performance around the region, it would be like grading on a curve and the score might not be accurate on certain parameters.

But even if Syria's overall comparative record were rated favorably, it would be a poor consolation to its people. While there are certainly nuances in the region, mainly on the economic front, there is little to celebrate on the human and civil rights record all over the region (and in that we must include the Turkish and Israeli democracies, which have been rather selective).

Comparing Syria with Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq also brings out discrepancies; the latter's double curse of inhuman sanctions and inhuman regime, and Lebanon's double tragedy of civil war and full scale invasion and occupation, are catastrophes not experienced by Syria, which doesn't even have to deal with a Jordan-style refugee population that actually dwarfs its indigenous one.

Does the Syrian regime get brownie points for inflating national pride? Such intangibles, now vastly over-rated by the ruling Baath party, did matter during Hafez Assad's early reign; proud of the war effort of October 1973, Syrians felt a surge of true patriotism. Alas, it wasn't to last: domestic matters quickly deteriorated in the late 70s, and Syria was punished for several actions in the 80s (including the Hindawi affair, support for Iran, and incidents in the Lebanese civil war).

In spite of these mishaps, Hafez Assad turned Syria into an inescapable player on the regional map, his contribution to Kuwait's liberation in 1991 being rewarded with the Madrid Peace Conference, an open channel with Washington, a carte blanche in Lebanon, and renewed flows of Gulf funding. For once, the regime's foreign policy created the potential of real benefits to the Syrian people, who dared to hope for improved living conditions and less hardship. Indeed, Syrians fondly remember the 90s for the sudden optimistic mood and the illusion that things could only get better, especially when increased oil production was included in the national budget.

But Hafez Assad's relative achievements on the foreign and security fronts have vanished under the current regime, which managed in a few years to undo everything - from rapprochement with the US to stability in Lebanon. The astute response and strategic management needed to tackle 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq shone by their absence, while ill-advised meddling in Lebanon lost Syria even its most patient supporters, who now openly agree with Israel's intransigent refusal to continue (or even restart from scratch) negotiations on the Golan Heights, perhaps encouraged by this regime's inexplicable surrender of claims to Alexandretta.

The ephemeral quality of even these main achievements over 40 years might lead analysts to conclude that the Syrian regime has achieved nothing. That would not be a fair statement: first, Syria remains central to the region's issues regardless of its regime; second, numerous achievements must still be attributed to this regime, including the downgrading of education, the destruction of a liberal economy, the decline in productivity, the suppression of civil society and the suffocation of free speech.

Neutral observers and Baathist apologists alike point to the Syrian regime's advances in education; while correct quantitatively, the opposite is true qualitatively, and generations of non-thinking, slogan-parroting, militarily-clad students faced life with no real academic preparation.

Syrians still earn a ridiculous annual per capita income (a rough, unjustifiable $1,000 considering the country's abundant natural and human resources) as they continue to watch regime cronies rob the country and obscenely flaunt incredible wealth, having modernized an archaic droit de seigneur in making business a privilege, rather than a right. So-called reform schemes for the erratic economic and financial system (socialist in name, crony capitalist in reality) are not conducive to reassurance, especially when an abrupt elimination of subsidies seems to be the only "plan" to tackle massive unemployment and limited prospects for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians entering the work force yearly.

Regrettably, the regime's achievements with prisoners of conscience continue unabated. Civil society activists calling for change, and daring to explain the inseparable nature of economics and politics (and that of foreign and domestic affairs) are paying dearly for their audacity. But like Aref Dalila and Michel Kilo, most Syrians are unsatisfied with the regime's achievements, and their patience is not eternal.