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Syrian President Accepts Resignation of Prime Minister - 2003-09-10

Syrian President Bashar Assad has accepted the resignation of his prime minister, a move analysts say is designed to speed up Mr. Assad's reform efforts. But analysts say those reforms will be limited.

President Assad accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Muhammed Moustafa Mero, and appointed Parliament Speaker Naji Al Otari to replace him. The new government will be expected to push a reform agenda, which Mr. Assad has promised since he assumed power after his father died in 2000.

Retired Egyptian diplomat Abdallah Al Ashaal said it is too early to say just what the cabinet overhaul will produce. But he said Mr. Assad is clearly moving forward with his own plans for the country. "He is trying to be the new face of the new Syria and to preach a new future for the country," he said.

Since succeeding his father, Mr. Assad has focused his efforts mainly on the economic sphere. He replaced the ministers of finance and economy a few months after taking office, and has promised to introduce accountability in government, streamline the Syrian bureaucracy, eliminate corruption, and modernize the economy.

But many of those promised reforms have been slow in coming, with speculation of a behind the scenes struggle between an old guard representing the elder Assad's generation and a younger reformist trend.

One thing that has not changed is the extent of civil liberties in Syria. Mr. Assad has overseen a continuing crackdown on pro-reform activists that has mirrored his father's harsh approach to political freedom.

Analyst Abdallah Al Ashaal said it remains to be seen whether the new government will also bring a relaxation of the government's grip on political activism. "The new government will be responsible for all these aspirations concerning political liberties, concerning the development of economic life, because Syria is facing many problems in the economy. It is facing also some problems concerning the transition from a socialist economy to a free market economy," he said.

Mr. Ashaal said the new Syrian government will also confront a daunting array of foreign policy challenges, chief among them defusing tensions with the United States, which has long branded Syria a supporter of terrorism. The analyst says the issue is particularly urgent, with U.S. troops occupying neighboring Iraq.

One thing that is not expected to change in Syria's reform drive is the central role of President Assad's Baath Party. The party holds near total control over all aspects of Syrian political life, and controls the country's legislature along with with seven smaller parties.