Middle East References
April 11, 2004
Syrians Test Limits Of Political Dissent (washingtonpost.com)
Syrians Test Limits Of Political Dissent (washingtonpost.com)
Assad's Government Talks of Reform
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 11, 2004; Page A23

DAMASCUS, Syria -- "I smell the odor of corruption."

That was the opening line in a recent story in the official Syrian newspaper al-Thawra that detailed the handling of a health crisis over contaminated water in the far northeastern town of al-Hassaka.

In other times, in other countries, such an exposé of local malfeasance would hardly raise a storm. But the harsh and open critique was so unusual in authoritarian Syria that it set off a tumultuous chain of events. A central government representative tried to get Yunis Khalef, the reporter who wrote the story, fired. Police visited his house after midnight. He fled to Damascus. Another newspaper rushed to defend the journalist, who was fired from al-Thawra, then reinstated.

The incident was one sign that Syrians are openly challenging the tight restrictions that have ruled public life. While the government seems conflicted over how to respond, President Bashar Assad's Baath Party, which has a monopoly on power here, is starting to talk about reforming itself.

Political dissent is still dangerous in Syria, and speaking out is far from routine. Last month, a human rights group reported that a military court had sentenced 14 democracy activists to jail terms of up to one year. The activists were charged with belonging to an "underground organization," said Aktham Naisse, who heads the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria.

Naisse told the Associated Press that the men had been detained last August just before a meeting to discuss political reforms. "The sentences are evidence that the Syrian authorities do not respect human rights," he said.

"At best, there is confusion," said Waddah Abd Rabbo, editor of the Economy newspaper, one of a pair of independent news outlets permitted by the government. "The problem is that there is no program that lets Syrians know what the country is going to be, what kind of economic or political system we are really going to have. No one can plan. So people are testing and others are trying to restrain change." The Economy took up the al-Hassaka case and defended the al-Thawra journalist.

"There is no conviction that we even need political reform," said Nabil Sukkar, a private consultant and former World Bank official.

Several protests have been staged recently. A group of demonstrators held a sit-in at the People's Assembly in early March to demand freedom for political prisoners and to promote a petition aimed at ending emergency laws that effectively obstruct dissent. Police stepped in and arrested several participants, including three journalists and a U.S. Embassy official who were observing the protest. They were all released after a few hours.

Despite the arrests, activists said they considered their ability to hold the demonstration in the first place something of a landmark victory.

"As activists, we were able to send a clear message to the Syrian street and to international public opinion that we are serious about our demands," Naisse said. "Sooner or later our hopes and aspirations will be fulfilled."

Shortly after the protest in Damascus, a riot broke out at a soccer match in the northern city of Al Qamishli, pitting Syrian Arabs against ethnic Kurds. The riot offered new opportunities for dissent. The Syrian Arabs chanted "Long live Saddam Hussein," and the Kurds responded by shouting praise for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel, Syria's arch-enemy, and waving both Kurdish and American flags. Kurdish rioters then burned several Syrian government buildings.

Clashes between Kurds and Syrian security forces then spread to other cities, including Damascus, and became an outlet for pent-up Kurdish demands for equal rights. About 1 million Kurds hold Syrian citizenship and another 300,000 are refugees, most of them from Turkey. In all, about 24 people died in the unrest, according to reports from human rights groups and foreign media.

Syrian officials asserted that provocateurs from Kurdish regions of northern Iraq incited the riots. Al-Thawra spoke darkly of "foreign pressures" -- code for the United States -- designed to destabilize Syria.

A heavy police presence in Kurdish neighborhoods and pleas by Kurdish groups eventually calmed the situation. The complaints, however, continued. "Kurdish aspirations are ignored," said Salah Barwari, an official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an Iraqi party that has administered part of northern Iraq under U.S. protection since the early 1990s, and now is represented on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. The group has maintained an office for many years in Syria. Barwari said that Syrian Kurds want citizenship for refugees, equal job opportunities and recognition of Kurds as a distinct nationality.

Barwari acknowledged that the Kurdish drive for autonomy in Iraq has had an emotional impact on Syrian Kurds. "The situation in Iraqi Kurdistan has given Syrian Kurds the strength to demand the same," he said.

The Syrian government has dabbled with political and economic reform since the death in 2000 of President Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades. He was succeeded by Bashar Assad, his son, who raised expectations that the generational change in Syria's leadership would translate into political and economic change.

But the government has responded inconsistently to calls for reform. Long-announced moves to liberalize the economy have unfolded slowly. Assad has permitted operations by a pair of foreign-owned banks, and has eliminated a secretive economic court that tried corruption cases but was widely regarded as a means of maintaining control over the economy. Internet access is allowed, although some Web sites, such as Yahoo and the Hotmail e-mail service, are blocked.

"Just for economic change, we need open debate, we need accountability. And we don't have it," said Sukkar, the private consultant.

The government is now trumpeting reform within the 1.5 million-member Baath Party, which dominates government, state-owned factories and other institutions in this country of about 18 million.

Baathists are quick to insist that they share only the name of Iraq's Baath party, although they have the same roots. Fayez Sayegh , a senior Baath official and former director of state radio and television, said the first step in the party's reform is the formation of committees to redefine Baathist ideology, whose "eternal missions" are summed up in the party motto: Unity, Freedom and Socialism. Unity refers to pan-Arab political union, something that Sayegh says is now only a hazy prospect.

As for socialism, Sayegh said the government would shed the remnants of Soviet-style control of the economy, opening it to foreign investment.

On the issue of freedoms, he did not address the emergency laws that effectively curb civil rights in Syria and are rationalized by the official state of war between Israel and Syria. Nonetheless, Sayegh said, Syria has to change in order to fit in to the "present world order." His prescription: a rejuvenation of the Baath party.

The party is not scheduled to announce any change in its position on freedoms until 2005, when the Baathists hold their next congress.

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