Lebanon Pulse

What's different in Damascus?

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Article Summary
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made changes in the economic and services ministries of the new government in a bid to overcome economic challenges and gather support by addressing charges of corruption.

To say that no changes have been made in the new formation of the Syrian government is inaccurate. Only those unaware of the details of the Syrian crisis assume that the new government — the second for Syrian Prime Minister Adnan al-Halqi — is the same as the first.

Observers may argue that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made serious changes in important positions by issuing a decree on Aug. 27 for the formation of the first government under his new presidential term. These positions partially spurred the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011 and the disputes within the Syrian regime circles for more than a year, even during the military confrontations.

Damascus has been suffering from a latent conflict between two political and economic currents for nearly a decade and a half. The first is liberal par excellence, while the second is more socialist and conservative. This conflict has been out in the open on several occasions, especially when events took a political turn.

The main liberal wing was represented by former Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah al-Dardari, a staunch advocate of liberal policies, who took office between 2003 and 2008. The socialist current, on the other hand, was represented by former Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Qadri Jamil, a communist who took office in 2012, until his dismissal in October 2013.

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Over the years of the Syrian war, there has been talk that Dardari's liberal political policies caused major imbalance in the distribution of national wealth among people and regions. These policies also yielded corruption and created a social class of a few wealthy ruling elites on one hand, and a large segment of extremely poor people on the other.

Even after the outbreak of the war, discussions have taken place about which economic policy is better for the reconstruction and rebuilding of the state. The dual policy of liberalism and socialism continued to prevail in Damascus despite all military risks and security priorities.

While the military conflict was raging in Syria, the conflict over economic policies — whether reflected in plans, projects or persons — was also flaring.

Thus, it was not surprising that the newly formed government in Damascus witnessed two different movements. Some ministers remained in their so-called sovereign political ministerial posts, while the economic and service ministries have seen a quasi-comprehensive change.

No changes had been made in the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, interior, media and national reconciliation. Changes were made in 10 main ministries in the economic and services sector: the ministries of internal trade, communications, water resources, housing, employment, transport, health, economy, culture and higher education.

A new department was established, the Ministry of Administrative Development. Surprisingly, the candidate who ran against Assad in the last presidential elections, Hassan Nouri, was entrusted with this ministry.

What does this dual policy of preserving political portfolios, while changing economic ministerial posts mean? It is obvious that Assad was trying to kill two birds with one stone: first, reconciling both economic currents and overcoming his adversaries, and second, shifting from liberalism or socialism to another national issue, namely, fighting corruption.

It is as if the Syrian president believes he has overcome all political, military and security challenges, and is facing new obstacles in terms of the economy, reconstruction and the challenge to reactivate production in Syria, and meet the people’s needs for general services and social justice.

All Syrian officials continue to focus on this policy, which had a significant part in Assad’s inauguration speech.

According to information obtained by Al-Monitor from Damascus, some indications cannot be overlooked by those who are acquainted with how the Syrian regime works.

Reliable sources told Al-Monitor that last week, the families of the Syrian army’s victims who perished in prior years' confrontations staged a large protest in front of the headquarters of the Syrian army in Damascus.

Protesters raised banners harshly criticizing some officials and some of the adopted policies. According to the same sources, and away from the media, Saqr Rustom has been dismissed from his position as commander of the People’s Defense Brigades in the province of Homs. Rustom is a powerful figure in Syria who has sparked many corruption suspicions.

However, the surprising thing is that Rustom is Alawite and also the nephew of one of the senior officers in the Presidential Palace, Bassam Hassan. Moreover, other sources told Al-Monitor that a relative of Halqi was arrested in Turkey for interrogation about financial issues.

What do these indications suggest? It seems that preparations are underway in Damascus for comprehensive changes at the administrative, security and economic levels. At the beginning of his term, Assad seeks to convey a strong message that he is eager to fight corruption and the corrupt, whatever their names and affiliations. There is a general sense in Damascus that big names are likely to be completely taken out of the picture. Rumors have circulated that cronies of Farouq al-Sharaa — a former vice president who was sacked and driven out of political life — will follow suit.

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Found in: syria, politics, government formation, economic policy, corruption, cabinet, bashar al-assad

Jean Aziz is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a contributor for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese television station. He teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. On Twitter: @JeanAziz1

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