Syria introduces law allowing independent political parties

The bill, approved by the cabinet yet awaiting agreement from Syria's parliament, is the regime's latest concession to protesters. But it includes some restrictions that could limit its impact.

Jamal Saidi/Reuters
Syrians living in Lebanon hold posters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during a pro-government protest in Beirut on June 24. Pro-Syrian Lebanese parties and Syrians living in Lebanon held a demonstration on Saturday in support of Assad near the Syrian embassy in Beirut.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's cabinet yesterday approved a bill to allow independent political parties other than the Baath Party, which has ruled the country since 1963.

The draft law, which has been under consideration for many years, is due to be taken up by parliament Aug. 7. Its stated aim involves “enriching the political life, creating a new dynamic and allowing for a change in political power,” said the state-run news agency SANA.

The move is the latest in a number promises aimed at denting Syria's popular four-month uprising, which represents an unprecedented challenge to the 40-year Assad regime. But even if the law goes into effect soon, its impact is likely to be limited.

SANA reported that the bill prohibits parties founded on the basis of “religion, tribal affiliation, regions, and professional organizations as well as those which discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or color.”

Those restrictions suggest that Kurdish nationalist parties may not be recognized, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist party currently banned in Syria.

In addition, Article 8 of the constitution stipulates that the Baath Party is "the leading party in the society and the state." Protesters have demanded that the article be appealed, but so far it remains in place.

Assad's concessions ill-received

Since the uprising began in March, Assad has made some concessions, such as lifting the emergency law that granted the state draconian powers, forming a new government, sacking some unpopular local governors, releasing detainees, and canceling the National Security Court.

Protesters and their supporters say that the concessions are undermined by the continuing crackdown by the security forces against the largely peaceful and unarmed protesters.

When the uprising began, the protesters’ key demand was for reform rather than regime change. But the rising death toll, which so far has claimed some 1,500 lives, has hardened the resolve of the protesters, most of whom today seek to topple the regime altogether.

More than 120 soldiers have also reportedly been killed, although it is unclear whether they were killed by armed gangs and extremists, as the government says, or were shot by fellow soldiers for refusing to fire on protesters.

Debate about Assad's intentions

Between Assad and his father, Hafez, the family has run Syria since 1971. Ever since Assad took office in July 2000 upon the death of his father, diplomats, analysts, and journalists have been pondering and debating his true nature.

Is he the reformist-minded former eye doctor who wants to modernize his country but finds every avenue blocked by the corrupt vested interests in the regime? Or is he the hard-nosed autocrat whose grip on power is more important than introducing reforms?

Andrew Tabler, who studies Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues that Assad's tentative approach to governance has undermined his credibility, and thus the opposition is unlikely to trust his promises of reform.

“Assad’s track record indicates that he is not a decisive person but someone who is rather moody and contradicts himself all the time,” says Mr. Tabler. “And that has just devastated his credibility before his own people and the international community and anyone who has ever engaged with him.”

Tabler, who lived in Damascus between 2001 and 2009 and is author of the forthcoming “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s battle with Syria,” adds that Bashar’s father, Hafez, the notoriously crafty former president, would rarely make commitments.

“But when he did say something he would follow through with it,” Tabler says. “Bashar is not like that, and I don’t think anybody in Syria is going to believe him going forward.”

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