DAMASCUS - Syria took another step to propel Bashar Assad to the presidency yesterday as the ruling Baath Party opened a milestone conference with a display of strong power and hints of future change.
Assad sat expressionless among 1,200 delegates, hand on chin, as speaker after speaker praised his father, the late Hafez el Assad, and vowed to help their new leader follow in his footsteps.
But the conference also called for a stronger drive against corruption, a movement Bashar Assad is seen as sponsoring, as well as calls for more openness. There were even calls for a civil society and a free press from Communist members of the ruling coalition.
In a departure from his father's practice, the young Assad allowed cameramen from a variety of news outlets to film him, although he did not talk on camera.
"We salute the hope of the future ... Bashar Assad. We are with you, comrade, and behind you we will continue the march to express our commitment and loyalty to the path of [Hafez el Assad]," said Suleiman Qaddah, assistant secretary-general of the Baath party.
The underlying message from the conference was one of continuity of an all-powerful regime that is also willing to modernize itself.
The party congress, the first in 15 years, was planned in advance of Hafez el Assad's death June 10. It was intended as one of the key stages in preparing for Bashar Assad to succeed his father.
Assad, 34, had been expected to gain a key position in the party, a prerequisite for becoming president. But with his father's death, the party will not only make him its leader but also nominate him for the presidency.
Soon after the elder Assad's death was announced, Parliament named Bashar Assad commander of the armed forces. When it meets again June 25, or perhaps before, Parliament will set a date for a national referendum that will confirm him as president.
Foremost among the policies that yesterday's speakers vowed to continue was Hafez el Assad's demand for a complete Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Syrian territory before peace can be achieved.
Israel's insistence on keeping a small patch of land on the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee, which Syrians call Tiberia Lake, has led to the current impasse.
One analyst, Ibrahim Hamidi, Damascus correspondent for the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper, published in London, said he was struck by the call from a Communist leader, Youssef Faisal, for a fight against corruption.
Although the Communists are not important politically, "it was significant that it was said in front of the leadership," the regional command of the Baath Party, Hamidi said.
Hamidi said the "whole discourse" signaled a "more moderate, more realistic" ruling ideology.
But the meeting didn't go far enough to suit a dissident member of Parliament, Riad Seif. A harsh critic of the government, Seif has high hopes for Syria's future under Bashar Assad.
Watching the opening session on television, "today I did not feel well, but we cannot put it in the book of Bashar," Seif said. He described Bashar Assad as someone keen to reform Syria's state-encrusted economy and tackle corruption. Barring a big mistake, he said, Assad will manage to keep power.