Syria: All Set for a Great Shuffle Forward?

DAMASCUS – As Syria’s Ba’ath Party gathers in Damascus to grapple with the issue of reforms, delegates may not have the luxury of quiet contemplation that the country’s president Bashar Assad urged on them during his opening speech on Monday.

While Assad warned delegates to the meeting of the so-called Regional Command of his "Arab Socialist" party to beware of outside influences, both the United States and the UN signaled that Syria may face an even rougher international environment than it has over the last 12 months.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy said after a meeting with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that there was "no doubt" in his mind that Syria was behind the murder of Lebanese former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in February. A UN team is investigating the murder and a formal linkage to Syria could cause a severe international reaction.

The UN had earlier announced that Terje Roed-Larsen, Annan’s envoy to oversee implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1559, was to leave immediately for a visit to Damascus. Resolution 1559 demands the departure of all foreign troops and intelligence personnel from Lebanon as well as the disarming of all militias. These clauses are mainly aimed against the Syrians and their allies in the Shia Hezbollah movement.

The reason for Larsen’s sudden mission is not known but there was concern in the United States over Hezbollah’s election win last Sunday in the south of Lebanon. In its wake, the party and its supporters said it had been a vote against disarmament.

Syria has been under increasing international pressure for the last several years. This mainly started after the young president Bashar Assad failed to deliver real reforms on both domestic and foreign policy issues. Bashar, who had pursued a part of his studies in the West, had been expected to be more flexible than his famously tough father Hafez, whom he succeeded in 2000.

When Syria actively opposed the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, relations between Damascus and the West deteriorated further. At least in the early stages of the war, Syria openly allowed fighters to cross from its territory to join the forces fighting the invasion.

Since then, the Americans have periodically accused Damascus of involvement in the insurgency in Iraq. The accusations range from continuing to allow fighters to cross, to allowing Iraqi Ba’athists to use Syria as a logistic and financial base.

The United States also accuses Syria of supporting militant Palestinian organizations that oppose negotiations with Israel. In 2004 the United States adopted the Syria accountability act that is aimed at stopping Syrian support for terrorist organizations The Bush administration has started to apply some of the sanctions against Syria under the act.

The UN adopted Security Council resolution 1559 last year after Damascus forced the Lebanese to change their constitution to allow the extension of the term of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud.

Rafiq Hariri, who was Lebanon’s prime minister at the time and opposed the move, resigned shortly after and was killed by a huge car bomb in Beirut Feb. 14 this year.

The Lebanese took to the streets in massive demonstrations, accusing Syria of the killing and demanding an end to the 29-year presence of Syrian troops in the country.

Damascus denied involvement, but under international and Lebanese pressure withdrew its forces in time for the beginning of the Lebanese general elections that started May 29 and will continue in four rounds until June 19.

This is the context in which the Ba’ath Party congress takes place. It has been in the works for a while, but the population first received direct confirmation of the meeting when Assad in his speech to parliament in March promised a "jump forward" on domestic issues at the congress now taking place.

Minister for expatriate affairs Buthayna Shaaban, who often acts as spokesperson for the government, said Monday that a "great leap forward" was possible.

But the population clearly is skeptical, with hardly anybody in Damascus bothering to watch Assad’s boilerplate opening speech. In March, people had stood outside shops and kiosks to watch the president’s speech.

In his speech to the congress, Assad warned against adopting changes under pressure from the outside – read the United States and Europe. "Any decision or motion from the party has to reflect internal needs and not damage our interests or our stability," he cautioned.

This was understood by some critics of his government to mean that changes such as democratic reforms, the opening up of society, and the ending of the Ba’ath hold over power would take place at a glacial pace at best.

Young and reform-minded Ba’athists say that the leadership will delay real political reforms in Syria for at least two years in order to allow Assad to run unopposed for a second term in 2007. But there may be some symbolic loosening of the tight reins that the party keeps on society. Party stalwarts are trying to shift the focus toward economic reforms, where more progress may be made.

The congress has been preceded by a series of arrests of political opponents, though some were released. Both Ba’ath members and dissidents deny a direct link between the detentions and congress.

"This is business as usual," said prominent human rights lawyer Haitham Maleh, who has defended many members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. He was skeptical that the Ba’ath can change itself from within. Even among some Ba’ath members, expectations are not very high.

"The Regional Command meeting is dominated by the same old faces. They elected themselves to participate," said Ayman Abdul Nour, who publishes an online bulletin on Syrian politics. He is young and reformist, and he is an active member of Ba’ath

Abdel Nour said that he and some of his reform-minded colleagues succeeded in getting at least a smattering of modernizers invited to the congress, notably the people who drew up the reports that are to be presented at the gathering.

These will deal with foreign and domestic politics, the economy, and administrative issues. In another sign of the determination of the regime to keep a tight grip on the agenda, Abdel Nour said that delegates were to be given the reports the night before the opening ceremony.

Firas Tlass, the businessman son of former defense minister Mustafa Tlass, said in his modern office on the outskirts of the capital that there was a "huge expectation" among the Syrian people of a "jump forward." There was "big corruption," he said, which was "economic and political" in nature. He predicted "huge change" on the economic front.

Tlass advocated better ties with the United States, saying that if there was any support for militants in Iraq, it should be stopped but that "you cannot find even 100 Syrians" who would cease the country’s support for Palestinian groups and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement that fight Israel.

Abdel Nour and Tlass, as young members of the party, both said they were in favor of multiparty elections and ending the Ba’ath monopoly on power. "Competition keeps you healthy," said Abdel Nour. "Without competition, you die."

He said he still believed in the party, but he hoped the congress would change its slogans to reflect democratic, free-market, and social justice ideals. Tlass expressed worries that a sudden and total freeing up of the political system would play into the hands of radical Islam.

For some, political reforms have already reached their limit. Mohammed Hallack, a lawyer who was elected to Parliament for the Ba’ath in 2003, said "the fruits of reform are not ripe yet."

The Ba’ath-led National Progressive Front, which dominates the largely powerless parliament and which is the only forum where party activity is tolerated, recently allowed the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party to join it. "The expansion of political participation has already taken place," said Hallack.

The congress that began Monday is expected to conclude Thursday.