Speech by President Bashar al-Assad to ministers after the swearing-in of Syria's new government, 16 April 2011. This is a translation issued by the official Syrian news agency, Sana.
April 16, 2011
In the beginning, I would like to welcome you to your important positions of responsibility. I would like particularly to welcome the new ministers who joined this government. I wanted us to start as soon as possible after forming the government; for every day that passes, we can achieve great things.
My past week was full of activities. I met a number of delegations from different Syrian governorates; and there will be other delegations from other governorates in the next few days. I wanted to listen to all these delegations at this particular time, and to ask them for their views on the issues which they think should be priorities for this government and for the state in general.
For the Syrian citizens, the new government means new blood; and new blood means new and great expectations. But for this blood not to become old in a short period of time, we need to renew it constantly. This renewal happens by introducing new ideas. This new blood is not necessarily related to the individuals who join the government, but rather related to the new ideas which we produce every day. The world is moving fast around us, and we need to move at the same pace so that we can say that we are developing. Otherwise, we will be moving backwards. The world is moving ahead every month, every week, and sometimes every day.
What’s important at this stage is for us to reach a state of unity, unity between the government, state institutions and the people. We are supposed to be moving in parallel when we move in the same direction. In this case we maximize the outcome and the achievement. The more we distance ourselves from the Syrian population, the weaker our strength and the less our achievement.
The most dangerous thing is the existence of contradiction between the direction we are moving in and the direction the people are moving in. The outcome in that case will be zero; and the achievement will be moving backward. The important thing, as I said, is to stress these channels of communication because the lack of communication with the citizens creates a feeling of frustration and a feeling of anger, particularly when there are daily needs and within the capacity of the state and yet we do not provide them. In that case the results will not be good.
Of course, we want to open a broad dialogue with everyone; for everyone we meet should have a certain idea or a certain complaint. We need to talk to trade unions and organizations which represent professionals and interests throughout the country. We need to consult them, to build a dialogue with them, so that this dialogue and this consultation becomes part of the decision that we take and which has a bearing on the different sections of society which belong to these unions or these organizations. The challenges before us and before this government are as huge as the expectations pinned by the Syrian population on this government. They are as big as the challenges which lay ahead of us, the challenges we faced in the past and the ones we face at present. No government can make any achievement under any circumstances unless it in enjoyed popular support.
From my meetings with sections of the population last week, I found that there is a gap which started to appear between state institutions and the Syrian citizens. This gap must be closed; and we need to find channels between ourselves and the Syrian population. These channels should work both ways. We need to broaden and strengthen these channels. And we need to fill this gap; but it should be filled with one thing which is trust, the trust of the citizens in the institutions of the state.
This trust cannot be built except through full transparency with the citizens. This transparency and this trust will be able to provide sufficient popular support to your government, to enable it to carry out its tasks, even if we were unable to achieve a number of things. When we are transparent with our population, and we tell them that these are our capabilities, and these are the needs and the challenges, I am sure that the Syrian citizen has enough understanding. But when we do not explain to our population what is happening, and the details of the situation, how can we ask them to understand these circumstances if they don’t know them?
As you know, Syria is going through a critical stage. As I said in my speech to the People’s Assembly, there are different components of this stage. There is the conspiracy. There are the reforms and the needs. The conspiracy has always been there as long as Syria acted independently and as long as it has taken its decisions in a way that does not appeal to many parties. And as long as there are adversaries or enemies, conspiracies are natural around us. That’s why we shouldn’t give this component a lot of attention. What’s important for us is to focus our attention on strengthening our internal immunity inside Syria. This immunity is definitely linked to the reforms we are carrying out and to the needs of the Syrian population.
Of course the reforms are very important; and many of these reforms will not produce results soon. And of course we cannot say that we are waiting for the results of these reforms on parallel lines, we should address the needs of the Syrian population within the available capabilities in order to be able to meet them. When we talk about needs, we do not only mean economic ones. Obviously the economy is the biggest problem, and the daily needs are the greatest for the citizen who needs services, security and dignity. And all these elements are interrelated.
