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An evolving Syria tests boundaries of openness


DAMASCUS, Syria - Change has come subtly and slowly to Syria in the 10 months since Bashar el Assad ascended to the presidency after his father's death.

For example, democratically inclined citizens are still brought in for questioning, but now they are unlikely to be arrested or tortured.

As the country enters the world of the Internet and satellite television, it is cautiously starting to test the degree of openness an autocratic regime can tolerate.

"There is a feeling that the regime can't be as cruel as before," said Riad Seif, a member of parliament and leading political reformer.

But in some respects, Syria has adopted a harder line.

The attitude toward Israel is harsher, as was demonstrated last week during Pope John Paul II's visit to Syria. Uncompromising as was Hafez el Assad on terms for peace with Israel, Bashar has outdone his father in rhetoric, introducing a visceral bitterness to his criticism of the Jewish state.

Using the platforms of an Arab summit and his speech welcoming the pope, he has denounced the Israeli public as "more racist than the Nazis" and likened the killing of Palestinians to the persecution and death of Christ.

At the same time, Assad has reached out to his father's old Arab enemies, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, apparently hoping to assume an important role in a more unified Arab world.

Syria, part of the coalition against Hussein during the Persian Gulf war, now gets 150,000 barrels a day of cut-price oil from Iraq.

As Syria's relations with the United States become more difficult, Assad is opening up to Western Europe.

Syria has pulled away from its socialist, centrally controlled past and is moving haltingly into Arab and world markets. The Internet will soon be widely available, private banks will be allowed and state enterprises are adopting modern business practices, though such changes have yet to benefit the population - 20 percent of whom are unemployed.

Just 34 when he succeeded his father, Bashar el Assad came to power as a largely unknown quantity outside Syria. His enthusiasm for computers, impatience with government corruption and London schooling as an ophthalmologist summed up his profile.

Many wondered how long he would last in this secretive country dominated by an old guard of Baath Party officials, military commanders and a powerful domestic security apparatus. Some hoped for sweeping change.

The popular Assad is clearly in charge, Western diplomats say, but is working with the old guard rather than pushing it aside. These men are like uncles, one noted.

The Syrian leadership fears that the system it built over 30 years cannot go on, but "is scared of any reform or overhauling steps" that could produce unintended consequences, said Sadik J. al-Azm, a Syrian intellectual.

The result is that entrenched interests still hold sway over key government ministries, together with a government designed to preserve political control.

Well-placed government and military officials are said to have investments in companies that do business with the state. Decrees intended to improve the investment climate get trapped in the bureaucracy.

"The big fear of the military side is that, at some point, the merchant classes and business community will want to share in power," al-Azm said.

At Assad's urging, the Baath leadership approved the establishment of private banks, a stock market and the opening of private universities, along with reform of public-sector management.

But Nabil Sukkar, a business consultant, says it is premature to fully privatize the 40 percent of the economy still in state hands. Syria first must create a regulatory framework and plans for using surplus labor, he says, or the result would be more corruption and social problems.

The government is encouraging wide-ranging debate on economic reforms. More political debate is allowed, but the government is making sure it will not lead to political movements that threaten the regime. The fate of independent forums is a prime example.

In his inaugural, Assad encouraged "constructive" criticism and called for new ideas to fix economic problems and enable Syria to compete in the world economy. He spoke of democracy, but said the Western model is not right for Syria.

The government subsequently freed hundreds of political prisoners and granted permission for privately owned newspapers. In a newspaper interview, Assad suggested that new political parties might be possible

"The regime became more open for the first time," said Aref Dalilah, an economist and government critic. A privately owned newspaper has opened, and a faction of the Communist Party, part of the ruling National Front, will open its own soon.

Forums, or salons, began meeting privately in members' homes to discuss reforms. Beginning with a half-dozen in the capital, they soon proliferated around the country. At their peak, at the beginning of this year, their members numbered about 10,000, Dalilah said.

The groups drew a range of ideologies. Seif, who led one forum, advocates open markets and is prepared to accept peace with Israel if the Jewish state gives back the territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Attorney Habib Issa, the prime mover in another, is fiercely pan-Arab, anti-American and anti-Zionist, and argues that U.S. attempts at hegemony lie at the root of much of the region's suffering.

The groups were united, organizers say, in seeking greater democracy, human rights and a free press.

Seif says he took the forum idea a big step further in February, proposing a new political party, the Movement for Peace in Society. It was too much for the government. Soon after, he says, he was told by the speaker of parliament to shut down his forum. Seif refused.

"At the end of the week, they ... sent me to be questioned at the Ministry of Justice," he said.

Then the government ordered forums to submit topics of future meetings in advance, along with the names of lecturers and likely attendees, and required permission to hold the forums.

The requirements had a chilling effect on attendance. Meetings that had drawn 350 people now drew 70, and Seif says that some of those who attended were secret police.

But organizers did not give up. Issa's forum, called Jamal a-Tassi after a founder of the Baath Party, planned a meeting a month ago of some 20 forums to plan how to turn them into legally sanctioned bodies, eventually with their own headquarters.

Under pressure from authorities, the meeting was postponed until April 29. Then, shortly before it was to take place, authorities passed word through an intermediary to cancel it.

In the course of the crackdown, Seif says, a number of participants have been questioned. But in a break from the past, none has been arrested or tortured.

Khalil Ma'touk, a lawyer for human rights groups who started a forum, said he has been summoned by the secret police 20 times, but is usually offered tea while he is being questioned.

The old Assad regime knew few limits when it came to controlling dissent.

Sporadic acts of violence have occurred. Well-known novelist Nabil Suleiman was recently beaten by unknown assailants, and two Kurds involved in a forum were beaten by police. But Seif views these attacks as exceptions.

"The secret police want to stop any movement for democracy, but without noise," he said.

Under Hafez el Assad, suspected political opponents would disappear and be imprisoned for years.

"Assad was essentially a militarist," says a former adviser, Georges Jabbour. "A man with that sort of background is more likely to imprison [critics] than someone who was raised in a palace and studied medicine."

The forums are expected to resume, but under closer government scrutiny. And certain subjects remain off-limits in any discussion - the legitimacy of the Assad regime; open criticism of the army; and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism that could threaten the minority Alawites, including Assad, who hold the levers of power.

The forum movement is seen by some as a secular buffer between the Assad regime and the Islamists.

But it is highly unlikely that there will be public demonstrations in Syria in the near future. That, says Seif, would really cross a red line.

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