Round Up on Baath Conference - Press Coverage
Now that stories for day one of the Baath Party Conference are in the bin, let's do a round up.
Nicholas Blanford writing for the Monitor, who watched the speech on TV with opposition members, writes:
Hurdles ahead for Syrian reform
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad opened a highly anticipated three-day Baath Party Congress Monday.
DAMASCUS, SYRIA – When Bashar al-Assad in March vowed a "great leap forward" for Syria at the Baath Party Congress, many said the young president would finally display his reformist credentials.
Perhaps he would launch a market economy to the replace the moribund statist system. Or maybe he would free all political prisoners and allow exiles to return.
But after an address that lasted barely 10 minutes, reformers' hopes were dashed.
President Assad steered clear of specifying any broad and imminent reforms that could help lower international pressure and appease rising domestic frustration. He told some 1,250 delegates that they should reform the economy and tackle corruption, but he avoided typical rants against Israel and the United States.
"The economic situation and improving living standards represent a priority for us," he said.
For the six Syrian opposition activists - a group of middle-aged businessmen, engineers, and former Army officers - who had gathered in a smoke-filled office to watch the speech live on television, Assad's address was disappointing.
"The president has no vision ... and said nothing about the suffering of the Syrian people," says one man, who, like his peers, declined to be named. "I'm not optimistic that this Congress will produce anything."
Under pressure internationally and at home, Assad said in March that the Congress, the first in five years, would be a "great leap forward" for Syria. That remark fueled expectation among the increasingly disillusioned Syrians that he would use the three-day assembly to prove that he is a reformist at heart.
But other figures have played down its impact. Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa told a European delegation last week that expectations should be "neither high nor low but realistic."
Flanked by gray-haired party officials, Syria's president looked out of place as the aging delegates took to the rostrum. The Congress delegates greeted each speech with polite applause; the opposition activists watching on TV reacted with catcalls.
"This is not a Congress; it's a game, a movie," says one man.
"I have seen two people [among the delegates] asleep already," says a man in a light green suit, to loud laughter.
"I think we need to get our blankets ready - we are all going to go to prison," jokes another, to even louder laughter.
Despite dampened hopes of meaningful changes, the delegates to the Congress are debating four reports recommending reforms in foreign policy, domestic policy, the economy, and the Baath Party.
The Baath Party's pan-Arab ideology, which regards the Arab world as one nation, is likely to diminish in favor of a more overt Syrian nationalism. For example, the Regional Command of the Baath Party, which refers to Syria, is expected to be renamed the Syrian Command. It will be reduced in size from 21 to 15 seats and its current membership replaced. The Baath Party's National Command, which covers the entire Arab world, may be abolished, as it has not met in 20 years.
Other political parties are permitted to join the ruling National Progressive Front (NPF), an alliance of socialist parties headed by the Baath, so long as they are not based on ethnicity or religion.
That would exclude the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist party which remains banned in Syria and membership in which is punishable by death. Indeed, in May, several leading opposition activists were jailed briefly for publicly reading out a statement from the exiled head of the Muslim Brotherhood. But other past enemies of the Baath are being allowed to join the NPF, including the Syrian Social Nationalist Party which has been banned in Syria since 1955. Analysts say that by broadening participation in the NPF to anti-Western Arab nationalist parties, President Assad is attempting to bolster his domestic position against unstinting pressure from the United States.
"This is a show of national unity for the people, says Joshua Landis, a history professor and Syria specialist living in Damascus. "Bashar is showing them that they are all in the same trench."
Still, some key demands of the Syrian opposition are not expected to be answered. They include repealing Article 8 of the Constitution, which defines the Baath Party as the leader of state and society. The Emergency Law, effectively martial law in place since 1963, is not expected to end, although it may become more focused on national security.
"These people are only capable of delivering disappointment," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian social analyst and coordinator of the Tharwa project, which seeks to raise awareness of minority groups in the Middle East.
But reformists within the Baath Party say that the Congress is an important first step.
