Untitled Document
Vol 14, No 2 (2009): Spring 2009 Issue
نشرة رابطة الدراسات السورية
Syrian Studies Association Newsletter


Book Review: Regime Acrobatics


Aurora Sottimano and Kjetil Selvik. Changing Regime Discourse and Reform in Syria . University of St. Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008.

Reviewed by Joseph Yackley

Changing Regime Discourse and Reform in Syria is a welcome study of the Asad regime, past and present. By drawing from primary as well as secondary sources, the two papers contained in the slim volume provide readers a valuable framework for assessing the prospects and limitations of Syria’s current reform agenda.

As Syria pursues rapprochement with the West, a return of the Golan Heights and sweeping economic reforms, the regime headed by Bashar al-Asad has gained renewed attention from analysts, policymakers and academics. The quality of the analysis, however, often suffers from the regime’s opacity. It is difficult to know just who is making decisions, let alone how or why.

Two essays recently published by the University of St. Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies under the title Changing Regime Discourse and Reform in Syria underscore why it can be so difficult to assess the regime from the outside. By drawing from the theoretical literature on power and discourse, particularly the work of Michel Foucault, Aurora Sottimano of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Kjetil Selvik of the University of Oslo show how the Asad dynasty has projected a public persona often at odds with reality. The result is a portrait of a regime that has been far more nimble and sophisticated than is often assumed. For nearly 40 years, Hafez al-Asad along with his son and successor, Bashar al-Asad, have been confronted by a range of internal and external challenges, which they have met by shifting alliances, gradually liberalizing the national economy, and all along exploiting the power of public discourse.

In an article entitled, “Ideology and Discourse in the Era of Ba’thist Reforms” Sottimano seeks to “investigate the role of economic discourse in the maintenance and transformation of power relations in Syria.” She concludes that Ba’thist ideology has been a pliable and autonomous tool in the hands of Syria’s leaders. Often bent, but never broken, this ideology has legitimized a range of policies that, despite betraying Ba’thist orthodoxy, have helped consolidate the regime.

Sottimano illustrates this by tracing Syrian economic discourse from the Ba’th Revolution of 1963 to the death of Hafiz al-Assad in 2000. Through an informative review of various stages in the economic reform process, she shows how “discursive strategies of Ba’thism possessed enough solidity and flexibility as to continue to limit the room for maneuver of Syrian policymakers whilst offering them valuable tools with which to manage economic and political processes.” (p. 14)

Sottimano underscores the currency of economic reform in Ba’thist discourse by citing instances in which the Asad regime pursued economic reforms in order to remedy what were in fact political problems. Over time, this distortion of economic reform has led to a perverse reality in which “the Syrian citizen is openly asked to work, sacrifice, struggle, and even die in the present, for the sake of an ideal which is always in the future.” (p. 23)

The analysis is informative, yet while it is instructive to see Foucault’s theories about power and discourse applied to a specific setting, it leads Sottimano to give the regime too much credit. Hafiz al-Asad emerges from her study as a clairvoyant authoritarian, aware of where society stood, where it should go, and how to move it there. For instance, she reads the successive economic openings (infitah-s) as “an incremental demobilization strategy” in which Asad replaced class divisions with “cohesion and solidarity” as workers abandoned their private concerns for the goals of the nation. In fact, on numerous occasions the Asad regime has been caught off-guard, overwhelmed by the moment and scrambling to survive. The 1982 uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama -- suppressed through savage bombing of the city that left tens of thousands dead -- is just one instance of how the regime has been undermined by social divisions within Syria. Economic policy under Hafiz al-Asad was less an incremental strategy, than a collection of responses to recessions, the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s, and the disintegration of Syria’s Soviet sponsors.

Selvik’s article “It’s the Mentality Stupid: Syria’s Turn to the Private Sector” picks up where Sottimano’s leaves off, focusing on the reforms under Bashar al-Asad. Selvik presents “a fieldwork-based assessment of the reform process [in order to] identify leading themes in the Syrian discourse on reform.” After a brief and familiar overview of the ongoing shift toward a more market-oriented economy, Selvik provides a series of excerpts from interviews with industrialists and parliamentarians (often one and the same) conducted largely in March and June of 2007.

