Bashar al-Asad and his regime - Between continuity and change

Eyal Zisser*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the past, Hafiz al-Asad's regime was heavily reliant on the president himself, on an inner circle of loyal colleagues, on the army and the Ba'th Party. These bodies incorporated, first and foremost, members of his family, his tribe, and his community - the Alawites, and only thereafter his coalition partners. Of all these elements, the influence of the Alawite officer class was the greatest, for Asad himself had risen from its ranks. The day-to-day affairs of state were entrusted to Ba'th Party officials and governmental bureaucrats, most of whom were, surprisingly, veteran associates of Asad's from the Sunni community who shared his philosophy and life experience. Bashar al-Asad has largely avoided introducing significant change to this order, although apparently he had hoped to cultivate a coterie of bureaucrats to help him promote what he perceived to be necessary reforms of the state. The main issue has been whether he would be able to accomplish this. Could such a group, however unified and committed, be instrumental in implementing a true process of change? Moreover, what would be the response of the Alawite military elite and the Ba'th Party cadres whom Bashar presumably sought to force out and marginalize? Various Syria watchers predicted that if Bashar were not wise enough to build bridges with these powerful groups, he would fail in his efforts to advance a process of real reform and, worse, he was likely to lose his ruling status. Meanwhile, problems have piled up at Bashar's doorstep. Along with regional and international challenges, which have required the wise and careful conduct of Syrian foreign policy, the domestic socioeconomic system is in a state of depression and, even more unnerving to the Syrian regime, the Islamic threat has been ever present, however latent. Moreover, the presence of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in neighbouring Iraq, as of April 2003, has not eased Bashar's position. Not only is Syria's future dependent on him and his policies, it is now dependent as well on the future moves of the American administration in Washington, where, conceivably, the possibility of bringing about a regime change in Syria by force has been considered. Still, Bashar is a young leader with his future before him. He has refrained from making irrevocable mistakes. He was endowed with a good grasp of events, curiosity, and a readiness to learn. He appeared to understand the need for change. Reports emanating from Syria in the summer of 2003 regarding his intention to develop the civil aspect of the state and weaken the Ba'th Party's grip on the country's ruling bodies remained to be substantiated. A decision by the regime in 2003 to abolish for the first time after forty years the mandatory khaki school uniform in Syria is a significant step in this direction. Nevertheless, the road will be long and holds no guarantees.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-255
Number of pages17
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2004


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