Syria: reading the ‘tea leafs’ of a new cabinet, reforms will be nothing but window dressing

Yesterday SANA, the Syrian state news agency, released information that president Bashar al-Assad through decree no 146 established a new cabinet. Yes, I know that the Syrian cabinet holds little real power, concentrated as it is to the president and his family. But still, as I previously wrote, the forming of a new Syrian cabinet (which I erronously believed would have been appointed in a matter of hours – my bad!) could give us a hint on president al-Assads, a genuine reformist or not? Now this question might really be moot, you say. Is not clear that Bashar al-Assad is no reformer, but that he will makes this so called reforms ‘under the gallow’, just to stay in power and avoid sharing the fate of Mubarak and Ben Ali? That might be the case. But anyway, what is the harm of doing some reading of the ‘tea leafs’?

So, Adel Safar for Prime Minister. He has a solid education and background in the area of agriculture, and of course in Ba’ath party. He was previously minister of agriculture – from 2003 – 2011. Now this might be seen as an olive branch to the people of the south and north east, areas that have been hit hard by the many years of drought. On the other hand if one is to judge Adel Safar on his accomplishments or lack thereof, I do not think we should have any high hopes for reform or progress in Syria.

Of the other 25 ministers in the new cabinet five (5) held the same position in previous cabinet and four (4) had other positions. Defence, foreign affairs are among those that al-Assad has continuing confidence in. Of the new ministers, interior, finance and economy and trade are of special interest to us. Interior is now staffed by Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar, previously head of the military police. The information I have also points to the fact that he has a background in the military security. No real change there…

The minister of finance, Mohammad al-Jleilati, is a graduate from university of Damascus, class of 1967. He also holds a PhD from Sovjetunion (!), 1975. Not really a good sign. The previous minister for economy and trade Lamia Merei Assi, with a solid reform credentials was demoted; minister of tourism is no ‘heavy hitter’. The new minister for economy and trade Mohammad Nidal al-Shaar has a solid…solid background in academia. And no background, at all, from the real world, according to his CV on SANA. But after doing a bit of digging I found a Mohammed Nedal Al Chaar who is the secretary general of AAOIFI – Accounting and Auditing organisation for Islamic Financial Institutions (According to Gulf News he has also worked for the US companies Fannie Mae (director of market performance analysis) and vice president for Johnson & Higgins). The questions is what to read in to this? Will President Bashar al-Assad tout economic reform with a solid religious basis as compared to the western liberal reforms of Abdullah al-Dardari?

This a possibility, especially since the architect of the Syrian economic liberalization, former deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affair Abdullah al-Dardari are not part of this new cabinet – he has either been sacrificed or declined to be part of a government who kills it own citizens.

Reading the tea leafs of the changes or lack thereof in the new Syrian cabinet Bashar al-Assad will likely but down the breaks on policies on economic liberalisation. The much needed economic reform agenda will be reversed for a costly and in the long run self-defeating agenda of heavy subsidies. And to top it off Bashar al-Assad might thrown some in the business community that has profited on al-Dardaris policy to the ‘wolves’.

On the reforms in general concerning lifting of the emergency law, a new media law and law on political parties judging from the action taken on this new cabinet they will be no more then window dressing – it might look nice but in reality changes very little of the reality which is to keep the al-Assad family in firm control of Syria.

About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Agency specializing in the Middle East, Schengen and the Dublin Regulation, as Migration Attaché and head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus 2005 - 2008, as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus 2008 - 2009, Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem 2012 - 2013 and associate RSD/RST officer at UNHCR in Beirut 2013 - 2014. He currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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