For the past three weeks, Syrian ambassadors in Western capitals have been peddling the message that the appointment of a “reform commission” is the first step towards ending the country’s revolutionary crisis. The ambassadors claim that President Bashar al- Assad, having “heard the voice of the people”, is looking for “a peaceful way” out of the impasse created by his regime.
Whether that is true or not, we cannot tell. No does it really matter. The point is that the present system in Syria cannot be reformed because it lacks any mechanism for reform. Even with the best will in the world, a system cannot deliver what it does not have.
Since the crisis started, several labels have been used to describe the Syrian regime. These include “one-party state”, “military regime”, and “tribal rule.”
However, none of those labels reflect the true nature of this most unusual of regimes.
As far as the constitution is concerned, Syria is a one-party state with the Baath holding a monopoly on power.
However, in reality, the Baath is an empty shell.
In the 1970s, President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, destroyed the leftist core of the party that clung to its Socialist claim. In the 1980s, it was the turn of the party’s rightist factions, keeping alive the party’s Nationalist pretensions, to be wiped out. By the time Bashar was put on the saddle, there was no such thing as an Arab Socialist Baath Party.
A one-party state has mechanisms for reform.
Its Central Committee, Politburo, or Plenum could stage a palace coup against a leadership that, for whatever reason, is no longer capable of responding to new challenges.
This is what happened in post-Stalin Soviet Union when Khruschev toppled the old-guard led by Malenkov. China experienced a similar “change from within” in 1970 when the Deng Xiao-ping faction eased the Gang of Four out of power.
In a classical one-party state, the legitimacy of the state, indeed its power, emanates from the party. In Syria, it is the other way round. The little legitimacy and what little power the Baath has come from the state.
Paradoxically, the Syrian Baath Party may be included among the victims of the Syrian regime.
The label “military regime” does not suit the Syrian state under the Assads. In a military regime, the armed forces, or at least part of them acting in the name of the whole, control the state.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, Latin America was full of such regimes. South Korea had a similar experience under Park Chung-hi. A similar mechanism was at work in Indonesia under Suharto. With minor differences, this was the kind of regime that ruled Egypt under Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia under Zin el-Abedin Ben Ali. In every case, when the army or at least its leadership deemed change inevitable it moved in to provide it either with a coup or by refusing to suppress a popular uprising. With a string of coups, Syria had similar military regimes.
However, the present Syrian regime cannot be labeled “military” because it is clear that the armed forces are all but excluded from decision-making. A hint that the Syrian military might not be happy about the almost daily killing of demonstrators in the streets came last month when the regime transferred the task of suppressing the revolt to “special forces.”
Some observers wonder whether Syria still has an army. An army is set up to protect a nation’s territory and guard its borders against actual and/or potential aggressors. Since the early 1970s, what is labeled the Syrian army has not been asked to do so. Nor has it been organized and armed for that purpose. It is interesting that almost 80 per cent of Syria’s arms purchases consist of weapons and materiel that could be used for internal oppression, not defence against foreign aggression.
A military force that is used for internal control and/or oppression is no loner an army. It is a praetorian guard or, in today’s parlance, a political militia.
It might sound odd, but one could include the Syrian armed forces among the victims of the Assads. The Assads have presided over the destruction of the Syrian army.
But, what about the label of “tribal rule”?
In the case of Bashar al-Assad’s set-up, that, too, is hard to justify.
Arab history is full of instances when a tribe dominated the state with a mixture of force, myth and bribery.
However, no Syrian tribe is represented in the Assad regime let alone dominating it. True, Alawites fill a disproportionately large segment of the Syrian military and civilian plum jobs. But Alwaites are a religious community, not a tribe. What the Assads have been doing for the past four decades has little to do with Alwaites as a religious sect.
Like the Baath Party and the Syrian army, the Alawite sect, too, could be regarded as one of the many victims of the Assad set up.
Because it has systematically destroyed all institutions and historic, social and cultural interfaces between power and people, the Assad regime has left the country without a mechanism for change. There are no tribal leaders, religious and/or intellectual elites, political party or even military personalities with enough moral authority to mediate between a wounded populace and a frightened power.
The Syrian regime is a strange political beast.
There are few instances in recent history when a country has been led into such a tragic impasse.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein was one example. Libya under Muammar Gaddafi is another. One might add North Korea under Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il.
In all such cases, reform is impossible even if some within the regime secretly desire it.
A Syrian ex-diplomat tells me that some within the regime are “longing for reform.” This may well be true. However, the problem is that the Assad set up can no longer be reformed even if President Bashar himself wanted it. With every day that passes, it becomes clearer that the sanest way out for Syria is regime change.