Until recently, Syria bucked the age-old political dictum that regimes under intense external pressure halt domestic reforms until the coast is clear. The country’s 10th Five Year Plan, approved a year after Syrians were named suspects in the murder of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, introduced a slew of economic and social reforms designed to transform Syria from a state-dominated and socialist system to one involving greater domestic freedoms and a partnership with the country’s vibrant private sector. While liberalization in Syria’s finance, forex and trading regimes continue to unfold, Israel’s bombing of an alleged Syrian “nuclear” facility on September 6th has triggered the widest crackdown since the dark-days of the 1980s on Western influence in Syria and the ways its people communicate with the outside world.
The first signs came in mid-September when the Syrian government announced that names of all schools, businesses and shops must be in Arabic ahead of Damascus’ serving as the 2008 Arab Cultural Capital. As businesses with western names like KFC and Shrimpy prepared to change their marquees, foreign schools and universities were ordered to integrate Syrian curriculum into their hitherto Western teaching models. Even Arab European University — one of the darlings of Syria’s European-supported reform process — was forced to drop the term “European” in favor of “International”.
Internet speeds throughout the country then slowed to a trickle in late September without reason. Rumors filled the Syrian capital that a Finnish firm supplied technology to Syrian authorities to more closely monitor internet traffic in the country. Suddenly added to the list of banned opposition websites and blogs were such popular services such as Facebook and even some functions of Google news. The new software is rumored to allow complete tracking of individual e-mail accounts inside and outside of Syria.
Syrian “reformers” ran for cover. Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah Dardari — Syria’s reform guru and author (with German assistance) of the Five Year Plan — recently stopped meeting foreign media without prior permission from Syria’s Ministry of Information. As President Assad’s right hand of reform, Dardari is under intense criticism by pundits and economists for everything for fiddling with the economic numbers to his stark warnings that Syria must cut its annual $7 billion subsidies bill or risk a fiscal crisis of major proportions. While Dardari insists that Syrian oil production is plummeting at a rate of 11% and therefore the state must accelerate efforts to make up the difference through taxation, his critics say the high price of oil will keep the budget deficit in check. The subsequent announcement by his rival, Finance Minister Mohammed al-Hussein, that the 2008 budget deficit would be in excess of $3.8 billion, down from a $5.86 billion only five years ago, failed to stem the tide of calls for Dardari’s head in a much-anticipated cabinet change. Neither did the regime’s midnight hike of gasoline prices by 20% two weeks ago and to be followed by a 20% hike next year. Diesel is still only $0.14 a liter, however, ensuring that a steady supply of smuggled fuel will continue to make its way to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan where it fetches nearly five times the price.
But who’s counting anyway. Dardari’s effort to launch an “Executive Plan” to monitor the Five Year Plan and actually see if Syria was meeting its targets was quietly shelved late last summer for unknown reasons. The regime’s preference to fly blind in reform followed the state’s closure earlier this year of the renowned media coverage monitor IPSOS-STAT’s Damascus offices. Syria might have plenty of new private sector newspapers, magazines and radio stations, but no one knows exactly who listens to them and how they compete with their hard-line state-owned competitors.
Rollbacks in Syrian reform this autumn are the latest chapter in a two-year hiatus in political and social legislation. In his acceptance speech to a second seven-year term as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Syria has been in a “battle with destiny” (presumably with Israel and the US) and therefore has not had time to follow up on changes to the political parties, emergency and NGO laws promised in the 2005 Baath Party conference. The latter law, rumored to be on the verge of passage last September, is now expected next year.
So why is the regime letting private sector banks, insurance companies, foreign exchange house and trading companies flourish? Some people say it’s due to the state’s fiscal problems. But a closer look shows that, ironically, Syria’s pullout from Lebanon in April 2005 was perhaps the most powerful impetus for reform during Assad’s first term. Strained ties with Lebanon forced the state to implement long-dormant legislation to allow Syria’s private sector to do what Syrians long contracted Lebanese to do for them. In the bizarre world of Syrian reform, Friedrich Nietzsche’s quote “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” has never rang more true.