Abu Kareem | M.D. United States
July 7th, 2007

Re: ‘If you had the choice what would you change in Syria?

In formulating what I believe are the most essential changes needed in Syria, I cannot pretend to represent anyone but myself. It goes without saying that my opinions are colored by my own background and experiences as a Syrian living out of the country looking in. Unaccounted for in this discussion, because it is largely unknown, is what the Syrian people as a whole want. We can make some safe assumptions about what the Syrian people want as the immediate needs and aspirations of individuals and families are universal: personal security, economic security, a chance at a better life for the children, a decent public infrastructure, and personal freedoms. What about the bigger picture? What do Syrians collectively want of their country, of their government? For over two generations now, the Baath party doctrine was made synonymous with the aspirations of the Syrian people, no questions asked. It is time to ask the Syrian people what they think.

If there seems to be unanimity in Syria about the need for reform, there are great differences about what to reform, how much to reform and how fast. The unprecedented regional instability is being used effectively by the entrenched authoritarian government as an excuse to pushback against calls for political reform. There is also reluctance among the people, for different reasons, for rapid, radical political change. The source of this reluctance, beyond Syriansâ?? penchant for caution, is clear. If independent opinion polls cannot tell us what Syrians want, we can safely surmise what they donâ??t want: any change that will cause the type of implosion that is currently occurring next door in Iraq.

Since Bashar Assad assumed the presidency in 2000, there have been some moves towards reform in several areas such the economy, healthcare and education. On the other hand, after a brief period of openness, the political system has regressed to where it was in the 1990s. This regression is justified by an overly paranoid government for the preservation of peace and stability within the country. Perhaps, more to the point, the reason why there is so much resistance to change is that this highly centralized, corrupt and rigid system is manned by bureaucrats who have vested interests and they stand to lose both power and money with reform. Yet in the end, real, palpable reform cannot be sustained if there is no change in the present political structure. So, here are some the changes that I feel are the most important:

POLITICAL SYSTEM: This is the Achilles heel of the whole reform agenda. If there is no change here, all other attempts at reform are likely to wither. What I am proposing are changes that can be implemented immediately. None of these changes jeopardizes the security of the country or the government. The changes, if implemented, will be received favorably by the Syrian people and will be a visible demonstration that their government is serious about reform. The proposed changes will be a prelude to more structural, more long-term changes such as allowing new political parties to compete politically with the Baath party for position of power and amending the constitution.

  • Free Jailed political and human rights activists who never threatened or advocated violent change.
  • Emergency laws that were never needed have to be rescinded.
  • Syrian citizenship should be granted to those Syrian-Kurds who have been denied that right.
  • Since no system of public accountability exists within the current governmental structure, human rights and other civil society organizations should assume that function while long-term structural changes are made to the political system.
  • Curb rampant corruption by punishing violators at all levels of government.

ECONOMICS: The government has taken several steps towards a more open market economy. This should continue. I believe that the requirements of a truly open market economy will drive change and reform in other spheres of public life. However, given the corruption and lack of transparency, the influx of capital has so far allowed only a few well connected individuals to benefit thus creating increasing disparities of wealth. Moreover, a greater focus on the private sector should not come at the expense of public institutions on which the economically disadvantaged are dependent.

EDUCATION: Several positive changes have been implemented over the past few years such as making the teaching of a second language necessary in public schools, the establishment of an institute for information technology. Moreover, several private universities have been allowed to open. The private institutions should be utilized to force competition and improvement at the public institutions not as a substitute for them accessible only by those with means. To stem the brain drain of the young and the capable, significantly shrink the length of the mandatory military service.

HEALTH CARE: Health care is available for free to all citizens at government hospitals or provided by private physicians or hospitals at fairly low cost. The quality of the care however is very uneven in quantity and quality, especially in rural areas. Syrian per capita expenditure on health care is very low and currently at about $50, which is half of what Egypt or Cuba spends. Another pressing need is for trained nurses. The ratio of nurses to doctors in Syria is about 1:1 and should ideally be 3:1. There have been moves to increase expenditures on health care as well improve quality. Private-public partnerships have also been established in healthcare delivery and production of pharmaceuticals. A pressing need is the establishment of a health insurance system. Totally absent within Syrian healthcare is any form of medical research. The vast expatriate Syrian medical community should be tapped in this important endeavor.

The issue of regional policy is vast and complicated topic and in which I feel that the Syrian government has often not played a constructive role. It deserves to be discussed at length in a different setting.

In summary, although I am hopeful that movement towards reform has started in several public spheres, reform of the political system, critical for the success of all other reforms, is stalled. Given the structure of the political system, only a mandate from the leadership will shatter the inertia and start the process of political reform At this point in time, however, I see none forthcoming.

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4 Responses to the Article

lubnani moghtarib Says:

“The issue of regional policy is vast and complicated topic and in which I feel that the Syrian government has often not played a constructive role. It deserves to be discussed at length in a different setting.”

I highly admire your blog and your comments above. In short I am trying to say that I wish all Syrians, especially your leaders, thought like you. The Middle East would be a much nicer place. I think it is time for a popular uprising across the ME to overthrow our governments and wipe out radical Islam at its roots. The more peaceful the uprising the better. We can not replace our tyrants with their means lest we become them.

abu kareem Says:


I appreciate you comments. However, I would like to say that there are many more Syrians who are thoughtful and reasoned than you think; just look at the opinions expressed in this forum. So my wish, in response to your comment, is that more Lebanese change their reflexively negative attitude toward Syrians -Syrian people that is. We ultimately need each other as independent respectful neighbors with deep common roots.

The Syrian Brit Says:

A very ineresting piece, Abu Kareem..
The one thing that strikes me about the predicament of our country is the lack of any ‘joined-up thinking’, to borrow a managment phrase!..
And while I agree with much of what you say, I do believe that the healthcare and education sectors are in a much worse state than you seem to suggest..
I do wish I could bring myself to share your (even very cautious) optimism.. I still think the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train!.. I truly hope I will be proven wrong!..
(When I get back from Damascus, I might have some inspiration to write up my own views on the matter!..)

Global Voices Online » Syria: Change in Syria Says:

[…] Kareem, gave a very interesting multiple leveled analysis of where he sees Syria now, and what should be done: If there seems to be unanimity in Syria about the need for reform, there are great differences […]

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