The loss of dignity doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual is directly humiliated or insulted by another individual in or outside the state. It rather means neglecting citizens. It means not dealing with a certain transaction that he has in a government department. It might mean asking for a bribe. All these are insults and forms of humiliation that we need to get rid of once and for all. All these elements are strongly connected: the economy is connected with services, services are connected to dignity, the economy is connected to dignity, and security is connected with all of the above. This means that all these elements are interrelated and need to be achieved in parallel and at the same time.
Since we are talking about this particular stage, I would like to say that the blood which has been spilled in Syria has pained us all. It pained the heart of every Syrian. We are sad for the loss of every Syrian and for all those who have been injured. We pray to God to provide solace to their families and friends. We consider them all martyrs, whether they were civilians, members of the police or the armed forces. In any way the investigation committee is proceeding with its work in order to know the causes of what happened and to identify those responsible and then bring them to account.
We have a number of areas to cover. And the points that I have in front of me are derived from my meetings with Syrian citizens during the last week. But I haven’t included all the points. I only wrote the points which the Syrian citizens consider priorities.
On the political level, we have achieved certain things and there are things which are still to be achieved. A law was passed giving our Kurdish brothers the Syrian nationality about two weeks ago. This law will enhance national unity in Syria. The new government will only need to follow up the necessary measures in order to implement the law.
The second point is related to lifting the state of emergency. In my speech to the People’s Assembly, I talked about lifting the state of emergency; and immediately a legal committee was set up and then proposed a whole package of laws which will need to be passed when the state of emergency is lifted. All of this is done according to international standards and practices in other countries of the world. I believe that the committee finished studying these laws a few days ago; and the proposals will be sent to the government in order to turn them to legislation which will be passed immediately.
I don’t know how many days you need in order to get to know your ministries, but let’s say that the deadline for completing the laws related to lifting the state of emergency is next week; and if we can complete that this week, it will be good. Otherwise, they need to be completed maximum next week. Contrary to what some people believe – that lifting the state of emergency will create a security failure – I think that lifting the state of emergency will enhance security in Syria. It will achieve security while maintaining the dignity of the Syrian citizen.
The last law proposed within this package made by the committee is allowing for people to demonstrate. The Syrian constitution allows for demonstrations, but we do not have a law which regulates the process of demonstrating. This process is a challenge to the police because they are not prepared for such things. That’s why the police should be adequately prepared and supported by personnel and equipment. There might be a need for restructuring the police in order to cope with the new reforms. One of the tasks of the police is to protect demonstrators and at the same time protect other individuals and public and private property from any attempt at sabotage or undermining people’s security.
When this package of laws is passed, there will no longer be a need to organize demonstrations in Syria. What will be immediately required of the relevant bodies, particularly the Ministry of Interior, is to implement the laws strictly and rigorously and not to tolerate any act of sabotage.
With these laws, we draw a line between reform and sabotage; and there are clear differences between the demands for reform and the intentions of creating chaos and sabotage. We want the law to be implemented immediately, and we don’t want any sabotage or any undermining of the security of Syrian citizens. The Syrian people are civilized, committed to law and order and do not accept chaos and demagoguery.
The other thing is related to the party law. A number of drafts have been made previously; and different ideas have been presented, but they were not in a governmental framework in any previous government.
What is required of this government is that it should start to study this subject within specific timeframe and to make proposals. Obviously, this is an extremely important subject and is highly sensitive because it will impact Syria’s future in a dramatic manner. It will either strengthen national unity or lead to fragmentation of society. That’s why the study needs to be adequate and mature. Preferably, there should be a national dialogue, since this issue has an impact on Syria’s future; so it shouldn’t remain only at the level of government, organizations, or parties. It should be put to national dialogue in Syria in order to see what is the best model suited to Syrian society.
Another issue is related to the local administration law. I believe this to be one of the most important laws which will also lead to dramatic changes in Syria. Studying this law started at least a year ago; and there were discussions between the Ministry of Local Administration and the governors. There are two aspects to this law. On the one hand it has to do with the structure and the authorities, and on the other, it has to do with elections. Any amendment to local administration elections law without changing the structure will be useless. That’s why we started studying the structure and the authorities; and of course there will be a study of the second component. Again, this is one of the main tasks of this government.
