Syria, A Decade of Bashar al-Assad’s rule

The dawn of the new millennium certainly ushered in a new era in Syria. The late Hafez al-Assad who had ruled the country ruthlessly for more than three decades had passed away. And his son, Bashar, then, a young, western-educated eye surgeon took over.

Many pinned their hopes on the new president believing he would bring about modernity and democratic reforms. Some observers remained pessimistic, however, betting that it would be difficult to shake the rigid structures of power in the country and induce real change especially at the political level.

Ten years after father bequeathed power to son, both visions seem to have materialised in some way or another. On the one hand, Asad introduced new laws and reforms to move from an economy solely controlled by the state to one that is more market oriented. This move had and continues to have profound consequences for the social fabric of Syria.

The resulting new forms of wealth that have made their way into many aspects of Syrian life have been marred, however, by growing levels of unemployment and poverty. These problems will be more pressing as the challenges of a rapidly growing population and dwindling oil revenues continue to grow.

Meanwhile, the political scene has been stagnant. Despite promises made by the ruling Baath party,  the country is still without political parties.

Basic freedoms continue to be curbed,  albeit less harshly than in previous decades. In the face of the apparent stagnation of public life and the exclusion of civil society from the decision-making process, a vibrant young generation of internet users striving to express themselves and talk about their problems online is flourishing.

When it comes to foreign relations, Damascus has become strengthened its ties with Iran, together resisting Washington’s policies in the Middle East, but at the same time Syria has tried to establish more solid channels of communication with western powers so as to assert a more prominent role in the region.

Today, opinions diverge on whether a new phase of prosperity and a stronger regional role are awaiting Syria or whether the country will be grappling with growing problems internally and externally.

While we are aware that an assessment of Asad’s performance over the last decade is a contentious issue, the following series of articles attempts to examine closely the past ten years of his rule.

Written by a team of reporters and experts, these articles will showcase the political, economic and social changes that took place in the country in an effort to shed some light on the direction Syria is taking.

Read more in the coming weeks on

Part 1: International Relations: Have Your Cake and East It (published July 17, 2010)

When Bashar came to power, he certainly faced the challenge of maintaining his father’s unorthodox foreign policy. Hafez was known to be a savvy head of state. He was able to sustain good relations with important Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and play on their differences.

At the same time, he received the international community blessing for taking control over Syria’s smaller neighbour, Lebanon. During the Cold War, he managed to have ties with the Soviet Union while maintaining good relations with the United States.

He also reached out to Iran without drawing the ire of western powers. For Assad, the son, sustaining this shaky balance was more difficult. With the polarisation of the world after the 9/11 attacks on America, the mounting pressures against Iran for allegedly trying to acquire nuclear armament and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Damascus was forced to take sides.

Furthermore, the country faced international isolation following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, a crime widely blamed on Damascus. Bashar responded by getting closer to Tehran and bolstering support for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian radicals Hamas. In recent years, however, the West started a new policy of engagement towards Syrians to woo them away from Tehran.

Damascus’ response has been contradictory. The country seems again engaged in the risky game of trying to please all sides. Like during the times of his father, Bashar has announced that he had chosen peace with Israel as a “strategic choice” in return for the Golan Heights, occupied by the Israelis since 1967.

Meanwhile, Damascus does not seem to be ready to give up its alliance with Iran anytime soon. With Washington’s hands still tied in the region as it grapples with two messy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Damascus might be able to buy more time. But for how long can the regime sustain the status quo?

Economy: The Market But at What Cost?
Internal Politics: Hegemony Continues
Media: Websites and Private Publications Flourish
Kurds: Still an Oppressed Minority
Society: Growing Discrepancies and Islamic Influence