2005 was a year Syria would probably much rather forget. If the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri was a political earthquake in Lebanon, its aftershocks were felt strongest in Damascus.
It was a hard pill to swallow for most Syrians. The Syrian military, which had lost thousands of troops during its 29-year-long sojourn in Lebanon, withdrew with its tail between its legs. While the “Lebanon project” was now most definitely over, the “victory,” many Syrians hoped, would be in the area of domestic reform. Some even talked of a “Jasmine Revolution,” taking place in Syria, and planted the aromatic flower as a harbinger of things to come.
These expectations were largely unfulfilled. True, some economic reforms continued, and more private banks opened their doors. But the much anticipated “great leap forward” to be announced at the June Baath Party conference never materialized. The blockade placed on Lebanon satisfied Syrians’ egos a bit, but as the investigation into Hariri’s death crept nearer to Damascus, Syrian activists were arrested and interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, committed suicide in his Damascus office. A fog now hovers over the Syrian capital that will be hard for anyone, including the international community, to penetrate.
The year had started out with high hopes. State planning commission chief, Abdullah Dardari appeared to be finally getting to grips with Syria’s much beleaguered reform process. All eyes focused on his preparation of Syria’s “National Indicative Plan” – a new name for the country’s notoriously statist five-year plan. Instead of planning for Syria’s annual shoe production or dumping state investment into dirty cement plants along Syria’s beautiful coastline, Dardari focused his efforts on outlining development areas where the private sector could invest, and it was claimed, turn a profit. While work was going on behind the scenes, with substantial United Nations and European Union assistance, Dardari spoke to the local and international media of his preparations.
Finally, it seemed, someone within the government understood the importance of making a case to the people.
But a closer look indicated that Dardari had his work cut out. Syria’s private banks, which celebrated their first anniversary in January, were slow to release their first year results. Most had taken in massive deposits far beyond their management’s expectations. The problem, however, was that Syria’s regulatory environment, which the government had supposedly spent years modifying to “prepare” for the sector’s profitable operation, remained so restrictive that the banks could not invest their deposits. Stamp fees, hard currency restrictions – and perhaps most importantly – a lack of central bank liquidity facilities, meant that the lion’s share of private bank deposits, given normal inflations, actually gained a negative return. When the banks’ results finally were released a few months later, all reported substantial losses. The jewel of Syrian reform suddenly lost its luster.
The big bang
Hariri’s assassination eclipsed everything. As news trickled out of Beirut about the explosion, Syrians openly expressed deep sadness about the murder. As a Sunni Muslim, Hariri symbolized a modern political partner who understood secularism, as well as the desire of Syria to obtain a taste of globalization through Beirut. The reconstruction of the downtown was held up as a model for the renovation of Syria’s own city center, and it was expected that Hariri’s people would be involved in one way or another.
Long before UN prosecutor Detlev Mehlis began his investigation into Hariri’s death, and so many connections between Syria and the assassination came to light, few noticed that behind the scenes, Hariri and the Syrian leadership had already fallen out completely over the September 2004 presidential extension of Emile Lahoud’s mandate. Most Syrians argued, along with their leadership, that Syria could not have possibly had any interest in Hariri’s murder. After all, Syria was in charge of Lebanese security, and it was Damascus’ job under the Taif Accord to keep the peace. Most Syrians pointed their fingers towards Islamic terrorism in the region, Israel, and even the United States.
When the protests demanding Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon erupted, Syrians began to take things personally. Average Syrians understood that their western neighbor was frustrated by the Syrian military and intelligence services remaining in Lebanon. But many asked why Lebanese were physically attacking Syrians? After all, they argued, what did they have to do with decisions of the notoriously authoritarian Syrian regime? Many noted that the harshest words came from Lebanon’s Christian and Druze communities –two minorities whose status Syria “protected” against pressures from Lebanon’s sizeable (and possibly majority) Shiite Muslim population.
