Syria is emerging as a volatile focal point of a region in flux, with the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, recalcitrant in dismissing what Reuters calls “rising demands for fundamental reform.” Though well-known for boasting to foreign media of supposedly near-universal popularity of his Baath Party regime, the president has become the latest object of the Middle East’s political disquiet.
Syria, repressed under a program of emergency martial law since 1963, stands out even among other totalitarian police states in the region. Justified by what the state characterizes as an ongoing state of war with Israel, the people of Syria are subjected to some of the world’s most oppressive measures, aimed at blotting out all political dissent. The security apparatus of the country is notable for its brutality, fortifying the single-party state by imprisoning anyone critical of it.
On Wednesday, March 23, following the governments shutdown of electricity and phone lines, Syrian security forces fired on and killed no less than six protestors gathered at a mosque in the south of the country. In less than a week Syria has murdered ten civilians, attacking and detaining many others as the country’s vice president insists that the government is “committed to ‘continue the path of reform and modernization.’”
In the weeks to come, we can expect more of the same from Assad’s camarilla, a nepotistic group of family members and close friends who comprise the military, political and economic establishment in the country. Syria provides an especially overt and extreme example of the kinds of venality and favoritism inherent in all of statism, of the nature of political power and coercive, economic privilege. Reuters reports that Syria’s secret police is “headed … by a cousin of Assad,” and another of his cousins runs the ostensibly “private” company, Syriatel, the country’s largest telecommunications firm.
Since the Assad family came to power, beginning with the military coup of the current president’s father Hafez, Syria’s economy has been marked by the cronyism of a small group of the family’s intimates. Through “currency manipulations,” “preferential treatment and quasi-monopolies,” observe Frank O. Mora and Quintan Wiktorowicz, the ruling class’s military-based elite has starved the country and stifled growth for its own benefit.