Syria's long-serving President Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000. The constitution was then amended by the country's mickey-mouse parliament to allow the late president's son Bashir become president (he was below the minimum age then in force). Bashir al-Assad's presidency was endorsed in a Soviet-style election in which he was the only candidate, apparently winning 97.2% of the popular vote.
Naïve hopes were high that Bashir would usher in liberalisation of the Syrian political scene. And indeed, the summer of 2000 saw a short-lived raising of the shutters in which there was a brief flowering of increasingly free political discussion. However, when this "Damascus Spring" became a potential threat to the regime, the shutters came back down again and a load of people who had gone too far were thrown in jail.
Some of the discussion on the Damascus Spring still talks about how Bashir wanted to introduce true democratic reform but was stymied by a sinister "Old Guard" of regime figures eager to hold onto their power. This is basically nonsense, an example of commentators buying into a piece of good-cop bad-cop political sleight of hand, a modern version of the "evil advisors" myth that helped keep mediaeval kings in power. After 2000 Bashir al-Assad showed himself quite capable of marginalising the men who had served his father and promoting his own cronies in their place. Mysteriously, the demotion and removal of the "Old Guard" was not accompanied by any relaxation of Syria's rigid authoritarianism. I do not think there is any reason to believe that the crackdown on the Damascus Spring happened despite Bashir's wishes.
Bashir al-Assad was able to see off internal opposition, but externally things were a bit more problematic. With the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon in 2000, the Lebanese became increasingly resentful about the continued presence of a Syrian occupation force. Cack-handed Syrian diplomacy and the assassination of politicians hostile to Syrian interests further incensed Lebanese opinion, culminating in a mass protest movement dubbed the Cedar Revolution after the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. This forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, though it continues to exercise influence there through its arming and support of Hezbollah. Iran remained Syria's only real external ally, though there was an increasing rapprochement with Turkey and a willingness by Russia to sell Syria arms.
Domestically, Syria's Soviet-style economy remained sclerotic, underperforming and dysfunctional, for all that the government had introduced a tentative move towards market reforms. Politically, the system remained rigidly authoritarian, far more so than in the likes of Jordan or Egypt. The Muslim Brothers and anything even remotely suggestive of Islamism were completely suppressed, though the secular regime was not hostile to apolitical religiosity. No political grouping with the remotest possibility of gaining a serious following was allowed to organise. The only semi-tolerated opposition groups were a number of tiny leftist and Arab nationalist organisations that were basically relics of the past and unlikely to ever gain any kind of traction against the regime. Even these little parties could only go so far, and would see their activists thrown into jail if they troubled the country's security services.
When the current wave of unrest began to sweep through the Arab world, the Syrian regime hoped that it would be able to ride out the storm. One of the regime's two advantages were its hard-line repression, through which it hoped to prevent even the slightest chink of serious opposition activism from coming into being. The regime's other perceived advantage was its lack of a peace treaty with Israel and ongoing cold war with that country; this enabled the regime to paint domestic opposition as being something that would undermine its firm stand against the enemy that still occupied Syrian territory. Another advantage for the Syrian regime was the spectre of Iraq, where an authoritarian regime's overthrow led to an inter-communal bloodbath, something that would have to be feared in a country as socially plural as Syria.
The regime's other source of strength is that the major Western powers do not want it to fall. Although they have enjoyed often problematic relationships with the Assads, the USA, UK, France, et al know where they stand with them and fear the instability that any change in Syria could bring. After all, a new Syrian regime might be more pliable, but perhaps a political transition would see a resurrection of the Muslim Brothers, perhaps newly fanaticised and willing to throw in their lot with Hamas and Hezbollah to initiate Armageddon.
And that's that for now. If you have enjoyed reading these three posts about Syria, why not compare them to a shorter piece I wrote about that fascinating country a few years ago: I Know All About Syria
From Hunting Monsters