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Once seen as shy reformer, Syria's Assad confounds hopes

Many thought that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was at heart a reformer. But his response to unprecedented protests and violence suggest otherwise.

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Still, the recent antiregime demonstrations and past experience suggest that regardless of Assad’s true motivations, he is unwilling to make concessions while under pressure.

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After two weeks of protests, Assad addressed the Syrian parliament on March 30 amid high expectations – based on hints by regime officials – that he would announce a package of reforms. But he dashed the hopes of optimists by conceding little and instead blaming the unrest on “foreign conspirators.” Since then, the draconian Emergency Law has been revoked after nearly half a century and the state security court abolished. But the measures have failed to dampen the protests.

Assad was similarly reluctant to offer concessions during the Baath Party conference in June 2005 at the height of Syria’s regional and international isolation. Prior to the conference, he announced it would signal a “leap for development,” giving rise to expectations that the recent humiliation of the troop pullout from Lebanon and international pressure would force him to make some long-awaited reforms.

But the results fell far short of expectations, with a handful of aging regime figures ousted and little more besides.

“He doesn’t like to pushed around,” says Mr. Seale. “He inherited that from his father. He doesn’t like to have to yield under pressure.”

Although the state has loosened its grip on the economy in recent years, leading to a partial liberalization, deeper political reforms failed to emerge even when the Assad regime found itself in a more comfortable environment. That raises questions over whether Assad really is a reformer at heart.

A brief period of relative political openness in spring 2001 was quickly suppressed and some opposition figures imprisoned. But a former adviser to Assad, who requested anonymity, recalls in the early stages of Assad’s presidency that there were a number of administrative, economic, and legal reforms being proposed.

“Gradually the reform programs began to come together, but at the same time, the resistance to these programs began to build as they threatened vested interests,” the former adviser says. “Bashar told me ‘the guys don’t want to do it.’ ”

Despite the worsening violence that has left more than 200 protesters dead and hundreds wounded, many Syrians still pin their hopes on Assad being a reformer. Criticism of regime figures tends to focus on the likes of Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Assad who has amassed huge wealth in the past decade due to his ties to the regime and alleged intimidation of other businessmen. In 2008, the Treasury department designated Makhlouf, saying he had benefited from corruption in Syria. Another unpopular figure is Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother who heads the Republican Guard, the elite military force charged with protecting the regime.

But for much of Syria’s opposition, there is little ambiguity over Assad’s true nature.

“The truth is plain for all to see. Assad is what Assad does, not what Assad says or how he carries himself in public,” Ausama Monajed, a Syrian opposition activist, wrote in an e-mail circulated Monday to journalists covering the Syria uprising. “What Assad has been doing since Year One in office … is to crack down and stand by the most corrupt members of his family and entourage. Bad guys in the Middle East don’t all look like Saddam or speak like Qaddafi: they just behave like them."

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