These sentiments took on a larger meaning when the United States recalled its ambassador from Damascus two days after Hariri’s assassination. While Washington, as well as Paris, did not openly blame the Syrian regime for the murder, its actions indicated where they were aiming. Counter demonstrations in Damascus that included posters denouncing foreign interference in Syria’s domestic affairs and “bloody democracy” indicated that the regime, as well as the Syrian people, knew that something was coming.
All eyes then turned back to reform. After months of uncertainty, the leadership finally announced that the Conference of the Regional Command of the Baath Party would be held in June. Reformers in the government, scrambling for a space to continue their activities, pointed to Assad’s speech before parliament in March and his statements about “significant progress soon” and “a great leap forward” as an indication that reform would now kick into high gear. Rumors circulated that the dreaded emergency law, enacted when the Baath took power in 1963, would be abolished, that independent political parties outside the “National Front” would be permitted, and that the leadership would drop socialist tenets from its ideology and openly declare Syria a market economy.
When the conference finally took place, most Syrians were again disappointed. Hoards of international journalists descended on Damascus to report on the expected changes with great assistance by Syria’s notoriously strict Ministry of Information. On the first day of the conference, however, it was announced that the conference would be closed to the media, except for Assad’s opening speech. Instead, news trickled out through press conferences held by Expatriates Minister Bouthaina Shaaban – a confidant of Assad and member of the ruling Alawite sect. Each press conference, which gave very little information, was rife with promises that “everything would be explained on the last day.” When the last day came, the results were disappointing. The emergency law would stay in place, but would be reviewed. A new political parties law would be enacted soon, but it would contain restrictions and an extensive approval process. And finally, Syria was dubbed a “Social Market Economy” – the Chinese model long held up by Damascus as the key to stability and growth.
On the heels of the conference, Abdullah Dardari was appointed deputy prime minister for economic affairs. This was taken as a sign that reforms would now kick into a higher gear, and that Assad was serious about making the most of whatever momentum had been built up during the conference. However, reform issues were again eclipsed by events in Lebanon.
In June, Syria placed a “security procedure” on all of its borders with Lebanon that essentially functioned as a trade blockade. Most Syrians saw the move as a sweet response to what they considered insulting statements by some Lebanese politicians and media figures, most notably An Nahar editor, Gebran Tueni. But such satisfaction was short-lived. In August and September, Mehlis began to question “witnesses” from the Syrian intelligence about Hariri’s assassination and the Lebanese press began to cite sources close to the investigation that a number of Syrian officials would be named as suspects in Mehlis’ first report on October 19. Then on October 12, two events took place that showed the Syrian people, as well as the international community, just how out of hand things had become at the top of the Syrian regime. Interior Minister Ghazi Kanaan, the former chief of Syria’s presence in Lebanon and a member of Assad’s ruling Alawite sect, was killed in what officials called a suicide. That same day, Assad gave his first full television interview in English to CNN. Assad said that anyone implicated in Hariri’s assassination would be considered a traitor. No one missed the connection.
The fine print
When Mehlis released his report, most Syrians were surprised to find that Kanaan was not implicated in the murder. Instead, the penultimate electronic copy leaked to British newspapers showed that Mehlis was aiming higher, specifically to Asef Shawkat, Assad’s brother-in-law and the head of Syrian military intelligence. In the protests that followed, few Syrians missed the point that the international community, led by the US, the UK and France, were attempting to “crack the regime.” While most Syrians indeed hope for democratic change, they knew full well that the Mehlis investigation itself would not be enough to bring the house down. Sanctions are on the way, and everyone knows it. While Syrians have been under US sanctions since 1979 and have become quite skillful at circumventing them, it remains to be seen how the international community will develop “smart sanctions” that target the regime and not the Syrian people as a whole. As the fog thickens around the regime, Syrians are again rallying around their leaders, not because they love their rulers or understand them, but instead because they are being placed in the same corner with nowhere to run.
Andrew Tabler is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs based in Damascus and Beirut. He also serves as a consulting editor for Syria Today magazine.