Assad's moment of truth

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last January, President Assad of Syria talked about reform. Not reform under pressure but reform with "conviction", as he put it.

"If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia," he said, "it is too late to do any reform. This is first. Second, if you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action; and as long as what you are doing is a reaction you are going to fail."

Two months later, President Assad finds himself in exactly the situation he cautioned against: being forced to institute reforms as a reaction to events. And, as he said himself, the likelihood is that this will fail.

He now faces the difficult task of persuading Syrians that, contrary to appearances, the reforms on offer will be far-reaching and genuine and not just a ploy to quieten discontent.

For starters, his entire cabinet resigned on Tuesday and there are hints that the 50-year-old state of emergency will be lifted almost immediately. On Wednesday morning, Bashar himself is due to give a speech in the Syrian parliament.

One early indication of how genuine this is will be the announcement of the new cabinet: how many old faces return and how many new ones – preferably clean and untainted by the past – are introduced into key positions. The late presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, not to mention the beleaguered current president of Yemen have tried similar tactics to little avail, but we shall see how far Bashar is prepared to go.

To be convincing on the reform front, though, he will have to offer something truly dramatic. At this late stage, vague promises of elections and a multi-party system will not suffice. They take too long to implement and can easily lead to nothing more than a Mubarak-style democracy with rigged elections and a single dominant party.

In Syria, as in other Arab countries, what really annoys the public is corruption and privilege. If he is prepared to tackle that, there is some hope for his survival. Whether he can actually do it is another matter, since it would mean – among other things – dispensing with some key members of his own family: cousin Rami Makhlouf, brother Maher and brother-in-law Assef Shawkat as a bare minimum. Does he have the nerve, or the power, to remove them? Probably not.

The other thing that Syrians clearly want is to be allowed to speak, meet and organise freely, without fear of arrest and imprisonment. There are some signs that this may be on offer, at least in theory, but the problem is not so much how to open the door as how to keep it open. We have seen modest steps in that direction in the past but the regime has always tended to rein back again whenever it became nervous.

It's probably true to say that Bashar is more reform-minded than many of his regime associates and that he has pushed things forward in a few areas since coming to power 11 years ago. But considering the length of time it has taken, it's not very much in comparison with what is needed and there is still a good deal of resistance to change within the regime. A wholesale purge will be required if he is going to speed things up.

Taking everything into account, I doubt that he will be able to make enough changes, quickly enough. Even if he manages to quell the current protests, the most that he can probably hope for is to buy a few more years before the problem returns.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 March 2011.