Syrians vote for a sense of security

President Bashar Assad quashes dissent, opens the economy, and wins Sunday's referendum for another seven-year term.

Tens of thousands gathered in here Umayyad Circle Sunday evening to celebrate the certain victory of President Bashar Assad in his second referendum as president of Syria.

Mr. Assad was the only candidate on the ballot. Nonetheless, the vote represents a real consolidation of power for the 41-year old former eye doctor, who was once seen as a political reformer. In fact, since Assad took over from his autocratic father, Hafiz, in 2000, he has taken a similar path.

"Seven years after taking power from his father, he's the strongman for sure," says Marwan Kabalan, an analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Damascus. "His strategy was to buy as much time as he could to outlast his enemies – and it's worked. He outlasted [French President] Jacques Chirac and he'll certainly outlast President Bush.

Officials who once challenged his authority have been replaced with loyalists. Pro-democracy advocates have been silenced by the government, and largely overlooked by a population that sees the sectarian violence in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon as the fruits of democracy.

"If I had to choose between elections and democracy and President Assad, I'd choose Assad right now," says one former political dissident, who asked to remain anonymous.

Assad has also won support at home, say analysts, from his defiant stance toward the Bush administration's deeply unpopular policies in the region and for bringing in much-needed economic reforms.

After the Iraq invasion of March 2003, there were serious concerns here that Damascus was next on the American military's radar.

The Bush Administration slapped limited economic sanctions on Syria in 2004 for its support of militant groups like Hizbullah and Hamas.

Under heavy pressure from the United States and France following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, which UN investigators suspect Damascus of perpetrating, Syrian troops were forced to withdraw their 29-year presence from Lebanon.

The pullout was a huge embarrassment for Assad. But over the last several months, Washington's efforts at isolating Assad have been mixed with a new diplomatic initiative as the US seeks help in tamping down Iraq's civil war. Syria is widely believed to be funneling Sunni militants into Iraq.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem held the highest-level talks between the two countries in years at an Iraq-stabilization conference in Egypt. A month earlier, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of Calif., and an entourage of US congressmen, had met with Assad.

"The general attitude here is that he [Assad] has been successful in his foreign policy – especially vis-à-vis the No. 1 power in the world," says George Jabbour, a former Baathist member of parliament here. "The Americans told us back in 2003 that we were to do this and that, but isolated we were not."

At a speech in late April, Assad displayed a newfound confidence. "In the east we see the resistant Iraq, in the west is the resistant Lebanon, and in the south we see the resistant Palestinian people … and we in Syria are not in the middle, but we are in the heart" of the resistance, he said to thousands of cheering spectators, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency.

Observers say the region's tumult has also played into boosting Assad's legitimacy at home. "This conflict in Iraq is sectarian and frightening enough, but Syria is even more diverse than Iraq," said Andrew Tabler, editor in chief of Syria Today, Syria's first English-language magazine. "Syria has its problems, but you don't get shot when you walk out of your house to the market."

Iraq spillover has been palpably felt here. Tensions have simmered with Syria's minority Kurdish population – a 300,000-strong community. And almost 2 million Iraqi refugees have fled here – most of whom are unemployed – fueling xenophobia and stress on a population who on average earn less than $2,000 a year.

Assad has deftly managed these crises by accelerating economic reforms, helping ordinary Syrians. "Syria had to grow up economically when the Lebanon crisis hit," Mr. Tabler says. "The government made changes to allow Syrians to bank in their own country. Assad brought in cheaper consumer products by dropping tariffs on cars and goods and legalizing foreign exchange bureaus."

Petrodollars from the Persian Gulf have since been pouring into real-estate projects. Shopping malls, once a luxury of Beirut, are springing up throughout Damascus. "He brought in so many changes that people think he's sincere about economic reform, which is a necessity," says Mr. Kabalan. "Syrians are saying that if there wasn't so much international pressure on him, he could have gone even further with other reforms."

Despite these reforms, political freedoms have regressed. Democracy advocates have been rounded up and jailed over the past year and handed down harsh prison sentences. A May 17 Human Rights Watch report called the recent spate of jailings "politically motivated" and urged the release of prominent government critics. Those who haven't been put jail have either fled or kept a low profile.

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