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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

The fall of the Damascus Spring Add to ...

The Syria of Hafez al-Assad, who ruled from 1970-2000, was a grim place, dominated by a personality cult, ruthless security forces, a stagnant economy and overflowing prisons.

So the arrival on the scene of 35-year-old Bashar, a Western-trained ophthalmologist, boded well for a more progressive future, following his father's death.

The gawky- (some say geeky-) looking new President and his attractive British-born wife, Asmaa, fit the image of the new millennium. After all, Mr. al-Assad had been chairman of the Syrian Computer Society from 1991, and responsible for introducing the Internet to the country. On taking office, 10 years ago Saturday, it was hoped the younger Mr. al-Assad would open up the Net to freer use, as well open up society to greater freedoms of all sorts.

It was not to be.

Certainly things began promisingly. The new President proposed greater freedom for all media, and greater freedom for the largely state-run economy. He shut the notorious Mazzeh prison, released hundreds of political prisoners, and encouraged civil society groups to become active.

Just a year later, however, the only freedom left in place was that of the market, as all others were curtailed.

One woman described how she had been applauded for organizing a conference on women's rights one year, only to find herself barred from such activity two years later.

As democracy and human-rights activists found themselves again arrested or forbidden from travel and from meeting foreigners, it left Syrians wondering if the so-called "Damascus Spring" had all been a set-up to flush activists out of the shadows so they could be arrested.

Western diplomats and sympathetic Syrians say that Mr. Assad had no choice but to rein in the freedoms of the first year. The chaotic political scene was unfamiliar to a country wound tight as a drum, they say. And the established order, in the Alawi-dominated Baath Party, threatened to abandon the President. The military, also dominated by the minority Alawites from which the Assads hail, was prepared to step in.

"Bashar was forced to realize that either he goes very slow with reforms, or he himself would have to go," one diplomat said.

Left in place were free-market reforms, in the hope they would foster comforts and confidence, allowing the other reforms to be introduced gradually. It was the Chinese model, observers say, rather than the more chaotic Russian model.

That's fine in theory, says Human Rights Watch in a new report being released Friday. The group acknowledges the freer market economy and some of its benefits, but points out in its well-documented dossier that few of the other freedoms have seen the light of day.

In the words of one prominent dissident quoted by HRW, "In the 1980s, we went to jail without trial. Now, we get a trial, but we still go to jail."

Syria's human rights Catch-22

Here are some of the issues raised in the Human Rights Watch report.

The free market: Syria under Bashar al-Assad certainly appears different from the country under his father Hafez al-Assad. Cafes and shopping malls proliferate in Damascus and the economy is booming in the major cities. Sophisticated magazines in Arabic and English are in the new stands, and the arts scene is flourishing. The massive murals of Hafez al-Assad that once were found on almost every street have been replaced with commercial billboards advertising new banks and apartment complexes. Discreet posters depicting Bashar al-Assad are more modest in number. In 2000, Syria had no credit cards and only a handful of cell phones; both are widely used in 2010. There was only one bank and one university, both state-owned, in 2000; today there are 22 private banks and 13 universities. The corporate tax rate was 68 per cent before Bashar al-Assad came to power; today the rate is 18 per cent, and corporations have stopped keeping two sets of books. "Syria is a virgin and growing market," George Saba, vice president of the U.A.E.'s Majd al-Futtaim, told the Wall Street Journal last month. His company is investing $1-billion in a 250-acre, mixed-use retail, commercial and tourist estate a few kilometres outside Damascus.

Law 93: Under the provisions of Law 93, decreed in 1958, no civil society organization can exist unless it is registered, but no human-rights organization has ever been registered. As a result, people can be charged simply with belonging to an unauthorized organization regardless of whether it poses any defined security threat. "Lack of registration is like a sword over our necks," one human-rights lawyer told Human Rights Watch. "The mukhabarat [secret police]can act on it whenever they want." In 2005, the government said it would review the law with a view to liberalizing it. Nothing came of it.

Decree 69: Torture has been a fact of life and death in Syrian prisons and detention facilities, but police and security officials cannot be charged with carrying it out (unless the director of the force orders it) thanks to a 1969 Presidential decree (Decree 14). When Bashar al-Assad ratified the international Convention Against Torture in 2004, it was hoped that situation would change. It did change, but not for the better. By Presidential Decree 69, the immunity provided by Decree 14 was extended to members of all other security forces (unless a prosecution is ordered by the General Command of the Armed Forces).

The Kurds: As in Turkey, Iran and Iraq, Kurds constitute a minority in Syria (about 9 per cent of the population) and suffer from less-than-equal treatment. In Syria, successive regimes have suppressed their political and cultural rights, breaking up cultural festivities such as Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year, and violently putting down any protests. One of the Kurds' greatest concerns is being disenfranchised because of a 1962 census that stripped 20 per cent of Kurds (about 120,000) of their Syrian citizenship. They and their descendants are now stateless and face enormous difficulty getting jobs, registering marriages and obtaining services. In 2002, the new President Assad visited Kurdish leaders and vowed to investigate their grievances. In 2007 he promised again to investigate. Still, nothing has been done.

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