February 28, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 50

The Syrian Regime Vs. The Reformers; Part I: Backlash - The Regime Fights Back

February 28, 2001
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 50


Since Bashar Assad became president of Syria in July 2000, and especially over the last few months, Syrian intellectuals in Damascus and other cities have begun publicly discussing the development of "civil society" in Syria. Some seventy "dialogue clubs" were established throughout Syria, and the fact that the security apparatuses did not crack down on them, strengthened the Arab media's assessment that President Bashar supports these activities and the goals of the reformers.[1]

However, in an interview with the London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (February 8, 2001), the Syrian president ended this speculation. He limited the political debate in Syria to a discussion of the past, and opposed the discussion of possible changes in the future. He also stated that when discussing the past, one must refrain from criticizing the Ba'ath Party, thus rendering political discussion futile. Furthermore, President Bashar threatened that whoever endangers the interests of the state will be severely punished, even if their intentions were good.[2]

The Syrian president's remarks were a green light for those opposing democratic and civil reform in Syria, especially in the Ba'ath Party and internal security apparatuses, to launch an attack on the reformers and their ideas.

This battle occurred on several levels. On the ideological level, Ba'ath Party officials were instructed to attend the reformers' meetings and to debate and refute their ideas. On the administrative level, special regulations were set to limit the reformers' activities. On the personal level, legal measures were taken against one of the leaders of the reformers, a member of the "The People's Council" (Syria's Parliament.)

Ba'ath Officials Join in the Ideological Debate

The regime's campaign began with Ba'ath officials joining in on some of the meetings; most of the debates between Ba'athists and the reformers took place in Parliament Member (MP), Riyadh Al-Seif's home where he hosted a weekly political debate club that had received most of the media's attention.[3] The Arab media reported that Ba'ath members were instructed to participate by the party's national leadership. One source even reported that these Ba'athists were reprimanded by the regime for not making a strong enough case. The scolded Ba'athists responded that they were not given enough time to present their positions.[4]

Chairman of the Faculty Association at the University of Damascus, Dr. Feysal Kulthoum, was the highest-ranking Ba'ath official to participate in the meetings. Dr. Kulthoum, a professor of constitutional law, claimed that he participated of his own free will: "We are not robots. We are not like the communist party in the Soviet Union, whose members were controlled by the leadership. We began our activities out of a strong national feeling that the public must be made aware of the dangers [in the activities of the intellectuals].... My goal," added Dr. Kulthoum, "was to refute those arguments that do not correspond with the Arab-Israeli conflict and Syria's role in the region." Dr. Kulthoum said that although he participated in the symposiums - they are illegitimate: "No one should be allowed to participate in undermining the legitimacy of the [Syrian] regime, or to deviate from the national and pan-Arab goals set by it."[5]

At the same time, members of the national leadership of the Ba'ath Party launched a campaign in university departments, to thwart the initiatives of the intellectuals. This was accompanied by an incitement campaign against the intellectuals by Imams in Syrian mosques. One Imam in the city of Tartus even compared the intellectuals' demands to the demand for civil marriages.[6]

The Syrian leadership itself joined in the ideological debate and several high-level leaders were sent to brief various state institutions about the appropriate ideological line.[7] Vice President Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, briefed the staff of the University of Damascus and then continued on to the University of Homs. The other Vice President, Zoheir Masharqa updated the Ba'ath leadership in Aleppo. Deputy Secretary of the Ba'ath Party, Abdallah Al-Ahmar, met with the faculty of the University of Aleppo. Foreign Minister Faruq Al-Shar' briefed the writers, journalists and media. Head of the National Security Apparatus, Muhammad Sa'id Bakhitan briefed senior officials in the various internal security apparatuses, while Prime Minister Mustafa Miro updated the professional unions in the fields of trade, agriculture and industry in Damascus. Suddenly, it seemed, the Ba'ath Party leadership was seized with panic.

Administrative and Regulations to Limit Activities

Administrative steps aimed at limiting the reformers' activities accompanied the ideological campaign. The Syrian security authorities laid down five conditions to regulate the activities of the "dialogue clubs:"

  • 1.A request for a permit from the security apparatuses. The request must be submitted to the district governor, 15 days before the convening of any meeting.
  • 2.A copy of the lecture and the name of the lecturer.
  • 3.A list of the names of participants should be provided as well.
  • 4.The location of the meeting and the name of the host. [8]
  • 5.The "Syrian political security apparatus" would be responsible for issuing permits, and the decisions would be made in its central office in Damascus "in order to regulate and organize the matter."[9]

The intellectuals, for their part, said that they are prepared to report "to the Syrian Ministry of Information, but not to any other element," thus undermining the legitimacy of the involvement of the Syrian internal security apparatuses in the supervision of their activities.[10] Habib Saleh, who led the "Tartus Free Club for Democratic National Dialogue," said that the conditions set forth by the security apparatuses "are excessive, because of the difficulty of reporting in advance the names of the participants in meetings that are open to the public."[11] In the city of Al-Qamishli, for example, the lecture planned at the local club was canceled after the head of the Political Security Apparatus in town insulted and beat two of the organizers, poet Marwan Othman and writer Muhammad Amin Muhammad, for apologizing to the invitees for the delay in notifying of the cancellation. Official sources reported, on the other hand, that the scuffle broke out following a verbal argument between the two sides.[12] Meanwhile, writer, Muhammad Najati Tayara, who headed the dialogue club in Homs, was invited to Damascus to "discuss" with a security apparatus official the activities of the club.[13]

Personal Measures

The Syrian authorities also took action against one of the key figures among the reformers, Syrian MP Riyadh Al-Seif. A criminal investigation was opened against Al-Seif who, as an MP, attracted most of the media's attention.

Parliament Chairman Abd Al-Qader Qaddura reported to the parliament: "I authorized, based on my authority under the law, opening an investigation against MP Riyadh Al-Seif." The Syrian Minister of Justice made the request to open the investigation. Al-Seif himself told the media that he was charged with a "constitutional breach."[14]

MP Munzir Musalli explained that Al-Seif violated the constitution by stating "The Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party monopolized the government and granted itself the right to lead the society and the state using Leftist rhetoric." This remark, Musalli explained, contradicts Article 8 of the Syrian constitution, which states "The Ba'ath Party is the leader of the society and the state." Musalli justified the decision to open an investigation against his colleague Al-Seif by saying "The Ba'ath Party did not take a monopoly over the government; the right [to rule] is given to it in Article 8 of the constitution which was approved by a referendum."[15]

Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.

[1] MEMRI The Battle for Reforms and Civil Society in Syria - Part I, "The Battle for Reforms and Civil Society in Syria - Part I" February 9, 2001.

[2] MEMRI All Quiet on the Eastern Front, Almost... Bashar Assad's First Interview, "All Quiet on the Eastern Front, Almost..." February 16, 2001 as well as Part 3 of the MEMRI translation of the interview with President Bashar.

[3] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), February 19, 2001.

[4] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), February 19, 2001.

[5] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 17, 2001.

[6] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 17, 2001.

[7] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 16, 2001.

[8] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), February 19, 2001.

[9] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 20, 2001.

[10] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 17, 2001.

[11] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), February 19, 2001.

[12] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 20, 2001.

[13] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 20, 2001.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 19, 2001.

[15] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), February 19, 2001.

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