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Syria's Assad Makes First-Ever Visit to Britain

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad begins meetings in London Monday with British officials, including Prime Minister Tony Blair. It is the first official visit to Britain by a Syrian head of state and it is taking place at a time when voices of dissent are growing in his own country.

President Assad's government is coming under rare criticism from among its own ranks, something unheard of in Syria under his late father, Hafez al-Assad.

Last week in Damascus, pro-democracy advocate and Syrian lawmaker Munther al-Mousalli called for a new constitution and said state institutions must be modernized. He called for the reform of parliamentary elections as the key to Syria's development. Without reform, as he put it, Syria will keep going nowhere.

In a memorandum to the parliament's speaker, Mr. Mousalli questioned whether the current 350-member parliament is qualified to bring about political reform.

In the past, such statements would usually result in jail time for political dissidents. But since Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father two years ago, political restrictions in Syria have eased somewhat.

When he took office, the younger Assad released 700 political prisoners and called for political reform and economic modernization. However, he still maintains near absolute power in Syria and human rights groups complain that his government has retreated from releasing hundreds of intellectuals and dissident lawmakers still in jail. There are also charges of rampant corruption within the government.

In neighboring Lebanon, political analyst Sami Baroudi said for reform to take place there would have to be some kind of organized political movement in Syria. The head of the Lebanon-American University's political science department says no such movement exists.

"You cannot speak of unified opposition there. There are different groups disgruntled by different things but there is not unified opposition. I mean part of the opposition is probably more old guard than the current regime but you cannot really speak of a system where there is a coherent opposition. I mean there are individual politicians who basically, on occasion, rise and say things critical but that does not amount, really, to opposition," Mr. Baroudi said.

Mr. Baroudi said that despite the young president's calls for reform there has been no significant political response. He said Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are more pressing issues confronting Syria.

Mr. Baroudi said he does not expect next February's parliamentary elections to produce much significant change in Syria. For that to occur, Mr. Baroudi says Syria would first have to separate the executive, legislative and judicial branches of power.

Syria's parliament is dominated by the ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party which Mr. Baroudi said does nothing more than rubber-stamp policies created by Mr. Assad.