President Bashar al-Assad has gone a fair way in modernising the country.
Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, can allow himself a moment of quiet self-congratulation this weekend when he marks 10 years in power. His father, Hafez, was a hard act to follow in a famously tough neighbourhood but Assad the son has gone a fair way in modernising the country after years of isolation. Syria teems nowadays with western tourists who can enjoy boutique hotels in Damascus and puff shisha pipes in smart cafes. The oldest capital on the planet now has a stock exchange — a far cry from the austerity of the Ba'athist era and stirring slogans about the “beating heart of Arabism”.
Assad, a stripling at 44, is more media-savvy than most Arab leaders, though Syria's ministry of information is a hangover from a more strictly controlled era. His resolutely secular wife, Asma, fits photogenically into the picture of a modern republican dynasty and works to promote civil society organisations.
And the president must certainly be satisfied that Syria matters — as shown by the VIPs from the US and Europe paying court almost daily at his discreetly guarded palace on Jebel Qassioun.
Less enigmatic than his father — the “sphinx of Damascus” — Assad is also a key figure in the Middle East. He is a proud nationalist, supporter of the Palestinians and desperately wants — but has so far failed — to achieve a rapprochement with the United States. Peace with Israel and the return of the occupied Golan Heights remain elusive. But a close relationship with Iran and support for the Islamists of Hamas — like Lebanon's Hezbollah considered a terrorist organisation on both sides of the Atlantic but a “resistance movement” in Damascus — mark him out from the pro-western, conservative Arab mainstream. For some Syria-watchers, these are valuable “cards” to be surrendered at the right moment. Yet how and when that moment might come is tantalisingly hard to foresee.
Assad deftly managed Syria's humiliating ejection from Lebanon after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. The effect of Beirut's “Cedar Revolution” — an alarming reminder of alternative paths to regime change after the invasion of Iraq — was in the end fairly limited. The U.N. tribunal investigating the killing grinds on but looks unlikely to indict senior Syrians. Damascus probably has as much influence in Lebanon as it ever did, not least through its close relationship with Hezbollah. Even Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader whose father was murdered by Syrian agents, pays tribute to Assad these days. No wonder the mood on Jebel Qassioun is so upbeat.
Ten years ago hopes were high that Assad — with the benefits of a British education and a nerdy interest in computers — would prove confident enough to relax his father's grip. In the brief “Damascus spring” that followed his accession some political prisoners were freed and debate permitted. But the instinct to repress was stronger than pressure to liberalise. It was all over by 9/11 and the overthrow of Saddam.
Still, Syrians like to point to progress: al-Watan has the distinction of being the country's only privately owned newspaper, and it prides itself on being critical. The revealing snag is that it is owned by Assad's brother-in-law, one of the most powerful businessmen in the country.
Repression has returned with the usual suspects such as lawyers and human rights activists gaoled under emergency laws at the price of pro forma protests from the U.S. and EU — still waiting for Syria to play those cards. The lesson, argues an intellectual who is (privately) critical of his president, is simple: “Five years ago things looked bad for this regime — with Lebanon, Iraq, Bush and the neocons. “Now look! Are these guys very smart or is it just that the rest of the world really needs them?” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010