I'm standing in the hot sun at the gate of a fancy new conference center outside town, trying (unsuccessfully) to get inside and watch the Baath Party debate political reforms. The headline in the morning's government-run Syria Times has proclaimed: "Congress continues with openness and transparency." But alas, it's not so open and transparent that they're actually going to let me in.
Sorry, says the guard eventually, the meeting is over for the day. And with that, a line of Mercedes-Benz limousines begins to roar past. They're big, fancy sedans, many with curtains drawn so the Baath Party luminaries won't have to look at the little people along the road. It takes nearly five minutes for the cars to go by.
That's the essential reality of this week's much-ballyhooed Baath congress. Those who hold power and privilege in Syria have been discussing reform, in the hope that it will ease domestic and international pressure on the regime. A few senior Baathists resigned this week, supposedly to make room for new blood, and the congress approved measures to allow independent political parties, ease Syria's state of emergency and provide more press freedom. But don't expect the regime to move decisively in any direction for now. Syria today is about the status quo, not change.
Let's give President Bashar Assad the benefit of the doubt and imagine that he really does want to change Syria. The problem is that those hundreds of Baathists in their limos aren't about to give up the power that has made them rich, even as Syria itself has grown poorer. Assad has cautiously promoted reform. But he hasn't yet shown the toughness or political will to break the power of the Baathist apparatchiks and intelligence chiefs. Nobody has lost his Mercedes.
Back in town later that afternoon, I'm riding in a rickety yellow taxi. When I tell the driver I'm American, he looks me dead in the eye and says in broken English: "The Baath Party is dirty. They eat everything for themselves." He gestures with his hands, as if shoveling food into his mouth. The driver, a former Syrian soldier who served in Lebanon, says he likes Assad, whom he calls a "gentleman." But as for the ruling party, he says: "All Syrian people hate them."
I heard similar sentiments all week. This is a surprisingly open society for a police state. Social life and political discussion flourish out of sight of the Mukhabarat -- in private homes, cafes, offices. It's like mushrooms, sprouting in the dark. The regime is widely detested, but Assad himself is seen as a likable if ineffectual figure. And though people badly want change, they are also frightened of the disorder that might accompany it. That's why any uprising against the regime is unlikely, despite its unpopularity.
I visit with one of the country's reform advocates. He's dismissive of the party congress. "Assad is not a reformer," he insists. "Had he wanted change, he could have done it years ago." The regime can't survive unless it reforms, he argues. But a moment later, he admits that there's "no real opposition" and that "a majority of the country still believes in Assad." A Sunni from a prominent family sums up Assad's dilemma this way: "He wants change, but he also wants to keep power."
The prevailing mood in Damascus this week is confusion. "We don't know what's going on," laments a top Syrian businessman. Even senior members of the government don't seem sure of what will follow the congress. They say privately that they hope for a gradual process of change, but they can't be certain. And these are people at the top of the pyramid. It reminds me of the feel of Moscow 20 years ago -- a sense that the old regime can't last, and can't change, either.
Many Damascenes see Assad caught within an inner circle that's composed of the people who run the intelligence services, major businesses and the Baath Party. Many of them are his relatives or members of his Alawite Muslim sect, which has been ruling Syria since his father, Hafez, seized power in 1970. They look to Assad as their clan leader, and they won't let him give up the clan's privileged status without a fight.
Assad's supporters argue that the reform process started this week. However tentative its initial steps, the congress began the process of dismantling a generation of lies, mismanagement and corruption. Maybe that's true. But this is a situation where the homespun Missouri rule of political logic applies: Show me!