Monday, December 15, 2014

A People's History of Syria--Part 24: 2000 to 2003 Period

After the leader of the undemocratic, post-1970 Baath military coup regime from 1970 to 2000—Hafez al-Assad—died on June 19, 2000, his son—Bashar al-Assad—became the Baath Party secretary-general on June 17, 2000 and the next president of Syria on July 17, 2000. Coincidentally, “after the elder Assad died,” the Syrian Baath regime’s “parliament amended the constitution, reducing the minimum age for” Syrian “president from 40 to 37—which was, not coincidentally, Bashar’s exact age,” according to James Gelvin’s The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs To Know; and “soon after acceding to power, Bashar oversaw the brief `Damascus Spring,’ a period of time when the government took a rather benign view of unsupervised political organization and full expression,” according to the same book.

Yet according to Alan George’s Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom, under the Baath regime’s economic and political system in 2001, the unemployment rate in Syria was between 25 and 30 percent and the illiteracy rate for Syrian females was still 39 percent. The same book also noted that in 2000 around 74 percent of Syria’s then-population of 16.7 million people were Sunni Muslim in religious background, around 12 percent were Alawi Muslim in religious background, around 3 percent were Druse, around 10 percent were Christian—mostly Greek Orthodox—in religious background, and 9 percent of Syria’s population was Kurdish--including 200,000 to 360,000 stateless Kurds.

In addition, around Damascus was a community of 400,000 Palestinian refugees; and between 1946 and 2000 the number of Syrians of Jewish religious background who still lived in Syria had decreased from 30,000 to only 100 by 2000. 

But Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom also observed that at the beginning of the 21st-century the Baath regime was still “secular” and included “key figures from all of Syria’s main communities,” although “its core, especially in the security and military service,” was still Alawi in religious background. The same book also indicated how the Baath regime apparently initially responded positively to some of the Syrian secular political opposition’s demands for democratization of Syrian society, after Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as Syrian president, during the `Damascus Spring” of 2000:

“In the second half of 2000…the [Syrian] authorities took a series of steps which were seen as a response to the rising clamor for reform. In June and July [2000] dozens of Islamists and leftists were freed from prison. Most were members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood that had openly confronted the regime in the early 1980s, and the Communist Action Party. On Nov. 15 [2000] [Bashar] Assad issued a decree releasing 600 political prisoners, of whom 380 were Muslim Brotherhood members and most of the rest were leftists, including 22 from the Communist Action Party…Four days later Assad decreed the closure of the notorious Mezzeh prison in Western Damascus;…built by the French in the 1920s. On Nov. 22, 2000 a sweeping general pardon for non-political prisoners was announced…”

According to Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom, at the beginning of the 21st-century, Syria was still “essentially an agricultural country,” with the main crops grown being cotton, wheat, barley, fruit and vegetables; and 32 percent of Syria’s labor force was involved in farming. In addition, “half of the 16.7 million Syrians in 2001 were rural dwellers,” according to the same book; and “textile and food processing plants” were still “the main section of Syrian manufacturing,” in which only 13 percent of Syria’s labor force worked, compared to 27 percent of the Syrian labor force that worked in Syria’s public sector.

But between the early 1980s and 2000, the oil industry of Syria began to play a more important role in Syria’s economy. As Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom observed in 2003:

“…The most significant recent structural change in the economy…has been the expansion of oil output following the development of major new oilfields in the Euphrates valley in the 1980s. Oil revenues in recent years have accounted for 60 to 70 percent of export and 40 to 50 percent of the [Syrian] state budget.”

During the month following the release of some of Syria’s political prisoners and the general pardon for Syria’s non-political prisoners by Bashar Assad’s Baath regime in November 2001, the Baath Party’s Regional Command then announced on Dec. 2, 2000, “the approval of plans to establish the country’s first private bank and a stock market and to float the local currency, marking the end of a 40-year state monopoly on banking and foreign exchange transactions” in Syria, according to the same book.

By 2001, however, Bashar Assad’s Baath regime began repressing and arresting some Syrian civil society and Syrian ngo activists in Syria. Yet Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom characterized the level of popular support which then existed for Syrian civil society groups and ngos in 2003 in the following way:

“…However much one may admire the ideals and courage of the [Syrian] civil society movement, it would be foolish to pretend that it commands wide support. The regime denigrates the activists as a tiny minority of middle-class intellectuals, and plainly they are—although that does not mean that their ideas will not eventually triumph. For most Syrians, the priority is the daily struggle to make ends meet. It is on its economic performance rather than its record on democracy or human rights that the regime is most vulnerable.”

(end of part 24)

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