June 2, 2005 No.

The Upcoming Syrian Ba'th Party Convention: Towards Change or Stagnation

By: Aluma Dankowitz*

The upcoming Arab Socialist Ba'th Party's 10th national convention, slated later this week between June 6 through 9, 2005 in Syria, has sparked hope in the country for internal reform. The convention will take place amidst growing pressure on the Syrian regime, from both within and without.

Domestically, criticism of the holdup in Syria's reform, development, and modernization processes is increasing, and human rights and civil society activists are becoming more active in the wake of developments in Lebanon following the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri.

Regionally and internationally, there have been significant changes in the past few years that concern Syria – most important among them the fall of the Ba'th regime in Iraq, as well as the American presence in the region, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 demanding that Syrian forces exit Lebanon, and the implementation of that resolution in late April 2005.

Predictions in Syria that the convention will result in essential change in the country began to appear following Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's March 5, 2005 address to the Syrian parliament, in which he expressed hopes that the convention would be "the greatest leap" in Syria's history, and in which he stated that the domestic situation was at the top of his list of priorities.

According to these predictions, Al-Assad will make sweeping changes in the party's 21-man leadership, trimming the number to 15 and retaining only three or four members from the old leadership of his father's era. It is estimated that this move will pave the way for the president's brother Maher Al-Assad (who heads the Republican Guard) and brother-in-law Wasef Shawkat (who heads Syrian military intelligence) to join the party leadership.

On the political level, it is expected that the convention will recommend a Parties Law that will encourage the establishment of new political parties as long as they are not ethnically or religiously based. It is also expected that the convention will recommend a new law for free local council elections.

It is thought that the convention will reexamine the state of emergency in effect in Syria since the 1960s, and will limit the application of emergency laws to situations where national security is at risk. It is also thought that it will grant citizenship to some 100,000 Kurds, and will reexamine Law 49 of 1980, that sanctions the death penalty for Muslim Brotherhood members. [1]

On the economic level, it is expected that the convention will officially adopt the principle of a market economy – thus relinquishing the socialism that is one of the Ba'th Party's three tenets: unity, freedom, and socialism. At the same time, however, it is expected that the convention will take care not to use the concepts of "free economy" and "privatization," and will not omit the "Socialist" from the party name.

The convention's recommendations are likely to have two main provisos: The Ba'th will remain Syria's ruling party, in accordance with Section Eight of the Syrian constitution determining that the Ba'th is "the party that leads the country and the society"; and the National Progressive Front will remain the political coalition of the parties licensed by the government. [2]

The assessments that the convention will act towards reform are met by optimism on the part of Ba'th Party supporters, and pessimism on the part of the Syrian opposition. The following is a review of public opinion in Syria, based on articles from the Syrian and Lebanese press: [3]

The Regime Supporters' Positions

Ba'th Party members and the regime's supporters see the upcoming convention as the most significant in Syria's history. They express certainty that the Ba'th Party has chosen to follow the path of reform, and that this convention will issue concrete and unprecedented recommendations. Contributing to this sense are statements by top party officials about "courageous decisions" that the convention is expected to take. [4]

Demands: Party Self-Criticism, Removal of Officials Who Have Betrayed the Public's Trust

In referring to the convention, pro-regime shapers of public opinion acknowledge that flaws exist in the party's function, and express hope that the convention will bring about an end to its corruption and encourage self-criticism within it.

The editor of the Syrian government daily Al-Thawra, Dr. Fayez Al-Sayegh, wrote in praise of the Ba'th Party's capability for self-renewal: "We are not claiming that the regime's flaws have not seeped into the party over the past decades, and that there has been transparency in its activity, without exception. Some degree of flaws, exploitation, and interests have infiltrated the body of the party, like any party that rose to power in any of the world's countries – but the clean and pure Ba'th cells can still be created, and expand… The coming political and party leadership is called upon to set as a priority a comprehensive program for self-criticism… Doesn't constant examination lead to ongoing self-renewal? This is one of the tasks of the conventions…" [5]

