Political Developments - 1980s
In 1982 Syria neutralized nearly simultaneous foreign and domestic challenges: it maintained its dominance in Lebanon in the face of the Israeli invasion through strategic, if not tactical, victory, and it crushed the internal insurrection of Muslim Brotherhood rebels. Although the victories may have been Pyrrhic, the regime emerged in an apparently strong position.
However, just as Syria was poised to exploit its new strength and assert greater regional dominance, a new crisis threatened to topple the government. In November 1983, Assad, a diabetic, suffered a severe heart attack, complicated by phlebitis. He was hospitalized for a protracted time, and the government was essentially paralyzed. Then, fissures began to appear within the regime. The president's younger brother, Rifaat, plastered public places in Damascus with his own photograph, bearing the caption "the commander," along with photographs of the eldest Assad brother, Jamil, bearing the caption "the spiritual father." In February 1984 Rifaat, in a premature attempt to succeed his ailing brother, dispatched his Defense Companies to positions around Damascus. The Defense Companies were confronted by other military units loyal to the president: the Special Forces under the command of Haydar, the army's Third Division commanded by Fayyad, and the Republican Guard commanded by Makhluf. The two sides engaged in skirmishes, and shots were fired near the presidential palace.
In March 1984 the president recovered sufficiently to regain control of the situation. He demobilized the army units, and on March 11 he shuffled his cabinet and appointed the three vice presidents. Syria had not had a vice president since the resignation of Mahmud al Ayyubi in 1974, and the appointments were clearly aimed at defusing the struggle for succession. The vice presidents were announced in the following order: Khaddam, former minister of foreign affairs; Rifaat; and Mashariqa, deputy secretary of the Baath Party Regional Command. The minister of state for foreign affairs, Faruq Sharaa, was named minister of foreign affairs, and the governor of Damascus, Yassin Rajjuh, was appointed minister of information to replace Ahmad Iskander Ahmad, who had died. Tlas, who retained his portfolio as minister of defense, was also named deputy prime minister. The president's actions were stopgap measures designed to disperse power among the rival contenders and to dilute his work load.
In early May 1984, Assad suffered a relapse, and Rifaat once again attempted to seize power, surrounding radio and television broadcasting stations in Damascus and stationing surface-to-air missiles atop Mount Qasiyun overlooking the capital. Fierce street fighting broke out in the northern city of Latakia between Rifaat's Defense Companies and the Special Forces. In a week of combat, nine officers and and about 200 soldiers died. The repercussions of the clash far outweighed the number of casualties, for a miniature civil war between Alawi military units in the Alawis' home province of Al Ladhiqiyah posed a grave danger to the minority regime. Syrian opposition leaders, exiled in Western Europe and the Middle East, applauded what they believed to be the imminent downfall of the Assad regime, but, lacking a base within Syria, they were powerless to take advantage of the factional fighting.
Assad acted at first tentatively, and then more boldly, to reassert his power and restore public confidence in his regime. First, the Alawi clans held a reconciliation meeting. Then, at the end of May, Rifaat and his two chief competitors, General Haydar and General Fayyad, were dispatched first to Moscow and then to Western Europe on lengthy "diplomatic missions." Around 150 lower ranking officers and officials who had played a part in the power struggle were also sent to Western Europe. On July 1, the day a semiannual round of military retirements and rotations traditionally occurs, Assad transferred to administrative positions military figures who had sided too aggressively with either camp. Also in July, Rabitah,Rifaat's public relations organ, was disbanded and his newspaper, Al Fursan,was suppressed. A month later, the Baath Party's National Command was purged of seven members loyal to Rifaat, including Suhayl Suhayl, head of the People's Organizations Buearu; foreign relations head Muhammad Haydar, head of the foreign relations section; Naji Jamil, former airforce commander, who joined Rifaat's camp in Switzerland.
The president also acted to discipline the armed forces as a whole by conducting an anticorruption and antismuggling campaign. The public had long been irritated by the apparent immunity from the law of many military officers. The rampant and open smuggling across the Lebanese border was particularly visible. Assad first closed down the smugglers' market in downtown Damascus, where contraband was unloaded from military trucks and sold by men in uniform. Next, several army commanders were court-martialed. Then, in another military reform, Assad began to organize a new corps structure in the armed services, a move that added a protective layer of bureaucratic insulation between the troops in the field and national-level politics.
