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Syria's Ruling Baath Party to Discuss Reforms


Syria's President Bashar Assad
Syria's Baath Party, which has ruled the country since 1963, is under growing pressure at home and from abroad for political and economic reforms. Party leaders are expected to meet in late May or early June to discuss what course to set for the future, but pro-reform activists fear the party convention is not likely to produce real change.

Political analyst Marwan Kabalan expresses a view held by many here about what is expected from the Baath Party convention.

"They are going to ease restrictions now, but the question is will that be enough," said Marwan Kabalan. "I don't think so."

After more than 40 years of autocratic rule, Syrians have begun to see some political and economic reforms since Bashar al Assad succeeded his father Hafez as president in 2000.

There is greater freedom of speech and the government's powerful intelligence services seem to interfere a little less in peoples' lives. The Syrian economy has opened up some to private enterprise too.

But Professor Kabalan, of Damascus University, says people want more.

"Incremental reform in Syria has not worked so far,' he said. "We need in this country to take some dramatic changes in our domestic politics in order to convince the people, especially now - their expectations are sky high."

Professor Kabalan says international pressure on Syria has fanned those expectations. At the top of everyone's list for change is scrapping the emergency law, which can be imposed at will and severely restricts personal and political freedom. People also want to see the end of the law that says the Baath Party is the only legal party.

Syrian Information Minister Mehdi Dakhlallah says the government knows the people want change.

He says the country's constitution can be changed and that the government wants to continue the reform process started four years ago. He blames tensions in the region, especially the Iraq war, for the lack of progress.

Critics say it's really Syria's rulers who are either dragging their feet or unsure of what course to follow. Political commentator Louai al-Hussein.

He likens the government to a car without a driver that is coasting along on its own momentum - unable to speed up or slow down, unable to turn and simply buffeted by outside forces.

Outside pressure on Syria to change its foreign policy and to reform internally has increased, mainly from the United States, which accuses Damascus of violating its citizens' human rights and supporting international terrorism.

Some welcome the pressure as the only way to bring about change, but many have also rallied around their leaders rejecting outside interference, especially from Washington. And that, says political analyst Marwan Kabalan, is a problem for reformers.

"We are actually squeezed between the outside and the inside," said Professor Kabalan. "We as Syrians or as Arabs, we feel ok, we want reform, we want democracy, but we don't want to be accused of being agents to the Americans, to the West."

And, Professor Kabalan says, even without those concerns, any reforms are a challenge.

"Reform in Syria, like in any other place in the world, is very difficult because on the one hand you are very much committed to reform, but on the other hand you feel this reform might undermine the very pillars of your regime," he said.

And that is the dilemma for the Syrian government - trying to satisfy popular demands for reform without losing power.

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