Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Al-Assad: Failure of the promised reform | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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There is a likely hidden reason behind the relapse that has taken place in Syria today, particularly as Bashar al-Assad promised to implement reform three years ago. Personally, I believe that the most likely reason for this is the issue of security in Syria becoming embroiled in politics. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad became extremely sensitive with regards to what was being said about him behind closed doors, and he expressed his disillusionment by announcing that he had discovered that the Syrian opposition is not honest and sincere, and therefore who knows what they are saying behind closed doors? However political gossip over coffee at cultural salons and forums is natural and is something that can be found in all societies. Indeed let us look at the case of [Syrian] opposition figure Riyad al-Turk who was initially allowed to participate in political activity in Syria; although he was later convicted and imprisoned on charges of attacking the prestige of the Syrian state. After issuing this verdict, the judge who sentenced him then invited al-Turk to join him for a cup of coffee! This trial represented the beginning of the end for Syria’s short infitah [political openness].

During the early days of his presidency, we were optimistic because President al-Assad was not responsible for what happened during his father’s reign. More than this, we were also optimistic about Bashar al-Assad’s youth and education, and even him appearing in Damascus restaurants without being surrounded by guards. All of this spread a climate of optimism, and we hoped that we Syria would witness a process of modernization [under Bashar al-Assad]. Bashar al-Assad also married a Sunni wife during the early days of his presidency, and his father-in-law, Fawaz Akhras, is a cardiologist from the [Syrian] middle class who lived in semi-exile in Britain. Bashar al-Assad’s marriage to a Sunni wife represented an encouraging sign of reconciliation from a member of the ruling Alawite sect that his rule would not rely on sectarianism. Moreover, Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law, whom I previously met in London, criticized the former regime [of Hafez al-Assad] and informed me that Syria is on the verge of witnessing a new era. In the early days of his presidency, al-Assad released six hundred political prisoners, and ordered the closure of Syria’s infamous al-Mezza prison, whilst an atmosphere of relative freedom swept the Syrian capital until the end of 2002, with this period being known as the “Damascus Spring.”

Then suddenly the security services swept down upon Syrian society, amidst false rumors of conspiracy and the Syrian political “old guard” attempting a coup. However in reality was more likely a revolution from above [against the people of Syria], with the Syrian security apparatus continuing its policies of threatening the employment of Syrian citizens, framing them for crimes they did not commit, and even executing political dissidents [in prison] and claiming they had committed suicide.

In the midst of a number of major events that shook the world, like the invasion of Iraq, Lebanon continued to be a key regional issue, particularly as Syria has always played a primary role in Lebanon. Indeed one of Bashar al-Assad’s political aides once returned [to Syria] with a book about the history of Lebanon, and this aide repeatedly stated that “we must all become educated on the Lebanese question!” Whilst Syrian President Bashar al-Assad himself – justifying his interests in Lebanon – once stressed that “historically speaking, Lebanon has always served as the passage-way for plots against Syria.” Unfortunately for late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad classified him amongst these anti-Syrian plotters.

I believe that Bashar al-Assad interpreted everything that he saw and heard as being part of a plot against him hatched by this Lebanese businessman [Rafik Hariri]. However Rafik Hariri also failed to understand the new [Syrian] President al-Assad, for al-Assad junior is not like al-Assad senior; he lacks his experience, and does not enjoy the same loyalty. Bashar al-Assad was also extremely sensitive from a young age, and was always concerned about other people’s opinions of him. We have also not forgotten that the Syrian constitution was changed to allow Bashar al-Assad to succeed his father as president, with the age-limit for the Syrian presidency being lowered from 40 to 34 to allow Bashar al-Assad to qualify. I also heard reports that Bashar al-Assad’s animosity towards Rafik Hariri was because the former Lebanese Prime Minister once complained to then French President Jacques Chirac that “Bashar is just a boy.” Al-Assad senior was indifferent to such talk because he was a strategic thinker and was prepared to use people to achieve his goals, and in this manner [Rafik] Hariri was one of his political tools. I think that every time I met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad we discussed [Rafik] Hariri. It was clear that he had a negative opinion of the former Lebanese prime minister, but I must also stress that I never heard Bashar al-Assad use obscene or even harsh language over any issue or figure; he always maintained his calm and refinement, even during my last meeting with him 6 months ago.