The torch has officially been passed in Damascus, where Bashar al-Assad, the son of Hafez al-Assad, was sworn in as president of Syria for a seven-year term. The week before, he garnered more than 97 percent of the votes in a national referendum in which he was the sole candidate. Voters were simply asked whether they approved or disapproved of the 34-year-old ophthalmologist becoming the country’s next ruler.
As Syria’s first fresh president in 30 years, Bashar articulated his aims in a speech before the national legislature, where he promised to continue his father’s policies, while adopting them to the requirements of the 21st century. He stressed the need for economic change through “modernization of laws, and activation of the private sector that needs to be offered the best possible opportunities.”
The new Syrian President has already demonstrated his desire to accelerate the pace of economic change. This was seen with the passing of a number of economic laws last week, aimed at loosening the state’s grasp on the economy. The most significant related to private banking, where Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa Miro has licensed Lebanese banks to operate in Syria and has permitted foreign banks with a minimum capitalization of $11 million in foreign exchange to operate in Syria’s free zones.
Assad may face obstacles in bolstering the country’s private sector. Powerful officials have long benefited from a closed economic system, and would most likely have their standard of living diminished by reform and market competition. Shortly after Hafez al-Assad’s death, a senior cabinet minister insisted that, despite the government efforts to expand the private sector, Syria’s dominant public sector would continue to control the country’s economy.
Attempts at reform, however, will inevitably face internal opposition. For example, assuming that international banks will compete with local institutions over foreign investment, vested interests of Ba’ath party members will eb damaged. Parliament is also due to debate a draft law on the planned Damascus stock exchange, which would include private sector trading. It is a proposition that has already sparked widespread domestic controversy.
Bashar al-Assad has showed that he is not reluctant to express disapproval of his late father’s economic policies—albeit gentle disapproval. While praising his father’s political achievements, he described Syria’s economic performance as “erratic.”
But the president’s hand is strengthened because he had allies. The young leader shares an economic outlook similar to that of pro-reformist Prime Minister Miro. Miro’s support may prove invaluable in the future.