In a long, fascinating interview that Syria President Bashar al-Assad did with the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon in January, Assad spoke extensively about reform. He argued that he was a reformer — and also said that by the time that situations go to where Tunisia and Egypt were (when he wrote the piece), there was no pace of reform that could work to satisfy the situation.
One wonders whether Assad would agree with that statement today — that it is too late to reform.
In one segment of the interview, Assad shares his views on reform and democratic practice:
WSJ: If Syria is more aligned with its people in terms of its foreign policy, why is political reform such a challenge internally? This is something that you have been working on but people feel that there is not a lot of progress that has been made.
President Assad: We started the reform since I became a president. But the way we look at the reform is different from the way you look at it. For us, you cannot put the horses before the carriage. If you want to start, you have to start with 1, 2, 3, 4… you cannot start with 6 and then go back to one. For me, number (1) is what I have just mentioned: how to upgrade the whole society. For me as a government and institutions, the only thing to do is issuing some decrees and laws, let us say. Actually, this is not reform. Reform could start with some decrees but real reform is about how to open up the society, and how to start dialogue.
The problem with the West is that they start with political reform going towards democracy. If you want to go towards democracy, the first thing is to involve the people in decision making, not to make it. It is not my democracy as a person; it is our democracy as a society. So how do you start? You start with creating dialogue. How do you create dialogue? We did not have private media in the past; we did not have internet or private universities, we did not have banks. Everything was controlled by the state. You cannot create the democracy that you are asking about in this way. You have different ways of creating democracy.
And then on the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad comments:
WSJ: From what we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt in the recent weeks, does it make you think there are some reforms you should be accelerating? And is there any concern that what is happening in Egypt could infect Syria?
President Assad: If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, 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. So, it is better to have it as a conviction because you are convinced of it, and this is something we talk about in every interview and every meeting. We always say that we need reform but what kind of reform. This is first.
Second, if you want to make a comparison between what is happening in Egypt and Syria, you have to look from a different point: why is Syria stable, although we have more difficult conditions?
Egypt has been supported financially by the United States, while we are under embargo by most countries of the world. We have growth although we do not have many of the basic needs for the people. Despite all that, the people do not go into an uprising. So it is not only about the needs and not only about the reform. It is about the ideology, the beliefs and the cause that you have. There is a difference between having a cause and having a vacuum. So, as I said, we have many things in common but at the same time we have some different things.
This interview was done in late January 2011.
Now in April 2011, the conditions in Syria are not unlike what has happened elsewhere in the Middle East — and Assad is facing the storms that hit Egypt and Tunisia.
The uber-informed Joshu Landis reports on current conditions in Syria. Here is a small clip but I highly recommend reading entire long report:
Over 80 dead are reported in the government crackdown on Friday April 22. The government is struggling to contain the demonstrations. Some think that they would not grow indefinitely were the government to permit them to go ahead. Who knows?
Clearly the government is not prepared to find out. Many Syrians fear chaos and are staying inside. It is hard to figure out how many are coming out to demonstrate; the numbers continue to grow. The Maydan district at the heart of traditional Damascus was the site of several killings. [Correction the day after – Reuters: “In Damascus, security forces fired teargas to disperse 2,000 protesters in the district of Maydan.” No deaths are reported today in the Maydan and only small numbers of demonstrators. This can be read as “good news” because the demos were very small, or “bad news” because demos began in the heart of traditional Sunni Damascus.]
This is bad news for the regime. The Maydan has long been the center of revolutionary activity in Damascus. It is the traditional home of the grain merchants who provisioned the city with crops from Deraa and the bread basket of Southeastern Syria. All of Sunni Damascus will grow bitter because of these deaths.
Syria’s streets seem to be filled with the endlessly numerous youth of the country, who are angry, underemployed and ready for change. As the death toll rises, the likelihood of either side backing down grows smaller and the likelihood of prolonged struggle grows larger.
It seems to me that this tsunami of change is hardly over in the region — and that the US needs to remain humble in the middle of a storm of this size and caliber.
There is no easy picture of what will and won’t happen, and US strategy in the region has been tied to pillars that are now very wobbly.
— Steve Clemons