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Divisions Stymie Reform in Syria

Mideast: A year after the death of his ironfisted father, the new president struggles to exert control.

July 17, 2001|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAMASCUS, Syria — It was broad daylight on a crowded Damascus street, Nizar Nayyouf says, when police yanked him out of a car, threw a sack over his head and whisked him away.

Even in a country where thousands have been imprisoned and tortured for their political views, the recent charges of a prominent human rights activist have caused problems for the Syrian regime.

The government insists that the abduction never took place. But the allegation that security forces acted on their own--and released Nayyouf only after a belated order from the top--has gained widespread credibility here, fueling a perception that fledgling President Bashar Assad is not yet firmly in control.

"Syria now is a decapitated state," said Dr. A. Samir Altaqi, a former member of parliament and an outspoken critic of the regime. "We have no leader. The old is dying, but the new is not yet born."

A year after the death of ironfisted President Hafez Assad, Syria remains very much in transition as the late leader's 35-year-old son tries to consolidate power.

Despite great expectations that the new president would move quickly to advance social, political and economic reforms, the kind of change he first talked about has been stymied by powerful people who became rich and privileged under the existing system. In fact, many Syrians say endemic corruption has gotten worse since the younger Assad became president.

Various Powers Pursue Their Own Agendas

Many analysts here say the reports of Nayyouf's June abduction have reinforced the belief that Dr. Bashar--as he is called here--is struggling to control independent elements of the political system his father created.

And so while all parties here acknowledge a desperate need for economic reform--if nothing else--no single force is leading the way. Instead, divided centers of power are pursuing individual interests, exacerbating the country's problems with corruption.

"The president now is equal among others--he is no longer the center of the system, no longer the person who holds the power," said Michel Kilo, a prominent civil rights activist and scholar. "Now we have centers of power."

The president's supporters say he is taking a measured approach, trying to reform the country without disturbing the entrenched institutions, including the security services. They say he fears that a quick move could spur a political or fiscal crisis similar to the one that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that he is eager to preserve the best elements of the old system while moving the country toward prosperity.

"We want to modernize and become part of the global economy," said Walid Tish, a member of the ruling Baath Party and a strong supporter of the regime. "The president is our great hope in dealing with all the challenges that Syria is facing."

Bashar Assad is the accidental president. His older brother, Basil, a swashbuckling military officer, was supposed to succeed their father. But Basil died in 1994 in a car accident, and Bashar, an ophthalmologist, found himself next in line.

Upon taking power, Assad did not lay out a Western vision of reform. He adopted his father's foreign policy wholesale and has tried to preserve the tightly controlled political system. But he did speak of the need to overhaul a moribund economy and allow opposition forces some room to speak without fear of imprisonment.

Most of all, he recognized the need to combat corruption, which has infiltrated every aspect of public and private life. By one estimate, the price of each retail product sold here is inflated by 18% to cover corruption-related costs.

"Inefficient administration is today the greatest impediment standing in the way of our march toward improved development," Assad has said. "There is no escape from bringing the careless, the corrupt and the evildoers to justice."

Even before taking office, Assad headed a high-profile anti-corruption campaign that sent a deputy prime minister and a transport minister to prison. After his ascension, he released hundreds of political prisoners and closed one of the country's most infamous prisons. He allowed a newspaper not aligned with the ruling party to open. He even permitted public gatherings of the politically minded, something unheard of under his father.

Now people aren't sure if those actions were part of a sincere effort at reform or cosmetic changes intended to relieve pressure in a frustrated society. In either case, most of the public gatherings have since been stopped, the independent newspaper reportedly has ties to the intelligence community, and the secret police are everywhere.

Assad did succeed in allowing greater freedom of speech, but people remain so afraid of arrest that they routinely stick their mobile phones under pillows or leave them in other rooms out of fear the devices are being used for eavesdropping.

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