Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 2   No. 3

March 2000 


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Bashar Reshuffles Syrian Government
by Gary C. Gambill

In an apparent move to strengthen the influence of his supporters within the regime and streamline economic reforms, Syrian president-to-be Bashar Assad dismissed Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Zu'bi and most other members of the cabinet earlier this month. The decree, officially enacted by his ailing father, President Hafez Assad, followed a stream of leaks to Arab press over the last several weeks forecasting the first major government shakeup in Damascus in nearly a decade.

    The new prime minister, Muhammad Mustafa Miru, is a well-known technocrat and member of the Central Committee of the ruling Ba'ath Party. Miru, 58, was born in the city of al-Tal, around 35 km north of Damascus. He obtained a degree in Arab Literature from Damascus University and was the secretary-general of the Arab Teachers' Union in Cairo during the 1970's, after which he obtained a PhD from a Soviet university (according to one report, this was the Arab Studies Institute in Moscow, but others have said that the university he attended was in Soviet Armenia).1 Miru served as governor of the of the southern province of Daraa from 1980 until 1986, when he was appointed governor of the northeastern province of al-Hasakah. Since 1993 he has served as governor of Aleppo province, earning a reputation for honesty and intolerance of corruption (like King Hussein of Jordan, following Haroun al-Rashid's example, Miru habitually traveled the streets in disguise to gauge his subjects true sentiments). He is married and has three daughters and two sons. Press reports in Syria have said that Miru is an expert on Syrian-Turkish relations.

    Defense minister Mustafa Tlass, Interior Minister Mohammed Harba, Finance Minister Khaled Mahayni and ten other ministers retained their positions in the new 36-member cabinet (see below). Among the new faces are Planning Minister Issam Zaim, a well-known economist and Information Minister Adnan Omran, a former deputy secretary-general of the Arab League and former ambassador to Britain.

    The government shakeup in Syria is the latest manifestation of a concerted drive over the last couple years to purge the regime of political figures whose power bases are independent of the Assad family. In 1998, former Intelligence Chief Gen. Bashir al-Najjar was ousted (and later sentenced to prison on corruption and embezzlement charges) and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Hikmat al-Shihabi was removed--both had been at odds with Bashar and were replaced with loyalists. In October 1999, Bashar's Republican Guard troops seized an illegal port and residence belonging to his estranged uncle, Rifaat Assad, reportedly killing hundreds of his supporters. Last month, Syria's chief of military intelligence, Gen. Ali Douba, was replaced by an ardent supporter of Bashar, Gen. Hassan Khalil.2

    Arab press reports suggested that Bashar and his allies specifically targeted Information Minister Muhammad Salman and Culture Minister Najah al-Attar for removal from the government. The new cabinet also represents an effort to distance the ruling party from the state. Although Miru is a member of the Ba'ath Party Central Committee, he is not considered to be a senior member. While 26 of the 36 ministers are members of the Ba'ath Party, many have not held party leadership posts. Moreover, the party's national command was reportedly sidelined in consultations regarding the formation of the government. This modest reduction in the influence of the Ba'ath Party within the new government not only weakens a potential pole of opposition to Bashar, but also gives him more freedom to pursue economic and socio-political policies at odds with Ba'athist ideology.3

    Economic issues clearly constitute a second major reason for the change in government. Syrian exports dropped by 20% in 1999 and the value of agricultural production dropped from $1.1 billion to $425 million. For years, the country has been plagued by what Syrian economics professor Riyad al-Abrash calls "a culture hostile to capital." Speaking at a seminar of the Syrian Association for Economic Sciences, a think-tank chaired by Bashar since 1994, Abrash warned that "pervading corruption . . . will limit investment and development in coming decades."4 The fight against corruption was also the primary topic of discussion when the national leadership of the ruling Ba'ath Party convened last month.

    In remarks published on March 7, Bashar Assad said that the first priority of the new government will be to "reduce corruption and modernize the administration." Bashar said that Syria "is in need of change today more than ever" and he defended the inclusion of several relatively young new ministers, stating that the Syrian regime "needs new blood." He denied that the cabinet was replaced at his behest, but acknowledged "nominating some suitable people" in the new government.5

    Bashar intends to encourage foreign direct investment in Syria by stamping out corruption and reforming government regulations that inhibit free enterprise. In particular, he advocates far-reaching reforms in the banking sector, the establishment of a stock market and the removal of harsh penalties for dealing in hard currency. In addition, Bashar concluded that Syria's negotiations with the European Union to join a free trade zone in 2010 and its desire to eventually become a member of the World Trade Organization would be best served if some new faces were present in the Syrian government.

    While the necessity of economic reforms undoubtedly influenced the formation of the new government, it should be noted that these same reasons were given for the appointment of Mahmoud Zu'bi in 1987 and that of his predecessor, Abderraouf al-Kasm in 1980.

Members of the New Syrian Government

Dr Muhammad Mustafa Miru . . . Prime Minister [new]
Gen Mustafa Tlass . . . Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister
Muhammad Naji Itri . . . Deputy Prime Minister for Services Affairs [new]
Dr Khalid Raad . . . Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs [new]
Faruq al-Shar'a . . . Foreign Minister
Dr Muhammad Harbah . . . Interior Minister
Dr Muhammad al-Imadi . . . Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade
Nasir Qaddur . . . Minister of State for Foreign Affairs
Dr Muhammad Khalid al-Mahayini . . . Minister of Finance
Dr Muhammad Iyad al-Shatti . . . Minister of Health
As'ad Mustafa . . . Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform
Radwan Martini . . . Minister of Telecommunications
Husam al-Safadi . . . Minister of Housing and Utilities
Engineer Munib Bin As'ad Sa'im al-Dahr . . . Minister of Electricity
Muhammad Bin Abd al-Ra'uf Ziyadah . . . Minister of Awqaf
Muhammad Mahir Bin Husni Jamal . . . Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources
Sallam al-Yasin . . . Minister of Local Government [new]
Adnan Umran . . . Minister of Information [new]
Haytham Duwayhi . . . Minister for Presidential Affairs [new]
Nihad Mushantat . . . Minister of Construction [new]
Dr Maha Qannut . . . Minister of Culture [new]
Dr Hasan al-Nuri . . . Minister of State [new]
Qasim Miqdad . . . Minister of Tourism [new]
Dr Mahmud al-Sayyid . . . Minister of Education [new]
Dr Faruq al-Adili . . . Minister of State for Environmental Affairs [new]
Nabil al-Khatib . . . Minister of Justice [new]
Dr Isam al-Za'im . . . Minister of State for Planning Affairs [new]
Dr Hasan Rishah . . . Minister of Higher Education [new]
Makram Ubayd . . . Minister of Transport [new]
Muhammad Mufdi Sayfu . . . Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs [new]
Dr Bari'ah al-Qudsi . . . Minister of Social Affairs and Labour [new]
Dr Usamah Ma al-Barid . . . Minister of Supply and Internal Trade [new]
Dr Ihsan Shuraytih . . . Minister of State [new]
Engineer Ahmad Hamu . . . Minister of Industry [new]
Taha al-Atrash . . . Minister of Irrigation [new]
Makhul Abu Hamidah . . . Minister of State [new]6

  1 Al-Hayat, 8 March 2000.
  2 See "Syria Replaces Veteran Military Intelligence Chief," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, February 2000.
  3 Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 20 March 2000.
  4 Al-Safir, 28 February 2000.
  5 Al-Hayat, 7 March 2000.
  6 Syrian Arab TV, 2100 gmt, 13 March 2000

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