Internal stability remained precarious, however, and on July 10, 1984, newly appointed Vice President Khaddam narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when a car bomb exploded near his entourage. Khaddam publicly implied that Rifaat was to blame for the attempt, and in a September interview Minister of Defense Tlas claimed that Rifaat was "persona non grata forever" in Syria, and that if he returned, he would be "shorter by a head."
Nonetheless, the president felt secure enough to invite his prodigal brother back to Syria, ending his six-month-long banishment. To bolster his reputation as a statesman, Rifaat, who had moved to Paris and established an antiregime newspaper, timed his arrival on November 26, 1984, to coincide with a visit of French president François Mitterrand. Although Rifaat returned to great fanfare, his wings had been clipped; he was stripped of command of the powerful Defense Companies. In addition, Rifaat's efforts to delegate the command to his brother-in-law, Muayyin Nassif, were blocked by President Assad, who instead appointed loyalist Hikmat Ibrahim to the post. Furthermore, the Defense Companies were stripped of their organic air defense elements and several of their commando units and were eventually absorbed into the regular army as Unit 569.
In the wake of these chaotic events, in 1985 President Assad acted decisively to restore public faith in his government, to reassert his personal leadership, and to dispel the popular perception that he was an ailing figurehead. For example, Assad raised his public profile with a series of inspirational speeches to various university, military, and Baath Party audiences. Whereas Syria had pursued a policy of attempting to match unilaterally Israel's military capability since the 1978 Camp David Agreements between Israel and Egypt, Assad ambitiously expanded the concept of strategic parity with Israel to include the political, demographic, social, educational, economic, and military spheres.
Simultaneously, for the first time in his presidency, Assad began to promote a personality cult. Praise and panegyric for his presidency dominated the media, which compared him to President Nasser and called Assad the "new Saladin." Also, the government organized massive demonstrations in Assad's support. In one such rally, enthusiastic crowds carried his limousine through the streets of Damascus. Assad's twenty-six-year-old son, Basil, who had previously been hidden from the public spotlight, suddenly was given a higher public profile and started training to become an air force officer, leading to speculation that he was being groomed to inherit the presidency and that an Assad dynasty would be established.
To prove to Syrian citizens that the government was functioning normally, in January 1985 (after a two-year delay), the Baath Party convened its first congress since 1980. The most important item on the agenda was the election of a new Regional Command. Assad retained his position at the helm of the party, party Assistant Secretary General Abdallah al Ahmar and Vice President for Party Affairs Zuhayr Mashariqa kept the second and third slots in the hierarchy, and Vice President Abd al Halim Khaddam was put in the fourth position. Rifaat al Assad was put in the fifth position; however, three of his principal allies-- one-time Interior Minister Nasir ad Din Nasir, Security Chief Ahmad Diab, and party official Ilyas al Lati--were banished from the inner circle of power; in fact, these men were the only Regional Command members not re-elected. Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi, the front man in the military's confrontation with Rifaat in 1984, remained in sixteenth place.
At the congress, Assad's keynote speech set the tone when he adhered to a hard line on Syria's regional aspirations, the Palestinian issue, the military balance with Israel, and the Lebanese situation. Assad's emphasis on foreign affairs deflected attention from the still-turbulent domestic situation, focusing instead on undeniable Syrian successes in using its military power to attain regional political goals (see National Security Doctrine and Concerns , ch. 5). Syria's ascendant regional power was underlined by visits by regional clients, proxies, and allies, who came to Damascus to pay homage to President Assad. At the congress, George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Khalid al Fahoum of the Palestine National Council represented the pro-Syria Palestinians. Lebanese leaders Walid Jumblatt, Nabih Berri, and Mahdi Shams ad Din were also in attendance, as was Libyan vice premier Abdul Salam Jallud.
