Middle East References
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Syria: Hussein's Fall Leads Syrians to Test Government Limits
Hussein�s Fall Leads Syrians to Test Government Limits

March 20, 2004
Hussein's Fall Leads Syrians to Test Government Limits
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR

AMASCUS, Syria, March 19 — A year ago, it would have been inconceivable for a citizen of Syria, run by the Baath Party of President Bashar al-Assad, to make a documentary film with the working title, "Fifteen Reasons Why I Hate the Baath."

Yet watching the overthrow of Saddam Hussein across the border in Iraq prompted Omar Amiralay to do just that. "It gave me the courage to do it," he said.

"When you see one of the two Baath parties broken, collapsing, you can only hope that it will be the turn of the Syrian Baath next," he added, having just completed the film, eventually called "A Flood in Baath Country," for a European arts channel. "The myth of having to live under despots for eternity collapsed."

When the Bush administration toppled the Baghdad government, it announced that it wanted to establish a democratic, free-market Iraq that would prove a contagious model for the region. The bloodshed there makes that a distant prospect, yet the very act of humiliating the worst Arab tyrant spawned a sort of "what if" process in Syria and across the region.

The Syrian Baath Party remains firmly in control, ruling through emergency laws that basically suspend all civil rights. The government says the laws are necessary as long as Israel occupies the Golan Heights, 40 miles from Damascus, and the two nations remain at war.

Yet subtle changes have begun, even if they amount to tiny fissures in a repressive state. Some Syrians are testing the limits, openly questioning government doctrine and challenging state oppression.

Syrians who oppose the government do so with some trepidation because it used ferocious violence in the past to silence any challenge. Yet the fall of Mr. Hussein changed something inside people.

"I think the image, the sense of terror, has evaporated," said Mr. Amiralay, the filmmaker.

On March 8, for instance, about 25 protesters demanding that repressive laws be lifted tried to demonstrate outside Parliament. Security forces squashed the sit-in as it started, but the event would have been unthinkable before the Iraq war.

People here do not know what previously locked doors they can push open, but they are trying to find out.

Take Mr. Amiralay. In 1970, he returned to Syria after a few years of graduate studies in Paris. Swept up in the pan-Arab nationalism spouted by Syrian leaders and enthralled with the economic development spurred by the Baath Party, his first documentary was a 16-minute, Soviet-style tribute to the Euphrates River dam that created Lake Assad.

Years later, he said, he wanted to atone, not least because many dams from that era developed dangerous cracks, and one burst in 2002 with disastrous results. He wanted to expose government propaganda for what it is.

His new film shows both elementary school students and teachers in Al Mashi, a tiny village 250 miles northeast of Damascus, shouting songs in praise of the president and endlessly mouthing Baath slogans. Their eyes dart about and their heads swivel periodically as they falter over a word, fearful they will be accused of diverting from the accepted vocabulary.

Mr. Amiralay said students raised with such an empty education would prove as unlikely to defend their system as the Iraqis. Virtually no one wants an American intervention here. But the problem in Syria and across the region, activists like Mr. Amiralay say, is that no Arab government allows its people real power to press for change. "Change is something effected by the palace, not the society," as he puts it.

Yet the changes here are also reflected in the words of Mahdi Dakhlalah, the 56-year-old editor of the official Baath newspaper. A bald, burly man, Mr. Dakhlalah sat recently in his sprawling office on the sixth floor of the kind of boxy, Stalinist buildings that house most government bureaus in Damascus, ticking off recent reforms.

Last month the government eliminated emergency economic courts, often used to jail opposition businessmen, he pointed out. It has allowed four private universities to open, and two private banks started accepting deposits in January, although they cannot deal in foreign exchange.

A number of experts believe that the young President Assad is searching for a way to make Syria more like Jordan or Egypt.

On the face of it, those countries have democratic institutions like a parliament and a fairly free press, but anyone who becomes too vocal in criticizing the man behind the palace walls gets a visit from the secret police.

Even the president's many supporters concede that change here comes at a glacial pace. Article 8 of the Constitution enshrines the central role of the Baath Party, but many see the government as fishing for ways to jettison that provision without seeming to respond to American pressure.

In December, the party mailed out complicated questionnaires to the 500,000 of its nearly two million members. It asked many ideological questions like, "Is democracy compatible with socialism?"

Critics, even some within the Baath, call the questionnaire evidence of everything backward about the party, too creaky to know how to change. "Who in their right mind believes anyone in the government is going to read 500,000 written responses?" a young party economist said.

Mr. Dakhlalah says, "The palace, those in authority, all want change, but the lower ranks do not."

The unanswerable question, of course, is how much the conversations in government offices or in the smoky, crowded cafes of downtown Damascus truly reflect sentiment among all 17 million Syrians.

