On the 20th of July 2011 Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, under pressure from popular demonstrations and protests issued a decision to form a committee, headed by his Vice-President Farouq Al Sharaa, whose mission is to make proposals to amend the Constitution and to introduce legislative reforms to meet the demands of “the street” - to bring about party pluralism, achieve democracy, engender social justice and separate power from the executive to a more democratic mechanism.
This begs the question: does the Baath regime has the capability to carry out such reforms without committing political suicide? Furthermore, can President Bashar al-Assad implement such reforms given the current balance of power, which controls the foundations and the core of the authority in the country since more than 40 years?
To answer that, it is essential to return to the very beginning.
In 1973 the late President Hafez al-Assad worked on a new constitution which put all authority in his hand after having either excluded or eliminated all his political rivals. Following this he extended his reach to social groups, which, until then, were marginalized from Syrian political life. He also tried at the time to falsify the existence of a multi-party system by creating the imaginary “Front of Progressive Parties” which was formed from left-wing and communist parties that were pro-Baath. He also attempted to placate right-wing parties and mercantilists by coercing them through lax economic regulation. Most importantly he tightened his grip on the military, giving himself full control of the army and the various security agencies.
However, Al-Assad (Senior) faced during his term robust opposition, both by those close to him and by the broader Sunni opposition. He successfully overcame them by paying a bloody price, as evidenced by the suppression of Hama in 1982.
When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in July 2000 as Syrian President he focused on two things: first; the centralization of the State and the importance of the respect for its institutions, and second; the necessity for economic reform and addressing the problem of incipient corruption. In his early years he was able to carry out some economic reforms, for example the opening of private banks, reviewing currency exchange rules, limited private sector reform, reducing direct state involvement in the economy and opening the way for increased competition in some industrial sectors. Such limited reforms made for only piecemeal changes, and had limited impact on political life.
As for changes introduced by al-Assad (Junior) on political life, in the view of some scholars and observers, can be monitored through the results of legislative elections held in 2003, which clearly showed full Baath party control over the entire electoral process, , both in terms of laws governing the process of forming candidate lists (in which play a major role the conservatives associated directly with the President and the local leadership of the Baath party) as well as the division of electoral constituencies. Naturally this did not allow the independent candidates to enter the elections if they were not loyal to the regime or linked to the ruling Baath party.
At governmental level, Al-Assad issued in 2003 a decree in which he commissioned the Baath party to run the process for planning, guidance, supervision and political control over the government. Also he altered the distribution of cabinet portfolios in a way that no minister can run more than one ministry. He was keen also to ensure that the Prime Minister at that time Naji Al-Otari maintained close ties to the Baath Party.
The structure of government in Syria makes it impossible for any major governmental decision (such as one affecting vital interests of the regime’s basic pillars: the army, the Baath party and the intelligence services agencies) to be carried out by anyone but the President himself. The centrality of the President position makes him the only source of decision-making, not the government which remains under the will of the President in everything, even in laws and legislation, and under the control of the Baath party through the “Committee on Party Control”. This situation has in fact marginalized the government executive with respect to the civil service and the organs of bureaucracy.
If the Parliament and the Government in Syria are weak, ineffective institutions under the control of the President and the Baath Party, the army and the intelligence agencies constitute the mainstay of the authority of the President and his basic strength, which holds the key to regime’s longevity in Syria.
The army constitutes, as the Baath party, the instrument to frame and educate the people, and according to the Syrian Constitution the task of the army also is to defend the regime. However, there is a close link between the army and the party, about 16 officers in the army high command are also members of the Central Committee of the Baath party. The Minister of Defence is also the President of the Military Committee of the Baath Party.
At the level of the security services, there are four intelligence services agencies all linked directly to the President of the Republic, namely: the Political Security Agency, the General Security Agency, the Military Intelligence Agency, and the Air Force Intelligence Agency. Along with those there is the Republican Guard which is an elite military unit; its task is to maintain the security of the President, its men enjoy special status and privileges. Overall those Syrian so-called security apparatus employs about 200,000 people. The focus of these agencies is away from government organs, as such the breakdown of their missions and roles will always keep the regime a safe distance away and beyond their reach. All appointments within Syria’s security agencies are aimed to keep the balance of power in favour of the President and to defend his interests.
However, defending the regime of Bashar al-Assad constitutes an essential interest for the leadership of the Baath Party, the Syrian army and the intelligence services, because they are in fact in defence of the continuation of their privileges and their own self-interests which are in-turn secured by the regime. So the survival of these security services with the party is subject to the survival of the regime and its fate.
A careful reading into the situation in Syria will show that all of the political reforms which are currently on the table and up for discussion will result in destroying the pillars upon which the regime is built. As such it cannot govern, nor exist, without them. The President’s monopoly on executive authority along with the Baath party’s monopoly on political action and the political message are in the basis of the 1973 Constitution.
It is the opinion of most observers that Hafez Al-Assad built his regime "to measure" and made sure it focused around him. Recent modifications to the constitution have not been able to break the monopoly of the President nor that of the Baath party in national politics. More importantly they did not lead to genuine political change in the light of complete dominance of the Baath Party, the army and the security services on the State’s capabilities and the continued marginalization of Parliament and the role of the Government. The regime of Bashar al-Assad during his leadership made a "successful adaptation", mimicking the emergent changes in Syrian society if not remaining true to them.
The current balance of political forces in Syrian politics means that the reforms demanded by protesters as well as by western governments appear similar to a request from the regime to commit political suicide via constitutional amendment. To fulfil these demands meaningfully is an impossible request, because doing so will destroy the foundations of the Al-Assad regime. However, the cosmetic amendments which have occurred do not truly affect the powers of the President or those of the party or the military. Nor do they impact the security services and their control over the political life.
The Syrian President knows that the reform required will destroy the basic pillars on which the regime founded. This would kill of the Baath party’s chances of ever again holding power in Syria; and his person and authority would be exposed to the wrath of those currently benefiting from Al-Assad family rule who stand to lose their privileges. Such beneficiary groups continue to hold substantial weight and will play a decisive role in the current conflict between the opposition movement in Syria and the currently entrenched regime.
Is Al-Assad ready, willing and able to think about the future of Syria as he pretends more than the future of his Baath regime and himself? This is the question which is waiting for an answer in the coming weeks.
This commentary was published in the same time on thesop.org in USA and in Arabs Today in UK on 21/07/2011