A false spring in Damascus

Eyal Zisser*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Bashar al-Asad rise to power in Syria in June 2000 aroused great expectations among many both inside and outside Syria. The hope was that the young ruler, conversant with Western ways of thinking and living, would revolutionize Syria in all matters related his regime's policies, especially in internal affairs. However, the years that have passed since Bashar became leader have shown that it was not that sort of revolution he had in mind. Conversely, while he may have understood the need for the introduction of change and reform in Syria, he has not been able to withstand the regime's Old Guard's wish to retain the status quo that had existed in the country for decades. In the early months of Bashar's "rule," he took a few limited steps toward political and economic reforms. In a moment of enthusiasm, Syria-watchers dubbed this the "Damascus Spring." For example, Bashar encouraged the initiation of political and cultural forums in Damascus and other cities, in which "intellectuals" discussed the need for democracy in an atmosphere of relative openness and freedom. Bashar's ostensible support for these forums encouraged a round of petitions signed by prominent Syrian intellectuals. Some of them even established a "Committee for the Establishment of a Civil Society". But this openness was very short-lived, and in mid-2001 Bashar led (or more precisely was ushed by the members of the "Old Guard" surrounding him into leading) a counterattack against the supporters of the reforms. Regime spokesmen, and even Bashar himself, labelled the reformists "agents of the West whose only aim is the undermining of Syrian domestic stability, in the service of the enemies of the State." At the peak of this counterattack, the regime ordered the disbanding of all the forums that had sprung up throughout Syria, and even threw a number of Bashar's more prominent critics into prison. Among them were members of the Syrian People's Assembly, Ma'mun al-Humsi and Riyyad as-Sayf, each of whom was sentenced to five years in prison for "countermanding the constitution and harming state security". It should be stressed that Bashar himself initiated, or at least encouraged, the reformist camp, both politically and economically, during his own honeymoon. The old guard forced him to reverse gears, as soon as they suspected that the appetites of the reformists knew no bounds. Bashar obliged. His capitulation demonstrated his lack of the political experience and power essential to making decisive moves inside Syria, especially when they involved confronting entrenched power centers. Even more important, the end of the "Damascus Spring" demonstrated that Bashar had no clear personal vision. His commitment to reform did not run deeper than a generalized belief in the need to improve government administration. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that what had existed in Syria is gone forever. The era of Hafiz al-Asad is now relegated to history and it is difficult, if not impossible to revert to it. It is also doubtful whether Bashar himself is at all interested in returning to that past. While the process of change that has taken place in that country has been slow and gradual and at times imperceptible, and mostly full of obstacles and even regressions, it is more than likely to continue progressing. At the same time, it is clear that many years will pass before it is spring again in Damascus.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-61
Number of pages23
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2003


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