Radwan Ziadeh on “Syria’s Democratic Past: Lessons for the Future”

Radwan Ziadeh

Project on Middle East Democracy
The POMED Wire
POMED Notes: “Syria’s Democratic Past: Lessons for the Future”
Notes taken January 8th, 2010 by Josh [not Josh Landis]

The National Endowment for Democracy hosted a presentation by Dr. Radwan Ziadeh entitled “Syria’s Democratic Past: Lessons for the Future.” Dr. Ziadeh is the founding director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He was most recently a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University and a 2008–2009 Visiting Scholar at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights. Dr. Steven Heydemann, vice president of the grant and fellowships program and special adviser to the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace, followed Ziadeh’s presentation with commentary and analysis. Karen Farrell, Senior Program Officer for NED’s Middle East and North Africa Program, moderated the event.

For POMED’s notes in PDF, please click here. Otherwise, keep reading below the fold.

Ziadeh began by emphasizing democracy’s value to Syria in three areas: stability in the long term, peace in the region, and economic development at home. Although many policymakers prioritize stability in the Middle East, he believes that democratic reform is the only mechanism to create a peaceful and prosperous future for the Syrian people.

Ziadeh transitioned into a political history of Syria in the post-war era, noting that it enjoyed nearly a decade of free and fair elections from 1949-1958, during which Syria became the first country in the region to grant women suffrage (1951). More than 270 newspapers and magazines were also created this decade, and Syria instituted its first progressive constitution in 1952. Additionally, this period was Syria’s golden age for pluralistic politics, with Kurds, Druze, Christians, and ‘Alawites all well-represented in the government. Ziadeh noted the rise of Faris al-Khoury, a Christian, to the position of Prime Minister twice within a ten-year period.

Diplomatically, Syria experienced excellent relations with the United States throughout its formative years. Ziadeh commented that Nazim al-Qudsi, Syria’s first ambassador to the United States and later both prime minister and president, corresponded quite often with John F. Kennedy prior to and during his presidency.

However, a 1963 coup led to the rise of the Ba’ath party and the disintegration of pre-existing democratic institutions. The structure of Syrian totalitarianism took the form of a 3-sided pyramid, with the Ba’ath party, military intelligence, and the administration working in concert to consolidate absolute power. In 1973, new amendments to the temporary 1969 constitution led directly to the authoritarian presidential system. Ziadeh highlighted the “Emergency Law” imposed in 1963, ostensibly created to ensure political stability and “national security.” It resulted in severe restrictions on the freedoms of association, expression, and assembly. Kurdish citizens became second class citizens and human rights violations spread across the country.

These violations peaked in the 1980s when the government began instituting the death penalty without fair trials. Ziadeh discussed the disappearances of politicians and activists, unfair sentences for political detainees, and the resulting sectarian and ethnic fissures which led the country into bouts of violence. One former detainee in Tadmur prison recounted that “life in Tadmur is like walking in a minefield; death can come about at any moment either because of torture, jailers’ brutality, sickness, or execution.”

Ziadeh explored the legacy of Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s most prominent and longest lasting president from the totalitarian era, and concluded that he failed to bring about progress in any of the following areas: the Golan Heights (remained occupied by Israel), global integration, economic development (even compared to similarly sized Arab countries), human rights, competent governance, and media/communications.

After Hafez was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad, in 2000, Syrian civil society began to speak out against repressive governmental policies. In 2005, a wide coalition of political reform activists issued the “Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change.” A year later, more than 300 intellectuals and activists from Syria and Lebanon signed a petition entitled the “Beirut-Damascus Declaration,” which among other things called for improvements in relations between the two countries. Unfortunately, the government responded with the worst crackdown on civil society since Bashar al-Assad took power 6 years earlier. After 163 activists gathered in Damascus to create the National Council of the Damascus Declaration in 2007, Syrian security officials once again broke the movement’s momentum through mass arrests.

In trying to understand the Syrian government’s resiliency in the face of increasing domestic and international pressure for reform, Ziadeh introduced a comparison between ex-soviet satellites in Eastern Europe and soviet-friendly states in the Middle East. Specifically, he used Czechoslovakia to demonstrate why E. Europe has, generally speaking, had an easier time transitioning to democracy in the post-soviet era. For example, he finds that E. European countries have more respect for governmental institutions themselves, rather than the people who run them, which contrasts with the political culture in Syria where there is a more deeply imbedded respect for political dynasties and families rather than the specific governmental bodies.

To spur democratic growth, Ziadeh proposed a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to explore and officially document what he terms the Years of Fear (1980s). It would largely be modeled after similar commissions in various Latin American countries, with a particular emphasis upon developing a national strategy to combat “impunity of human rights violations” by those in power.

Both Ziadeh and Dr. Heydemann agreed that democracy is “an authentic part of the Syrian past, and a part in which they can take a good deal of pride.” Although Syrian officials have been adept at fending off challenges to their authority and legitimacy, there’s great potential for reform activists to draw upon Syria’s substantial democratic experience from the 1950s as a mechanism to produce popular momentum and pressure for political change. However, thus far this democratic history hasn’t been successful in mobilizing a consolidated and strategically sound movement, and the speakers feel it’s important to further examine the original reasons why democracy failed, and authoritarianism prevailed.