"The Congress is not the final step after which Syria will sleep," says Ayman Abdel-Nour, a Baath Party reformist and editor of the influential All4Syria Internet newsletter. "It's a major step, but the process of modernizing will continue."
Indeed, whatever reformist measures the Congress decides upon will be in no small part due to an unprecedented lobbying campaign undertaken by the irrepressible Baathist reformer.
Although party reformists wrote the reports which are being discussed at the Congress, none of them were elected by the Baath Party to attend the event.
"If the members of the Congress wanted to discuss or ask any questions about the reports, who would answer them?" Mr. Abdel-Nour says.
Abdel-Nour used his newsletter to distribute a petition demanding their inclusion in the Congress. He secured just under a thousand names of prominent party members - a figure, he says, that would have been considerably higher if more Baathists used the Internet and had e-mail addresses.
"We published every day the list and they [the authorities] realized that the people signing were not just taxi drivers. They were important people, so they had to respond," he says. By the end of the campaign, the Baath Party had grudgingly accepted 150 reformist delegates, including women, intellectuals, economists, and law professors.
This experience shows the Baath Party can reform, he says, "but first we must have reformers."
[Comment: Glad to see that Nick got the Ayman Abdulnour story. ]
David Hirst, writing in the L.A. Times adn Daily Star, focuses on US-Syrian relations.
Syria's leap - forward, or over the precipice?
The 10th Congress of the Syrian Baath Party opened yesterday in Damascus. It may turn out to be another ritual in the annals of the Soviet-style, single-party system over which the Baath has presided for 42 years. And, even if it does accommodate more self-criticism than usual, it will probably end up with a re-endorsement of the basic "correctness" of the party line, and the need to go on following it until the next congress five years hence.
But the congress is attracting more than ordinary interest because of the anything but ordinary conditions, regional as well as Syrian, in which it is taking place. Indeed these conditions present such a challenge to the regime that few, outside it, would dispute the often-heard judgment that it "must reform or die." A minority inside it might not dispute this either. The conference may clinch the all-important, yet unanswered question whether President Bashar Assad is one of them. He has spoken of a "significant leap forward." So many expectations have been raised by the congress that any signs of real achievement would rally people behind a young president who, despite five years of steadily eroding promise, still enjoys a good deal of latent goodwill. Failure would go far to persuading Syrians that Baathism really has nothing useful to offer but its own demise.
Lip-service or serious, the reformist rhetoric is a grudging response to the unprecedented confluence of external, mainly American, and domestic pressures to which this most stubbornly inflexible of regimes has been subjected. Democratization is the overarching ideal on which the pressures now converge.
Hitherto, America's fluctuating attitudes to Damascus have always been strategic, not idealistic. Its hostility is now clearly growing: it calls the regime a "major disruptive force" in the region. But it is still not clear - even, one senses, to American diplomats in Damascus - whether all the Bush administration wants is unconditional changes in Syrian behavior, or full-scale regime change. "It's certainly the first," commented a European diplomat, "but [the United States] wouldn't mind if, by an inexorable logic, this led to the second."
The Syrian people may be more authentically anti-American than its leadership, believing as many do that the Assad regime's time-honored "anti-imperialist" stance is empty rhetoric contradicted by a patent readiness to collaborate with the U.S. in the interest of its own survival. However, in their day-to-day existence, Syrians dislike their own government even more....
"After Lebanon," observed the London-based daily Al-Hayat, "a quiet and invisible storm is blowing through the leadership." Will anyone in Syria be able to master the storm? This is a vital question for the whole region, given the country's central position in its affairs. (continue)
Hassan Fattah of the New York Times
In a Spotlight, Baath Congress Opens in Syria
By HASSAN M. FATTAH, Published: June 7, 2005. New York Times
DAMASCUS, Syria, June 6 - President Bashar al-Assad opened a landmark Baath Party congress on Monday, promising modest political reform and calling for a renewed focus on the economy. But the most dramatic change likely to come out of the meeting is the transformation of the party from a pan-Arab movement to a Syrian one.