In addition, there is a need for a new and modern law for the media. This law has been studied; and I believe that it was in its last stages, but there were some remarks and reservations or ideas which can be added to it. So, this government can complete this law, and also within set and announced timeframe.
I believe that this package will broaden participation and increase freedoms in Syria. But there are conditions for the success of the reform process. The reform process does not only need legislation to succeed. It succeeds through the institutions because it is not sufficient to simply pass a law. The law needs to be implemented. Syrian institutions need a lot of development. The success of this passage is strongly related to the success of the institutions which will administer these reforms when we start the implementation process. I always say that we should make haste, but we shouldn’t be hasty. Time is of the essence. We need to make haste, but we need results which are useful to our country. We do not want to be hasty and bring about counterproductive outcomes in any issue. That’s why any reform should be based on internal stability and on security.
It’s important for this government to set timeframe for every one of these areas and to make this timeframe public. When it is public, it would be possible to hold any official who does not do what is required of him in a certain subject accountable. If we succeed in this reform, we will be able to strengthen our country and we will be able to face the powerful regional or international winds blowing on Syria. I have full confidence in the Syrian people in this regard, because they have the will, they have the history, and they are highly dynamic.
The last three or four weeks were telling. The outside were betting on the people, and the people foiled their plots. On the other hand, the Syrian policy which also bet on the people won the bet. That’s why I can say that these reforms are reassuring as the people are concerned. We have a mature and intelligent population who are able to cope with these reforms with minimum difficulties. What remains is the development of institutions so that we have the laws, the institutions and the people on the same level for Syria to move forward. If we succeed, this will be a historic response to the orientalists who in the past wrote many things about the Arab society. They said that as a result of the social structure of this region, it will not be able to proceed with democracy at all. This will be equally a Syrian response; and you will be able to provide a model in the Arab region or the Middle East in producing a civilized democracy which is in the best interest of all the population.
On the issues which are of concern to our citizens – and they are many and difficult to innumerate. People want justice, they want roads, water, development, healthcare, education, and many other things. I decided to choose a number of points to talk about. There is no doubt that unemployment is the biggest problem we face in Syria. We have a large number of unemployed young people; and we have a high population growth rate, even in comparison to other less advanced Arab countries. When young people feel that they have no prospects, they will be frustrated and may reach despair. This despair might push them to revolt against family, social and national values. That’s why this is a challenge, not only economic, but rather a national one strongly linked to Syria’s stability.
In this context, we always say that improving the economy will create jobs. This is true, but improving the economy might need a long period of time. We need quick projects which address the problem of unemployment and which deal with the problems of these young unemployed people. The former government prepared a study for a small and medium enterprise body; and this government needs to continue to work on this law in order to help these young people.
Talking about unemployment, we shouldn’t forger agriculture, for it is the basic natural economic pillar in our region. More than 60% of our society depends on agricultural or live in rural areas. There’s no doubt that agriculture is the backbone of Syrian economy; and the state has made great efforts in order to develop this sector during the past decades. But the attention given to agriculture during the past few years was not adequate, particularly with four years of drought. Even this year we have regions which enjoyed a large quantity of rain, while others remain dry. These four years made a direct impact on our farmers, and led to a drop of revenues from agricultural products. They also pushed a large number of people to migrate and leave their work in agriculture either to other professions or to other regions. So, agriculture is labor-intensive, and awarding agriculture adequate attention helps addressing the problem of unemployment in Syria. But we cannot talk about agriculture only in terms of land, rain and agricultural services. Farmers cannot live on the land without the other services necessary for their livelihood and daily life, including education, roads and other services.
In other words, this means that we should award proper attention to rural areas in general. What is good about Syria in comparison with other more advanced countries in the Middle East, and whose experience I have looked at, is the distribution of services during the past five decades between the big cities and the countryside. The distribution is relatively fair, but it should be even fairer. In this context, the Eastern region project is an extremely important one which we started a number of years ago. The idea is important, but I don’t think the implementation has yielded the desired results. We need to reexamine the contents and the mechanisms of that project to achieve the best possible results.
On employment too, the industrial sector has had problems too related to the financial crisis, the situation inside Syria, the low purchasing power, and outside competition. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should go back on opening up, but this opening up should be regulated and positive and it should lead to a better economy in Syria. It shouldn’t act against the economy or against the Syrians.