Also see Ziadeh’s new report on the Kurds in Syria – Thanks to Kurdistan Commentary, a fine blog.

The special report, ‘The Kurds in Syria: Fueling Separatist Movements in the Region?’ was written by Radwan Ziadeh for the USIP, which has published it. The report examines Kurds in Syria in the context of the lack of democratic governance, which Ziadeh explains affects all Syrians.  He suggests that the development of democratic governance in Syria could mitigate the Kurdish problem.

You can download it here (.pdf) from the USIP website.

Also see Ziadeh’s fine 118 page book (Arabic) on

Political Islam in Syria (I couldn’t figure out how to buy it from the site. If anyone has better success, please let me know. I want another copy.)

The study is divided into nine topics, in which the author has reviewed: the early relationship between religion and the state in Syria; the establishment of Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun (the Muslim Brotherhood) movement in Syria; religious dual containment policies; and armed clash between Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimun and the Baathist regime. It deals with the mechanisms of institutional decision-making in Syria, the dominating position of the President, aspects of official Islam, political Islam in Syria after the Iraq War, the transformation of the Baath Party and its use of religious discourse to confront various crises, and finally the future of political Islam in Syria in the light of domestic and international developments.,

Comments (6)

Akbar Palace said:

Both Ziadeh and Dr. Heydemann agreed that democracy is “an authentic part of the Syrian past, and a part in which they can take a good deal of pride.”

Professor Josh,

Did Ziadeh and Dr. Heydemann get paid for doing this “book report”?

If agreeing on decades-old factual history pays money, maybe I’ll switch my occupation;)

BTW – if Syrians can be “proud” of a democratic past from several decades ago, maybe (just maybe) Israelis can be proud of a democratic present.

(sorry Shai for the pro-Israel post)

January 11th, 2010, 5:40 pm


Amir in Tel Aviv said:

Akbar, You’re being petty here.

Dr. Ziadeh’s strategy is right. There’s a Talmudic phrase, that says
‘Before criticizing, say something positive and nice, so it will be
easier to the criticized person, to accept your criticism’.

We need more Ziadehs.
And Chapeau to SC for bringing Ziadeh’s study, and for raising the issue of the Syrian Kurds.

January 11th, 2010, 7:09 pm


AKbar Palace said:

Akbar, You’re being petty here.

Amir in Tel Aviv,

You’re right. I sort of expected a backlash from my egregious statements. Sorry.

I guess it must have been my jealous nature when I read his statement that Syrians “can take a good deal of pride” for the democracy they had 50 years ago. Now that I think about it, we should all give ourselves a collective pat-on-the-back for this eyeopening “news”.

January 11th, 2010, 8:04 pm


JAD said:

إقالة رئيس هيئة تخطيط الدولة بعد أيام من انتقاده تمركز الثروة بأيدي فئات قليلة

أصدر السيد الرئيس بشار الأسد المرسوم رقم 19 القاضي بإنهاء العمل بالمرسوم رقم 104تاريخ11-3-2007 المتضمن تعيين الدكتور تيسير سليمان الرداوي رئيسا لهيئة تخطيط الدولة.


January 11th, 2010, 8:14 pm


Non-Arab Arab said:

“BTW – if Syrians can be “proud” of a democratic past from several decades ago, maybe (just maybe) Israelis can be proud of a democratic present.”

Israel would have to be a democracy and not a racist Apartheid state for that to be the case. Unless of course you are saying that Apartheid South Africa or the Jim Crow South was a real democracy.

As for Syria and the democratic past, yes Mr. Ziadeh is right to point it out. This is not so much about pointing out established historical facts as it is about creating a core myth (not using the term in a derogatory sense, just descriptive, myths can be make believe or factual) from which the shared societal perceptions required to create a more democratic future can be grown. Seeds.

However, Mr. Ziadeh ought also it seems spend some time (and maybe he has elsewhere) examining in depth the reasons that the democratic experiment failed. Not being a Syrian expert in any sense of the word, I would blithely hypothesize that the weakness of the state and the anger that the results of a weak state likely caused (lack of economic development; weakness before former colonial, regional, and cold war imperial powers; failure to establish a balance of qawmi and watani identities; etc.), probably were among the core causes.

January 11th, 2010, 8:24 pm


majedkhaldoun said:

The democracy period in Syria ended with Gamal Abdulnasser , he was loved by the people as a rising star,and advocate of Arab union, Arabism was the direct effect of the creation of Israel.
Today we heared of murdering of nuclear scientist in Iran,Iran accused Israel of this crime, another evidence that Israel is behind most Evil in the ME.
Erdogan of Turkey,has made excellent statements as he received Saad Hariri, he proved that he deserve to be the future leader of the middle East

January 12th, 2010, 9:14 am


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