The changes are likely to emphasize a loose Arab federation and trade connections, delegates said, as well as raise the Syrian character of the party. Instead of creating a single government, the party will seek something more akin to the European Union, said George Jabbour, a member of Parliament.
Mr. Assad announced the meeting in March as he pledged to withdraw from Lebanon, promising Syrians major changes in an effort win back support.
"The president had to promise people something in March, and now he's got to oblige," said Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma. "The larger promise is that he will get the Baath out of the nation, and people have understood that as getting corruption and graft out."
The 1,200 delegates went into the closed-door meetings with an agenda that included clearing the way for political parties to operate, loosening the Baath Party's grip on the economy and bringing in new blood....
Mr. Assad reiterated many party themes, including the threat to fundamental Arab identity, but he also emphasized the new focus on Syria.
"Every decision you take and every recommendation you make should express only our internal needs," he said, "regardless of any considerations that aim at pushing us in directions that harm our national interests and threaten our stability."
Mr. Hajj Ali said, "The Arab nationalism will remain in the party, but it will become a cultural and economic connection with others."
Mr. Landis's reading was: "They are graduating away from the romantic vision of Arab nationalism to a more constitutionally and federative Arabism. They are trying to update to a 21st century EU model, rather than a 19th century Bismarkian model."
[Comment: I added the last sentence to the quote to clarify. Of course, it is a muddle transformation, but Syria is struggling to move away from the old revolutionary unionist Arabism of Nasser and Saddam and trying to back into a "Syrian" identity without abandoning Arabism. It is difficult to do, but Asad has normalized all its borders save the border with Israel.]
Syria Leader Looks Set to Stay the Course
By Megan K. Stack, L.A. Times Staff Writer, June 7, 2005
At his Baath Party congress, Bashar Assad avoids mention of political change and calls technology a threat to the identity of Arabs.
DAMASCUS, Syria — Buffeted by criticism and demands for reform, Syrian President Bashar Assad opened his party congress Monday by sidestepping all mention of political change, pledging continued devotion to pan-Arab nationalism and calling modern technology a threat to Arab identity.
The 39-year-old president had touted this week's Baath Party gathering as a turning point for a nation under pressure. Analysts had predicted the sessions could lay the groundwork to ease emergency laws, remove obstacles to opposition parties, weed out some of Syria's aging functionaries and extend citizenship to thousands of stateless Kurds.
Yet only a few hints of change emerged Monday. Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam — a stalwart of the "old guard" and a key backer of Syria's now-defunct political control over Lebanon — reportedly announced his resignation. Assad did call for overhauling Syria's largely state-run economy.
But on the whole, Assad's brief speech made it plain that old Baathist principles would remain very much intact.
"We believe that the ideas and teachings of the party are still relevant and current and respond to the interests of the people and the nation," Assad told more than 1,200 Baath regional commanders. "Where their implementation has fallen short, it is individuals who bear responsibility, not the idea or ideology."
The three-day congress, the first of its kind in five years, is a forum for ruling party officials throughout the country to confer on Baathist policies. It comes at a time when Syria is staggering under massive international and domestic pressure. ....
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been accusing Damascus of undermining stability in Iraq by allowing insurgents to use Syria as a transit point.
At home, Assad is weathering criticism from a persistent, albeit fractious, opposition movement.
"This month is make-or-break for the regime," said Ammar Abdel Hamid, an outspoken dissident. "After the [Lebanon] pullout, the only way for the regime to retain legitimacy was to produce something internally.".....
Even before the withdrawal from Lebanon, Assad was quietly consolidating power by moving family members and close associates into key posts. Analysts predict he will use this week's conference to cut back on the Baath Party's regional command, downsizing a powerful cadre elected from the party ranks rather than appointed by Assad.
Assad, a seemingly reluctant ruler, inherited the presidency in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez Assad. He is expected to demote some of his father's cronies, with whom his relations are reportedly strained. His mention of corruption and individual responsibility Monday seemed to hint at a political purge.