In the area of attracting investment, we always talk about exemptions. Exemptions are not enough, because investors do not only look for exemptions. They look for the right mechanisms for investment which prevent corruption and provide a qualified workforce. Qualifying people is as important as fighting corruption, and as important as developing the judiciary and legal processes in attracting investment.
We need to focus on developing the public sector in all its areas. The public sector does not only consist of factories. It also provides services to the population, and the public sector has proven to be guarantor of stability in Syria. It contributes to the treasury and guarantees stability at the same time. The role of the state in the economy has become more important, particularly under the global conditions, rising prices of commodities abroad and with the emergence of monopolies which push prices up. When the state provides consumer goods at reasonable prices, this protects the population and at the same time brings the prices down and foils any attempt on the part of those who might think of monopoly or exploiting people’s needs. When we say that we care about the public sector, this doesn’t mean that we don’t care about the private sector. Caring about the private sector also doesn’t mean that we only care about big investors or businessmen only. We should also care about small professions and small businesses everywhere. Previously, we used to give exemptions to projects with capital amounting to millions. The fact is that the Syrian economy is based on small and medium enterprises, not primarily on large projects. That’s why, it might be better to move on parallel lines between big projects and giving advantages to small projects.
People talk about justice. They want an equitable distribution of income and wealth not only among individuals, but also among regions, between cities and the countryside, between big cities and small cities. They want a developed judiciary. We need to continue automating the legal system, and there is a great need for more judges in order to be able to deal with the large numbers of cases and transactions in front of them. At the same time, people need new premises for the courts in different parts in Syria in order to take in the newly-recruited judges. A fair and well-functioning legal system is essential for investment, stability, the economy and for achieving justice to the population in general. The most important problem, which we hear about on a daily basis, is corruption. It is definitely the biggest problem that can plague any society because it leads to a waste in money, morals and the whole potential of the country. It is the exact opposite of development. A number of ideas have been suggested on how to deal with it, but they remain general ideas. We need to look for practical measures to fight corruption. I think the worst thing is for a government official to be accused of corruption. That’s why I think that Syrian officials, and let us start with government, should present a statement of their property and other assets. When a certain official is accused of corruption, we can check this statement and compare between the officials’ assets before the accusation and after. In some countries, this statement is presented on an annual basis and in others it is presented only once. What’s important is to have a frame of reference. We started this process about three years ago, but it wasn’t at ministers’ level and it was a pilot and the data wasn’t really used.
There were also proposals about creating a corruption-fighting agency which is staffed by trustworthy people who carry out two tasks; investigating corruption charges on the one hand and checking certain cases where there might be suspicion about the integrity and soundness of transactions in order to ensure that things are done according to procedure, when there are important bids or calls for tender with big amounts of money. In this case, the agency can monitor and audit the process.
The third point is about bribery which usually changes hands on a daily basis in small figures, but ultimately it creates new burdens for people and leads to a lot of anger. This is natural. Bribery cannot be addressed except through administrative reform, first through reducing unnecessary procedures; and second through computerizing administrative work. Administration needs full restructuring of procedures and transactions and at the same time monitoring the behavior of the personnel. But if we do not computerize and organize transactions, it will be difficult to control this process.
More than one official from different countries have raised questions about big calls for tender, and sometimes these raise a lot of talk in society. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be transparent with people and make these bids public. In some countries, they are usually broadcast on television; I mean the process of examining the tenders and awarding the bids and so on. The more transparent we are, the more we protect ourselves against unfounded allegations and charges. In the same context we need to have a tax reform, because it is one of the big corruption areas in Syria. It is true that tax returns have risen during the past few years, but still there is a lot of waste. Tax reform is an important area if we want to fight corruption properly.
There is also the question of controlling government expenditure, although it is not directly related to corruption. Yet, there might be some aspects of corruption there and some negligence, but we need to put an end to unjustified government expenditure, whether it has to do with cars, gas, building, unnecessary travel, particularly in these circumstances. I don’t think that we need to attend conferences anywhere. Ministers should remain in Syria at this time. The priority will be given to the internal situation, and the public sector should be transparent in terms of its expenditure. Everything should be presented to people and expenditure should be justified. This means that transparency is at the heart of this process in all areas.
