Assessing Assad and the Baath Party Message

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Robert Siegel talks with Middle East analyst Flynt Leverett, who's in Damascus while Syria's Baath Party holds its first meeting in five years. Leverett is author of the new book Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial By Fire and is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us also from Damascus is Flynt Leverett, who's watching the party conference there. He is a former Middle East analyst at the CIA and now the author of "Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire."

And, Flynt Leverett, it sounds like the definition of reform in Bashar Assad's speech today was more about economic growth or fighting corruption than democratization. Any surprise there?

Mr. FLYNT LEVERETT (Author, "Inheriting Syria"): No. I think that Bashar has always had an image of reform or model of reform that places a premium on economics, on improving living conditions and on social reforms, which I think for him basically means attenuating sectarian identities in Syrian society before you get to real democratization or political openness.

SIEGEL: What do you mean by `attenuating sectarian' problems?

Mr. LEVERETT: Well, Syria is a very complicated society in the way that Iraq is complicated or Lebanon is complicated. You have a Sunni Arab majority of the population, but you have very, very significant non-Sunni minorities in Syria, and you also have a Kurdish population that's probably 10 percent of the overall population in the country. And what I think this regime fears most is a kind of resurgence of sectarian identity, particularly among Syrian Sunnis who might push for the creation of an essentially Islamist state.

SIEGEL: But you wouldn't expect to hear people actually speaking about this at the conference, would you, or will we hear any candid talk about this?

Mr. LEVERETT: You--well, you hear code words for it in terms of public discourse. When President Assad, for example, speaks about the need for the Baath Party to be open to, in his language, `all patriotic forces in Syrian society,' he may be sending a signal there about the need for allowing political parties outside of the Baath and outside of the National Progressive Front to exist here. But he's also drawing a line that those parties can't be parties that define themselves in sectarian or ethnic or subnational terms. There is a code language that's used in public. When you talk to officials in private, they'll be very explicit with you.

SIEGEL: I just want you to take one step back for a moment to be more of a regional analyst here. Over the past few days, a parliamentary election in the Palestinian territories has been postponed, some people say...

Mr. LEVERETT: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...because it looked like the Islamists would win too many seats if it were held in July.

Mr. LEVERETT: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Hezbollah has run very, very well in parliamentary elections in southern Lebanon; that's a Shiite religious movement. And as you say, in Syria and some would say in Egypt as well, the argument against too much political competition is the Islamists will win.

Mr. LEVERETT: Yes.

SIEGEL: Is the triumph of political Islam in that part of the world something that is just inevitable at some level? You can defer it for a while or postpone elections or try to bottle it, but ultimately this is a real political force to be reckoned with in that part of the world, isn't it?

Mr. LEVERETT: It is truly a political force to be reckoned with today, and I actually have a concern about the current thrust of American policy, that it's really not thinking about how to promote democratization, how to promote greater openness in a really strategic way. The Bush administration has made resort to elections really the benchmark of political progress, and I think in many countries in the region, moving to elections rapidly at a time when polls show that people are increasingly Islamist in their outlook and increasingly anti-American in their outlook on regional issues, I don't really see why this serves American interests. That's not to say that we shouldn't be working with societies and with governments in this part of the world to be promoting greater openness; we should. We should be pushing hard on issues like human rights. We should be pushing very hard on economic reform. But in the current climate, an early resort to open elections can quite frankly bring about outcomes that aren't all that salutary in terms of American interests in the region.

SIEGEL: Well, Flynt Leverett, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Mr. LEVERETT: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Flynt Leverett is in Damascus this week. He is a senior fellow at the Saban Center at The Brookings Institution, and he's the author of "Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire."

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