Hurdles ahead for Syrian reform

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad opened a highly anticipated three-day Baath Party Congress Monday.

When Bashar al-Assad in March vowed a "great leap forward" for Syria at the Baath Party Congress, many said the young president would finally display his reformist credentials.

Perhaps he would launch a market economy to the replace the moribund statist system. Or maybe he would free all political prisoners and allow exiles to return.

But after an address that lasted barely 10 minutes, reformers' hopes were dashed.

President Assad steered clear of specifying any broad and imminent reforms that could help lower international pressure and appease rising domestic frustration. He told some 1,250 delegates that they should reform the economy and tackle corruption, but he avoided typical rants against Israel and the United States.

"The economic situation and improving living standards represent a priority for us," he said.

For the six Syrian opposition activists - a group of middle-aged businessmen, engineers, and former Army officers - who had gathered in a smoke-filled office to watch the speech live on television, Assad's address was disappointing.

"The president has no vision ... and said nothing about the suffering of the Syrian people," says one man, who, like his peers, declined to be named. "I'm not optimistic that this Congress will produce anything."

Under pressure internationally and at home, Assad said in March that the Congress, the first in five years, would be a "great leap forward" for Syria. That remark fueled expectation among the increasingly disillusioned Syrians that he would use the three-day assembly to prove that he is a reformist at heart.

But other figures have played down its impact. Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa told a European delegation last week that expectations should be "neither high nor low but realistic."

Flanked by gray-haired party officials, Syria's president looked out of place as the aging delegates took to the rostrum. The Congress delegates greeted each speech with polite applause; the opposition activists watching on TV reacted with catcalls.

"This is not a Congress; it's a game, a movie," says one man.

"I have seen two people [among the delegates] asleep already," says a man in a light green suit, to loud laughter.

"I think we need to get our blankets ready - we are all going to go to prison," jokes another, to even louder laughter.

Despite dampened hopes of meaningful changes, the delegates to the Congress are debating four reports recommending reforms in foreign policy, domestic policy, the economy, and the Baath Party.

The Baath Party's pan-Arab ideology, which regards the Arab world as one nation, is likely to diminish in favor of a more overt Syrian nationalism. For example, the Regional Command of the Baath Party, which refers to Syria, is expected to be renamed the Syrian Command. It will be reduced in size from 21 to 15 seats and its current membership replaced. The Baath Party's National Command, which covers the entire Arab world, may be abolished, as it has not met in 20 years.

Other political parties are permitted to join the ruling National Progressive Front (NPF), an alliance of socialist parties headed by the Baath, so long as they are not based on ethnicity or religion.

That would exclude the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist party which remains banned in Syria and membership in which is punishable by death. Indeed, in May, several leading opposition activists were jailed briefly for publicly reading out a statement from the exiled head of the Muslim Brotherhood. But other past enemies of the Baath are being allowed to join the NPF, including the Syrian Social Nationalist Party which has been banned in Syria since 1955. Analysts say that by broadening participation in the NPF to anti-Western Arab nationalist parties, President Assad is attempting to bolster his domestic position against unstinting pressure from the United States.

"This is a show of national unity for the people, says Joshua Landis, a history professor and Syria specialist living in Damascus. "Bashar is showing them that they are all in the same trench."

Still, some key demands of the Syrian opposition are not expected to be answered. They include repealing Article 8 of the Constitution, which defines the Baath Party as the leader of state and society. The Emergency Law, effectively martial law in place since 1963, is not expected to end, although it may become more focused on national security.

"These people are only capable of delivering disappointment," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian social analyst and coordinator of the Tharwa project, which seeks to raise awareness of minority groups in the Middle East.

But reformists within the Baath Party say that the Congress is an important first step.

"The Congress is not the final step after which Syria will sleep," says Ayman Abdel-Nour, a Baath Party reformist and editor of the influential All4Syria Internet newsletter. "It's a major step, but the process of modernizing will continue."

Indeed, whatever reformist measures the Congress decides upon will be in no small part due to an unprecedented lobbying campaign undertaken by the irrepressible Baathist reformer.

Although party reformists wrote the reports which are being discussed at the Congress, none of them were elected by the Baath Party to attend the event.

"If the members of the Congress wanted to discuss or ask any questions about the reports, who would answer them?" Mr. Abdel-Nour says.

Abdel-Nour used his newsletter to distribute a petition demanding their inclusion in the Congress. He secured just under a thousand names of prominent party members - a figure, he says, that would have been considerably higher if more Baathists used the Internet and had e-mail addresses.

"We published every day the list and they [the authorities] realized that the people signing were not just taxi drivers. They were important people, so they had to respond," he says. By the end of the campaign, the Baath Party had grudgingly accepted 150 reformist delegates, including women, intellectuals, economists, and law professors.

This experience shows the Baath Party can reform, he says, "but first we must have reformers."

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