These are some of the points that the Syrian people raised when I met them. But even if we had the good intentions to achieve all these points, we cannot do that except by developing government mechanisms, improving government efficiency and improving the decision-making process at government level. There are a number of principles which should be the foundation of government work. First, increased participation in decision-making. This means involving everyone without exception. When we pass a decree, who implements the decree? It is not only implemented by the minister. It is implemented by the ministry staff at different levels. The staff knows the possibility of implementing the decree from their experience, so it’s important for them to participate and express their views. Sometimes there are unpractical points in the law which are difficult to implement. So, they will point to these difficulties. We need to have full participation inside institutions, and second, as I said in the beginning, with relevant organizations and trade unions. There are stakeholders and they have their views. When we expand the decision-making circle, we ensure that the decision we passed in order the interests of a certain group of people will not damage its interests in other areas. The more we broaden participation, the less errors we make and the more people defend this government’s decision. And the government needs people to defend its decisions.
There were structures created in other times, and these structures might have been necessary in those times, but are no longer so. That’s why we have to abolish these unnecessary structures. On the other hand, we need to create new structures which we need now. For instance, we talk all the time about having the right individual in the right place, and there were many experiences, but they were all partial and achieved very little of what we wanted. We want a centralized structure. Now there is a study of creating a body for public administration or public services. The important thing is to have such a structure at the Prime Minister’s office concerned with public appointments, putting criteria for evaluation and assessment, training plans and career paths for state employees: criteria for promotion and for evaluation. All these standards and criteria will be central and applied by the ministries. This is one of the necessary new structures in order to have better quality in the public sector or in government.
We need to computerize government work with the ultimate objective of having e-government and I believe that we lag much behind many Arab and non-Arab countries in our region. The more we computerize, the more we reduce corruption, save time and reduce the suffering of the citizen, the investor, or any person who has anything to do with state institutions. We should also put a timeframe for any project or any law. When the government says that it is studying a law, it should say that we will complete this law by such and such a time. We will finish a certain project during this time period. All projects should be connected with a specific timeframe. Now there is follow-up office at the Prime Ministry which can follow up at least in terms of the timeframe in order to help the Prime Minister address any areas of failure or lagging behind on the part of any state official.
On the question of reducing centralization, many officials are inclined to deprive their subordinates of all the authorities they have and putting them in their own hands. This has a negative impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of government work. I now ask every minister to give full authorities to their staff, so that he/she has time to think about strategy and to monitor the performance of their ministries and to hold their staff accountable.
There is the question of committees. A certain issue is proposed to the Cabinet. The Cabinet sets up a committee. In many cases, these committees are set up on issues which are part of the minister’s authorities. This is wrong. The minister himself should examine the subject, he is responsible for it and he should make proposals. If the minister wanted a committee to assist him, no problem. But, before the Cabinet, he is the minister and he is responsible. A committee could be set up for a new issue which is not related to any specific ministry, an issue which might have something to do with a number of ministries. In that case we can set up a committee to examine it. Otherwise, we shouldn’t absolve a minister of his responsibility and shift it to a committee. How can we bring people to account? Is the committee responsible in this case? No, the minister is responsible in all cases.
Memoranda are usually circulated among ministers or across different levels. Many junior officials report to their seniors about a certain problem but without a proposal. The memorandum is sent back with the appendage of “for implementation according to the laws and procedures.” It is a given that any official should apply laws and regulations, and there shouldn’t be anything outside these laws and regulations. But, an official sends memorandum with either a decision or a proposal. Without a decision or a proposal he will be held responsible because he is simply shifting responsibility to a higher level. If such an official believes that the proposal isn’t part of his authority, or it might violate laws and regulations but for the public interest, he might propose this to the Cabinet and the Cabinet takes the decision and justifies it.
Most of the issues and the projects proposed are related to more than once ministry; and we have a big problem with cooperation between the ministers. The solution is to have only one authority. Even if we have a number of authorities considered with an issue, there should be one leading ministry which leads action and the others assist or compliment, so that we deal with one minister and not a group of ministers on one issue.
