February 28, 2001 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 51

The Syrian Regime Vs. The Reformers; Part II: The Battle of Ideas

February 28, 2001
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 51

Limiting of Individual Freedoms by the Regime

Ba'ath Party officials fiercely criticized the reformer's demands for broader freedoms in Syria. Syrian Vice President, Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, explained: "Freedom is not absolute, but rather a relative concept. This is the case all over the world. No citizen anywhere has the right to endanger the foundations of his society."[1]

As is often done in modern autocratic regimes, which use the theoretical models of Western democracy to justify the opposite, Vice President Khaddam stated: "Individual's right to freedom ends where the freedom of another individual begins, and where the stability and security of the society begin...."[2] At another point he stated, "We support freedom... Limitation of freedom contradicts human nature, and can eliminate creativity and progress. However... democracy is not a pre-tailored suit... freedom must not collide with national unity, or with state security and stability."[3]

Dr. Feysal Kulthoum who played a key role in the Ba'ath campaign, broadened the theoretical scope on the issue of individual human rights. According to him, there are two types of legitimacy: one type which is a "group of principles and ideological goals upon which the [Syrian national] leadership is based, first and foremost among them, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the domestic national missions, that is, building the state and the national unity." This type of legitimacy claims Dr. Kulthoum, has priority over the second type, which concerns "elements of equality, freedom and respect of property rights." The second type of legitimacy Kulthoum demanded must adjust itself to the national goals determined by the regime.[4] Therefore, the limitation of rights in Syria is legitimate, as long as it serves the ideological principles of the Ba'ath regime.

Domestic Stability vs. the "Syrian Mosaic"

An additional claim raised by the Ba'athists was that political pluralism will "undermine Syria's stability." Deputy General Secretary of the national leadership of the Ba'ath Party, Suleiman Kaddah, said that "talking again about the national and religious ‘mosaic' in Syria will lead to the disintegration of the society and will harm [the state's] security and stability."[5]

The term "national mosaic" is taken from a communique published by the leading figure in the reform camp and member of the Syrian Parliament Riyadh Al-Seif which stated that "the mosaic of religions and ethnic groups in Syria must be granted their rights."[6] The "national mosaic" implies the recognition of the political weight of Syria's various ethnic groups. For the Syrian regime, which is dominated by the 'Alawi minority, this demand is a real existential threat. The fear of undermining "Syria's stability" is, in fact, a fear of undermining the legitimacy of the 'Alawi rule.

Vice President Khaddam addressed this point and warned of the disintegration of national unity into various ethnic elements, each one of which, "according to the intellectuals", has its own culture.[7] According to Khaddam, the use of the term "national mosaic" is an attempt by the US and the West, to shatter Third World countries into pieces by demanding the self-determination of their different ethnic groups. "Even if the person who demanded this is an ignoramus," he said, "whoever invented it knew the meaning of this term and what it implies."[8]

Khaddam envisioned a pessimistic future for Syria if it responds to this demand: "Are there any conflicts between people in Syria today? Are people fighting one another? Do the intellectuals want people to fight one another? ...Is the alternative what happened in Algeria, Yugoslavia or Somalia? ...We will under no circumstances let Syria turn into Algeria or Yugoslavia."[9]

The demand to grant Syria's "national mosaic" its rights was apparently the straw that broke the camel's back. Dr. Ali Diyab, Head of the Foreign Affairs Bureau of the Ba'ath Party, explained that the intellectuals "strayed from the fundamental national principles and from the constitution by presenting Syria as a mosaic of nationalities and religions and by calling for the disqualification of the principle that the Ba'ath party is the leader of the state and the society." The intellectuals were given the opportunity to play an important role, without harming the fundamental principles, but they deviated from the legitimate path.[10]