In further comments on the desirability of self-criticism, the editor of the Syrian government daily Teshreen, Dr. Khalaf Al-Jarrad, expressed hope that the convention would remove from the party all those officials who had lost their credibility and damaged its name: "Doubtless, there is hope that the upcoming convention will be a landmark in the running of the party, in its work methods, and in clarifying its relations with the regime. There is hope that the convention will take on the difficult and public initiative of self-criticism and of settling accounts with the slackers who harm the party, the state, and the society, and will distance, once and for all, those who have harmed their party and the public morality and who have contributed to the creation of an image unbecoming to the party due to their personal or family behavior and due to their lack of integrity…" [6]

The demand to remove those who use the party to fulfill their own personal interests was also voiced by the editor of the Syrian government daily Al-Ba'th, Elias Murad: "In these days, close to the convening of the party's 10th convention, we ask ourselves what we wish for the party... Don't we want it to become popular again, and for its warriors to always excel at integrity, transparency, and sacrifice? Don't we want it to be everybody's party, as it began, and in accordance with its goals? Don't we want the public to turn to it and stand alongside its goals in changing times and circumstances? Of course we wish all this for the party, and therefore we must distance ourselves from the regime's favors and from the corrupt elements within it…

"... The upcoming convention will, beyond the shadow of a doubt, be the most important station in the history of the party and the country… We are certain that the Ba'th warriors will continue in their path and will accept the challenges facing them on the various levels… Our comrades who find the party's principles to be an expression of themselves... will continue in the path of the struggle, while those who find in the party first and foremost their own interests will in the future have no place in a party that sets challenge and sacrifice on the various fronts as a priority …" [7]

Not All Ba'th Principles and Values Have Been Realized

Muhammad Hassan Salha, who identifies with the Ba'th Party, explained the importance of fostering pluralism in the political parties and in the media in order to form a unified front against threats from outside: "As a citizen [belonging] to the Ba'th in an unorganized fashion, I believe in the principles and values of the Arab Socialist Ba'th Party, but find that not all these principles and values have been realized… As a citizen, I believe that the party will lead the country and the society… [This leadership means] acknowledgment of all of society's elements and ideas, and an attempt to consolidate a collective stand for action…

"Accepting the other citizen and his opinions is what creates true immunity for the homeland and what guarantees the country's wellbeing and achieves internal unity for facing the external attack that grows stronger every day… Society's unity and strength will be achieved via two things: pluralism of parties, through a law to permit the establishment of parties and associations… and pluralism of the media to complement the pluralism of the parties, because ideas that are manifest publicly enrich each other, while ideas spread in secret publications and via the external media increase the division in society and the aggression against each other…" [8]

Syrian MP Ahmad Haj Suleiman, a supporter of President Al-Assad, outlined the issues faced by the convention: "Despite all the obstacles and difficulties hampering or upsetting the beginning of the process of reform and development, there is a general feeling amongst the citizens that there is a need to safeguard and support the way of thought being laid out by the president. At the same time… there are great hopes of solving many of the pressing problems so as to attain stability in the country.

"Among these issues are: improving the standard of living in [the country]; waging war on corruption and demanding accountability from the corrupt; respecting the principle of sovereignty of law and carrying out reforms in the judicial system; starting the process of development and of encouraging investment; respecting freedoms and different views; honesty [towards the public]; creating a responsible media; building institutions; strengthening social thought; maintaining a fruitful political dialogue with all political forces; basing national unity and strengthening ties and factors of unity amongst the sons of the nation… The upcoming party convention will be a true station for expressing opinions and [raising] various proposals… We are optimistic about the future…" [9]

The Syrian Opposition's Position

In contrast to the regime's supporters – who are hopeful about the outcome of the Ba'th Party convention and see it as a highly important development in Syria's history - the opposition is expressing pessimism regarding the convention's ability to institute any meaningful change. In the view of opposition members, any changes will be strictly cosmetic, and aimed at reinforcing President Al-Assad's regime, suppressing internal and external criticism of the running of the regime, and creating an illusion of unity. They dismiss the expected reshuffle of the party leadership. They state that the convention should focus strictly on Ba'th affairs, and that for genuine change in affairs of state to take place, there must be a general national convention representing all Syria's parties and political streams – including the Ba'th, the opposition, and the civil society.

