The Land of Rumors, Leaks and Gossip

Participants at the Baath Party Congress, which ends tomorrow, heard harsh complaints about the defective functioning of party branches. But none of it was publicized in the Syrian media.

The story of Syrian engineer Khaled Mustafa Rahal can explain why the convention of the national Baath Party Congress does not impress the citizens of the country. Rahal was appointed to be the head of the Aleppo branch of the government bakeries corporation. Within a year, he managed to produce a profit of about $2 million - almost twice that of his predecessor in the job, with similar means at his disposal. He didn't increase the manpower or the means of production. He only streamlined the work of the bakeries.

In December 2004, Rahal was fired. The governor of the district of Aleppo wrote a letter to the Syrian economy and foreign trade minister, explained whatever he explained, and asserted that the outstanding engineer had run things badly. The head of the bakeries department in the ministry differed with the opinion of the governor, and wanted to bring in the ministry's internal review committee. The comptroller did in fact show up in Aleppo, he asked questions and investigated, wrote comments and looked around, and in the end issued a report that acquitted Rahal of all the accusations.

But the comptroller did not know that while he was conducting this review, the governor of the district had gone to the Prime Minister's Office and informed him of the dismissal of the director of the bakeries department in Aleppo, and thus had made the comptroller's job superfluous. Because if the governor has already informed the Prime Minister's Office of the dismissal, the comptroller is not authorized to differ with him.

The detailed letter of recommendation sent from the Trade Ministry to the Prime Minister's Office - in which the great achievements of the director of the bakeries department in Aleppo were spelled out - didn't help. Someone wanted the job, the district governor ruled, the minister in charge could not decide, and the Prime Minister's Office gave the decision to the governor, who is close to the prime minister.

The appointment of associates, commercial monopolies, government corporations that suffocate the Syrian economy, entrenched opposition to economic reform - all these are restricting President Bashar Assad, who five years ago inherited the system of administrating the country from his father. The citizens of Syria can tell many stories similar to that of the engineer Rahal, and they do so with open enjoyment on the Web sites of the opposition groups.

At the Baath Party Congress, which is to end tomorrow, the participants could hear even harsher complaints about the defective functioning of branches of the party, whose members include about 2 million Syrian citizens, about a lack of communication between the government ministries and the periphery, about the stealing of jobs, about unemployment of over 20 percent, and about the need to replace the old guard. These things were not publicized in the Syrian media, nor will they be. Syria is a country of rumors, leaks and gossip. Although there are about 117 periodicals of every type, the central control of the government is absolute. Over the past four decades, only one permit was granted for a new political newspaper: Abiad wa Asswad (White and Black), which is run by Mohammed Bilal al-Turkmani, the son of the Syrian defense minister.

Illusion of criticism

But things leak out. Because when over 1,100 delegates gather in Damascus, there is no way of preventing leaks. According to some of the leaks, it seemed this week that the regime is really and truly undergoing penetrating criticism. That's an illusion. The leaks and the discussions that engendered them are of no importance as long as they are not consolidated into a protest movement like the Lebanese or Egyptian movements.

The Syrian system practiced by Assad Sr. gives the delegates to the congress the right to let off steam, but not the right to publish things or to protest in public. Since there are no worthwhile newspapers, there is also no place for publishing things. Even the newspapers that have obtained a permit have difficulty supporting themselves. According to data collected in Syria, the entire expenditure on advertising last year was only about $15 million in all the media combined.

Half of this sum goes to the government newspapers, which receive the lion's share of the advertising pie. From the sum that the private publishers receive, they are obliged to pay a 20 percent "licensing fee" to the government advertising council - a body that does not contribute a thing to the advertising industry - to pay a 5 percent municipal tax and another 2 percent into the coffers of the union of newspapers and writers - which is also under the supervision and administration of the government. The distribution of newspapers in the country is in the hands of another government body that collects its percentage, but carries out only partial distribution - only in places that are convenient.

This data is important for understanding how far from reality are the reforms of which Bassar Assad spoke, since in the newspaper industry alone there is a need to dismiss several senior executives who are close to the president or to members of his family, as well as dozens or hundreds of workers who are close to Baath party activists, in order to try to make a profit from the industry.

Bashar Assad did not establish the system, but he is carrying on with it, with partial and unsuccessful attempts to improve it. He granted permits for the opening of several private banks, he removed some of the restrictions on imports and gave government loans. Exporters benefit from faster bureaucratic procedures, but the bureaucracy is still tremendous.

Last month, for example, the Syrian government published a law that releases 67 types of public requests from the need to obtain a security permit. Among other things, students can now travel abroad to complete their studies, Palestinian students who are not registered as refugees in Syria can be accepted to the universities, one can establish charitable organizations or appoint mukhtars, take furniture out of the country, bring relatives for burial in the country or take relatives out to be buried in another country, build an industrial oven or open a restaurant - and all without a security permit.

All under control

From the list of permits, one can understand not only the extent of prohibitions that applied until now to Syrian citizens, but which prohibitions are still in force. Beginning with engaging in various professions, receiving loans or opening businesses - everything is under control, and the result is ruinous. In a country that needs growth of 6 to 7 percent annually, the rate of growth came to only about 2.3 percent last year. The billion dollars sent home annually by Syrian laborers who worked in Lebanon are now in danger, since thousands of them have not returned to work in Lebanon since the murder of prime minister Rafik Hariri in February.

The oil pipeline that carried illegal oil from Iraq to Syria during Saddam's time is also no longer active, and is causing Syria a serious problem of payments. Nor can Russia's erasing of about 75 percent of Syria's debt help the country. Syria didn't pay this debt in any case.

Therefore, the question with which the Arab commentators are preoccupied these days - whether Vice President Abd al Halim Khaddam will vacate his seat in the party hierarchy in favor of Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, or whether former prime minister Mustafa Miro, and former defense minister, Mustafa Talas, will be removed from their party jobs - is not important.

The legitimacy of Assad's regime, although it is still dependent to a great extent on the old elites, will in the coming period be measured by Syria's ability to provide a living and food for its citizens. And that will depend on Assad's ability to dismantle the structure of the economy, to privatize the government corporations, and to overcome obstacles with the United States, so that foreign companies will be able to come and invest in Syria.

Anyone who listened to Assad's address to the Baath Party Congress two days ago could have been impressed mainly by the fact that Assad has no real plan for building a new Syrian economy. The severance of security cooperation with the United States does not testify to tactical wisdom, but in any case, a correct reading of the political and diplomatic maps is not a subject at which he excels. About three months ago, in his speech in parliament, Assad called the Lebanese protesters against Syria a marginal group of no importance. A month later he withdrew all his forces from Lebanon. Last summer he thought that UN Security Council Resolution 1559 - which demands that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon, and that the armed militias get rid of their weapons - would not be of any real significance, and here too, he was mistaken.

When the Baath Party Congress ends tomorrow, it will not give rise to a new Syrian state, even if a few VIPs exchange seats. The question that was asked about Arafat - whether he can but doesn't want to, or wants to but cannot - is not so relevant in Assad's case. Assad apparently knows how to function only in the environment created by his father. He can and knows how to remove important people, to appoint a new defense minister or a prime minister to his own liking, and even how to bring about reforms in the Baath Party. But that is not how the extent of Assad's power should be measured. Only when he adopts the approach that Syria is in need of strategic, and primarily economic, change, and not only "repairing corruption," will it be possible to know the extent of his political power.