The delegates to the congress endorsed Syria's continued military buildup, but in doing so, they faced the classic choice between guns and butter. Syria's economy was faltering under a staggering burden of military expenditure that consumed at least one-third of the budget. To deal with the problem, the delegates rubber-stamped Assad's controversial initiative to modify Syria's statist approach to economic planning and liberalize the private sector. Taking their cue from Assad's crackdown on military smuggling, the delegates also voiced blunt criticism of the widespread high-level government corruption, patronage, and bribery, which hampered economic development. Such corruption was so pervasive that the Syrian government was described as a "kleptocracy." Many delegates confessed to being guilty of corruption, and a number of officials were dismissed from their posts.
There had been speculation that Assad would withdraw his candidacy or postpone his re-election when his second seven-year term expired in March. However, Assad felt enough confidence in his position to hold a referendum on February 10, 1985. Assad won approval in the yes-or-no vote by the predictable nearly unanimous total of over 99.97 percent.
In a further display of confidence, Assad announced that as a result of contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood's "vanguard organization" in Western Europe, the government had decided to pardon and grant amnesty to former members of the opposition. Accordingly, over 500 Muslim Brotherhood members were freed from Syrian prisons.
On April 8, Assad formed a new cabinet. Perhaps the most significant appointment was that of Muhammad Imadi as minister of economy and foreign trade. Because Imadi was a recognized proponent of free market economics, the Syrian private sector regarded his appointment as heralding a liberalization of Syria's planned socialist economy.
As a whole, Assad's shake-up of the Syrian power elite and his rearrangement of the military and the Baath Party effected significant changes in Syria's domestic political apparatus. Some editorials exuberantly referred to the new changes as representing a revolutionary "second corrective movement," a sequel to the Corrective Movement in 1970 when Assad first took power.
The government tried to conduct business as usual in 1986. Elections were held for the People's Council, with approximately 2 million of the 5.3 million eligible voters participating. The Baath Party won 129 of the 195 seats. The other parties in the NPF won fifty-seven seats. The SCP, which had not been represented in the previous People's Council, won nine seats. The number of women in the assembly grew from twelve to eighteen.
However, in March and April 1986, terrorist bombings in Syria shattered the tranquillity that the Assad regime had been trying to restore. These attacks, and other recurrent internal and external threats, revealed the permeability of Syria's borders and the inextricable link between Syria's internal security and its foreign policy. The relative stability in Damascus in early 1987 appeared to many Syrians to be no more than the calm at the eye of the storm.
In 1987 Syria's economy had a well developed agricultural and industrial base, unlike some of its Arab neighbors that depended almost exclusively on oil. Although agriculture remained nearly as dependent on rainfall as at independence, the government's renewed commitment to agricultural development, the expansion and extension of irrigation systems throughout the country, and application of new cultivation technologies provided incentives to stimulate agricultural output. Industry, too, had expanded considerably in terms of value, both in the range of products and in their sophistication. During the Assad years, Syria's infrastructure grew rapidly, as the state channeled resources into the building of new electric, water, telecommunications, and other development projects. Nevertheless, in the late 1980s, the Syrian economy faced a number of serious difficulties. The collapse of world oil prices, weak markets for Syrian exports, large trade deficits, foreign exchange shortages, declining workers' remittances, unreliable sources and amounts of donor aid from the Gulf states and Iran, rapid depreciation of the Syrian pound, and massive defense expenditures forced Syria into a period of economic retrenchment. A mood of austerity pervaded the economy as the state struggled to adjust to lower rates of economic growth.
Although the government adopted measures designed to forestall an economic crisis by sharply reducing imports, cutting spending, stabilizing local currency and foreign exchange markets, encouraging the private sector by introducing more market-oriented mechanisms into the economy, and limiting black market activity, the Syrian economy faced a long and difficult road to recovery. Observers were agreed that in the 1990s, economic recovery would depend in part upon the state's ability to initiate and implement major economic reform programs, improve public sector management, and overcome bureaucratic inertia and corruption. Continued internal stability and external elements, such as the outbreak of an Arab-Israeli war or a severe world depression would also affect Syria's prospects for economic recovery. However, through the end of the 1980s only the discovery of sizable quantities of high grade oil at Dayr az Zawr--by generating much needed foreign exchange and reducing expenditures for oil imports in the balance of payments-- offered the possibility of economic relief.
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