There is a joke about the 1991 presidential elections in Syria. An aide rushes to congratulate Hafez al-Asad on his victory. "Congratulations, Mr President, you got 99.9 per cent of the vote! What more could you ask?" Scowling, Asad replies, "the names of the .1 per cent who didn't vote for me." Humour aside, the Syrian regime is an authoritarian one, a fact brutally demonstrated in February 1982, when government troops killed as many as 20,000 inhabitants of the city of Hama while crushing an Islamist-inspired rebellion.
Hafez al-Asad is known as the "Sphinx of Damascus" - fromer American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger considered Asad the smartest leader in the Middle East. Having ruled with an iron fist since 1970, Asad realises he is operating in a changing international environment. The cold war is over, the Soviet Union - upon which Syria depended for military assistance - no longer exists, Saddam Hussein, Asad's nemesis, struggles to govern Iraq, and the Arab-Israeli conflict is grinding to a halt. Consequently, Asad has begun the process of economic liberalisation, a policy designed to safeguard the narrow sectarian base of his Ba`ath socialist regime.
Contemporary Syria is a balanced, thoughtful collection of essays which fills a gap in the literature on the country. As editor Eberhard Kienle explains, few books have analysed the impact of economic liberalisation in Syria - promulgated by a 1991 law encouraging private and foreign investment in a country where the state is the dominant economic actor. Kienle has assembled an impressive cast of scholars to explore the mechanics of a policy which appears to be paying dividends. The Syrian economy has been steadily improving in recent years.
Patrick Seale, the author of some of the best works on Syria, argues that many Syrians desire political freedom as well as economic freedom, but feel that Asad has protected Syria from the calamities that have befallen other Arab states and from a belligerent Iraq and an aggressive Israel. Now, more than ever, many Syrians are happy that Asad remains at the helm, particularly after the death in January 1994 of Basil, the president's popular son and successor. Volker Perthes further explores the link between political and economic liberalisation. He writes that Syria disproves the notion held by many western development experts that political and economic liberties must co-exist before a country can enjoy prosperity.
How strong is the impulse for political liberalisation in Syria? Hans Gunter Lobmeyer surveys the opposition to the Syrian regime. He maintains that the Muslim Brotherhood was destroyed as a political player in 1982. Secular opponents, too, have been treated harshly - often harsher than Islamists. However, the presence of an effective security apparatus precludes the creation of a cohesive opposition movement. The Syrian elite, which wishes to protect its own interests, is another obstacle to political development. For Asad's liberalisation to succeed, Raymond Hinnebusch contends, Syria needs an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie willing to invest in the private sector.
The biggest challenge facing Asad is peace. In June 1967, Asad was defence minister when Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel. As Patrick Seale notes, Asad's regional policy has been crafted to check Israeli expansion into, and hegemony over, Arab lands. However, Egypt was removed from the confrontation line by the Camp David Accords, and Jordan and the Palestinians have signed peace agreements with Israel. Although Asad has steadfastly opposed any accommodation with Israel, he, too, will eventually make peace. Any conversion on the road to Damascus, though, will be on Asad's terms, not anyone else's.
Lawrence Tal is researching Middle Eastern politics at St Antony's College, Oxford.
Contemporary Syria: Liberalisation between Cold War and Cold Peace
Editor - Eberhard Kienle
ISBN - 1 85043 822 6
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Price - £39.50
Pages - 187