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Baath Party Conference to Open Amid Calls for Democratic Reform

BY Kristina Nwazota  May 30, 2005 at 1:48 PM EDT

During the party conference, the first in five years, Syrian President Bashar Assad is expected to consider measures that could lead to a loosening of the party’s hold on Syrian politics and institute first steps toward democratic reform.

The proposals the party will consider include overturning a ban on political parties, allowing limited free elections and revitalizing the country’s economy by endorsing an open market.

“We understand that democracy is a process — a historical and political process — but we are on the right track, and we have begun the mechanisms that will take us forward,” Imad Shueibi, director of the Data and Strategic Studies Center in Damascus and an ally of reformers in Assad’s government, told the Washington Post. “This will be the first step.”

But, according to some analysts, any changes Assad does make would be surface changes.

“[The changes] won’t be real,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior Middle East analyst for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. “Syria has a generous investment law, Syria has laws governing the treatment of prisoners — those laws are ignored. Rule of law does not exist. There is rule by the Baath Party and the Baath Party is not going to write itself out of power.”

Syrian President Bashar AssadAccording to Pletka, any rumors of change are likely being spread by Assad himself.

Assad’s move comes as his Middle Eastern neighbors including Egypt, Lebanon and even Iran appear to be inching toward democratic change, and after his five-year term in office has yielded few if any of the reforms he promised at the beginning of his tenure in 2000.

An ancient kingdom, whose capital Damascus once was the seat of regional commerce, Syria has become increasingly isolated economically and politically and has come under pressure in recent months to look within its government to change.

Beginning in February when the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri drew the world’s attention to an alleged plot by the Assad government to stifle Syrian opposition in Lebanon and ending with increased diplomatic pressure on Syria to crack down on militants reportedly crossing the border to wage their guerilla campaign in Iraq, Syria has been placed under the world’s microscope.

The international attention, according to some, has only increased pressure on the Syrian government to reform. Assad’s insular regime, which keeps tight control of society through a network of some 15 security agencies, has sought to stifle dissident voices — often brutally. The government has also been accused of widespread corruption that has chipped away at its credibility among the Syrian people. The secular regime also has been accused of supporting Hezbollah, the Beirut-based militant group considered by the West to be a terrorist organization.

But even with the international attention and increased diplomatic pressure, opposition activists remain skeptical that Assad has the power or even will to usher in change.

In May, Syrian police arrested eight members of the pro-democracy group the Jamal al-Atassi Forum after a member of the group gave a public speech in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic reform group, according to a Christian Science Monitor article. Membership in the Brotherhood is a capital offense.

In a May 9 commentary published in the Lebanese daily newspaper An-Nahar, Syrian political activist Michael Kilo echoed the opposition feeling that any change in June will be for show, the news outlet Middle East Online reported.

“The regime is weakened and more than ever incapable of reform,” Kilo wrote. “Will the ruling elite wake up at the last minute and release Syria from the grips of the security apparatus that is responsible for all its woes, including Lebanon?”

Pletka, for one, says Assad has no plans to institute true reform.

“I think the Syrians are making a dedicated effort to try and pull the wool over people’s eyes because they learned right at the outset of Bashar’s tenure that when you open the door a little bit, dissidents and lively chat come flooding through and they’re not going to do it again. They are far too afraid,” she said. “[Bashar] himself is far too weak inside the Baath Party to want to risk anything that will put other’s power and perks into question.”

Syrian officials claim they are moving toward change but reject the notion of U.S. intervention in their political affairs.

“Every day we are working for reform in our institutions,” Syrian Cabinet Minister Bouthaina Shaaban told the Chicago Tribune in April. “But we don’t accept the fact that some [Bush] administration officials speak about our country as if we don’t exist, as if we need someone to tell us what is going on in the world.”