This week's question | 2006-05-23

Six years into his administration, how significant are the reforms Bashar Assad put in place?

Does one treat a gaping wound as one would a life-threatening disease? The former may need immediate surgery and a number of quick steps to stop the bleeding, save limbs in risk of amputation, and minimize permanent effects. For the latter, a more gradual but harsh and focused therapy may be the best solution to cure the patient. Obviously, diagnosis will make all the difference in the effectiveness of the treatment.

Imagine prescribing physio- or chemo-therapy to someone bleeding profusely, or treating an exhausting, severe cancer with a colorful bandage. Imagine then bragging about it, and expecting the patients to be, well, patient.

This is more or less what the Syrian regime has been doing for the last few years: boasting about supposed reforms it has undertaken and having nothing but a few, scattered, colored Band-Aids (which don't even stick very well) to show for it while Syrians get worse. Actually, given the regime's aversion to the word reform, it has mostly claimed to be effecting "modernization" and "development;" perhaps we can agree that some sense of alteration, if not genuine improvement, has indeed taken place, but with what results?

After all, the Syrian people have been promised on every possible occasion that things were going to change. Far from naively expecting a complete metamorphosis, many Syrians nevertheless chose to bestow the benefit of the doubt on the nouveau régime, which has dithered between political, economic and administrative reform and ended up with a pot-pourri of decisions that have little positive impact on anyone.

In its most benign manifestation, I call this type of reform the "Omayad Square Effect:" it pre-assumes a sincere willingness to improve a given situation, but ends up making it much worse with no end in sight. Unfortunately, it is more often the true "Axe Effect."

There is no great divergence amongst experts on the nature of Syria's needs. In different degrees, the urgent reform needed can be addressed by revocating the state of emergency law (in place since 1963!), releasing prisoners of conscience (a matter where "reform" is going backward), establishing political pluralism, enacting freedom of expression and press laws, creating an independent judiciary, and restraining corrupt individuals and institutions openly abusing and draining the country. That's just the tip of the iceberg, and we haven't begun to tackle the economy, but it's technically feasible.

Political reform was always going to be taboo for a one-party authoritarian regime, and yet the latter continuously claims to be making progress when in fact it only creates confusion and contradictions. In July 2003, for instance, Decree 408 proclaimed that the Baath would be limited to "supervising" governmental affairs; this in no way shook Article 8 of the Syrian constitution appointing the Baath as the leading party. So which is it?

The buzz around the Baath Party Congress of June 2005 reached feverish heights after the Syrian president's promise in parliament on March 5 that a great leap forward would then be made. The result, months later, was a very strange (and yet to be enacted) "pluralism." Belonging to a party (except the Baath) would disqualify Syrians from working for the public sector. Parties (except the Baath) would not be able to market their views to expatriate Syrians. Even less pluralistic is the caveat that parties existing before 1963, or which have ever criticized the Baath, cannot see the light.

Lately, the Syrian regime's political reform has even diversified, bringing ever more subjects (like relations with Lebanon) under prohibition for mere mortals like the Syrian people, under threat of treason charges. Like the supposed media reform which apparently gave more freedom of expression, allowing private publications to appear (but which in fact posed greater restrictions than before), it in fact seems to be telling Syrians: "you have the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you."

Granted, on the financial front, some international institutions seem pleased that the taxation system has been slightly reformed. Indeed, the government claims that tax revenues for 2005 were in increase of 55% compared to the previous year (a good result as long as this extra revenue doesn't drown in Omayad Square). A good economy needs strong, functioning state institutions, and this is positive in the long run, but not if it is merely another way to milk funds not already taken another way.

Other financial changes were the lower tax rate on car imports, reduced from 255 percent to sixty percent ? not forgetting an additional 40 percent "luxury" tax. Is this enough? Or is it enough that "private banks" can function, as long as the state owns at least 51 percent? And is financial and economic reform really credible when the cart is put before the horse in many cases? The decision to create a stock exchange comes to mind.

"Economic Tuesdays" (often starring economists and reformists like Dr. Aref Dalila) were attended by many people (myself included) during Hafez Assad's last years, and the criticism - and the solutions - for economic reform date at least back to that period. It is today even more urgent than it has ever been, and various Syrian officials have not denied it. In fact, the government admits unemployment (though not in its true horrific dimensions) and poverty, and recognizes the challenges posed by declining oil production, amongst other factors. In its most recent five-year plan, the government speaks of establishing a "social market economy" (one of the baffling "reforms" of the Baath Party Congress) in a period of 20 years, without explaining how this will happen. Subsidies, in the meantime, are regularly rumored to become a disappearing act ? without the mechanism that will enable the economy (and indeed the people) to survive. In other words, the regime can't possibly be serious about true economic reform as long as it refuses to address the basics.

The reform needed to save Syria must be proactive, not reactive. So far, it's been too little, sometimes too late, but it is not hopeless if the regime decides to allow it. And all of that, of course, is completely unrelated to external events.