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Syria's Unpredictable Storm

Democratization is buffeting the Assad regime.

June 07, 2005|David Hirst | David Hirst, the Guardian's Middle East correspondent from 1963 to 1997, is the author of "The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East" (Nation Books, 2003).

It could be that the Baath Party congress in Syria will turn out to be just an ordinary ritual of the Soviet-style, single-party government that has ruled that country for the last 42 years.

But the congress is attracting more than ordinary interest because of the anything-but-ordinary conditions in the region, as well as in Syria itself.

Indeed, these conditions present such a challenge to President Bashar Assad's regime that few outside it would dispute the judgment that it must reform or die. And a significant minority inside the regime might not dispute that analysis either.

The conference this week may clinch the all-important, and as-yet-unanswered, question of whether Assad is part of that minority.

Assad opened the congress by urging his party to ignore foreign pressure to reform, but he has in the past spoken of the need for a "significant leap forward" in Syria.

Whether he is merely paying lip service or is serious about reform, such rhetoric is a grudging response to the unprecedented external and internal "democratization" pressures to which this most stubbornly inflexible of regimes has been subjected.

America's hostility toward Damascus has clearly grown. It calls the Assad regime a "major disruptive force" in the region.

But it is still not clear whether all the Bush administration wants is changes in Syrian behavior or a full-scale regime change.

The Syrian people resent the U.S., but they may dislike their own government even more, believing that its time-honored "anti-imperialist" stance is empty rhetoric contradicted by a patent readiness to collaborate with the U.S. when it serves the regime's interests to do so.

So whether President Bush's crusade for freedom and democracy in the Middle East is just a cover for strategic -- and proIsraeli -- purposes with which they strongly disagree, it still appeals to Syrians who hankered for freedom long before Bush took up the cause on their behalf.

The Syrian opposition -- weak, persecuted, imprisoned and tortured as it still sometimes is -- knows that if it weren't for the close scrutiny of the regime's human rights record that has come with the West's deepening involvement in the region, their lot might be worse.

There would be little public regret if the regime did just fall apart. Yet few in the opposition really want it that way. They fear that with ethnic and sectarian tensions, civil war -- even another Iraq -- could occur.

Change, concedes dissident writer Louai Hussein, "must be born from the womb of the regime's leadership."

There is, indeed, talk within the system of meaningful reform, such as ending four decades of arbitrary and draconian "emergency laws."

But if Assad does intend to support reform, he faces formidable obstacles.

Whereas his father was absolute master of what he had built, the younger Assad often seems more like a prisoner of it.

Since he came to power, he has been torn between two courses: reform or reaction, liberalization or repression, reaching out to the people as his source of authority or falling back on his father's old guard.

With the Syrian army's withdrawal from Lebanon, Assad for once took a clear, essentially reformist decision -- at least on the fact of it.

But with the recent killing of an anti-Syrian journalist blamed locally on a still-active Lebanese-Syrian security apparatus, there are signs that old-guard apparatchiks are alive and kicking.

There also are signs that the regime may be functioning at cross purposes with itself domestically.

For one department to invite back exiled opposition figures was reformist in spirit, but then another department put the returnees in prison.

"A quiet and invisible storm is coursing through the leadership," commented the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat.

Can anyone master the storm? It's an important question for the whole region given Syria's traditionally central role as the "beating heart" of Arabism.

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