Change in Syria?

Great Mosque in Aleppo, by Flickr user rinogas.

If a prize were awarded for the most ingenious country in the field of Middle East diplomacy, I think the grand prize for the past decade would have to go to Syria. It has an abominable regime (though not worse than many others in the region), and lost its Lebanese foothold where it did untold damage. But its ability to survive the concerted efforts of the EU, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Bush administration to bring the regime down after the murder of Rafiq Hariri has been astonishing. A few years later, Syria is creeping back in into Lebanon, re-conciliating with Saudi Arabia, flirting with the US, enhancing its ties with the EU, building a solid new alliance with Turkey while maintaining its Iranian option. From a Machiavellian standpoint, chapeau!

Some recent developments are worth exploring to fill out the picture. Rami Khouri writes that he was astonished to see signs of a new opening for civil society while attending a conference in Damascus where many spoke critically about the challenges facing the country:

All this was unusual for a Syrian society ruled by a centralized and strict Baathist regime that has dominated all aspects of citizens’ lives. This is not a state that routinely admits its shortcomings, asks for help from partners, or subjects its senior officials to public questioning. So what is going on in Syria? How serious or sincere are these expressions of change, partnership and greater operating space and responsibility for civil society? 

Only time will tell, but for now we hear the state proclaiming a desire to change, while skepticism abounds about whether its rhetoric will translate into action. This is mainly because previous Syrian government pledges of change did not always happen, or newly opened spaces were quickly closed (as in human rights and political discussions, or a seriously free media). Yet the tone and consistency of this week’s high level message of change in the civil society sector are both novel and consistent, and therefore intriguing, and worth exploring and monitoring. 

The best hope now is that the Syrians themselves will test the sincerity of their government’s call for a deeper, stronger civil society. If the state is sincere, this is a moment of some hope for Syria and its neighbors. If it is bluffing, this is the moment to call its bluff and find out.

Previous openings — notably the short-lived "Damascus Spring" that began soon after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father — have been disappointing. Many dissidents have been jailed and tortured. But a confident Syria may be prepared for a limited opening that it could not afford when the Bush administration was mulling over an invasion or destabilization campaign. What is needed now is the space to build the roots of a future strong civil society, something Syria has never really had.

Josh Landis of Syria Comment has more thought-provoking material, although I'm skeptical of the figures:

Deputy Prime Minister Dardari informs us here that GDP is $60 billion. Gross Domestic Product is the most important economic indicator. This is 20% higher than what most have been led to believe and is more than double what it was in 2004. To have the country’s GDP more than double in 6 years is remarkable. This is faster growth than even China has experienced in the last six years.

Moreover, we are also told that inflation now is less than 3%. This is also substantially lower than what most have been led to believe. Both the budget as well as the trade deficit is also thought to be less than 3% of GDP. If these numbers are correct, Syrian government spending can afford to be much more expansionary than people thought.

Doubling the GDP in 6 years? Highly unlikely — in fact the figure does not take into account earlier high inflation and population growth — but if there's some truth to this economic boom, the question is what the hell happened to cause it, especially when the country was being threatened with all sorts of sanctions? I'm also surprised at the low inflation, esp. considering the inflationary pressures of the first few years of the Iraq war and arrival of refugees. Of course not all news is rosy, and this story reveals the damage cause in the eastern plains by drought. And there's more analysis of Syria's economy here.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.