SYRIA: Baath Party renounces socialist agenda

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SYRIA: Baath Party renounces socialist agenda

The ruling Syrian Baath Party held its ninth convention on June 17 to appoint Hafez al-Assad's oldest surviving son, Bashar, as its new general secretary, thus paving the way for his official election by a national referendum on July 11.

There was no question as to the result. Young Bashar received 97%, just less than the 99% that his father reaped during the five times he ran unopposed. It was Assad Senior who scheduled the Baath convention, which had not convened for 15 years, in order to prepare a smooth succession.

Though Syria is a republic by law, Assad turned it into a hereditary kingdom in practice. Soon after the death became known, the Syrian parliament speedily lowered the minimum age that the constitution requires of its leader from 40 to Bashar's 34.

During the months before his father's death, as part of the preparations for the convention, Bashar conducted a neatly orchestrated campaign nominally aimed at corruption. Its results included the suicide (if that's what it was) of Prime Minister Mahmoud Zuaby and the flight to the US of former chief of staff Hikmat Shihabi.

Both belonged to the inner circle of Assad Sr. There can be no doubt that he knew they were amassing huge fortunes illegally. A blind eye to corruption, however, helps keep the barons loyal. One may trace such usage from Morocco through Egypt, the Gulf States, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and, how not, the newly formed Palestinian Authority.

Nor was Assad himself exempt from the same corrupt system. Forbes listed him as the eighth richest person in the world, with holdings in oil and agriculture totalling US$2.3 billion. This would help explain why it was so important to him to transfer power in the form of an inheritance to his son, although such an arrangement runs contrary to the principles of a socialist republic.

By law all of Syria's natural resources are nationalised. No one can legally make a fortune in oil. In order to cover his tracks and keep the money in the family, Assad turned his son into his political heir.

Syrian revolution overturned

In attacking the corruption of others, the Assads, father and son, had ulterior motives. For one thing, they needed to build up Bashar's popularity. The regime had brought Syria to the verge of bankruptcy, pauperising the masses. The old guard was strangling the economy by maintaining state monopolies and by controlling exports and imports. Nor did Syria have a viable banking system.

In overthrowing the old guard, Bashar — under the aegis of Assad Sr — was challenging the economic regulations that the Baath Party had introduced after its successful revolution in 1963. These had put an end to the old Syrian bourgeoisie, while nationalising the major industries.

The party had shut down private banks and outlawed the stock exchange, imposing strict regulations on investments, imports and exports. At the same time, the state had provided at least minimal care for the basic needs of the masses in food, housing, health and education.

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By undoing the Baath regulations, Bashar intends to change Syria's economic, social and political landscape. He wants to foster the growth of a new entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. Such measures, he hopes, will also encourage Syrian millionaires living abroad to return and invest their capital, estimated at US$8 billion.

The main programmatic goal of the new Baath convention is to open Syria to the global economy. The slogans and protections of socialism would impede its admission.

Investors want low labour costs, for example, so labour must not be defended. Capital should be freed for investment in production, so it must not be taxed. As for the basic needs of the people, in a booming economy they will earn so much that they will be able to buy health, education, housing, etc. on their own. So goes the theory.

Since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Syria has decided that it must yield to capitalism. And if the price is a pact with the Israeli devil, so be it.

IMF-World Bank control

Before the gates of the global market stand two guards: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. If Bashar al-Assad implements his vision, Syria will join the long list of states that have made themselves hostage to the global lender. To enter, it will first have to privatise its public services and impose austerity. These measures will increase unemployment, widening the gap between the very few rich and the masses of the Syrian poor.

Yet what alternative does Syria have? The answer depends on your standpoint.

If you stand within the context of the present global reality, there is none. Economies are entangled. National reasoning no longer makes sense. Syria's problem is Korea's problem is Argentina's is Mexico's. It is also the problem that millions face in the cities of the United States and Europe.

What has happened to the nationalist Baath Party does not differ from what happened to other prestigious national movements, such as the South African ANC and the Kurdistan Workers Party. The Palestine Liberation Organisation too was facing a similar dilemma when it promised to turn poor Gaza into a new Singapore.

Nationalism could never alone supply a long-range alternative. Arab nationalism began among the educated middle classes, who revolted against the tradition-bound bourgeoisie. The latter had cooperated with the British and French colonial powers in preventing progress.

The new nationalist leaders usually hailed from a rural background and rose to prominence in the army. The paragon was Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who took power in 1952 and set in motion a wave of nationalisations. The pattern spread to Iraq and Syria.

This was a narrow-minded sort of nationalism, combined with socialist slogans and programs. The new leaders did not advance the cause of the working class or the peasantry. They merely appeased them. To solidify their hold on the state, they created a bureaucratic ruling elite, which plucked the fruits of an economy subsidised by the Soviet Union.

Nationalism is still a reigning political concept in the minds of the oppressed who, excluded from the global village, seek liberation. With the decline of national economies, however, this concept has become irrelevant. It can no longer provide a program for action.

Yet globalisation, capitalist style, is leading to massive poverty. The response must be to radically change it. The means of earning a living must not remain in the hands of the few.

If Syria and the other poor nations want to survive, they will have to provide for their peoples. That will require a different world economy: one that discards the profit motive as the engine of progress, aiming instead to fulfil human needs. The sole alternative to the present chaos is an international socialist program, in which mergers will take place not between Daimler and Chrysler but among workers throughout the world.

BY YACOV BEN EFRAT

[Abridged from Challenge #62 and updated. Challenge is a bimonthly journal of in-depth analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Oslo process. To subscribe, send US$30 to: POB 41199, Jaffa 61411, Israel. For a one-time, free trial hard copy, send your name and address via .