It soon became clear, however, that the political opening had its limits. In the spring of 2001, the regime tightened its freedom of expression and assembly and warned the opposition against “sowing discord” in the country. In the autumn of 2001, the government cracked down on leading opposition figures. There were various reasons why political liberalization stopped so early:
- The opposition in the political elite to relinquishing power was great. The demands made by the opposition threatened the interests of powerful, privileged groups that quickly got cold feet.
- The Syrian opposition was too weak to force change. The opposition suffers from internal divisions, weak ties to the population, scarce financial resources and a lack of a strong and unifying leader.
- The regime has low legitimacy in the population – and thus little room for action for reform. The perception of the Alawites as a “clique” that has hijacked power for its own gain makes it difficult for the regime to be recognized as the representatives of the entire nation.
Low legitimacy, economic discontent and strong Islamist opposition make it difficult for those in power to govern without the use of force. As soon as the regime eases the political pressure, radical demands for a change of regime arise that frighten those in power into continued repression.
4: External pressure
According to health-beauty-guides, external political conditions have also had a negative effect on Syria’s political reform. The main problems in this respect have been the developments in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the United States and Lebanon. The 1990s were a relatively good period for Syria’s international relations – marked by peace talks and tensions with Israel, US goodwill following Syrian support for the 1991 Gulf War and Syrian hegemony (rule) in Lebanon: the 1990 Taif Agreement gave Syria the role of “security guarantor”. »In Lebanon after the civil war. However, the international framework for Syrian politics changed in the period after Bashar al-Asad took power.
First, there was a breakdown in the peace process with Israel. The positive trend following the Madrid Conference in 1991, with direct negotiations between Israelis, Syrians and Palestinians, was gradually reversed by violent groups. Hafiz al-Asad worked hard to normalize Syria’s relations with Israel towards the end of his rule. He probably wanted to use his authority to clear the Israel problem and ease the task for his successor. In the year 2000, however, neither Israeli public opinion nor Prime Minister Barak was ready to apply the “land for peace” principle and renounce the occupied Golan Heights against security guarantees from Syria.
The crisis in the peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis was also decisive for Syria. The Ba’athist rhetoric has always emphasized the need for a struggle for Palestinian rights and Arab solidarity with the Palestinian cause. After Egypt and Jordan signed peace agreements with Israel, Syria took the lead in the Arab world’s resistance to Israel.
Neighboring peace agreements – concluded without Israel relinquishing the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza – were branded a betrayal of the Palestinians. It was therefore only when the PLO entered into its own peace negotiations with Israel and signed the Oslo Accords, that Syria felt free to meet Israel at the negotiating table. And similarly, when the Oslo process collapsed, it became difficult for the Ba’athist regime to maintain peace. Three months after Hafiz al-Asad’s death, the second intifada broke out in the Palestinian territories. Bashar al-Asad responded with massive condemnation of Israel sending the countries into a new war of words.
Relations with the United States also became more complicated. The reason was a change in US Middle East policy as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and a new president under neo-conservative influence. In the first days after the turning point, Syria secured itself against the wrath of the United States by cooperating in the search for al-Qaeda members. Syria was not included in the “axis of evil” when George W. Bush delivered his fateful speech on the state of the empire in January 2002.
However, the “war on terror” diminished tolerance for Syrian support for Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic jihad, which the United States considers terrorist organizations. When a US-led invasion force overthrew the Ba’athist regime in neighboring Iraq, i.a. to “democratize” the Middle East, it became just as uncomfortable to be head of state in Syria. In December 2003, the US Congress passed a sanctions regime (SALSA) against Syria on charges of supporting terrorism, destabilizing Iraq, developing weapons of mass destruction and occupying Lebanon.
Lebanon was the third field in which Syria under Bashar al-Asad lost control. As long as southern Lebanon was occupied by Israel in the aftermath of the civil war, it was easy for Syria to justify its presence in the country. But when Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000, demands for Syria to do the same increased. In 2004, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1559, which calls for respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty, the withdrawal of Syrian forces and the disarmament of all militias (read: Hezbollah).