Syrian opposition author and researcher Michel Kilou expressed pessimism about the convention's outcome. In the Syrian government daily Teshreen, Kilou explained that the convention should examine ways to involve Syrian society in politics, and that it must approve a Parties Law and separation of authorities, abolish the state of emergency and emergency laws, limit the powers of the security apparatuses, and free education, the judicial system, and the administrative from [party] patronage. The convention, he wrote, must reexamine social and economic policies so as to ensure fair distribution of the national income, and also must reexamine party-regime relations and separate the areas in which their powers overlap.

According to Kilou, "there is no doubt that Syria as a state, as a society, as a regime, and as a party has reached the end of its path, and a new beginning is inevitable… [But] I do not think that the convention will actually make this leap and manage to bring about a serious break from what is widespread today in our public life." Accordingly, Kilou opines that there must be agreement on new foundations for public activity in which all sides, within the regime and outside it, will cooperate. [10]

Poor Convention Preparations – Indicative of the Expected Disappointing Outcome

Pessimism regarding the convention's outcome was also expressed by Hazem Nahar, Syrian author and a member of the Jamal Al-Atasi Forum for National Dialogue, who was detained together with the rest of the forum's leadership in late May 2005 for calling for dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood movement. In light of the expected convention outcome, he predicted that the opposition will increase in strength, and that the pressure on the regime will heighten. He wrote:

"The preparations for the convention and the way its members were chosen… do not bode well, since the regime did not see fit to conduct a dialogue with the political powers prior to the convention, nor did it present the main problems before public opinion.

"The convention programs weren't even distributed to the party organizations so they could discuss them in a way that would allow them to hold real elections reflecting the ideological and political streams and the opinions and opposition widespread in the party. As usual, personal, tribal, and family considerations, and private interests, entered [the picture]… These signs mean that the convention will not lead to anything [new] of real importance and influence for the future of the country.

"It seems that the regime's main aim is to hint to the pressuring world that there are serious reforms [in Syria]. On the foreign policy level, this is meant to be manifested by expressing 'flexible' stances towards the Palestinian problem and towards everything connected to the American demands regarding Iraq. On the internal level, it is possible to carry out several cosmetic changes under the slogan of 'development and modernization,' such as toppling several elderly, corrupt figures who will be the scapegoat of the new phase – and whose absence will not affect the infrastructure of the regime nor harm its internal balance – and bringing in a number of new faces who differ from their predecessors in form and nothing more…

"The sterile format of the National Progressive Front will remain as it is, with the possibility of giving wider margins [for action] to the parties gathered under it, and with an attempt to add additional forces through offering lures and political bribery or under false claims of 'defending the homeland,' 'the struggle against Zionism,' and against 'the American plan for the region.'

"If [we are] to express some optimism, it is possible to predict partial restriction of the Emergency Law and a trend in the future for ratifying the Parties Law – which will permit formal pluralism that will not affect the political situation, as happened in Egypt. This will allow extending the life and interests of the regime as far as possible, and will encourage the establishment of new [regime-]friendly [political] structures, such as an Islamic party, to obstruct the path of the Islamic opposition stream [i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood].

"These expected disappointing results, together with the increasing American pressure and the constant regression on the economic and social level, can in the near future cause changes whose scope is difficult to know. In the Ba'th Party itself, more than a few people will reexamine their party, because they… are suffering from the same problems and crises [from which the rest of the public suffers] and an increasing number of them are liable to quit and seek other venues [for action]. Thus they too will be part of the forces calling for change…

"The convention and its results will bear the possibility for establishing new political forces and civil bodies closer to the opposition… Sooner or later, the economic forces damaged by the plundering regime will participate in concentrating the power, and will draw closer to the opposition streams… This possible concentration of power will up the pressure on the regime, and [will make] the possibilities [regarding the future] open – since it is difficult to say that the regime can accept essential changes, that it has it in its power to restore the situation to what it was, or that the developing opposition has the capacity to dismantle the existing political regime. All these possibilities depend on the economic situation and on public opinion in Syria and outside Syria…" [11]

Another leader of the Jamal Al-Atasi Forum for National Dialogue, Syrian author Hussein Al-'Awdat, also criticized the convention preparations, and expressed pessimism regarding the outcome. He said that those attending the convention were not selected according to their positions, but according to criteria of cronyism, connections, and origin – "as if we were facing traditional parliamentary elections." The convention program was not distributed to the participants, so that they would be incapable of seriously examining the issues and consolidating a clear position – which would ultimately lead to the convention resolutions not really being those of the convention, but those of the convention's planners.

