As reform falters, Syrian elite tighten grip

Confidence in President Bashar al-Assad has dropped as familiar players amass more power

When Mohammed Naji al-Otari was sentenced to several months in prison for corruption in the mid-1980s, most residents of this city in northern Syria assumed that his political career was over.

They were wrong. Last week, Mr. Otari was appointed prime minister of a new government in Damascus, pledging to stamp out the rampant corruption that continues to stifle economic growth and hamper much sought-after political reforms.

Otari's appointment and the composition of his 31-member cabinet - which proportionately contains more members of the ruling Baath Party than the previous government - has come as a blow to reformers and Syrian human rights activists as well as ordinary Syrians. There is a palpable sense of disillusionment here as hopes of tangible political and economic reform fail to materialize. Faith in Bashar al-Assad, Syria's youthful president, is being replaced by a sullen resentment at his apparent inability to curb the excesses of the powerful and super-rich clique of regime leaders.

Although there is little prospect of significant domestic instability in the near future, cracks in the 40-year-old Baathist edifice are beginning to appear. And analysts, economists, and diplomats believe that unless a concerted effort is made to usher in a genuine and effective reform program, the country could be heading for serious trouble in the long run.

"The mood is getting desperate and hope is going down," says a political analyst and onetime supporter of President Assad. "Eventually this is going to blow up in our faces if we don't attend to our domestic problems."

The current mood is very different from the one that greeted Assad when he succeeded his father, Hafez, as president in July 2000. Many Syrians believed that a new era of political reform, economic growth, and civil society was about to dawn. Political discussion groups - known as salons - emerged, providing venues for free speech and political discourse. But the regime soon developed cold feet, disbanding the salons and arresting some opposition activists. Suddenly, "economic reform" became the slogan. The political reforms would follow, the regime said, once the economy had been knocked into shape.

Although some economic measures were adopted - such as permitting the creation of private universities and private banks - investors continue to shy away and the economy has failed to move beyond a paltry growth rate of around 3 percent per year.

"We should be growing by 6 to 7 percent a year if there was clarity of vision and a proper reform program," says Nabil Sukkar, a former economist at the World Bank who runs a think tank in Damascus.

Bouthaina Shaaban, the minister of expatriates in the new government, admits that much needs to be done, but denies that the reform program has stagnated.

"There has been great progress in economic and political reform, but perhaps not in the usual way," she says. "Reform is taking place in the ministries and [government] institutions. We are trying to restructure ministries and bring in qualified and transparent people who will respond to the vision of a modern Syria. We have very urgent work to do to strengthen and enhance administrative reform."

But opposition activists say they are unimpressed.

"We hoped for political reform, we were promised economic reform and now they talk about administrative reform after three years of failure in economic reform," says Raja an-Nasr, a lawyer in Aleppo and a member of the opposition Democratic Party Assembly. "The government has it the wrong way around. Without political reform there can be no economic and administrative reform," he says.

Mr. Nasr was one of 20 activists arrested last month in Aleppo for holding illegal political gatherings. He and his colleagues are due to appear before a military court next month on charges of belonging to a secret organization and undermining national unity. If convicted, they face a jail term of six months to three years.

"None of us are afraid of going to prison," Nasr says. "When we started our campaign we knew that we could end up in prison."

Three years after the death of the redoubtable Hafez al-Assad, fear of the regime is beginning to fade as resentment builds. People are more willing to criticize the regime in public, a slight lowering of the voice the only concession to the pervasive mukhabarat, or secret police. And there are other subtle signals that suggest the state's steely grip is weakening. Syria's maligned and marginalized Kurdish population has boycotted parliamentary and regional elections in the past year, an unthinkable gesture during Hafez al-Assad's day.

There is also growing bitterness toward the "nouveau riche," Baath Party apparatchiks who have amassed fortunes in the past three decades, often in illicit businesses such as drug smuggling and usually at the expense of the traditional Sunni Muslim merchant classes in cities like Aleppo. Even the Alawite community - the minority Muslim sect to which the Assad family belongs - is beginning to show signs of discord according to analysts and diplomats here. Hafez al-Assad always ensured that positions of influence in the regime were apportioned equitably among the various Alawite clans.

Since his death, however, power and influence have become centralized within the Assad clan.

Even the military and intelligence services are not the formidable entities they once were - Syrian Army officers can sometimes be found moonlighting as taxi drivers.

"The elements that held the state together are not there anymore," says a diplomat in Damascus. "The security services are eroding, the climate of fear is eroding, discipline in the Army is eroding."

The question everyone asks but no one can answer is whether Assad is a genuine reformist whose ambitions are thwarted by influential members of his family and the regime or is cast from the same uncompromising dictatorial mold as his father. In fact, it is probably a bit of both.

"He probably would like to see the economic performance improve, and I believe he genuinely wants to see a modern Syria. But I am not sure at all that he wants to implement reforms that will weaken his grip on power," the diplomat says.

And it is that apparent contradiction that some analysts believe spells trouble for the future.

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