We often propose a large number of projects. These projects go on for years, and sometimes for tens of years without being completed. Of course when we pay money on a certain project and then it’s not completed, this is waste. So we lost a lot of money and for a number of years. What is better in this case is to have a smaller number of projects within a shorter timeframe so that the projects start to give returns, and then we move to new projects. In other words, we shouldn’t spread our efforts too thinly. And as I said, when we talk to people and explain these things to them, they understand and they help us identify priorities for these projects.
Of course it’s important to base our work on legislation, but we need to know that legislation is only the foundation of development. Real development, however, happens through the projects which are based on these laws. That’s why we need to think of projects which aim at reducing unemployment, which help the agricultural sector, which help the Eastern region, projects which are properly managed and which are based on development laws. These projects enable people to feel the tangible results. But for us to say that we passed a law, this doesn’t mean a lot in most cases.
When we talk about figures, these figures have to be strongly linked to people’s lives. When we announce figures about economic growth, we also need to talk about population growth, about inflation, about unemployment, about other figures related to the subject, about living standards, about income. Figures are important, but they should give us an indicator that we can achieve better things if the figure is positive, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that people’s lives have become better. So, we shouldn’t’ talk about figures in their abstract.
As I said in the beginning, participation is about expanding and broadening the decision-making circle. But at this particular time, participation has a slightly different meaning, because as I said, the tasks ahead of us are immense. And no state can meet all requirements. We have certain capacities, but we have an active civil society in Syria and it is expanding quickly. So, why don’t we involve civil society in different sectors? Why don’t we distribute and share tasks instead of having duplication of efforts, whether with civil society organizations or with mass organizations and trade unions? Some organizations have certain projects, and we discover later that the government is working on a similar project and spending more money. This is waste, and we need to have a dialogue with them in order to distribute and share tasks. Involving civil society is one of the mechanisms and channels we talked about in the beginning which allow the citizen to feel involved with the state and that he takes part in building his country.
Going back to the question of communication, there is dialogue and there is communication through the media. You cannot hold a dialogue with the whole population at once. But you can do that through the media. Every minister should talk to the media every now and then to explain what he is doing, what he has done, how he thinks. He should invite journalists to explain to them off the record just to give background information about the issues raised. In that case, the media will be able to pass the real picture to the population. At the same time, there is a possibility to have a government spokesman but not necessarily in the traditional sense, to have someone whose only job is to be a spokesman. Some governments do this and some others make a minister a spokesman for the government. Sometimes a certain minister might be asked to explain something and not necessarily the minister designated as official spokesman. Sometimes the minister functioning as a spokesman might not be able to talk about a certain issue because it’s too technical for him. But when there are important decisions taken by the Cabinet, they need to be talked about and explained after the meeting, and there should be questions and answers. This is an important way in opening channels between the government and the population.
In general terms, it is difficult to acknowledge failure, but we shouldn’t see it as difficult whether the failure is justified or unjustified. What is important is for us to be transparent. We should acknowledge that there are failures and mention the reasons. People understand when we are clear. But when we deny failure, this is failure itself.
My role as far as you’re concerned will be monitoring, supporting and bringing to account. I give priority to support. What’s important is that we and the population are one party, not two parties. The citizen is our compass, and we get along with our citizens in the direction they identify. We are here to serve our citizens; and without this service there is no justification for the existence of any one of us. What is important is for the citizen to feel his or her citizenship in every sense of the word.
My last advice to every official I meet and to every government is to be humble and modest. Be humble and modest with people. There is no justification for arrogance because that is the beginning of failure for any individual, any state, and any nation. When an individual is charged with an official responsibility, he should lose the feeling of himself as a private individual and should feel that any citizen is better than him. He should restore his self-esteem and self-value through the satisfaction of the citizen. When citizens are satisfied with your performance, you feel your real value as a human being who deserves respect, but also without arrogance.
I wish you all possible success in the tasks you are charged with; and I hope that you and I, and every official in this country will be able to speak for Syria, glorious Syria which is at the heart of the Arab nation and to truly represent what our country stands for, as the throbbing heart of the Arab nation. Once again I wish you all the best and thank you.