Al-'Awdat further argues that the program for party policy for the years to come should have been presented to the Syrian public at large by the media, since "it is unacceptable for the policy of the future of the Syrian people to be set behind their back and within closed rooms."

In light of the flaws in the convention preparations, Al-'Awdat states: "It is expected that the convention results will be limited to electing young leaders, but with no new criteria. This is of no use to anyone, since the problem is connected not to the age of the members of the leadership and the government, but to the approved platform, to the ways in which it is approved, and to the general modus [operandi] of the regime and the government…

"One of the Syrians' basic demands – without which any reform is impossible – is the struggle against the corruption (large and small) that has spread and become a phenomenon… [Considering] the way in which the arrangements for holding the convention were carried out… it is impossible to arrive at a plan to struggle against corruption or to deal with the corrupt…

"Needless to say, the convention concerns all Syrians – of all social classes and all political and cultural streams – and is not an internal (Ba'th) Party matter. This is particularly so because the press, the media, and those in charge in all sectors remind us every day of the dangers facing the country, the conspiracies that are proliferating, and the threats leveled at the country by the enemies from within and from without. Therefore, there is no way to deal with all this except by involving the people in discussions… This matter is not connected only to the Ba'th Party, and [the Ba'th Party] has no right … to determine the fate of the people in their absence." [12]

The Time for "One Slow Step for Reform Forward, Two Steps Back" is Past

Syrian author Wael Al-Sawwah wrote in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar: "Most Syrians have minimal optimism regarding the outcome of the convention, because all previous conventions have always led to minor results – much less than what was expected of them. The same can be said regarding all types of promises of reform given in the past…

"The upcoming convention will be no exception, because the Syrian rules of the game have not changed. The Syrian government is continuing to lose time and to trust to a miracle of some kind, and is still persisting in ignoring international demands… Accordingly, there is first of all a need to change the conditions of our game and to understand the rules of the international game. The proper place to achieve any leap will not be the Ba'th Party convention…

"The time for small, slow, gradual reform steps, moving forward one step only to retreat two steps, is over. Now, the Syrians aspire for Syria to make an unequivocal choice, and to join absolutely the international democracy club. This requires overall democratic change, that must begin with the abolition of the state of emergency and the emergency laws… Section Eight of the [Syrian] constitution, which makes the Syrian regime a one-party monopoly, must be abolished; the door must be opened for a non-parasitic and competitive market economy that will give everyone equal opportunities without politically supporting one side and fighting the other side; there must be a separation of authorities and independence for the judicial system… The political and cultural rights of the ethnic minorities must be respected; freedom of thought, expression, and political activity must be assured; and, finally, religion and state must be separated, and children's and women's rights must be protected…

"At this important juncture in history, the Syrian national interest in democracy integrates with the international interest in achieving democracy and fighting terrorism. It would be wrong for the Syrians not to take advantage of this opportunity in order to push their country along the path of development and democracy.

"The proper venue for this kind of change must be parliament, which – in theory, at least – represents all Syrians and has the right to make amendments to the constitution that will make it possible to begin the changes… It is our right, as Syrians who do not belong to the Ba'th Party, to demand that the convention engage in its own matters and leave the matter of change to parliament, and to anticipate a national convention for all Syrians that will determine the shape of future political life in Syria." [13]

The Root of the Problem Lies in the Ba'th Party and its Leadership

In a discussion between Said Abu Ghannam from the Syrian opposition and Ba'th Party leader Ahmad Al-Hajj Ali, which aired on Al-Jazeera TV on May 24, 2005, Abu Ghannam criticized the Assad regime:

