Syrian reformers try to keep the pressure on

Activists hope to keep the world spotlight on the regime. Tuesday, several reformers were arrested.

The international pressure directed at Syria after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Mini- ster Rafik Hariri helped end this country's domination of its neighbor.

But even as the United Nations certified on Monday that all Syrian troops and intelligence agents had left Lebanon, activists here hope the international spotlight on Damascus doesn't dim.

Some speculate that Lebanon's Cedar Revolution that erupted after Mr. Hariri's death could begin to inspire a Jasmine Revolution, named for the plant that blooms throughout the country, to press for democratic change in Syria. And these activists insist that US pressure on President Bashar al-Assad's regime is crucial to their success.

"A large reason that reformers are looking to the US to put pressure on [Syria] is that it gives them cover to put pressure from below," says Joshua Landis, a Damascus-based specialist on Syria.

"They can say we need radical change to protect the nation because if we don't do this, Americans will come in with a two-by-four and try to destabilize Syria," he says.

In an address to parliament in March, Mr. Assad announced there would be a "great leap" in internal affairs. And there was speculation that at the upcoming Baath Party congress in June members would discuss the eradication of Article 8 of the constitution, which placed authority in the hands of the Baath Party since 1963, legalize political parties, and provide full amnesty to political prisoners and exiles.

But while there is hope that long-awaited reforms may be coming, activists say they doubt the government is willing to institute real change on its own.

Tuesday eight members of the Jamal al-Atassi Forum, a pro-democracy group, were arrested for their involvement in delivering a speech on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood. Membership in the Brotherhood has been a capital offense in Syria since 1980, when the government defeated a revolt by Islamic militants.

Assad, who remains relatively popular, has long been viewed by Syrians as a leader whose hands have been tied by the "old guard" in the government who are opposed to change.

"Expectations [for change] were raised tremendously and now there is a lot of disappointment," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst based in Damascus. "Officials have been working to tone down the expectations. There will be no law to amend article eight of the constitution. There will be no wide-scale amnesty."

Analysts and officials now say the congress will discuss legalizing political parties that are not religious or ethnic in nature, minimizing the role of the Baath Party, and changing the country's print law, which governs the press and establishing municipal elections by 2007.

And while hopes for substantial reform are beginning to wane, Syrian reformers and opposition figures - even those who oppose US policy in Middle East - are still counting on international pressure on Syria.

"If this pressure continues up to the conference, the decisions that come out of the conference will not be because of internal political decisions or internal ideological changes within the party," says Omar Amiralay, a filmmaker whose most recent film, "A Flood in Baath Country," takes a cutting jab at the role of the Baath Party in the country. "Any announced reforms are going to be the result of individual decisions and that will depend on the strength of the external pressure."

But the pressure coming from Washington is now largely aimed at Syria's alleged role in the Iraqi insurgency, charges that continue to rattle US-Syria relations. Syria's swift withdrawal of its troops and security forces from Lebanon last month after the assassination of the popular Mr. Hariri in February did little to improve relations with the Bush administration.

The Syrian ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, said last week that Syria has stopped all cooperation with the United States military and the Central Intelligence Agency because of Washington's charges that Damascus is still aiding the Iraqi insurgency, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

Over the past two years, analysts say, US pressure on Syria was largely aimed at regime compliance, rather than regime change.

But that perception is changing, and many here now believe that US aims in Syria are moving toward destabilizing the regime - a policy that even the most adamant opposition leaders and activists say would be dangerous and could lead to civil strife.

"I'm afraid that under US pressure, the regime would collapse and we'd have a situation like in Iraq, but without an invasion, without a war, just from pressure," says Louay Hussein, a writer and opposition figure. Syria, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, has large populations of Alawites, Christians, Kurds, and Druze, among others.

"The better alternative would be for someone within the government to offer reforms," he says.

Opposition activists argue that reform is possible only if the regime abolishes the country's 42-year-old emergency law, which has kept the country in a state of martial law since 1963, gets rid of Article 8 of the constitution, and if freedoms of expression and association are guaranteed.

"People want to see important systemic changes, but in their hearts most people suspect that any changes will only be window dressing," says Landis. "Nonetheless, they are being kept on the edge of their seats."

The rate at which reforms move this time around, analysts argue, may be the key to maintaining the legitimacy of the government and warding off further US pressure. Many believe that this is the last chance for their government to shape up and get the backing of their populace.

"Things have been going too slowly," says one government reformer and analyst.

"People are fed up with slogans," he adds, "but they will also not put up with military force from the outside. The worst thing that could happen now is if the Baath Party Congress results in gradual reform."

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