Selvik’s method has promise. As he states in his introduction, the discourse of entrepreneurs can “shed light on dominant ways of thinking and ideological trends.” (p. 42) Unfortunately, Selvik provides too little information about his interviewees for readers to assess the breadth of these trends. He withholds their names and only seldom lists the sectors in which the industrialists are active or the constituencies the parliamentarians represent. As a result, it is unclear how many people Selvik interviewed and what emerges is a surprisingly monolithic set of opinions about the regime and its reforms. While some, perhaps even most, interviewees may have requested anonymity, it is unlikely that all did. Even the name of “a leading businessmen who regularly states his opinion in the press” is withheld. Selvik may have offered anonymity in order to secure the interviews or he may simply have exercised discretion. Knowing which is the case would help readers better assess the content and value of the interviews.

Selvik also draws questionable conclusions from those interviews. As an example of how much “Syria has changed”, he cites an entrepreneur who benefited from competition controls while building his business empire, but now calls for them to be dismantled. A more plausible explanation would be that the entrepreneur, now well established, sees those controls (in the form of higher taxes, import duties and restrictions on the movement of capital) as detrimental to his business interests.

Later Selvik argues that the fruits of the Asad dynasty’s efforts to accommodate the private sector, beginning in the early 1970s, are only now starting to bear fruit. (p. 65) He fails to explain why the regime would pursue a slow, but unmistakable policy of economic liberalization over nearly forty years if it only recently began bearing fruit. Volker Perthes, writing 15 years ago, noted how the regime under Asad père survived by relying on a shifting constellation of constituencies over time. This has allowed the regime to survive despite its failure to regain the Golan Heights, sustain economic development or expand political freedoms. Selvik is aware of Perthes’ writing and his point. On page 42, Selvik describes a long-running movement away from the austere socialist creed of unmitigated Ba’thism as “a survival strategy for the Asad regime since the early 1970s.” He may have defined “bearing fruit” in a different way, but one should not overlook the value of regime survival.

Selvik’s best insights come toward the end of his essay, where a number of issues that warrant further study are raised. Like Sottimano, Selvik highlights the regime’s desire to avoid class conflict, but goes a bit further by identifying the opportunity it provides Bashar al-Asad to act as “mediator between proponents and opponents of capitalism.” (p. 66) Selvik also touches on the plight of Syria’s working class. Quoting the Syrian economist Samir Seifan, he points out that workers have largely been abandoned by the regime without gaining any of the political liberties that would allow them to air their grievances publicly. One wonders if this process of alienation could widen support for Islamist groups opposed to the avowedly secular, and increasingly elitist, regime. Finally, Selvik describes as “lopsided liberalization” a strategy in which the regime moves toward more market-oriented economy, while retaining the clientelist networks needed to secure its position as the “guarantor of relative privilege.” This observation has some potential for subsequent inquiry. What, precisely, are those networks and how are they maintained? What are their prospects as liberalization moves forward?

Both papers suffer from careless typos that even a cursory copy edit should catch. In addition to errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation, the texts suffer from an inconsistent style, in the body as well as the citations. Sottimano translates ‘corrective’ in three different ways: correctly as tashih on p. 13; and incorrectly on p. 26 (once as tashis and twice as tahsis). She also misspells Weltanschauung twice (pp. 12 and 23) and leaves one to wonder why Muntalaqat is capitalized and italicized, while rakba is not, and infitah alternates between the two. Selvik’s errors are fewer and less conspicuous, but problems with spelling and grammar crop up on more than half the pages.

Notwithstanding the afore-mentioned shortcomings, the two essays are welcome contributions to the study of how discourse has influenced and been shaped by the reform agenda in Syria over the past forty years. When read in tandem, the complementary essays provide a comprehensive account of the evolution and interplay of regime discourse and reform in Ba’thist Syria.

Changing Regime Discourse and Reform in Syria is the fourth in a series of publications entitled “St. Andrews Papers on Contemporary Syria.” Under the supervision of Raymond Hinnebusch, the user-friendly series is a welcome contribution to the expanding public debate about Syria and its evolving domestic policies and regional role. Those of us interested in contemporary Syria and analysis about where it is headed look forward to the next installment.

Joseph Yackley is a PhD student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, where he focuses on the economic and political history of the modern Middle East. For his dissertation, Mr. Yackley is preparing a comparative political economy of sovereign bankruptcies in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire during the final quarter of the 19th century. Since 2002, Mr. Yackley has served as an analyst and editor for the Oxford Business Group, a British consultancy and publisher.