An evolving Syria tests boundaries of openness

Under new leader, words grow harsher as grip slowly eases

May 11, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DAMASCUS, Syria - Change has come subtly and slowly to Syria in the 10 months since Bashar el Assad ascended to the presidency after his father's death.

For example, democratically inclined citizens are still brought in for questioning, but now they are unlikely to be arrested or tortured.

As the country enters the world of the Internet and satellite television, it is cautiously starting to test the degree of openness an autocratic regime can tolerate.

"There is a feeling that the regime can't be as cruel as before," said Riad Seif, a member of parliament and leading political reformer.

But in some respects, Syria has adopted a harder line.

The attitude toward Israel is harsher, as was demonstrated last week during Pope John Paul II's visit to Syria. Uncompromising as was Hafez el Assad on terms for peace with Israel, Bashar has outdone his father in rhetoric, introducing a visceral bitterness to his criticism of the Jewish state.

Using the platforms of an Arab summit and his speech welcoming the pope, he has denounced the Israeli public as "more racist than the Nazis" and likened the killing of Palestinians to the persecution and death of Christ.

At the same time, Assad has reached out to his father's old Arab enemies, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, apparently hoping to assume an important role in a more unified Arab world.

Syria, part of the coalition against Hussein during the Persian Gulf war, now gets 150,000 barrels a day of cut-price oil from Iraq.

As Syria's relations with the United States become more difficult, Assad is opening up to Western Europe.

Syria has pulled away from its socialist, centrally controlled past and is moving haltingly into Arab and world markets. The Internet will soon be widely available, private banks will be allowed and state enterprises are adopting modern business practices, though such changes have yet to benefit the population - 20 percent of whom are unemployed.

Just 34 when he succeeded his father, Bashar el Assad came to power as a largely unknown quantity outside Syria. His enthusiasm for computers, impatience with government corruption and London schooling as an ophthalmologist summed up his profile.

Many wondered how long he would last in this secretive country dominated by an old guard of Baath Party officials, military commanders and a powerful domestic security apparatus. Some hoped for sweeping change.

The popular Assad is clearly in charge, Western diplomats say, but is working with the old guard rather than pushing it aside. These men are like uncles, one noted.

The Syrian leadership fears that the system it built over 30 years cannot go on, but "is scared of any reform or overhauling steps" that could produce unintended consequences, said Sadik J. al-Azm, a Syrian intellectual.

The result is that entrenched interests still hold sway over key government ministries, together with a government designed to preserve political control.

Well-placed government and military officials are said to have investments in companies that do business with the state. Decrees intended to improve the investment climate get trapped in the bureaucracy.

"The big fear of the military side is that, at some point, the merchant classes and business community will want to share in power," al-Azm said.

At Assad's urging, the Baath leadership approved the establishment of private banks, a stock market and the opening of private universities, along with reform of public-sector management.

But Nabil Sukkar, a business consultant, says it is premature to fully privatize the 40 percent of the economy still in state hands. Syria first must create a regulatory framework and plans for using surplus labor, he says, or the result would be more corruption and social problems.

The government is encouraging wide-ranging debate on economic reforms. More political debate is allowed, but the government is making sure it will not lead to political movements that threaten the regime. The fate of independent forums is a prime example.

In his inaugural, Assad encouraged "constructive" criticism and called for new ideas to fix economic problems and enable Syria to compete in the world economy. He spoke of democracy, but said the Western model is not right for Syria.

The government subsequently freed hundreds of political prisoners and granted permission for privately owned newspapers. In a newspaper interview, Assad suggested that new political parties might be possible

"The regime became more open for the first time," said Aref Dalilah, an economist and government critic. A privately owned newspaper has opened, and a faction of the Communist Party, part of the ruling National Front, will open its own soon.

Forums, or salons, began meeting privately in members' homes to discuss reforms. Beginning with a half-dozen in the capital, they soon proliferated around the country. At their peak, at the beginning of this year, their members numbered about 10,000, Dalilah said.

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