Assad's tirade against technology came as a surprise. The president is a founder of the Syrian Computer Society, and one of his most prominent public projects has been the modernization of Internet services. On Monday, he described the Internet revolution as an enemy force.
Computers and technology, he said, had "overwhelmed Arabs and threatened their existence and cultural identity, which has increased the doubts and skepticism in the mind of young Arabs."
It was unclear whether Assad was heralding an impending online crackdown, but he described the Internet as nothing less than an existential threat.
"The ultimate objective of all this is the destruction of Arab identity, for the enemies of the Arab nation are opposed to our possessing any identity or upholding any creed that could protect our existence and cohesion," Assad said. "They simply aim at transforming us into a negative reactive mass which absorbs everything that is thrown at it.".......
Now that Syria's regional influence has been curtailed, Assad's domain is strictly domestic. Speculation has been running rampant: Will the regime loosen up to gain in popularity, or clamp down to maintain control?
Whatever optimism might have been blooming has been severely undercut in recent weeks by a rash of arrests, disappearances and clashes.
Dissidents and activists who had been pushing for democratization have been detained in the weeks leading up to the party congress.
Some analysts read the recent crackdown as a sign that Syria, having left Lebanon, is beginning to relax — and lapse back into old habits.
"The government had been cowering for three or four months" since Hariri's assassination, said Joshua M. Landis, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Oklahoma who lives in Damascus. "But they can breathe now. They can go back to thuggish behavior."
[Comment: What a quote! Megan, are you trying to send me back to Oklahoma? You can still come to dinner on Wednesday, but you better bring a bottle of wine.]
Afraid to let go
The Guardian concludes:
Rhonda Roumani writing for The Daily Star begings her story:
The Ba'ath party can talk as freely and frankly as it likes about reform, but there will not be much progress while the security apparatus continues blithely as before, unreformed and off-message.
Syrians have low hopes for Baath Party Congress
DAMASCUS: Promises that major internal reforms could be announced at a Baath Party conference, set to begin today in Damascus, have Syrians waiting to see whether democratic changes may finally be on the horizon after five years of stalled reforms. "Expectations are down," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert who runs Syriacomment.com, a Weblog on Syrian affairs. "The president promised there was going to be a big leap. Everybody began hoping that this would be the break that would change the country and set it on a different course. Then the president was the leading person trying to bring down expectations."....
BBC Monitoring service translates bits from the Syrian official Press in its story:
Syrian papers urge Baath action
As the ruling Baath party meets for a congress in Damascus, Syria's pro-government press urges delegates to meet the many challenges Syria is facing.[Many papers are now focusing on Vice President Khaddam's resignation and on the fact that the President is bringing up his own people and cleaning out another layer of his father's loyalists. Here is an example.
Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam resigns, Jerusalem Post.
Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, one of the most veteran Baath Party officials in government, tendered his resignation Monday during the Baath Party ...
Anyone who wants a short primer on "Who's Who in Syria's Leadership," will find this BBC brief helpful.
Claude Salhani, UPI's Washington bureau chief, presently in Cairo picked up on my blog in a story carried by the Washington Times. (Thanks Claude. We shared a flat in Beirut in 1980-81.) He writes:
Little change in Syria
Assad stopped short of setting out clear initiatives in his speech, however, other than to indicate the ruling Baath Party, which has been in power for more than 40 years, aims to remain at the helm.
As the saying goes, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." (The more it changes, the more it stays the same.)
"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," writes Joshua Landis, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma who runs the Web log Syriacomment.com, and who is in Damascus as a Fulbright scholar.
It is clear Syria, says Landis, "will not abandon Arabism or Baathism."
Syria "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 despite its being under intense pressure from Washington and the West to redefine its role in the region."
The policy emerging from the conference appears to be the line long adopted by the current president's father, Hafez Assad, that "Syria is standing firm." But, adds Landis, "although Syria will not give up the rhetoric of confrontation, it is trying to give up the reality of confrontation.".....