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Syria Heralds Reforms, But Many Have Doubts
Party Weighs Gradual Moves Toward Democracy

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.

The Baath Party's 21-member leadership, still including many septuagenarian colleagues of Assad's father, will likely be purged, analysts and officials said. The number may be reduced to 15, with only a handful -- perhaps three or four -- carried over from the current leadership. It would mark another step in Assad's consolidation of power and could open the way for the inclusion of powerful relatives like his brother, who heads the elite Republican Guard, and brother-in-law, who heads the feared military intelligence.

Debate continues over other steps, analysts say: an amnesty for political crimes; the granting of citizenship to at least 100,000 members of the Kurdish minority; and suspension of Law 49. That 25-year-old decree stipulates the death penalty for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group that once posed the greatest threats to the Baath Party's hold on power.

Less publicly, the government has permitted the return of some political exiles, including Amin Hafez, the former head of state, and Jassim Alwan, another former officer who led a coup attempt against the Baath Party in 1963.

"It's a step forward," said Sami Moubayed, a Syrian analyst and writer. But he added: "It's minimal change. The steps should have been much more courageous."

The changes will almost certainly fail to mollify the United States, which has effectively ended engagement with Damascus over what U.S. officials say is Syria's lack of aggressiveness in closing its border with Iraq to prevent infiltration by insurgents. Many of the government's critics -- and a substantial current within the ruling party -- will likely be disappointed as well, viewing the steps taken at the congress more as an attempt to ensure the government's survival than the start of real change.

"Unless the party comes out in favor of significant, deep political and economic reforms, it's going to leave a lot of disappointment and frustration," said Nabil Sukkar, an influential businessman and former World Bank economist. "If it's wishy-washy and comes out with only compromises, it's not going to meet expectations."

Damascus is a far different capital from it was 10 years ago, when fear and dreary Stalinist architecture cast a pall over life. The endemic iconography of Assad's father -- building-size portraits and pictures pasted every few feet -- are gone, making way for advertisements for Chanel, BMW and Syria's mobile phone network. Freewheeling Beirut radiates its influence on the Syrian capital, evident in fashion, taste and restaurants and bars that vie for space in the once-neglected, cobblestoned Old City.

While the heavy-handed state media remain unchanged, Arab satellite stations such as al-Jazeera and pan-Arab newspapers enter freely. For those with English skills and enough money for a subscription, the Internet offers a sometimes startling window on Syrian politics written from inside the country. Nearly all Web sites are accessible, except for those that end in ".il," the domain for Israel.

"There's no fear. People are not afraid to talk, and this is a tremendous change," Sukkar said.

Assad exudes a far different style from his father, a former air force officer and committed Baathist who ruled Syria for 30 years. The younger Assad, a 39-year-old ophthalmologist, is seen as lacking his father's political guile, but well-intentioned and eager to curry acceptance rather than generate fear.

This year, some Syrians distributed a video clip via cell phone of a smiling Assad riding a bumper car with his oldest son, Hafez, at a popular park. (Those in other bumper cars noticeably kept their distance.) How far that style will intrude on the government's grip, though, remains a subject of fierce debate, with the June 6-9 meeting of the congress seen as perhaps the greatest indicator yet of the government's vision.

The diplomats and analysts said the Syrian government appeared divided on how to cope with the U.S. threat -- will Syria remain a potential player in regional politics, giving it relevance to American policy, or is its very survival threatened, whatever policies it adopts? Under either scenario, some analysts say, the political reforms unveiled at the congress become less pressing for a party intent on maintaining its grip and a president who still relies on that party for his legitimacy and strength.

"I believe we are looking [at] a very, very dismal future for this country," said Ammar Abdulhamid, who runs a publishing house and related organization trying to foster civic awareness. "The Syrian regime is simply at a loss in how to play its cards or what it's going to do." The government, he said, is still trying to pull "a rabbit out of a hat."

"But the hat is bottomless, the rabbit is long dead, and the president is not a magician," Abdulhamid said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company