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Syria Chooses Stability or Reform

More than seven years after succeeding his father Hafez al-Assad in an unopposed election, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has experimented briefly with political openness only to arrest scores of pro-democracy and human rights activists. Now in his second seven-year term, most analysts say Bashar al-Assad appears unwilling to continue reforms.

The "Damascus Spring," a 2001 pro-reform movement that saw a blossoming of media freedom and public discourse, opened Syria's doors to political opposition and dissent. But the extent of the activism alarmed President Bashar al-Assad and the ruling elite, as Joshua Landis, Co-Director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma explains.

"The 'Damascus Spring' was the first year, really, of his [i.e., Bashar al-Assad] presidency in 2000, when he said that he wanted criticism, that he wanted discussion and so forth. And there was this effervescence of organizing and people speaking out, which didn't last very long," says Landis. "It was cracked down on pretty harshly. And the Vice-President [at the time, Abdul Halim] Khaddam, who has now gone to [the] opposition, said famously at the University of Damascus, 'We are not going to let Syria become like Algeria, and we have to stop this.'"

Many democracy activists were jailed and sentenced to long prison terms on charges ranging from insulting the president to weakening nationalist sentiments and belonging to secret organizations. Two years ago, more activists were arrested when Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals signed the Beirut-Damascus, Damascus-Beirut Declaration, calling for democratic governments in Lebanon and Syria and normal relations between the two countries.

Middle East expert Joshua Landis notes that Syria's opposition groups saw an opportunity for change after the United Nations implicated high-ranking Syrian officials in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

"So there was a major effort on the part of the secular opposition to unite with Islamic opposition and Kurdish opposition: three major poles. So this effort ended up in what was called 'The Damascus Declaration' in the spring of 2005," says Landis. "But it had many fissures and cracks. The regime has arrested many of the leading activists like [Anwar] al-Bunni and like Michel Kilo, who was a major human rights leader - - a journalist who was very instrumental in trying to string together all of these opposition groups. This umbrella group was an attempt to put together a serious opposition. But it became clear by the end of 2005 that the regime was strong, that it was going to survive this pressure and the opposition began to fall apart."

Dashed Hopes

Many analysts say this has dispelled hopes that Bashar al-Assad would take Syria in a new direction. University of Arkansas political scientist Najib Ghadbian, a member of the opposition group, the National Salvation Front of Syria, says the younger Assad wanted to break with his father's regime, but didn't. "I was one of those who hoped that this young person, Western-educated, would initiate a process of reform after two decades of basically stagnation in the political and economic arenas. And, unfortunately, Bashar faced what we call in political science the Case Dilemma. That is, he felt he needed to reform his regime in order to survive. But he knew very well that any meaningful reform would undermine his grip on power," says Ghadbian. "And so he opted to continue the same old way of ruling, his father's way, just to postpone taking any serious steps toward reform."

Now most analysts agree that Syria's domestic opposition movement has been so weakened that it cannot challenge the government's control over political activity and the media.

Political scientist Ellen Lust-Okar of Yale University says the same is true of opposition groups in exile. "They're quite ineffective. I don't think they tend to have a lot of support or resonance within Syria. Quite frankly, they lack a lot of resonance among Syrians outside of Syria. And there's a sense in which they are seen somewhat as a tool, somewhat as disassociated from the real concerns of the Syrians."

Delayed Reforms

The Syrian leadership no longer fears the opposition, many experts say. They argue that Bashar al-Assad, having consolidated his power, is more concerned with reforming the country's stagnant economy and with regional issues such as Lebanon and Iraq than with political reform.

Radwan Ziadeh, a Senior Fellow at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, says Mr. Assad has used these issues as a pretext to delay democratization. "The Syrian government, even when Bahsar al-Assad came to power, has no vision for reform in Syria. They give society some open space to critique the government, but that doesn't mean that they [i.e., the Syrian leadership] allow free elections or respect the rule of law. Another thing is that there is a regional and international factor. When Bashar al-Assad came to power, September 11, [2001- - the terror attacks on New York and Washington - -] happened and the war on Iraq. And that made the Syrian government think about what's going on in the region before [thinking] about reform and change in Syria," says Ziadeh.

Trading Stability for Democracy

But some analysts argue that the Syrian people share their leaders' concerns about their county's role in Lebanon and instability in neighboring Iraq. Middle East historian David Lesch of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas says Syrians are grateful that their country has remained stable.

"The [external] pressure has been immense. And so he has [i.e., Bashar al-Assad] cracked down on democratic activists and other reformists in the country. And most of the people in Syria, even under his father, have long agreed with this Faustian bargain of a trade-off of political stability for certain freedoms that they give up," says Lesch. "And I think that's been the case recently because of Iraq and Lebanon. So in a way, there's a reservoir of gratitude for Bashar [al-Assad] that, despite the continuing lack of political reform, he has kept the country together and stable in a very unstable area."

That is one reason why opposition leaders prefer peaceful change in Syria, although most observers agree that appears unlikely. Some argue that the ruling elite are inclined to follow the example of China's leaders who have implemented economic reform without relinquishing their hold on power. Others say divisions between reform-minded Syrian leaders and those who fear change may someday open the door to democratization.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.