Syria permits opposition parties on restrictive terms

July 25, 2011

Syria’s government on Monday announced details of a new law permitting the formation of opposition parties for the first time in 48 years, but the terms were so restrictive the move seems unlikely to defuse the four-month-old uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

According to the official news agency SANA, the law requires parties to be vetted by a government committee and to pledge allegiance to the constitution, which, in its current form, guarantees the supremacy of the ruling Baath Party.

It also prohibits parties formed on a “religious, tribal, regional, denominational, or profession-related basis or on the basis of discrimination due to ethnicity, gender or race,” restrictions that would exclude Islamist parties as well as those formed by Kurds and other minority groups.

The news agency quoted Justice Minister Tayseer Qala Awwad as saying that the law contains 40 clauses in all, but only seven of them were made public. The law was approved by the cabinet on Sunday, the agency said.

Opposition groups derided the law as evidence that the Syrian government is not serious about democracy. They said they would not accept any reforms promulgated by the current government unless they are negotiated with the opposition, which rejects all talks as long as tanks remain on the streets of Syrian cities and thousands of people are detained.

“We’re still scratching our heads. It’s absolutely useless,” said Shakeeb al-Jabri, a founding member of a new Syrian political group, the National Bloc. The group will not be racing to register, he said, “because we would have to pledge the supremacy of the Baath Party.”

Assad indicated in a recent speech that he was prepared to revise the constitution, to include the abolition of the clause upholding Baath Party dominance. A government- sponsored conference held this month in a Damascus suburb to debate the revisions went further and recommended a complete rewrite, suggesting that even some regime supporters recognize the need for more radical reform.

Though this law appeared to fall far short of that, the announcement does suggest the government realizes it has to do more than simply crack down on protesters if it is to curtail the revolt, which has shown no sign of waning despite what human rights groups say are more than 1,600 deaths and 20,000 detentions.

“It shows that the regime is desperate. They realize the security solution isn’t working so they’re trying these Band-Aid measures,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But, he said, “no one’s going to believe that the political system is going to open up when a political party has to be approved by a committee appointed by the regime.”

The timing of the move might also reflect official concern about the upcoming month of Ramadan, due in early August, which protesters are hoping will give new momentum to their movement. Evening prayers at the end of the fasting day will provide a new opportunity for crowds to gather, and any death during the holy month “is going to supercharge the political tensions and the sectarian tensions,” Tabler said.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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