Syria Heralds Reforms, But Many Have Doubts

Syrian soldiers flash victory signs from behind a poster of President Bashar Assad after pulling out of Lebanon. Many hoped the withdrawal would help usher in reform.
Syrian soldiers flash victory signs from behind a poster of President Bashar Assad after pulling out of Lebanon. Many hoped the withdrawal would help usher in reform. (By Jack Dabaghian -- Reuters)

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

DAMASCUS, Syria, May 17 -- Beset by U.S. attempts to isolate his country and facing popular expectations of change, Syrian President Bashar Assad will move to begin legalizing political parties, purge the ruling Baath Party, sponsor free municipal elections in 2007 and formally endorse a market economy, according to officials, diplomats and analysts.

Assad's five-year-old government is heralding the reforms as a turning point in a long-promised campaign of liberalizing a state that, while far less dictatorial than Iraq under Saddam Hussein, remains one of the region's most repressive. His officials see the moves, however tentative and drawn out, as the start of a transitional period that will lead to a more liberal, democratic Syria.

Emboldened opposition leaders, many of whom openly support pressure by the United States even if they mistrust its intentions, said the measures were the last gasp of a government staggering after its hasty and embarrassing troop withdrawal last month from neighboring Lebanon.

The debate over the changes comes during a remarkable surge in what constitutes dissent in this country of 18 million. For the first time in years, opposition figures and even government allies are openly speculating on the fate of a party that, in some fashion, has ruled Syria since 1963 in the name of Arab nationalism, and today faces perhaps its greatest crisis. The debate points to the most pressing questions in the country today: Can Syria truly reform itself and what might follow?

"We understand that democracy is a process -- a historical and political process -- but we are on the right track, and we have begun the mechanisms that will take us forward," said Imad Shueibi, who directs the Data and Strategic Studies Center in Damascus and says he is aligned with reformers within Assad's government. "This will be the first step."

Dissidents are dismissive of the government's capacity to sincerely reform. They see similarities between government moves here and in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, where President Hosni Mubarak has sought to introduce measured but controlled change.

"We have an archaic authoritarian regime, which is now a burden on itself. They want to streamline it and make it more attractive," said Yassin Hajj Saleh, a leftist dissident imprisoned for 16 years and freed in 1996. He calls the moves "the modernization of authoritarianism."

"The old model has ended, it is outdated, its age has passed," he said, "and they want to renew it."

Assad, who seems to remain popular in Syria, has pointed to next month's congress of the Baath Party as the centerpiece of the promised reforms. The congress, which has become the talk of the capital, was last convened in 2000 after Assad inherited power from his father, Hafez Assad. In the wake of the withdrawal from Lebanon, expectations were high that the congress might inaugurate a Syrian equivalent of glasnost. In past weeks, through the state media, those hopes have been steadily ratcheted down.

Most prominent among the reforms will be a recommendation for a new party law, said the officials, analysts and diplomats. It would envision the formation of parties as long as they are not explicitly based on ethnicity, religion or region. While this is potentially a dramatic step, analysts caution that even if the Baath Party recommends the change, enacting a law could take a year or more. Also, the party is not expected to surrender its constitutionally enshrined position as "the leading party of both the society and the state."

Emergency law allowing indefinite detention of suspects may be suspended, except in cases of national security, and the government will likely ease rules that require approval from the security services for a host of activities -- among them opening a hair salon.

As part of the reforms, the government is expected to enact a law providing for free elections of 15,000 members of municipal councils in 2007. The congress is also expected to endorse the free market as the country's economic orientation -- a break from the party's slogan of "unity, freedom and socialism." The move would formalize economic changes underway for more than a decade.

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