Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ministerial Reshuffle Disappoints

Officials in charge of ailing economy should have been axed, say local analysts.
By IWPR
Regional experts say a major reshuffle of the Syrian cabinet last week was a missed opportunity to remove ministers responsible for failing to avoid the economic crisis now facing the country.



On April 23, President Bashar al-Assad appointed new officials to head the ministries for internal affairs, justice, health, local government and presidential affairs, according to the official news agency SANA.



The agency report offered no reasons for the changes, which amounted to the largest shake-up of government since 14 out of 32 ministers were replaced in 2006.



But analysts expressed disappointment that those officials presiding over economic matters held on to their jobs.



“The Syrian people need an entirely new government after the previous one failed to solve the economic crisis that the country has been facing,” said Thaer al-Zaazouh, a political analyst based in Damascus.



Despite recently witnessing some growth, the Syrian economy remains beset by problems – including a fall in oil production, poor industrial performance, soaring unemployment, and a struggling agricultural sector hit by a record three-year drought.



The cabinet’s economic team – consisting of the deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs, the finance minister and the minister of economy and trade – has come under criticism in recent months for failing to live up to promises of economic development.



Existing problems have been exacerbated since the onset of the international economic downturn.



According to Zaazouh, the government’s economic team was not quick enough of the mark in tackling the impact the global crisis had on the Syrian economy.



An official, who asked to remain anonymous, said Assad had granted the economic officials more time to allow them to deliver on goals set out in the government’s five-year plan for the economy. The plan, announced in 2005, seeks to boost economic growth, fight poverty and improve wages and living standards.



The changes Assad made include appointing Said Mohammad Sammour, a general in the intelligence services who was responsible for security in Damascus and its surroundings, to replace Bassam Abdul-Majeed as interior minister.



Some observers said Abdul-Majid’s time in office was marred by serious security breaches, including the assassination of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyah in Damascus in February 2008, as well as a car bomb attack in the capital last September.



An interior ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to talk to the press, said these incidents meant it was essential to bring in an officer of Sammour’s calibre, with an impressive record in military intelligence.



Another new development was the creation of a ministry of state for environmental affairs, and the appointment of a woman, Kawkab al-Sabah Mohammad Jamil Dayeh, to head it.



Kawkab, who worked for several years as an assistant to the health minister, was formerly in charge of environmental and health issues at the General Women’s Union, a public association.



Syria used to have an environment ministry until it was swallowed up by the local government ministry almost five years ago. It has been resurrected because President Assad has recently become interested in addressing environmental issues, according to Hind Kabour, a sociology professor at the University of Damascus.



“Syria suffers from serious environmental problems, such as desertification and pollution,” said Kabour. “The president wanted to send a strong signal that he was committed to these issues.”



This is the fifth cabinet change under Prime Minister Mohammed Naji al-Otari, who has been in the post since 2003.



Unlike his father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, the current Syrian leader has presided over a number of cabinet changes, in an apparent bid to fight corruption and revitalise ministries. Last year, for instance, he replaced five ministers in one cabinet makeover.



Some analysts argue that overhauling the cabinet will not affect major decisions, which they say are taken by a closed circle of officials within the ruling Baath party.



“No minister in this government, or any past one, has any real authority to deal independently with important matters,” said a Damascus-based political analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Syria needs real reform, rather than merely formal actions.”



Other appointments included Ahmad Hamoud Yunes as justice minister; Tamer al-Hajeh as minister of local government, Mansour Fadlallah Azzam as minister of presidential affairs, and Rida Adnan Said as health minister.



Ordinary Syrians said such cabinet reshuffles had little impact on them.



“The people have lost confidence in anyone who becomes a minister,” said Ahmed Khalaf, 28, a graduate law student at the University of Damascus. “I was hoping the changes would include establishing a new ministry responsible for fighting corruption and recovering public property.”



Mahir Halima, 25, who holds a degree in commerce and economics but is currently unemployed, said ministers frequently failed to fulfil their promises.



“We never know whether there’s something wrong with the minister or with the ministry itself… but what is certain is that the citizens are always the losers,” said Halima.