The Party Conference - Opening Day: "We Stand United"
The Baath Conference has begun and the President gave the openning speach. The conference is not about change, it would seem, so much as about showing a united front to the Syrian people.
The President's address took no more than 10 minutes. It was followed by the leaders of the various parties of the Progressive National Front giving 20 minute speeches in praise of the president and the roll of the Baath Party.
Most foreign journalists did not attend the conference because they were not allowed to film or enter the main hall to interview politicians. A special room was set up for them some distance away. It included 4 computers and small TV screnes. There was no water, coffee or tea. Many Arab journalists did not attend as well. Syrian journalists felt compelled to attend, despite the bad conditions, in order not to be conspicuous in their abscence. Nicholas Blandford sat with an opposition member to watch on TV. Hassan Fatah and Katherine Zoepf came to my house to watch. Andrew Tabler watched from home. BBC TV was desperate to get a visual of something. They asked if there was anything that would show "nationalism," like a footfall tournament in town. "What can we film?" they asked. Brent Sadler of CNN, planned to come to town with his crew but decided to stay in Beirut to film the more exciting demonstration for Kassir.
This was not done for the foreign press or foreign consumption. It was done to show a united front. Most of the talking was done by the party leaders who didn't belong to the Baath; They praised the Baath and its leadership. Wasal Farha, speaking for the Communist Party, spoke about how they had stood by the Baath in its "thousands of battles" against foreign plots, such as the Baghdad Pact, Suez,......
The President spoke quickly. He openned by defending Arabism. He mentioned that some people called it chauvanistic or racist. "It is neither," he insisted. It is an expression of the broad sentiment of the masses and emerges from their feelings and hopes for the future. The Baath and Arabism is a vehical of popular sentiment.
He than said that foreign affairs would not be discussed at the conference, only internal affairs, and proceeded to talk only about the economy and how Syria needed to up its growth rate and realize the ambitions of the people for a better future. The message is that Syria will not be repositioning itself in the Arab World or getting rid of Arabism. Many people had hoped or discussed the posibility that the Baath would somehow burry itself or carry out its own funeral. The president made clear that was not going to happen.
He did not discuss, the much talked about new party law. The clear message is that democracy in Syria will be confined to the National Progressive Front, whose leaders spoke more than the President. They each attacked the West, foreign pressure and Israel. The President left that task to them.
Westerners will have to see this conference opener as a statement that Syria will maintain its rhetoric and is not making any big shifts in policy. It will not abandon Arabism or Baathism. It will not abandon its steadfast stand against foreign plots and Israel. It will not abandon the one Party state, despite having been forced out of Lebanon and dispite its being under intense pressure from Washignton and the West to redefine its role in the region. Syria is standing firm.
On the other hand, Asad only discussed economic reforms and did not talk about foreign policy. Western Powers can see this as a compormise position. Although Syria will not give up the rhetoric of confrontation, it is trying to give up the reality of confrontation. The government will focus on internal affairs and economic development. National energy is to be directed on internal matters, not on foreign adventures or Arab unity, as it has in the past.
The President hopes to convince his nation that the government is strong and united. It is not about to collapse and the regime is not in disarray, as foreign analysts have been repeating. He also was telling Syrians that he understands the need to fill peoples' pocket books.
It must be remembered that the President already has the Party position papers on his desk. They were written and amended some time ago. The working committees work authrized way back in 2000 at the Party's last epecial congress, convened to nominat Bashar as its leader. What is more, the Party conference lasts only three days. Day one was ceremonial. Day two will be business, and day three will be about wrapping things up and announcing a new leadership, I presume. No real business will actual be done at the conference.
In summation then, The 10the Regional Conference of the Baath Party was called for only in March, when the president addressed the Parliament in order to announce Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon. He needed to throw a bone to the nation to boost moral, so he added the one liner at the end of his address about how he was planning for a "great leep forward" at the soon-to-be-assembled, Baath congress. That is how the idea started.
Then he jammed through the Baath Party elections in one short month and set the meeting for June 6-9. It so happened that UN resolution 1559 was effectively over for Syria two weeks ago. This happened when Kofi Annan stated that the Syrian Army, and apparently, the intelligence agencies had withdrawn completely. Washington was quite upset by the UN's clean bill of health for Syria, and Secretary of State Rice promtly denied that Syria had withdrawn in an effort to preserve 1559 as an instrument of international torture for Syria.
In the mean time, Chirac and Bush had both been repeating that Bashar and his regime had been mortally wounded by the withdrawal and international pressure. They predicted Syrian collapse within a year. Wolfowitz stated that Bashar was not in control of Syria.
Bashar is now putting a strong face forward. He is showing the world that he is in control, that the the government is united and strong, and that the Baath regime will be standing tall next year and the year following.
The message for the West is, "We are not giving up or going away. We have the opposition under control. If you want to deal with us, you must bargain and negotiate. You must offer carrots. If you think we are on the verge of collapse, think again. You are deluding yourself. Hope is not a plan. Syria is not a charitable association."
"If you want full cooperation on the Iraq border, if you want Syria to stay out of Palestinian affaires or Lebanese affairs, you must find a new Syria policy. 1559 is over. America cannot crush us, or isoltate us, or cow us. Above all, it must not plan on our collapse."