Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tank It Up!

Well, here is to the beginning of a new endeavor. Camille-Alexandre Otrakji, who regularly features as Alex in the Comments Section, adding a bit of spice and much humanity to the discussion, has just launched a new initiative, an electronic think tank to be specific, for discussing Syria-related issues.

The Creative Syria Think Tank will feature regular contributions by fellow blogger and favorite sparring partner Joshua Landis, my good friend and perceptive political analyst Murhaf Jouejati of George Washington University, current Syrian Ambassador to the US, Imad Mustapha, the Baath reformer and commentator, Ayman Abdel Nour, charismatic Chatham House expert, Rime Allaf, the rising analyst and historian, Sami Moubayed, the provocative and equally brave journalist, Ibrahim Hmeidi, the world renowned historian and Assad Sr. biographer, Patrick Seale, and last, and indeed least in terms of academic abilities, yours sincerely.

The Think Tank can be accessed here. And here is my contribution for this round, which could also be read on site. Readers can vote for their favorite commentary. This week’s question deals with Syria’s achievement over the pat 40 years in comparison to those of its neighbors.

The Assad Baathist Legacy

Continued commitment to Arab nationalism on part of Syria’s leaders over the last forty years, and while not necessarily fake, served more often to divert people’s attention from the serious lack of internal development and the increasing authoritarian predilections of the regime and its minoritarian character.

Moreover, and this commitment notwithstanding, Syria’s Baathist leaders have consistently failed to establish normal economic and diplomatic relations with their immediate neighbors, including the “brotherly” states of Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, with the brunt of the blame in the latter two cases to be born by the Syria leaders and their seeming inability to accept the independence of these two states.

As for Israel, one should never forget that it was specifically under Baath rule that the Golan Heights were lost. We should also bear in mind that late Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad, for all his alleged foresight, has sought and failed throughout the 90s to get a deal that he could have had way back in 1978.

The Baath regime was also unable to maintain normal ties with most West European countries as well as the United States, with dire economic consequences for the country. Assad’s regional ambitions at the time and his ego as he sought to become an heir to Nasser seemed to have played a major role in this.

On the internal front, the socialist policies of the regime and its nationalization program served to discourage the country’s commercial elite from investing in the country, with investments and funds getting diverted to Lebanon and Europe. The corruption of the regime and its minoritarian character has also served to set the scene for the various confrontations that took place with the Muslim Brotherhood. The massacre of 20,000 civilians that took place in Hama in 1982 was unforgivable, especially given the limited number of MB fighters involved (200-500, depending on the account, but no more).

Despite early progress with regard to building more schools, hospitals, roads and factories throughout the country, as well as developing the country’s rural areas, the ensuing neglect of the internal scene since the early 80s, as a result of Assad Sr.’s preoccupation with foreign policy at the expense of everything else, served to offset this early progress.

As a result, Syria, the socialist claims of its leaders notwithstanding, can now boast of:

  1. An unemployment rate well above 25%.
  2. A population where more than 40% live below poverty line.
  3. An inefficient healthcare system.
  4. An imploding educational system.
  5. A decaying national infrastructure.
  6. An increasing gap in development between the Eastern parts (especially areas with Kurdish concentration) and the western parts, despite the fact that Syria’s breadbasket and oil and gas reserves happen to located in the East.
  7. Growing sectarian divides, especially with regard to the Sunnis and Alawites.
So, how does Syria’s situation compare to its neighbors? Well, Syria may not have witnessed a long civil war as was the case in Lebanon, was not invaded as a whole, as was the case with Iraq, and it does not have a massive foreign debt as is the case with Jordan and Lebanon. But, on the other hand, Syria does not have a peace deal with Israel, as is the case with Jordan and Egypt, which means that there are a lot of Syrian families still waiting to go back to their homes in the Golan and be reunited with their families there. Moreover, Syria is now more isolated than ever, does not receive much foreign aid or direct investments, and its regime is the most corrupt and cruel of all existing Arab regimes.

This is the legacy of the Baath and the Assad regime.