For Syria, `a long road' to reforms

Leader: Looking warily toward a hostile United States, President Bashar Assad says he hopes to bring needed changes.

May 14, 2004|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DAMASCUS, Syria - The warrior Saladin once ruled these lands, among a line of caliphs and kings, despotic and not, stretching back thousands of years. Today's potentate is President Bashar Assad, who wears a conservative blue business suit, apologizes for his English and wrestles with his embrace of history.

Assad, an ophthalmologist who inherited his dictatorship from his father, offers his guests a firm handshake, a warm smile and a chilled glass of fruit juice. He received visitors yesterday in his low-slung concrete and marble castle, perched on a hill. This is Syria's Palace of the People.

Here, Assad, 39 years old and president of Syria since June 2000, debates his future: Will he become the reformer who brings Syria into a modern world of democracy and freedom, or will he hold to the past, yet another regional tyrant? And how will a hostile United States, occupying neighboring Iraq, sway his fortunes?

"I never cared about my position," he said, offering assurances that someday he will place his job up for a vote. "Never. I would be very comfortable not being here."

As Assad spoke yesterday to a group of American journalists, he was hardly comfortable.

On Tuesday, President Bush ordered sanctions against Syria, punishing it for keeping troops in Lebanon and accusing Syria of pursuing weapons of mass destruction and undermining the United States in Iraq.

Syria's command-style economy is moribund, growing only about 3 percent a year, and it owes about $12 billion in Soviet-era debt. The country has an unemployment rate around 20 percent, according to economists, and a mid-level civil servant earns about $160 a month.

And always there is Iraq, next door, offering the example of its own dictator so easily dislodged by the United States.

Quest for understanding

At first, Assad is hesitant to be quoted on these issues by the American press - a dozen editors traveling under the auspices of the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins University.

His world and theirs have shown little understanding of each other, he suggests, alluding to the differences between computers, PC and Mac.

"You can use Word and Excel on each," he said, "but they don't understand each other."

But eventually he grows expansive, even startling his guests by suggesting that his father's regime applied martial law a little too heavily.

He will offer no reaction to the U.S. sanctions limiting trade and freezing some assets, he says, because he does not yet know what the effect will be. But he rejects the U.S. accusations.

Syria, he says, has not allowed foreign fighters to cross its border to attack Americans in Iraq.

"Since the war started in Iraq, we have been talking with the American administration about it," he said. "We have asked the Americans to give us one name, one passport. So far, we haven't received anything."

The border is long, he said, and Syria can seal it no better than the United States can seal its border with Mexico.

"We are waiting for evidence," he said.

As head of a country long accused of torturing opponents, he was critical but restrained when asked about his reaction to U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

"I cannot find words to express how I felt," he said. "It goes against what we know about the United States and Wilsonian principles, and against what the U.S. is saying about democracy. ...

"Is this the democracy of Abu Ghraib prison?"

His prisoners say that he has, in fact, made some improvements in Syria.

Riad al-Turk, who was imprisoned by Hafez el Assad, Bashar's father, and served 17 years in solitary confinement because he refused to renounce his political beliefs, was arrested again in September 2001.

"I would like to describe the prison as a five-star jail compared to prisons during his father's time," Turk said.

Turk says the current regime is far from secure, incurring the mostly silent resentment of a citizenry too terrified to protest oppression, lack of freedom and widespread corruption. Nothing will really change here, he says, until martial law is abolished and all political prisoners are released.

Though Assad enumerates a list of accomplishments - establishment of a private bank, private universities and a privately owned newspaper - he is not ready to retreat from martial law. The region is too unstable, he says.

"On the 27th of last month we had our first terrorist experience in 19 years," he said. "This is the result of the war in Iraq and other factors."

The incident has been something of a mystery. Four men encountered police near an empty United Nations office building near the Canadian Embassy. Fire was exchanged, and the men blasted the building with rocket-propelled grenades.

Two were killed, and the two survivors have been interrogated, Assad said, and will appear on television tomorrow to explain their actions.

"They're not part of any organization," he said. "They wanted to attack Western embassies, U.S. or British. This is hate. They want to kill."

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