Stability vs. Anarchy

From the perspective of the Ba'ath party, there is a clear distinction between the "stability" granted to Syria by the Ba'ath Party, and the "revolutions and occupation" that preceded its reign. The choice, therefore, is between anarchy and stability. Undermining the Ba'ath regime will inevitably lead the country back to anarchy. Deputy Secretary General of the National Leadership of the Ba'ath Party, Suleiman Kaddah, warned: "Part of what has been proposed by a number of people, is aimed at returning Syria to the Mandate period or to the era of revolutions, to instability and weakness. In those days, Syria was a country that foreigners fought over. On the other hand, thanks to the leader, Hafez Assad, Syria has become a regional power, as our enemies admit even before our friends do."[11]

Patriotism vs. Neglect of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a cornerstone of the Ba'ath Party in Syria. Dr. Feysal Kulthoum described this conflict as one of the "goals and principles on which the regime is based." In their communique, the reformers did not comment on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Ba'athists used it to question their patriotism: "Was it mere coincidence that the reformers proposals did not include a single word about the Arab-Israeli conflict?" Vice President Khaddam asked. "Can any Syrian or Arab citizen's life be separated from what goes on in the conflict between the Arabs and Israel?" [12]

The reformers' claim that the Arab-Israeli conflict is being used by the regime as an excuse to tighten the reigns on the intellectuals. Dr. Ali Diyab, Head of the Foreign Affairs Bureau of the Ba'ath Party responded, "This conflict is a real thing that cannot be ignored. The leadership and the state determine many issues in light of the conflict. Every economic, social or political measure must, at the end of the day, contribute to the solidity of Syria's position [in the conflict] and strengthen it; on the other hand, any initiative that weakens national unity and harms [these] efforts, serves the Zionist enemy."[13]

Vice President Khaddam echoed President Bashar's statement about possible "innocent" misbehavior. He stated that he does not accuse the intellectuals of being agents of foreign countries, "but, even if their intentions are good - the way to hell is still paved with good intentions."[14]

The Reformers and the Syrian Opposition in Exile

Veteran Syrian exiled dissidents all over the world expressed doubts about the survival of the struggle for reform in Syria. Some of them did not have faith in the determination of the reformers, and described them as motivated by personal interests and as being in cooperation with the regime itself. Dr. As'ad Naim, a Syrian scholar living in Sweden, wrote in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily, that the reformers emerged from within the governmental circles, and looked down upon the veteran opposition groups who were persecuted by the regime.

Dr. Naim portrayed the intellectuals as spoiled elitists and said that they have no chance at standing up to the challenges that the regime will place before them. He wrote, "This political situation can be compared to a child who loves the woods, because there is freedom there and no limitations by parents or school. At first, he is filled with happiness and joy; he dances and shouts without answering to anyone. But then evening comes, darkness falls, and strange voices pierce the silence; he hears the owl's call; hunger overtakes him; cold penetrates his flesh and fear seizes him. What can he do? These elitist intellectuals, who enjoy the media's attention and the government's support, are bound to end up with a call to return to school, to their parents' home and to the family, so that we can continue our lives as we lived them over the last thirty years, God forbid."[15]

Muhammad Al-Hasnawi, a Syrian writer living in London wrote about a woman, the mother of one of the political prisoners jailed in Syria, who broke out in tears when she heard that Bashar Assad had inherited his father's reign. "Her natural intuition," he wrote "taught her that the tragedy will continue... Has this fact, which is understood by an illiterate woman, escaped the attention of people like us, who want to lead the public opinion and the modernization?"[16]


Until last week, the reformers in Syria operated with almost complete freedom, and enjoyed media coverage and a sympathetic atmosphere. But, once the Alawites felt that the reformers were endangering the regime's survival -- it changed overnight. The regime's latest measures indicate its intention to nip this development in the bud, because it is capable of undermining its legitimacy. The reformer's determination has not yet faced any real test. However, the moment of truth is fast approaching.

Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 18, 2001.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 18, 2001.

[3] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 19, 2001.

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

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 17, 2001.

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

[7] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 19, 2001.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 18, 2001.

[9] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 19, 2001.

[10] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), February 21, 2001.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 17, 2001.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 18, 2001.

[13] Al-Hayat (London-Beirut), January 21, 2001.

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

[15] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 19, 2001.

[16] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 20, 2001.

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