Syrian Oppression: How the Elite Are Hanging Tough Together

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Khaled al-Hariri / Reuters

A supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad carries his picture in Damascus on June 7, 2011

Nowadays, Damascus is full of posters saying "I'm with the Law" — admonitions to the citizens of the Syrian capital to behave and be loyal to President Bashar Assad. But walking along a busy street on a recent morning, a woman in her early 60s tugged at my sleeve as she passed. We stopped; she looked around, pointed her thumb to the ground and said, "Down, down, down, Assad," then carried on her way.

Such open dissent in the capital is still rare, and it is surprising given the powerful interlocking power interests that make up the regime — interests bigger than the President himself.

The interlocking of regime interests is particulary evident in the media. In addition to the state television channels and newspapers, private companies such as United Group and Addounia TV, owned by men close to Assad, have apparently joined hands with the government to provide media tools crucial to spreading the official line and messages of fear in a crisis that, in its third month, seems to grow only more and more tenacious.

Government messages denouncing al-Jazeera, BBC and CNN and asking Syrians to watch only state and private Syrian channels cover advertising boards owned by United Group. Proregime demonstrations held outside the Qatari embassy (funders of al-Jazeera) and the French embassy (the most vocal European country criticizing the regime) were reportedly organized and attended by staff from United Group.

The regime is now in full overdrive, with government sources appearing on state and private channels like Addounia TV to spread messages of fear. They warn Syrians of the need for stability to prevent internal sectarian conflict and to fight foreign interference intent on "weakening national spirit." Only dead army or security men receive the accolade "martyr," while dead civilians are referred to as members of "armed gangs" or "conspirators." While a few protesters have recently taken up arms, many Syrians tend to believe that the "conspirators" they see in the government footage were unarmed and gunned down without warning. Few, however, are willing to say so aloud.

Recent government propaganda is just the tip of an iceberg of fear that affects and cripples every part of Syrian society. Even in government, workers are often too afraid to make decisions, lest they receive a visit from the notorious scrutiny committees. If someone makes a decision that goes against a regime man, he or she may face demotion, withdrawal of pension or, if the accuser happens to be of ministerial status, the loss of a standard-issue black Lexus.

Just as fear stops many Syrians from taking to the streets in protest, fear stops government workers from speaking out against poor policies or making decisions on key development projects. This stops the country from moving forward and prevents public institutions from growing strong enough to challenge regime influence and act in the interests of the majority of Syrians. Ten years of economic reforms have benefited only the middle and upper classes, who make up a small ratio of the populace.

The structure of the regime makes it impossible for one person — even the most powerful of all — to effect reform. The interlocking interests of security services, government elites and businesses that have prospered under the political economy keep change from taking root. At the heart of the regime's complex and opaque structure are the security services, headed by a tight group of relatives and friends of the Assads. They appoint the government, which serves as legislator and legitimizes the regime's executive power. The government also acts as gatekeeper to the economy, implementing laws and licensing businesses. Businessmen close to the regime capitalize on economic liberalization programs and control key monopolies, providing wealth generation for the elite and support tools for the regime, including influential media companies. If reforms threaten these pockets of regime supporters, they resist, and nothing is changed.

In this current crisis, in which demonstrators are demanding an end to the abuse of power and immunity of security services, the regime and government have closed ranks in support. It would be difficult for Assad alone to stop the policy of killing, even if he wanted to. Indeed, Assad has tried — and failed — to challenge interests within the regime. He backed attempts to cut corruption in the customs directorate, in which systematic bribery adds to the price of imported goods. A new director was appointed with an anticorruption mandate, and surveillance cameras were installed. Customs officials who stood to lose considerable income waged a campaign of defiance, sabotaging equipment, threatening the director and forcing him to resign. Customs continues to enrich a network of regime supporters — at the expense of consumers across the country and apparently against Assad's will.

Perhaps some regime figures, including Assad, genuinely believe they are serving the country's interests. However, just as the government needed to accelerate reforms to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, it has implemented a program of unaffordable subsidies and job-creation schemes in the public sector. Economists believe this is madness, saying emphasis should be on empowering future generations of Syrians with investments in education, infrastructure, agricultural development and public-sector reform.

Ultimately, the regime is not built to deliver change. But judging by the thousands who took to the streets Friday, June 3, the Syrian people are. As demonstrators in Dara'a have been chanting for weeks, "We may die, but we will not be humiliated." The cost to come is most likely to be more lives — leading to outrage that will persuade more and more people to break their silence. Bloodshed may be the only thing that changes the will of all Syrians to take to the streets, point their thumbs to the ground and say, "Down, down, down, Assad."