Nor are these the first predictions of sweeping change in the region. In the early 1990's, when the Soviet Union and its satellites collapsed, many asked how long the Middle East police states modeled on them could last. The question once prompted a senior adviser to the President Hafez al-Assad — the late father of the current president — to throw a reporter out of his office. And in 2000, when the senior Mr. Assad died and his son took over, there were widespread predictions of a loosening. For a short while, there was a shift, but it did not last.

Senior Syrian officials react now with more tact if no less vehemence when anyone compares them to the Baath Party next door; the two parties broke apart in 1966. In both cases, the Baath served as the vehicle for a small minority to grab power: Sunni Muslims, many of them from Mr. Hussein's tribe, in Iraq, and Alawites in Syria. The palace and its competing secret police agencies ruled both countries, brooking no competition and maintaining a tight hand over the economy.

Here, Alawite domination of the secret police is such that a Syrian who falls afoul of them on the street will often switch to Alawite-accented Arabic in hopes of gaining some leniency.

Anwar al-Bounni, a 45-year-old human rights lawyer, also senses shifts rippling through the country. Sitting at his desk in Damascus one recent night, he was fielding calls from Kurds across northern Syria reporting deadly clashes with government forces. Violence in the Kurdish areas makes the government nervous, fearful that Iraq's problems are spilling across the border.

Mr. Bounni has defended several Kurds arrested in high-profile cases for demanding greater minority rights. He recently received two summonses on the same day — signing the small paper chits that arrived at his cramped, low-ceilinged office by special messenger — from Military Intelligence and State Security. Both are among some 11 overlapping secret police organizations that Syrians loathe and fear.

Yet even the police act somewhat differently now.

The visit to State Security went well — "friendly," Mr. Bounni called it, merely an hourlong conversation about contacts between the Human Rights Association in Syria and similar foreign groups.

Military Intelligence was different. On Day 1, he sat alone in a room for the entire day. On Day 2, he sat in the waiting room of a colonel, but no one spoke to him, and he got nothing to drink. On Day 3, the colonel summoned him into his office.

"He told me that I speak too harshly against the government, that they could put me in jail any time if I continued or could even resort to `other means,' " Mr. Bounni, a slight man with receding black hair who chain-smokes, said with a grin. "The officer kept telling me that the country is changing, that reforms are on the way and that I had to wait."

Previously, Mr. Bounni noted, he would have been taken directly to jail for publicly demanding real political parties, a free press, fair trials or other civil liberties. The arresting officers would also have probably knocked him around, not treated him with a certain offhand civility.

"If the regime left today, there would be no one to run this country," he said. "There has been no political life for 40 years," he added, noting that the chaos in Iraq is largely the result of a similar void.

Opposition groups have no platform — no access to television, radio or the newspapers — to address the public, so they spend their time petitioning the very government they want to change.

"We have to push them to allow the society to breathe, to make it more alive," he said.

The hallmarks of the old have ebbed, not disappeared. The Lawyers Syndicate of Damascus is seeking to disbar Mr. Bounni for helping to defend 10 prominent dissidents jailed in 2002. Government critics are often accused of being American agents.

When he sits alone for hour after hour in those interrogation rooms, fear creeps back.

"I think maybe some in the regime want to return to those days; they are not comfortable that people speak out," he said. "I think they know the game is finished, at least I hope it is finished."

Others, some from surprising quarters, say similar things. Talk of reform can even be heard from radical breakaway Palestinian factions, still based here despite government denials. Most of the Palestinian offices are shuttered, their leaders asked to remain silent or to move.

One still operating is the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestinian, which was removed from the State Department list of terrorist organizations in 1999.

Nayef Hawatmeh, the group's leader and a gray-haired contemporary of Yasir Arafat, holds court in a shabby basement office. The front has played a minor role in Palestinian politics and in the fighting with Israel in recent years, claiming responsibility for some small-scale shooting attacks. Mr. Hawatmeh criticizes suicide bombings inside Israel.

If the region is full of despots, he points out, it is because the West long supported them. In the case of the Palestinians, the United States bet completely on Mr. Arafat while allowing him to build yet another totalitarian system, rather than promising a democratic state that all Palestinians would have supported wholeheartedly.

The Palestinian violence would dwindle, Mr. Hawatmeh said, if the United States forced a specific end to the Israeli occupation. Then Mr. Hawatmeh, aging anti-imperialist, a man who has benefited from Syrian hospitality for years, edges perilously close to sounding like a Bush administration spokesman.

"The Iraqis can see what they are going to get, what they struggled for during all the time under Saddam," Mr. Hawatmeh said. "The Iraqi people can see that the American occupation is not forever and reform will come in time."


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