Wednesday, July 21, 2004

A Spate of articles bemoaning the lack of reform in Syria have been generated to greet the President's fourth anniversary in power. Their are several objects of blame. First is the standby "old Guard" - the monied interests which stand to lose the most from free competition and rational laws that create a level playing field for capital.
President Bashar is second on the list. No one credits him with having enough power to really be an effective engine of change. He's too young, too inexperienced, too complicit in the old system, and fears losing his thrown. These are the standard gripes.
Also, the Americans get part of the blame. Their ham fisted sanctions and threats have scared reformers from rocking the boat too hard in the face of "the threat to the nation from the outside." Everyone in power is anxious lest they create unrest by pushing through economic reforms that are sure to hurt state employees and beneficiaries of subsidized goods, cheap apartments, etc.
The war on Iraq has created instability and fear in the region. Increasing terrorism, Islamic radicalism and anti-western sentiment in general. This atmosphere of suspicion makes it hard for globalizers to argue, "trust the West," "love democracy," and "put your hand in the hand of the man who kicks Arab butt."
Then there is the new generation, which is apathetic and more interested in their cell phones rather than risking body and soul in politics. It usually comes in for a hit or two in most articles.
The following is a typical analysis

DAMASCUS, July 15 (AFP) - Four years after President Bashar al-Assad took power -- July 17, 2000 -- and pledged to bring change, Syria presents an elusive picture of incomplete economic reform and a paralysed political climate, analysts say.

"The current climate reflects serious threats as the Americans increase their pressure. This should encourage the authorities to adopt democratic reforms," dissident writer and political activist Akram Bunni told AFP. The past few months have seen a deterioration in relations between Syria and the United States, with Washington in May imposing sanctions on Damascus who it accused of supporting terrorism, a charge strongly denied here.

In addition, an association agreement between Syria and the European Union, which should have been signed early this year, has been frozen while waiting a compromise over a clause about weapons of mass destruction.

Internally in recent months, clashes and arrests have increased involving security forces and human rights activists, students and even minors, according to non-governmental organisations. In May, Aktham Naysseh, president of the Committees for the Defence of Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms in Syria, was arrested after seeking signatures for a petition urging the abolition of the emergency law, in place since 1963.

The restrictions on political activity, with unofficial political parties apparently being banned recently, come amid growing tensions in the Middle East linked to the continuing violence in Iraq and US pressures. Even the pro-regime communist party is dissatisfied with the progress. "Debate is developing, hundreds of political detainees were freed (in recent years), special economic courts have been repealed (in February), but (reform) accomplishments remain rare," acknowledged the communist newspaper An-Nur.

Economist Nabil Soukkar also charged that reforms to free up the economy "remain slow and lack coherence", and he urged the government to adopt a broader plan to ward off the effects of an expected "major decrease" in oil production in 2008. The anticipated fall in the output of oil, which accounts for 70 percent of national revenues, will have a negative impact on the whole economy, he said. He argued that the banking sector will remain ineffective -- despite the recent creation of private banks to boost banking services and encourage investment -- in the absence of more monetary and financial liberalisation.

The increasing external pressure on Damascus has found a parallel internally. In mid-March, clashes between Syria's Kurdish community and security forces in the northeast, resulted in the deaths of at least 25 people over six days. Kurdish groups said the authorities also detained about 2,000 people although several hundred were subsequently released. The clashes "served as a pretext for the security forces to tighten their grip on society", said Bunni, a former political detainee who has spent 17 years in prison. Last month, to stop a planned sit-in by demonstrators, security forces mobilised thousands of their forces.

The main visible ray of light appears to be a new generation of public figures considered close the president who, like him, were educated in the West and are not affiliated with the ruling Baath party.  They include Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, the head of the state planning commission, Abdullah Dardari, presidential advisor Nibras Fadel, and Duraid Dargham, head of the government-run Commercial Bank of Syria.

Their emergence is a sign of a "new spirit, not bureaucratic and not corrupt," Syrian journalist Shaaban Abbud recently wrote in Lebanon's An-Nahar newspaper. However, he warned that "it is very difficult to know who in Syria represents the reformist line, how many they number and their influence. "It is even more difficult to know if these people will keep their jobs."

Jihad Yaziji as always is smart. He explains why Syria's attempt to following the China model is a bust.

Since the arrival to the Presidency of Bashar al-Assad, in July 2000, and until around a few months ago, the Chinese model of economic reform and political non-reform was praised as being the ideal template Syria should apply for itself.
Many in Syria dreamt of leading the country to high rates of economic growth without giving away their hold on power. Debates on the Chinese model are now almost completely absent, a sign that the Syrian authorities have at last realized that this model simply won't be applicable because the two countries differ in so many aspects (size, potential, geo-strategic position, etc.).

Magdi Abdelhadi writing for the BBC starts his article: "After four years of Bashar al-Assad's presidency in Syria, his promises of economic and political reform have not materialised. The system he inherited from his father, including a feared security service, looks very much the same. "

Ammar Abdulhamid, a careful observer of the Syrian scene and head of the al-Tharwa Project writes:

Four years after the (s)election of a new and young president, one that clearly promised change in his first public addresses, no major change has yet taking place in the country. Moreover, public pressure for change and for the enunciation of some clear public vision in this regard, a pressure exerted by civil society advocates in the country during the first year of the new president's reign, were unashamedly stamped out, leaving no room for public accountability on anything.

The people of Syria were expected to fallback on a blind belief in the presumed good intentions of their new leaders without there being any clear commitments by these leaders to any specific reform program. As a result, four years have so far passed but no real change in any field has taken place.

Meanwhile, the various security apparatuses of the country are rediscovering old habits of crackdown and torture, using the Kurdish riots that have rocked the country a few months ago as an excuse.The wave of panic that overtook the country in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of neighboring Iraq and the various bellicose pronouncements made towards the Syrian regime at the time by high-ranking US officials seems to have dissipated now, leaving behind the same stagnant scene that spelled the essence of the country for years. Such is the volume of inertia involved here.

The Khaleej Times article starts, "Four years after Assad took over, economic and political climate paralysed in Syria."

Middle East Online leads their story with "Four years on, What has Assad achieved?
 Syrian President's vision of reform still struggles to emerge amid increasing external pressure on Damascus. "


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