Bashar's Bluff
25 July 2000

Two former Syrian government ministers are the most visible targets of new president Bashar Assad’s anti-corruption drive. But the accusations are more show than substance. If Syria’s elites don’t reform their ways, significant economic reform will come much slower.
Syria’s new president punctuated his anti-corruption drive July 23 by targeting two former Syrian ministers. Former deputy prime minister for economic affairs Salim Yassin and former transport minister Mufid Abdel Karim were charged with “abuse of power, taking decisions harmful to the national economy and making personal profits,” according to the official Syrian Arab
News Agency (SANA). The arrest is the most significant step so far in Assad’s anti-corruption efforts – yet the trial is a carefully crafted show. Bashar is making an example of these two, but if the example does not generate voluntary compliance, real reform could be a long time coming.
The two ex-ministers are being held in connection with an order for six Airbus 320-As made for the state-owned Syrian Arab Airlines in 1996. An arrest warrant has also been issued for a third man, Munir Abu Khaddur, who is on the run. SANA wrote that former Prime Minister Mahmud al-Zohbi, who committed suicide in May, would also have faced similar charges.The SANA report said Yassin and Karim had forced Syrian Air to buy the Airbuses, most likely making a large profit on the side. The crime is not noteworthy – corruption is almost expected in a government partially based on medieval clan structures – but the arrests certainly are. Despite concerns about his ability to govern the nation, Bashar Assad has consistently emphasized economic reform and anti-corruption. It appears that he wants to make an example of these men.
The trial may have been Bashar’s idea, but it derives from the power of his late father, ex-president Hafez Assad, not his own. The Airbus investigation began months ago and both men were initially arrested in May – when the elder Assad was still alive. Given Hafez’s political sense and his ability to manipulate Syrian political factions, it is likely that he had already addressed any potential political backlash from the trial. Bashar is playing this round with the deck stacked in his favor. The question is whether Bashar can stack his own deck in the future or if this is his only shot at convincing Syrians to change their ways.
Bashar will use the trial to enhance his status as an economic reformer in the hopes of luring foreign investment into Syria. His country definitely
needs the money. The population is growing faster than the economy. And Syria’s oilfields – which supply the lion’s share of official export earnings – are expected to run dry in 10 years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But the trial also sends a message to Syria’s elite – a signal that the old ways of doing business are longer acceptable. But here lies the danger. Syria is run by one man, one clan and one party but the ruler does not have absolute control. The Alawite-dominated Ba’athist party makes up only a tiny percentage of the primarily Sunni population. The Alawites have a strong hand on the military and the security services, but they do not run a totalitarian state, preferring to bribe their opponents whenever possible. Real economic reforms will negate one of Bashar’s most useful tools for maintaining control of the regime at the same time they threaten his opponents’ way of life.
Significant economic reforms will also force Bashar to examine the military’s business ties. The military appears to be supporting Bashar at the moment – but that could change if Bashar goes after their bank accounts. Bashar can milk the current trial for all it is worth, hoping to frighten the Syrian elite into constraining their activities. But the question is what can he do next. He can press the advantage, hoping to keep his opponents off-guard, and clean the entire economy. More likely he will move in fits and starts, bribing certain groups with smuggling rights while reforming certain sectors – making economic reform a very slow, piecemeal process.