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Syria Leader Looks Set to Stay the Course

At his Baath Party congress, Bashar Assad avoids mention of political change and calls technology a threat to the identity of Arabs.

June 07, 2005|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — Buffeted by criticism and demands for reform, Syrian President Bashar Assad opened his party congress Monday by sidestepping all mention of political change, pledging continued devotion to pan-Arab nationalism and calling modern technology a threat to Arab identity.

The 39-year-old president had touted this week's Baath Party gathering as a turning point for a nation under pressure. Analysts had predicted the sessions could lay the groundwork to ease emergency laws, remove obstacles to opposition parties, weed out some of Syria's aging functionaries and extend citizenship to thousands of stateless Kurds.

Yet only a few hints of change emerged Monday. Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam -- a stalwart of the "old guard" and a key backer of Syria's now-defunct political control over Lebanon -- reportedly announced his resignation. Assad did call for overhauling Syria's largely state-run economy.

But on the whole, Assad's brief speech made it plain that old Baathist principles would remain very much intact.

"We believe that the ideas and teachings of the party are still relevant and current and respond to the interests of the people and the nation," Assad told more than 1,200 Baath regional commanders. "Where their implementation has fallen short, it is individuals who bear responsibility, not the idea or ideology."

The three-day congress, the first of its kind in five years, is a forum for ruling party officials throughout the country to confer on Baathist policies. It comes at a time when Syria is staggering under massive international and domestic pressure.

In the last week alone, the regime has been accused of involvement in the killings of a prominent, reform-minded Kurdish imam and a celebrated Lebanese journalist. Suspicion about Syria's role in the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, along with several bombings that have rattled Beirut and its suburbs, also shadows Damascus.

Syrian officials have repeatedly denied involvement in the attacks, but Assad bowed to pressure and pulled Syrian soldiers out of Lebanon after Hariri's death, a move that cost his country significantly in regional clout.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been accusing Damascus of undermining stability in Iraq by allowing insurgents to use Syria as a transit point.

At home, Assad is weathering criticism from a persistent, albeit fractious, opposition movement.

"This month is make-or-break for the regime," said Ammar Abdel Hamid, an outspoken dissident. "After the [Lebanon] pullout, the only way for the regime to retain legitimacy was to produce something internally."

Changes from the ruling party conference won't be immediate or drastic; the meeting doesn't have the authority to change laws. It will provide marching orders to the Baathists who control Syria's government institutions -- and insight to a people who have seen their leaders chastised by foreign and local critics. In a bureaucracy as slow-moving as Syria's, the conference is about as dramatic as government gets.

Even before the withdrawal from Lebanon, Assad was quietly consolidating power by moving family members and close associates into key posts. Analysts predict he will use this week's conference to cut back on the Baath Party's regional command, downsizing a powerful cadre elected from the party ranks rather than appointed by Assad.

Assad, a seemingly reluctant ruler, inherited the presidency in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez Assad. He is expected to demote some of his father's cronies, with whom his relations are reportedly strained. His mention of corruption and individual responsibility Monday seemed to hint at a political purge.

Assad's tirade against technology came as a surprise. The president is a founder of the Syrian Computer Society, and one of his most prominent public projects has been the modernization of Internet services. On Monday, he described the Internet revolution as an enemy force.

Computers and technology, he said, had "overwhelmed Arabs and threatened their existence and cultural identity, which has increased the doubts and skepticism in the mind of young Arabs."

It was unclear whether Assad was heralding an impending online crackdown, but he described the Internet as nothing less than an existential threat.

"The ultimate objective of all this is the destruction of Arab identity, for the enemies of the Arab nation are opposed to our possessing any identity or upholding any creed that could protect our existence and cohesion," Assad said. "They simply aim at transforming us into a negative reactive mass which absorbs everything that is thrown at it."

Monday's meeting was the first party congress since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime fell in 2003, and the second since Assad took office.

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