Abu Ghannam: "Nothing is left to chance in Assad's Syria - everything is planned in advance by the security apparatuses. The 1,200 or 1,250 Ba'thists who will convene are required to serve as a 'rubber stamp' on the plans made by the security apparatuses. Then they have to chant 'Long live the leader, Bashar Assad,' and declare their allegiance to him for all eternity, just as they chanted 'with soul and in blood' for his father before him. This is what will happen in the [Ba'th Party] convention. Can we expect anything from you? No. We are not deluded… How much longer will we be controlled by the secret police? What kind of country is this, where you need a security permit to open up a hair salon or a falafel stand?… This has become a country in which Bashar Al-Assad can give parts of it to his uncle and cousin…"

Al-Hajj Ali: "What you're saying is disgraceful and shameful… Don't cross the line into forbidden territory! Bashar Al-Assad is above accusations!" [14]

Hassan Abd Al-Azim, the leader of the National Democratic Union, which is the most prominent opposition force in Syria, also supports a general national convention: "The Ba'th Party convention concerns the Ba'th Party alone, not all the issues regarding democratic change. The Ba'th convention must seriously examine the matter of its monopoly on the regime, as stated in Section Eight of the constitution, and adopt a new policy to meet the demands of national democratic change – which will begin first of all with political reform. No matter how positive the results of the convention, they are not enough.

"A real national dialogue is bound to emerge between the new leadership that will come out of the convention and the rest of the forces and the parties in the national democratic opposition, including the civil society…" [15]

In an article titled "The Ba'th Is the Problem – How, Then, Can It Be the Answer?" Syrian intellectual Majed Rashid Al-'Uweid wrote in the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar:"Reform in Syria is not merely another popular demand – but it must also become a demand of the regime to avoid falling like the late regime in Iraq…

"The Ba'th Party and those who belong to it bear full responsibility for the situation Syria has reached… You cannot be a department head if you aren't a Ba'thist … and if only this matter would end there – but it has gotten to the point where even hiring the unemployed for the most menial of jobs requires Ba'th Party membership.

"How, then, is the Ba'th not responsible for the state we have reached? And if it is not responsible, and the Ba'thists feel embarrassed [by this], why don't we see them protesting against what is being carried out in the name of their party?…

"How is it possible to believe, for example, that someone who posts articles on the Internet threatens the state and weakens the people? And how is it possible to believe that a crowd of no more than 500 striking in front of the Hall of Justice… constitutes a threat to a state that has tanks, planes, and cannons? How can we believe that it is necessary to leave the emergency laws in place when we are a country that is outside the circle of war? How can we become convinced of the justice of detaining someone who has an opinion different than that of the Ba'th…

"Why must we wait for the Ba'th Party convention as if it will rescue us from our problems[?]… The root of the problem lies in the Ba'th Party and its leadership. How, then, will salvation come from the creators of the problem and the builders of the pyramids of corruption, in a land that previously knew some measure of freedom and had built a relatively free man?

"There is a need to call a general convention… that will take into account the will of the Syrian people to maintain its right to vote and its right to express its freedom without the fear created in the past 40 years…" [16]

*Aluma Dankowitz is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.

[1] In order to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from returning to the political arena on a party or political basis, the Parties Law is expected to prevent the establishment of any religion-based party. Al-Nahar (Lebanon), May 25, 2005.

[2] The National Progressive Front is the coalition of seven licensed Syrian parties, including the Ba'th Party, established in March 1972.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 19, 2005; Al-Hayat (London), May 22, 2005; Al-Hayat (London), May 9, 2005.

[4] Champress (Syria), April 6, 2005.

[5] Al-Thawra (Syria), May 22, 2005.

[6] Teshreen (Syria), April 25, 2005.

[7] Al-Ba'th (Syria), April 7, 2005.

[8] Al-Thawra (Syria), May 17. 2005.

[9] Teshreen (Syria), May 24, 2005.

[10] Teshreen (Syria), May 17, 2005.

[11] Al-Nahar (Syria), May 25, 2005

[12] Al-Safir (Lebanon), May 11, 2005

[13] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), April 13, 2005.

[14] Al-Jazeera, Qatar, May 24, 2005. See:

[15] Champress (Syria), April 10, 2005.

[16] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), April 15, 2005.