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The death of President Hafez al-Asad in June 2000 was a watershed in modern Middle Eastern history. The region’s second longest-serving head of state (only Libya’s Qadhafi has been in power longer) had managed not only to avoid signing a unilateral peace treaty with Israel but he had also mended fences with Washington after the collapse of the USSR, Syria’s chief foreign protector. Most important of all, he had managed to survive.

Indeed, having come to power by military coup in November 1970, much of Hafez al-Asad’s energy in the course of the next 30 years was expended on staying there. Survival was his principal achievement.

In order to ensure his regime might live on beyond him, one of the major preoccupations of his last few months was to ensure the succession of his second son, Bashar, to the presidency, for which role he had been earmarked since the death of his elder brother in 1994.

Hafez’s legacy is sure to dominate Syria long after his death. Despite the loss of its Soviet sponsor, Syria’s principal regional alliance – with Iran – survives intact. Its close ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the conservative Gulf monarchies, cemented during the Gulf crisis in 1989-90, are another pillar of foreign policy. Internally, his achievement was the creation of a stable (at least by Syrian standards – military coups were a frequent occurrence before Asad came to power) regime with no credible challengers.

But in truth his son Bashar, one of the much-vaunted new generation of Arab leaders to have come to power recently, has been left with a tangled mass of difficulties.

First and foremost, Syria is broke. The centrally controlled, bureaucratically top-heavy economy is effectively stagnant. Underdevelopment of infrastructure and the agricultural sector and an outdated technological base are compounded by a desperate shortage of hard currency. A number of economic reform initiatives launched since Bashar assumed power are intended to rectify this situation, first by making Syria attractive to foreign investors. But the programme has a number of serious shortcomings.


Not least among these is the resistance of a powerful section of society to serious economic reform. To ensure the survival of a regime based narrowly on his own Alawite minority community, Hafez al-Asad effectively bought the loyalty of potential opponents. As a result a small number of well-connected people constitute an almost immovable object in the way of serious reform.

The average Syrian, meanwhile, struggles just to get by. With unemployment conservatively estimated at 30 per cent, few families have any disposable income at all.

Also promised, at least in the public perception, by Bashar’s government has been political reform. The early months of the new president’s tenure saw a gradual blossoming of ‘civil society’. Writers and intellectuals of various political hues began to set up salons (basically, using their front rooms to hold meetings and discussion groups), independent publications were allowed to appear and there was even talk of forming political parties. But the phenomenon was short-lived. Although things have not gone right back to the dissent-smothering, initiative-crushing heavy-handedness of Hafez’s reign (at least not yet), there has been an abrupt reduction in free speech since the turn of the year.

It is difficult to gauge what the short-term future holds for Syria. The state has long been virtually as synonymous with opacity as it has with repression. While Bashar appears to have a genuine desire to reform the country, there are clearly limits beyond which the regime itself might not be sustainable. But without serious measures to tackle the country’s basic problems, Syria can only get poorer and weaker.

Fact file

Leader President Bashar al-Asad.
Economy GNI per capita $2,500.
Monetary unit Pound
Main exports Oil, textiles, manufactured goods, agricultural produce, raw cotton.
People 15.7 million. People per sq km: 85 (Britain 238).
Health Infant mortality 25 per 1,000 live births (Lebanon 28, France 5). One doctor per 1,200 people.
Environment Industrialization has caused pollution of already overstretched water resources. Lack or misuse of fertilizers and inefficient irrigation methods have compounded this. Over-exploitation of some areas for agriculture has also caused soil- erosion problems.
Culture Predominantly Arab (some 90% are Arabic-speaking); Kurds, mostly in the northeast, are the largest minority, around a million strong. There are many smaller ethnic, confessional and linguistic groups: chiefly, Armenians (over 300,000, centred in the second city, Aleppo) and smaller numbers of Turks, Assyrians, Gypsies and Aramaic-speakers.
Religion Sunni Muslim 72%; Shi’a Muslim 18%; Christian 10%. The Shi’a are divided into: Alawites (the largest, 11% of the population, centred around the chief port, Latakia); Imami (orthodox) Shi’a (mostly in the southwest); and Druze, mainly in the south of the country. Christian communities include Armenians, Chaldaeans, Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution A tiny portion of the population controls the economy; 25% live below the poverty line.
Literacy 82% – but a big gender gap from 91% for men to 73% for women.
Life expectancy 69 years (Lebanon 70, France 78)
Freedom There are fewer political prisoners and freedom of expression has improved a little. But Syria remains a one-party state with barely a semblance of accountability or transparency in government.
Position of women Equal rights under the law. Full access to education. But poorly represented politically and in state employment.
Self-reliance Self-sufficient in oil and some of its food requirements.
Previously reviewed 1989
New Internationalist assessment Since Hafez’s death, Syrian politics has essentially consisted of a process of an entrenched regime and a new, seemingly dynamic and reform-minded, leader coming to terms with one another. There remains no public participation in political life, beyond the existence – precarious, at best – of a number of salons serving as an outlet for a minority of intellectuals to voice qualified discontent. There is little to suggest this is going to change in the near future.

New Internationalist issue 336 magazine cover This article is from the July 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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