Syria's 'Great Leap' Sideways

It's not over until Thursday, but Syria's Baath Party conference - billed by dictator Bashar al-Assad as a "great leap forward" for his country - looks so far to be a leap toward disappointment.

The young Assad, who portrays himself as a reformer, set the tone with a vague speech Monday that emphasized improving the state-controlled economy and tackling corruption - themes he's hit before, with little to show for it.

He largely sidestepped political reform, though the conference has on its agenda letting other political parties into the mix. But these must be non-religious, nonethnic parties, i.e. non-threatening ones to Baathists, dominated by the minority Alawites. Like Iraq, Syria has within its European-manufactured borders an explosive mix of religious and tribal interests, suppressed for now by the state.

Whatever specific steps may come from this party congress, deeds, rather than words, will prove their effectiveness. For since 2000, when Assad took over the presidency after his father's death, reform has been mostly cosmetic.

Today, Damascus features trendy eateries and Internet cafes. Cell-phones and satellite dishes hint at modernity, but also the difficulty of controlling information. Some private banks have opened, and hundreds of political prisoners have been freed.

But, but, but. An estimated 1,500 political prisoners remain jailed. Emergency law still rules. The Syrian security apparatus hasn't given up the assassination business, and is suspected in killing a popular Lebanese prime minister and a journalist. Neither has Syria relinquished its regional intimidation - testing missiles, allowing insurgents into Iraq, and harboring Palestinian terrorists.

To date, Assad's most meaningful "reform" has been withdrawing Syrian troops from neighboring Lebanon. But that was a move forced on him by the popular uprising next door - and international pressure.

It could be that reform can take hold only by forcing Assad's hand. And, because Syria's political elite are wed to the economic benefits of their power, it's perhaps economic pressure that will prove most effective.

US sanctions on Syria and its shrinking oil reserves are two such pressure points. But so are the increasingly independent-minded Lebanese, who may be less willing to grease the palms of Syrians, deeply embedded in the Lebanese economy.

In his speech, Assad assailed external pressures on Syria. But after five years, he has yet to prove himself capable of reform from within.

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