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Nationalism Mixes With Dissatisfaction in the Streets of Syria

November 03, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — Perched in an old city cafe scented with apple-flavored tobacco, unemployed lawyer Mohammed Kroma ran through a list of the West's criticisms of his government.

First it was the U.S. alleging that Syria wasn't doing enough to stop insurgents from crossing into Iraq. Now it's the United Nations, threatening possible sanctions if the country doesn't cooperate fully with an inquiry on the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

"Why does the West threaten sanctions on us?" Kroma asked. "We are trying to cooperate on Iraq and other things."

But after offering his defense of President Bashar Assad's regime, Kroma opened up with what was once unspeakable: his own complaints.

"The biggest problem in Syria is not Hariri but nepotism," Kroma said. "I'm a university graduate with a law school degree. But I didn't get a job because it went to a person with family connections. That's how this country works, and it has to change."

The U.N. inquiry into the February assassination of Hariri has spurred a spasm of nationalism against what many here view as Western aggression. But it has also spurred Syrians to voice increasing dissatisfaction with Assad's stalled reforms.

Within Damascus' old city walls, Syrians are asking why Assad is risking further international isolation and why he has not purged his regime of hard-liners who have slowed modernization and stifled the economy. The nation is operating these days on a complex psychology of supporting the president against foreign condemnation, but quietly chastising him at home.

Anwar Hamouda, a university student, even pondered replacing Assad: "If we don't like the president it's for us to change him, not Washington. He's ours. And, yes, I'm unhappy with the president for the slow pace of change in this country."

Such criticisms are tame by Western standards, but in a nation where phones are tapped and opposition figures tailed by intelligence agents, these sentiments would not have been openly voiced or tolerated five years ago. They point to a rising frustration among young, educated Syrians with Assad, who they hoped would lead them away from a Cold War-era mind-set and toward globalization.

Raised to be a doctor not a statesman, Assad took over Syria's presidency in 2000 after the death of his autocratic father, Hafez Assad, who had ruled for 30 years. Bashar Assad began a slight democratic opening, bringing younger professionals into the government and offering a bit more tolerance of free expression. Some old-guard Baath Party loyalists were fired, but the legacy of Assad's father proved tough to shake, even as the government failed to adjust to drastically altered regional politics after Sept. 11.

The regime, accustomed to corruption that benefits an intricate weave of Assad's relatives, has resisted reforms, and the government has hardened amid domestic and foreign crises, including Damascus' dwindling oil exports and the chaos in Iraq. Assad continues to push his father's brand of pan-Arab nationalism.

"Syria has lost some of its prestige in the Arab world," said Hamdan Hamdan, a Syrian-based writer and political analyst. "The regime has grown incompetent and lacks the diplomatic skills Damascus once had. The son is a doctor who likes antique cars. He doesn't have the clout of his father.

"The international community told Bashar Assad to leave Lebanon, and Syria pulled its troops out," he added. "Then he put 15,000 soldiers on the Iraqi border to stop insurgents from entering Iraq. But his regime never gets rewards from the West for these concessions."

As for Hariri's death, Assad's government has maintained that it was not involved. But questions have grown since an initial report by U.N. investigators last month described an August 2004 encounter in which Assad allegedly threatened Hariri. Investigators suspect that three of Assad's relatives, including Gen. Asef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law and head of Syrian military intelligence, planned the bombing.

A possible motive, according to the U.N., was Hariri's opposition to Syria's long-standing meddling in Lebanese politics.

A final U.N. report is due Dec. 15, and analysts say Assad faces critical decisions before then.

Some observers believe the current atmosphere gives Assad the latitude to remove shady officials, including relatives, who are jeopardizing the country while failing to improve an economy with more than 20% unemployment and skittish foreign investment.

A reshuffling of Cabinet and intelligence officials would "win Assad immediate domestic and international support," Patrick Seale, a Middle East analyst, wrote recently in the Daily Star in Beirut. "But to manage a crisis of such unprecedented proportions, Assad would need to display unusual qualities of courage and political acumen. This is the most difficult moment in the president's career."

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